A Travellerspoint blog

December 2009

Week 40, 28.Nov.09 - 4.Dec.09

Damascus, Syria to Amman, Jordan

View Week 40 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Beirut, Lebanon
I'm in Beirut, Lebanon (crazy I'm able to say that!), and just had a shower in probably one of THE worst hotels I've stayed in yet!... I couldn't guess the last time the bed sheet was changed (probably better not to know!). Took a bus this morning from Damascus and had to bid 'farewell' to Syria - really perhaps the nicest people I have ever met. If I had a dollar for every time someone "welcomed" me to Syria, I'd have collected quite a bankroll. So last night back in Old Damascus, the Aussie and Danish guys staying in the same hotel (2nd time around, also back in Hama) and I head out to find "Marmar", the supposedly BEST nightclub in Damascus. Well, after wandering around for probably 2 hours, finally find it down some alleyway and find it as just a small, lame bar - what!!

Well, fast forward to today, at the bus station in Damascus met this kind of crazy old man with one leg originally from Lebanon but lived in the States for a while and now Syria, who was absolutely HILARIOUS - asked me where I was from, and with my reply smacks me on the back laughing, "New York! Get outta here you son-of-a-bitch! You gotta be kidding me you mother f-er! Come on, I'm going to buy you a coffee you son-of-a-bitch!"... and kept swearing up a storm in an old sailor's way (he happened to be ex-Navy, so it made sense). Kept "chatting" for a bit, and I'm pretty sure he was going to ask for money, but I said, "Well, that's my bus -- gotta go!" Getting to the border, met some guys also crossing over - French and 2 Brits. We all get screwed with the kids changing money at the border, but don't really have other options as there are no ATMs there and their visa must be paid in Lebanese Lira. When we get to Beirut we tried several hotel options but all full due to an Arabic holiday, but finally found this one in the French guy, Clement's, outdated guidebook (not surprising it was delisted from the next edition) - one of the Brits, Steve, makes the call, and when asking the price for a room for 4, gets a response "I don't want to talk about prices over the phone." Uh, ok? Well, arriving at the building I'm not sure if it was evacuated of just never finished, but the lobby is an empty shell.

We get to the floor of the pension - not much better! Well, to avoid thinking about the conditions for a few hours, we're about to head out and find a bar or club here in Beirut's famed nightlife, good way to mark 9 months of traveling!

Clement and I are about to head out to a club with 2 Romanian girls staying in the new hotel we moved to today (no way we were going to spend one more night in that dump from yesterday!), who I met in the lobby and spent about 2 hours helping them download & transfer photos from my laptop to theirs (I'm such a sucker). No idea what happened to the Brits, but earlier today we all taxied to southern Beirut, passing all kinds of barbed wire barricaded checkpoints,

to the Hippodrome (which most locals had no idea what/where it was) to catch a horse race (how random).

Absolutely pandemonium for those who picked the winning horse, yelling and throwing their jackets in the air etc. After we wandered around the neighborhoods of southern Beirut which are a sharp contrast from the wealthy/ritzy places "downtown" (which is actually north). Somewhat ubiquitous are the super long, usually striped curtains dangling outside the windows and draped over balcony railings - definitely brings back images of Beirut I had as a kid watching TV in the States.

We headed back up to downtown and along the corniche seafront, enjoyed a sheesha (and the views of Lebanese women) as the sunset - good day!

Not much activity today... after bidding goodbye to the French and British guys, spent some time getting caught up on emails (good thing, as the family has issued APBs out for my whereabouts). Strolled around the swanky Hamda neighborhood, and relaxed with some coffee.

Baalbek, Lebanon
I've returned to frigid weather traveling some 90 km northeast of Beirut, in order to see the ruins of Baalbek, dating from the 1st c. AD. Approaching Baalbek, about 1 km out, lining the median all the way to the center were banners and yellow Hezbollah flags flying proudly in their self-declared "capital".

