Selcuk, Turkey to Aleppo, Syria
14.11.2009 - 20.11.2009
Having my (somewhat obligatory, it feels) dinner at Mustafa's kebap place, right next door to his brother, Ali Baba's (is that really his name??) carpet shop which is right next door (conveniently) to his other brother's hostel, where I'm staying here in Selcuk. On the TV is "Turkey's got talent", or whatever their name is for the identical cheesy American TV show. This morning I took the logistically challenging route from Izmir center to the otogar (bus station), then an hour ride south here to Selcuk. Got checked in to the hostel then got a free ride from Ali Baba ("free", meaning come back later to look at my rugs) to ancient Ephesus a few kms away. Ephesus, one of the most important port cities and capital of Asia Minor in early Greek/Roman times, is an incredible site of ruins dating from the 2nd c. BC in its prime, and various reconstructions/additions over the subsequent centuries. Highlights for me were the Odeon Bouleuterion from 2nd c. BC,
sacred ramp to Town Hall (11 AD), the Great Theatre (41 AD) housing an impressive 24k spectators, and of course Celsus Library (135 AD).
Also significant was stepping inside House of Virgin Mary, place where John brought Mary shortly after Christ's crucifixion, to live out her remaining days.
From Ephesus inner gates I left walking back toward Selcuk, stopping along the way to visit the site that actually sparked my visit to Selcuk in the first place, the ruins of the Temple of Artemis (356 BC), once one of the 7 Wonders of the World - but now, you definitely need to use imagination, as only 1 1/2 pillars remain standing.
Still, to think about the history of the Temple and its sheer size - at its prime, bigger than the Parthenon - is pretty awesome to walk around the grounds (not roped off, no entrance fee!).
I'm having a cay (tea) at a cafe in Bodrum, waiting for a bus ride back to Selcuk. Got up this morning at 06:30 in order to catch the 07:30 bus (which arrived at the bus station at 08:15) for the 3 hour ride south to Bodrum. Made my way directly to the ruins of the Mausoleum of Halikarnasos (353 BC), monumental tomb of Maussollus, "Satrap" of Caria, which was also once one of the Seven Wonders of the World - pretty cool to see two of them in as many days! Looking at the drawings and models of the Mausoleum (by far more information than what was available at Temple of Artemis), can definitely appreciate how awesome a sight it must have been.
Taking a look down into the crypt room where Maussollus was buried, was also pretty amazing!
The only other site in Bodrum worth a mention in my guidebook was Castle of St. Peter (1406 AD), built by the Crusaders, so I stopped by there also for a peek.
Now, heading back over to the bus station back up 3 hrs to Selcuk - I must be a history enthusiast to spend this much time on busses to see 1 site of ruins!
At the bus station waiting for my overnight from Pamukkale to Cappadocia - Turkey is definitely a huge country, so I'm thankful many of these vast distances between cities are covered by overnight service (although, my body doesn't thank me the next day!). The shorter ride - 3.5 hrs - taken this morning from Selcuk brought me here to Pamukkale. After an unexpectedly lengthy stop at their post office here, made my way to the gleaming ice & snow-looking (but in actuality, some form of calcium rock) cliffs of Pamukkale, with the warm rivers flowing into travertine pools.
Had to lose the shoes while climbing around (understandably so - super slippery in some areas, with steep drop offs in some areas would not be fun falling), and despite the picturesque setting, a lot of the pathway was downright painful with the little pebbles to walk across barefoot. And, once you wander to a pool of water that has been sitting, it is REALLY cold! A bit further up the cliff were the ruins of ancient Hieropolis with its huge theatre and fortress walls from the 3rd c. AD. Looking at a map recreating what this place looked like in its prime, would have been quite a site!
Goreme (Cappadocia), Turkey
I'm trying to get myself motivated enough to head out from my "cave" hotel room into the cold, for dinner in town.
I'm now in Goreme, center of Cappadocia, arrived here early this morning on the overnight bus from Pamukkale, had probably a couple hours sleep at best - but was wide awake when the otherworldly views surrounded the bus - fairy chimneys of rock columns, spread out over the horizon - awesome! The best resemblance I could hope to come up with is the homes of the "Sand People" from Tatoonie in Star Wars.
Got myself checked in the hostel embedded in the side of a huge rock, then wandered into Goreme "town" for breakfast. Made my way over to the open air museum of medieval frescoes inside fairy chimney churches scattered about.
Lunch back in town, then a much-needed nap this afternoon. Hopefully the heat will kick on in my room by the time I get back from dinner!
Waiting inside the super smokey ticket booth for my overnight bus to Antakya - the alternative is waiting outside in the freezing cold, so I'm more or less alternating back and forth. Had a really cool tour today through Cappadocia - we traveled to the underground city of Derinkuyu, built 2000 BC and later used by locals for hiding out from invading Byzatine armies.
There were crazy narrow passages to climb through - down 8 "floors", about 60 m underground... everything from stables to living rooms to churches were in this city. Next we bussed it to Ihlara Valley - absolutely beautiful scenery with snowcapped mountains lining the Valley dotted with the fairy chimneys and cave houses.
We hiked through a pretty easy 4 km path, had lunch then bussed back to Selime monastery, probably the most impressive of the rock-cut churches that I've seen.
Unfortunately nightfall comes quick here so we missed the sunset at Pigeon valley. Still, all-in-all great sites I've seen the past 2 days! After returning to Goreme, had a cay in the Nazar Borek tea house I have visited a couple times now, where the owner/workers strike up a live music session each night - they're not too bad!
