(7) Istanbul, Turkey: Traveller’s identity crisis

I arrived safe to Istanbul in the late morning, and made my way to a hostel in the historic area of Istanbul, Sultanahmet. My main purpose for being here was to see if I could get my visa for Iran. I had received a reference number online through an Iranian travel agency, which was half the battle, but it still wasn’t a sure thing. Canadian-Iranian relations are tense after an Iranian-Canadian journalist was killed in Iran a few years ago. Better than the situation for Americans though – they have to have a full tour booked to travel in Iran.

At the consul I went through a bit of adminstrivia, but overall it was surprisingly painless. I was asked to come back the next day at 10am, and viola – it was there, and for the time period I had requested. Only hiccup was when I was freaked out for about an hour that I lost my passport as I was preparing to head back to the consul, having forgotten that I had given it to them for my visa.

Also sent a package home. As light as I packed, I sent some stuff home that I’m not willing to pack for as little as I will use it – light down jacket (I managed fine without while hiking in snow in NZ, so I’m willing to risk it), an electrical converter I mispacked, a journal I thought I would write in, but turns out it was full aready from my Peru and Cuba trips, a pack cover that really is more for rain than dust, and a few other assorted small bits. Totalled almost 2kg. I’m very happy to be carrying even less.

The weather so far, including Istanbul, has been quite nice. Probably 25 and sunny during the day, but quite cool and windy at night (ie fleece needed to be outside). During my days I have spent a lot of time – you guessed it – walking. Checking out local markets, eating in little pita doner stalls, walking some more. Took a boat up the Bosphorus – the channel of water that divides European Istanbul from Asian Istanbul.

Toured Ayasofia, built in the 4th century and lasting until the middle ages as the most substantial place of worship for Christians, at which time it was turned into a mosque – it is now designated as a museum. The outside is nothing special – big if nothing else – but the inside features intricate mosaics and amazing architecture. Also visited the Blue Mosque – Islam’s answer to the huge Ayasofia. The Blue Mosque’s exterior offers what the interior of Ayasofia does – beauty. Considering how many tourists are in this area of the city, the ridiculous number of white tour buses trying to get through narrow streets, the overwhelming array of touts and vendors, it can actually be kind of peaceful around here. Or maybe I just have a knack for tuning out European languages.

After my first day or two here, I must say I was feeling a little lost here. It was like I was having my sad first night traveling that I didn’t have on my first night I actually started travelling. The usual “what am I doing here?’, “where am I going?”, “what’s my purpose?”.  A combination of lack of direction (it all hinged on the Iranian visa), not totally loving the city or where I’m staying, and very easily getting absorbed in a book instead.  My original plan, which was to be on the go, exploring and moving until I settle with some more time in Kyrgyzstan, might change. The idea of having a settled destination appeals to me. I wasn’t planning to volunteer on this trip, but I might look into some options now (if anyone has connections, I’d love an introduction).

My gloom changed, though, as soon as I got my Iranian visa, after which I discovered some neat market streets and bought a train ticket to Cappadocia, in the centre of Turkey. While there are many historic sites I am interested in seeing along the Western coast of Turkey, I can’t see everything. And I know myself well enough to know that geography trumps history in terms of my enjoyment of an area. I also have come to realize that I love traveling on trains, despite the odd creepy man. Love the landscapes and the fresh air. So onto Cappadocia, featuring strange rock and dirt formations, caves, and canyons. Goodbye 1000+ year old forts and art. And, since I’m officially crossing the Bosphorus: goodbye Europe, hello Asia.

On a total side bar, the metal wire behind my top teeth (glued in place for over a year) has come loose. I was trying to find ceramic glue in the markets, thinking that if it’s OK to eat off of, it’s probably OK in my mouth. But instead I think I’ll just keep playing with it until all six contact points come loose. Two down, four to go.

(6) Croatia to Turkey via Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Greece: Yes, it was a long commute

Yes, this was 50 hours of crazy transit.