Arrived here and got myself checked in to a hotel. Making small talk with the manager, I ask if he's Lebanese, he replies, "I'm Palestinian. I am from Palestine."... I guess I should expect that a lot around here. So he takes my passport to register, frowns a bit while sharing his views on American government policies, although he thinks American people are "good", I decide not to question him on Hezbollah's policies. But then after he scans my passport and returns with a smile, looking me in the eye nodding, "I think your roots are German". I say, "Well yes, from a long time ago...", but he just nods and hands me my passport, walking away satisfied - I decide not to pursue the subject with him and head out past the hordes of touts selling Hezbollah t-shirts to the really well-preserved ruins. The Temple of Bacchus, dedicated to Venus, was really impressive.

Also impressive were the 6 remaining standing columns (some of the biggest Rome ever built) of Temple of Jupiter.

Crazy, I certainly didn't imagine Lebanon with awesome Roman ruins!

2. Dec. 09
Beirut, Lebanon
Took forever to get back to Beirut today, and unfortunately other than a coffee there wasn't too much excitement to write about for the day! Did stop by the ancient St. George's cathedral and the Cardo Maximus, where archeologist excavations are still going on - pretty cool!

Tripoli, Lebanon
Day tripped up here today to Lebanon's second city, Tripoli. There is definitely a different vide going on here compared to Beirut. Arrived at the Abdel Hamid Karami square,

and was almost instantly once again surrounded by genuine people who were happy to help, not just looking for a tourist buck - I guess that's one thing I couldn't say about Beirut or Baalbek. First checked out the Taynal Mosque from the 14th c.,

then as I was wandering up to the Great Mosque (which was closed),

a man approaches me on the street asking where I'm from, and upon hearing the States, tells me how he won a gold medal at a kickboxing championship in Orlando - based on how bad he was limping (I think maybe a prosthetic leg but I'm not sure?), I'm thinking he either is really good at kicking with one leg, or that tournament was a long time ago. He decides he wants to be my tour guide and brings me to this shop where in the back is an old former Turkish bath house - huge place with dozens of rooms, which was really cool because it wasn't listed in my guidebook and the entrance was hidden behind this small shop.

We're walking along, and as he is telling me he's now a police officer, everyone we pass stops to greet him, seems like some kind of mafioso going on! We stop by the Old Souqs - Gold (Al-Sayyaghin), Perfume/Spice (Al-Attarin), and the very interesting Khan As-Saboun, the 16th c. soap market with hundreds of different soaps, where all of it is still hand-made.

There was one carved out shaped like the Quran!

So my impromptu guide bids farewell, I continue exploring and trek up the steep steps to the 12th c. Citadel of Raymond De Saint-Gilles, built by the Crusaders and seemingly occupied today by the Lebanese military, with all the tanks stationed outside. There are also some modern-looking battle scars from the outside as well.

Now I'm making my way back to Beirut for the last night here. Tomorrow, Jordan!

Amman, Jordan
This morning, bid farewell to Lebanon... all-in-all, not the most memorable of places, and arrived here in Amman via flight (wasn't about to repeat another Syrian border crossing adventure) and after the airport bus to service taxi connection, arrived at a cheap hotel/hostel and got checked in and wandered around a bit. So now there are a group of travelers (and workers in the hotel) heading out to an irish pub for some drinks, don't mind if I do!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 05:34 Comments (0)

Week 39, 21.Nov.09 - 27.Nov.09

Aleppo, Syria to Palmyra, Syria

View Week 39 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Aleppo, Syria
Having a shai (tea) at an outdoor restaurant next to the massive citadel, enjoying the views of the Old City of Aleppo and the locals meandering about - the majority of women are covered from head to toe in the chador/abayas; many of them with an additional veil covering their eyes... kinda creepy Darth Vader-like, you really have to wonder what they look like! I think its really interesting how this religion has adopted such a conservative look, despite there being nothing (from my understanding) actually calling for this in their Quran? Anyway, started out today with a pretty awful breakfast back in the hotel (complete with one of those car hood-heated giant pitas) then headed down to the main souq western entrance, 13th c. Bab Antakya gate. Entering into the partially covered network of passageways spanning 1.5 km (longest in the world), definitely felt as though I was transported back in time to the medieval bazaars. The exception being certain items for sale - everything from electronics, to designer jeans. Wandering down the narrow passageway and being amused with the sites of mini trucks and wagon carts trying to navigate around each other after battling for space,