9 1/2 hours. That is how long I had to sit inside the immigration office at the Syrian border-post town of Bab Al-Hawa... 9 1/2 LONG hours. Sitting inside a sterile building like that all day, you definitely have to become creative on how to occupy your time, like memorizing every single posted sign & picture of their former "president" (for 40 years), Hafez Al-Assad. You get to know every worker in that building, also. With no ATM nearby and only a few Syrian pounds I changed from my Turkish Lira before the border, so also had nothing to eat/drink all day -- partly intentional, considering it cost 25 SP to use their disgusting WC -- so I kept waiving off the coffee vendor strolling around. So I thought initially, it might be a straight-forward process - when the overnight bus from Goreme arrived in Antakya, Turkey, the obvious tourists like myself were greeted by the touts selling connecting bus tickets to Aleppo, and offering to help with visa processing at the border - for 10 TL (about 5 Euro), it was a good deal, too! Oh, but then when I asked to reconfirm that they'd definitely wait for me at the border while the visa was processed, thats when they asked the few of us our nationalities... the Japanese and French backpackers had no problem, but when I mentioned I was American, well, they said they'll take me to the border for 5 TL, but "Americans have longer process". No kidding. I couldn't help but think of the irony as I was reading (and rereading, to kill time) my guidebook, and history of Syria, how only some 70 years ago France tried to occupy Syria, but yet they have no problem issuing the Frenchies visas on the spot... Well, I guess I can thank George W. Bush's declaration of Syria a "rogue state" for my extended wait. I do know that Syria's "official" policy for issuing visas is for applications to be filled out only at the Syrian embassy of your home country, and only available at the border if Syria does not have an embassy in your home country. That said, I've met other travelers along the way who confirmed this policy is sometimes relaxed based on factors -- your itinerary, where you've been, the mood of the O.I.C., etc. But I also heard Americans have to wait... a long time. Somehow I think I ended up waiting longer than most due to unfortunate timing - arriving there at 13:00, got my application filled out by the O.I.C. (who was using a translator, but still grilling me on where I was going, for how many days, name of hotels, etc.). My understanding is they phone Immigration Office in Damascus for approval/authorization, but when I inquired on the status at 15:00, one of the officers who spoke English said that office in Damascus closed at 14:00, so they had to contact the Syrian embassy in the States. Well, 9 1/2 hours later the O.I.C. raps on the glass in his office looking out to the waiting area to wake me up and is holding some fax form in Arabic, visa is approved! So I start asking about a bus to Aleppo - no buses, only taxis - US $20. Well, I wasn't sure how far Aleppo was from the border exactly, but I was determined NOT to spend money on a taxi just because I got screwed out of the bus deal from Antakya, so I just start walking across the border East on my way to Aleppo. The border guard outside at the gate asks for my passport to see the visa, asks where I am going, and when I replied "Aleppo", I think he just saw the determination in my eye and wasn't going to talk me out of it, just nods, handed me back my passport, "Welcome. Welcome to Syria." Well, about 100 meters down the road I get to the customs check and there are a few guards there, telling me that Aleppo is 50 KMs away! Suddenly US $20 for a taxi seemed like a good idea! The taxi drops me off at a bus station in some part of Aleppo where these guys are outside baking/warming up falafel bread on the hood of a car, then putting them in fancy packaging that looks like they'll be sold then next day in the grocery store/bakeries (gross??). I ask them for landmarks around the center and quickly realize I am nowhere near, so I have to use my last Syrian pound and take another taxi to find this hotel listed in my guidebook. It is now 01:00 and I just tried to withdraw Syrian pounds from an ATM, but it didn't work - hopefully I can get that squared away tomorrow!
I'm getting ready to head out around this heavily conservative Islamic city and see what may be on tap for Friday (their holy) night - I'm expecting to wind up back in the Christian quarter for any type of activity. Earlier today, spent the better part of the morning trying to find an ATM that would take my card - I found plenty with the "Cirrus" and "Master Card" logos (of which my card has), but apparently that is just for show, b/c after trying at least 1/2 dozen of them, all failed. I finally found a Saudi-Francais bank way out near the train station, which my guidebook confirmed is the only bank in Syria accepting Master Card, and was finally able to buy food for the first time in about 36 hours! Able to pay the hotel bill, checked out of there and found the much cheaper hostel across the street, then went out to see a few sites - first was the National Museum, which had a pretty cool collection of ancient monuments/artifacts,
but as only a few items were actually labeled (in Arabic), I had to use my imagination for the information. Next wandered around the Christian quarter of Al-Speida, which is a really quaint area with long, narrow stone-flagged alleyways that was really lively with shops, cafes, and lots & lots of... Muslims!
Pretty cool to see these ancient (and still active) churches and minority Christians peacefully co-habitating the city with the majority Muslims, as they've done for centuries (Aleppo being one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world -- 8,000 years and counting!). Back at the hostel, had a quick nap then back out for dinner - some kind of chicken breast wrap from a shop on the street, really tasty and only 5 SP each (about US $0.20) - hopefully there won't be any stomach problems later! Wandered into a place with "Night Club" out in front, and venturing in to see the setup inside - about a dozen tables with three women at four-person tables all looking at the Western tourist who just walked in - figured this wasn't a conventional "Night Club"! The owner greets me to offer 3 options: 1 beer for 1000 SP, or all-you-can-drink for 2000 SP - both options at my own table. If I would like to "sit with the pretty Syrian girls" and drink, well that would cost me 6500 SP! I told the owner, "Uh, thanks - I'll think about it..." and settled for 2 beers from the liquor store for 120 SP back here at the hostel!