While I wanted to spend a bit of time in this area, especially Dubrovnik, Kotor and Pristine, I decided just to push on.

After reviewing my email re: my Iranian visa application number, it sounds as though Thursday and Friday comprise the weekend in Turkey, and my number is only good until approximately the 10th and I want to give myself some “oh shit” days just in case. So while I was tempted to stop over in Dubrovnik and Pristine, the best I did was spend 30 minutes enjoying the fortress views in Kotor Stari Grad, 5 hours in Podgorica enjoying dinner and an impromptu tour of the city with three young local girls, and 5 hours brushing up on my Greek in Thessaloniki thanks to my days taking physics.

I got up for a 5:30am bus across the island from Vela Luka (why did I even try hitching?) all the way through to Dubrovnik. Had a little freakout as the bus schedule said buses further into Montenegro only went on odd numbered days, of which this was not one. But I asked, and one was leaving in 30 minutes. The bus ride through to Kotor was fantastic along the ocean – winding roads with steep drop-offs (complete with rusted smashed cars down below) and beautiful views of the coastline and Adriatic architecture (= terra cotta roof and cream walls). The bus to Podgorica surprised me – outstanding views of mountains and a huge lake I completely did not expect. I associate walls of mountains with ranges like the Himalayas, Rockies, Alps, Southern Alps, or Andes. These weren’t quite as high, but they were nonetheless snowcapped. Also met a man working for the American Embassy in Podgorica who is responsible for distributing military and state aid related to defense for Montenegro. Learning some political and cultural contexts of the area was nice.

The brief stopover in Podgorica was uneventful, but interesting. At one point I offered to take a picture for a group of girls on a bridge, who then offered to show me around. The cousins all had matching shirts, which were in support of one of their brothers, who was running/working for a party that was campaigning on a platform of “clean government” (ie no corruption). As we toured it became obvious that they were disappointed they couldn’t show me very interested things. I explained that just walking around and speaking with people that live in Montenegro was very interesting for me. We’ll catch up further on Facebook.

Interesting fact: Montenegro is home to the ‘.me’ domain, popular with URL shorteners like fb.me and wp.me.

Then onto the overnight bus to Pristina. Had a bit more success sleeping than the last time, but arrived in Pristina at 4:45am. My original intent was to explore the city and take an afternoon overnight bus through to Istanbul, but a Skopje bus was there when I arrived, and I didn’t feel like starting my day walking around at 5am. Kind of wish this part of the trip had been during the day – I could tell we were winding up and around through mountains on narrow roads with snow still on the banks. In Skopje found a soon leaving train to Thessaloniki, which is where I sit now. The views through the rest of Macedonia were stunning – more mountains and staggering canyons. I’ll be landing in Greece soon, hoping to find my next departure to Istanbul. I’m afraid I’m going to be arriving at night, but I’ll just have to make do.

So altogether otherwise it’s been 4 hour bus, 2.5 hour bus, 3 hour bus, 8 hour bus, 2 hour bus, 5 hour train, and a yet unknown hour train to Istanbul, all with minor breaks in between (or sometimes not at all).

While I brushed my teeth out the window at the Macedonia/Greece border, I’m sure what I really need is a shower.

(Update: The train was a night train, so I’ll be arriving in the morning, yay! And it is an 11.5 hour train, with lovely bunk sleeping berths. I have room to myself.)

(Update #2: I hadn’t even considered the current economic situation in Greece – apparently general strikes are about to occur. I guess I lucked out.)

(Update #3: Lovely night train was not so lovely. Creepy man kept trying to get into my room – turning the handle, or knocking and then stepping away to the side (though I could still see him through the fisheye peep hole). After this happening 3 times over 1.5 hours, I yelled at him to stay away from my door. Never heard from him or saw him again, but nonetheless spent 45 minutes standing at my door with my eye to the peep hole, followed by 2 hours half-sleeping sitting up, followed by 4 hours sleeping with the light on. Had to use the toilet, but opted to pee in the small corner sink in my room. I hope they clean those things in between trips.)