made my way to the 8th c. Great Mosque (Al-Jamaa Al-Kebir), which was really nice - very peaceful and relaxing place, with old men sitting on pillows while reading the Quran. They had on display (dividing viewing area men from women) a large sarcophagus with a sign saying it contains "an" organ of Zacharias (one of the Prophets)... not sure which organ that may be, but I think legend has it, it is actually his head.

Went back out to the connecting souq to wander a bit more then finished at the eastern end gate and out to the citadel.

Spectacular ruins I climbed around for a while, and also got some terrific views of Aleppo itself from atop the citadel walls.

After, I wandered south into the neighborhoods not listed in my guidebook, enjoying some local atmosphere devoid of any tourists - good stuff!

Hama, Syria
Getting ready to turn in early here in Hama. Bussed it down here this morning from Aleppo, got checked in to a hostel and then after a late falafel lunch, wandered around the small alleyways of the Old Town,

with the enormous "norias" (13th c. wooden waterwheels) dotted around the Orontes River.

These things are legendary around the Middle East, originals dating back to the 4th c. AD!

Just returned from visiting Crac Des Chevaliers (via microbus change at Homs) - castle from 11th c.

Now, I've traveled in all of Europe and seen so many castles that I thought I'd had enough for a lifetime. Well, I can say the Crac is one, if not THE, best castle I've ever seen - incredibly well-preserved, it seems as though with a bit of insulation and flooring, you could move right in! The layout had an exterior fortress with about a dozen towers, where I strolled around and saw the moat,

baths, and great hall where they kept the stables. Moving to the interior fortress, got to see the really picturesque loggia and vaulted room with its gothic facade,

then to the chapel-turned-mosque, complete with the pulpit still in-tact.

What was perhaps more impressive than the site itself is the story behind it - originally built by the Emir of Homs in the 11th c., then occupied by the Crusaders who held it until 1271, when Mamluk Sultan Beybars surrounded it. Although the Crusaders departed after a month, having negotiated a safe passage to Tripoli, the castle was technically never breached - pretty cool! Strolled around outside a bit, then taking the horn-honking addicted microbus back to Homs and connected for the trip back here to Hama.

Today was spent touring around more sights around the region. A Japanese tourist staying here at the same hostel and I hired a "guide" (driver), and the first place we visited was Apamea, ancient Roman/Byzatine ruins dating back to 2nd c. AD.

Arriving early enough in the morning we had the place to ourselves practically - pretty sweet! Apamea has a 2.1 km long cardo (main street) of parallel colonnades, some with the unique-to-Apamea spiral carving.

Couldn't help but notice how the locals certainly try to use up every inch of land surrounding the ruins for farming - sometimes going so far as plowing around a column or two!

After a couple hours climbing around the ruins (I think it is crazy how lax they are about the ruins here - noway you'd be able to touch these ruins if this site was in Europe),

we headed to the famed "Dead Cities", ancient Byzatine ghost towns abandoned 15 centuries ago (no one knows quite sure why). There are supposedly hundreds of these scattered in northwest Syria, alas, we only had time to visit two. The first of which was Al-Bara, set in a large olive grove area, and had these cool pyramid tombs scattered about, with sarcophagi still contained (and visible) within.

Next we headed to the nearby "Dead City" of Serjilla, which looked more like an actual "city", complete with intact abandoned houses, church, inn, and bathhouse.

It was great to see the buildings & roads so well-preserved, easy to picture how these people lived. As we were readying to leave, saw a couple of goat herders passing through.

So, I guess one could say there is still a bit of life flowing in the "Dead" Cities!

Damascus, Syria
Sitting in a pretty swanky coffee/nargileh (sheesha) place in central Damascus, having a shai (funny, I find myself drinking a LOT of tea lately... I guess when its available everywhere, everyone constantly drinks it and invites you to drink as well, you just do as the locals do!) and enjoying the views (Damascus women). Headed down here today from Hama, and can say that at first glance I really like this city - super significant with its place in history (another one vying for the oldest in the world), yet has a young, vibrant and - maybe even a twinge of liberal feeling - that keeps it active/alive. After I arrived in Damascus and checked in to a hotel, headed over to the National Museum with tons on amazing ancient artifacts from all over Syria; my favorites by far were the 2nd c. fresco-covered synagogue, and the hypogeum of Yarai tomb from Palmyra.

After the museum strolled by and in (now open, construction completed!) the 16th c. b&w striped Takiyya as-Suleimaniyya, built by Ottoman Empire's premier architect, Mirmar Sinan.

Having (another) shai here at Al-Nawfara coffee shop in Old Damascus, listening to Abu Shady, Syria's last professional "hakawati" (storyteller) spinning tales from his throne.

Although of course I have no idea what he is saying as it is in Arabic, it doesn't take away from the entertainment factor (probably would be really cheesy if in English, anyway!). I saw probably every square inch of the Old City today. Wandered into the western entry point and beginning of Souq Al-Hamidiyya... funny, exact same setup as Aleppo's - but quite a difference in the Souqs themselves: this one in Damascus is wide, orderly and -- dare I say -- even qualifies as clean on some level. Boring! Moving along eastward, arrived at the remains of the western temple gate of the 3rd c. Roman Temple of Jupiter, where I bumped into the crazy Russian guy also staying in the same hotel. He tells me he stayed up all night (and still reeked of booze) to watch the sun rise over Damascus from atop the mountain north of the city, only it was super cloudy this morning - oh well! He went off to sleep (or to sleep it off, maybe) and I entered into the landmark Umayyad Mosque from 705 AD (converted from Temple of Jupiter). Really beautiful mosaics all over the walls of the interior courtyard, and full ambiance with the constant prayer calls booming over the speakers.

Wandered inside a while to check out the shrines (or, more interesting, checking out the people who are visiting the shrines),

then went next door, to the mausoleum of Saladin from the 12 c. After, headed up the street to the Iranian-built Shiite Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque. It seemed like most mosques from the exterior (bland and basic), but the interior was absolutely unique - a complete riot of colorful mirror mosaics, and pilgrims weeping - literally - next to a memorial, made it all a bit overwhelming!

From there I visited the 18th c. Azem Palace with its fruit tree lined courtyards and cool displays.

Passed another Souq and east along Sharia Medhaat Pasha street to the eastern gate, outside to St. Paul's chapel where, according to biblical tale, is the site where the disciples lowered St. Paul out of a window in a basket so he could help the Jews flee.

On the way back into Old Damascus, coincidentally, saw some man climbing UP a rope ladder (maybe a shortcut to his home??).

Palmyra, Syria
Watching the sun set behind a group of mountains and giving the ruins of Palmyra a wonderful, almost pink glow.

I arrived here today (eventually, after waiting around forever for the bus back in Damascus to leave) at a restaurant outside of town then shared a taxi to the ruins - these really are quite spectacular...

I hate to say it, but it almost makes me wonder why I bothered visiting Apamea! The incredible story behind the rise and fall of the city under the leadership of Queen Zenobia makes it that much more interesting - how she was defiant to Rome and staged a coup that failed, so she bolted into the desert on camelback!

Wandering by the (mostly) 2nd c. AD sites like Temple of Baal Shamin,

Temple of Bel,

and countless other landmarks spread out over a vast area, makes you feel you're almost alone despite the buses of tourists around. Best part is, consistent with Apamea, there are no entry fees/open hours/roped-off areas, you go wander wherever!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 08:01 Comments (0)

Week 38, 14.Nov.09 - 20.Nov.09

Selcuk, Turkey to Aleppo, Syria

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Selcuk, Turkey
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!).

Bodrum, Turkey
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!

Pamukkale, Turkey
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!

Aleppo, Syria
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!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 22:59 Comments (0)

Week 37, 7.Nov.09 - 13.Nov.09

Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria to Izmir, Turkey

View Week 37 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
Spent today wandering around picturesque Veliko, with the houses clinging to the sides of hills.

First stop was over to the Rila Bureau office to buy an overnight train ticket for tomorrow (Sunday), but turns out they're not open until Monday, and there's no way to buy the ticket on the train - well, looks like I'll be taking the bus! Began the sightseeing over at the 5th c. Tsarevets Fortress,

and peeking inside the main cathedral's crazy artwork and ultra-modern alter.

Leaving the Fortress, I set out to see the Aseneus monument set right in the gorge - well, took quite a while to actually find the footbridge to get me there, but eventually I made it! Cool monument paying tribute to the kings who reunified Bulgaria.

Stopped over for a peek inside the Sarafkina Kashta 19th c. home (not impressed), now getting ready to head out for some clubbing!

I'm heading over in a few minutes to the bus station for overnight ride to Istanbul. Today was entirely spent recovering (as in, sleeping on the couch) from the really rough night last night at Spider club - all was going pretty well with the beers, then Brad, guy from Florida who now lives in Veliko, goes ahead and buys Yager shots - 2 rounds. Now I remember why I quit drinking that crap in college!

Istanbul, Turkey
Getting ready to crash here in Taru Kivel's apartment in Istanbul. I'm super-tired - the bus ride last night yielded me about an hour sleep total! Arrived early this morning and wandered around a bit with the other American and British guys who were on the same bus. Stopped to take some magical-looking photos of the Blue Mosque covered in fog/mist,

then bid the guys farewell after they found a hostel and then headed up toward Taksim area and Taru's apartment, who I found through CouchSurfing. I had a general idea of the area, and instructions to take either a taxi or bus #43 from Taksim. Well, not knowing which stop to get off the bus limited that option so I found the taxi, which turned out to be 5x more expensive than what I was told it would have cost! Well, so much for saving any money by CouchSurfing here! So later was joined by an older gentleman Robert from Australia, also surfing at Taru's. We all hung out for a bit getting to know each other then joined by her friend Cathy (or Katie?) also from the States and now looking to live in Istanbul. We headed out to tour the main pedestrian strip, Istiklal Caddesi, lined with cafes and shops. Had a good dinner - Turkish meatballs - now to bed!

Enjoying watching for a bit, the sun setting over the Yeni Cami mosque.

Had a really good day strolling around the sites near Sultanahmet. First stop was right here at Yeni Cami, peeked inside then wandered around a bit through the spice bazaar, loads of saffron and other spices ranging from the everyday normal (got some of the famous Turkish apricots) to the bizarre (no pun intended).

After went over to the Rustem Pasa Camil mosque for a quick look then roamed around the Grand bazaar, huge network of shops selling just about anything I could think of - only got lost once! Made my way past Cemberlitas Column from 330 AD (erected by Constantine to celebrate the capital of the Eastern Roman empire),

next down into Basilica Cistern with the eery red glow illuminating the underground reservoir and canals going all over.

After, went into the Aya Sofia and its ridiculously large interior. Converted from a cathedral (as most mosques in the Middle East seem to be) after the fall of Constantinople, still has some bearings of its Christian heydays with the Virgin & Child mosaics high up toward the dome.

Next crossed past the ancient Hippodrome to the famous Blue Mosque, now able to enter in without all my luggage!

I couldn't help but think that Islam should consider allowing people to wear shoes inside mosques, with the hundreds of bare stinking feet gets a bit overwhelming - phew! Crossed over to the Topkapi Palace, but unfortunately closed on Tuesdays (random - every other museum in Europe is closed Mondays... maybe they don't want to be European after all!). Now gonna hop on the bus back to Taru's so we can figure out plans for tonight!

Canakkale, Turkey
Spent a majority of the day today making my way from Istanbul to Canakkale, where I am now staying in a pretty decent hotel (since their hostel sister property is temporary closed, got a good deal on a "real" room!). This morning back in Istanbul, bid farewell to Taru and Robert and went out to the bus stop and waited for the 10:15 bus #26 that showed up at 11:45 (unreal). Made the ridiculously inconvenient bus-to-trolley-to-metro connections over to the main bus station. 6 1/2 hrs later on the road (and car ferry, which having turned dark outside, wasn't even aware we were on!), arrived in Canakkale. Got checked in and grabbed a quick pita pizza (love those!), now to bed so I can get some sleep before my 7am wake up call.

Eceabat, Turkey
I'm on the ferry at the Eceabat pier, heading back to Canakkale after wandering the hallowed grounds of Gallipoli.

Being an American, prior to today I was mostly unfamiliar with this historic WWI battle site that involved the British, Australian/New Zealanders and French Allied assault on the Turks to attempt and capture the coveted Dardanelles route to Russia. Earlier this morning, I took a(n expensive/overpriced) tour of a nearby place with also a smidgen of historical battle significance - Troy! About 35 km south of Canakkale, our minibus took off bright & super-early, arrived at the "gates" of ancient Troy (now only ruins), and immediately came into view of the 8-9 meter tall (presumably replicated) wooden Trojan horse!

So I learned Troy was rebuilt 8 times over the centuries, each with its own distinct ruins. Got to stroll around the artifacts and remains from each of the eras. The highlights for me were the Temple of Athena ruins from Troy VIII (1000-85BC), Odeion from Troy IX (85BC - 500AD), fortification wall ruins from Troy I (3000-2500 BC), and the ramp and fortification wall of Troy VI (1700-1250BC), where archaeologists believe the famed Trojan horse was actually wheeled up for the legendary surprise attack - pretty sweet!

Izmir, Turkey
Eating my kebap dinner here in Turkey's 3rd largest city, Izmir. Most of today was spent uneventfully on the 6.5 hr bus ride from Canakkale to Izmir's "otogar" (bus station), inconveniently about 7km Northeast of the city center. Taking a local bus from the otogar the the center, was trying to orientate myself with the pretty crappy city map I picked up while in Canakkale, but every single street seemed to be called "Sokak", only differentiated by sequential numbers preceding "Sokak", ranging from single digits to the 100's! Fortunately was able to identify the train station in city center as a reference point, got out & shopped around for a pretty cheap (and pretty dirty) hotel. Now I'm going to wander a bit to see if anything good is happening on Friday (the 13th) night!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 23:43 Comments (0)

Week 36, 31.Oct.09 - 6.Nov.09

Sighisoara, Romania to Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

View Week 36 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Sighisoara, Romania
I'm about to head to the downstairs hostel bar for some drinks here in Sighisoara, small town in Transylvania and, oh yeah, birthplace of Vlad Tepes, AKA Count Dracula - Happy Halloween! Earlier this morning back in Brasov, I got up early to walk around the Old Town center a bit - very quaint little town with the cobbled streets and old churches and towers.

Got to the train station and took the 3rd-world style train - super dirty, people smoking, heaters below the seat cooking my bum, etc - here to Sighisoara. As I was getting checked-in the hostel and asking enthusiastically about Halloween and what was going on tonight, the receptionist said it wasn't celebrated here... well, we'll see about that! I headed out and wandered up to the Old Town up the hill, another really quaint place like Brasov.

They definitely promote the fact its the birthplace of Dracula, with the souvenir stands, restaurants, etc.

but it didn't take away from the experience - of course I had to stop off for a glass of red in the birthplace castle-turned-restaurant of Vlad.

Back here at the hostel there are other Western tourists getting dressed up in costumes to go out tonight, so I'm going to have to come up with an impromptu one myself here in a minute. Well, if Sighisoara didn't celebrate Halloween before, thats about to change!

Bucharest, Romania
Getting ready for bed here in Bucharest after spending 7 hours on the "express" train from Sighisoara - I thought it was a bit odd there weren't any buses or maxitaxis running the whole day to Bucharest, when my guidebook had mentioned one every half-hour - maybe b/c of low season? Well anyway, the first train out of Sighisoara was the "express" train that s-l-o-w-l-y rolled along Romania and arrived here 2 hours late (good thing I had a really good looking girl sitting next to me to chat with the whole time!). Last night back in Sigisoara, there were about 5 of us in the hostel that were drinking away a homemade punch in the bar downstairs when appears the 4 Spaniards (who now live in Vilnius) dressed up like ghouls, and encouraged the rest of us to get in the spirit of Halloween. No costume shops in Sighisoara, so had to improvise with what I had - decided the best option would be a thief/criminal - turned out pretty good with some eye makeup and (dirty laundry) sack for my "loot".

We all headed out into town and came upon a club where we received plenty of stares at first, but soon enough there were many others in costume as well - both tourists and locals. Halloween in Transylvania, good times!

Heading out in a bit to grab a bite to eat then turn-in.. really good day spent wandering around here in Bucharest with the Aussie couple Dave and Tat, also staying in the same hostel. We started with a tour of the enormous Palace of Parliament, at 365,000 sq meters second biggest building in the world behind the Pentagon.

With its grandiose rooms filled with marble and chandeliers, really quite spectacular. After the one hour tour covering many, many rooms, our guide informs us we "have just seen 9%" of the whole Palace - sheesh! Next had an awesome Romanian lunch at Caru Cu Bere,

then continued wandering the city, passing the scene of dictator Ceausescu's infamous last speech in 1989, the former Central Committee of the Communist Party building which caused many deaths from protestors speaking out against the dictator.

Finished up strolling through the Cismigiu gardens - good day!

Going to try and get a few hours sleep here on an overnight train to Sofia - it may be difficult with the arrangements; sleeper car was going to be an outrageous 50 Euro, so the Aussie couple, who are also traveling to Sofia, and I are roughing it in the seating car. Spent today pretty much freezing our butts off wandering around Bucharest, along the main avenues to the outdoor (and of course, equally cold) Village Museum. Supposedly Dave and Tat saw signs for "Extra Ticket for Photo", or "No Photos" at all b/c it is a Unesco World Heritage Site - at an outdoor museum, seriously do they think people won't take pics? Ha!

After, chilled out (well, warmed up) back in the hostel for a couple hours hanging out with a couple middle-aged Scots who flew in to Romania to watch a soccer match tomorrow - hilarious guys, very fitting of a Scottish profile downing their drinks one after another! Now after losing a couple games of hearts playing cards with the Aussies (damn), we'll see if sleep will happen!

Sofia, Bulgaria
Getting ready for bed here in my hostel in Sofia - thank goodness they finally turned the heat on, I was beginning to wonder if the heater was just for decoration or what! I've been pretty much feel frozen since last night's train ride... sometime in the middle of the night woke up (I think after 1 or 2 hours sleep) absolutely freezing - no heat in the train car, and the stupid window kept sliding down, letting in more cold air - arrgh! I tried to wrap-up as best I could with my Singapore Airlines paper-thin blanket (of course in hindsight would've made sense to dig out my sleeping bag), but at around 05:30 when I glanced outside and saw the piles of snow outside with the broken window letting in the cold air, knew I wasn't getting any more sleep! As we were rolling into Sofia, Dave & Tat take a look at the next car down, since we were the only ones in our own car (but didn't start the trip from Bucharest that way) - of course, one car down has working heat and long benches you can actually lay down, where everyone else had migrated to and slept comfortably. When they came back to tell me to go take a look, I didn't have the heart! So we arrived a few minutes later in Sofia and made our way to the hostel to drop off the packs then headed out to check out some sites - more Soviet-era monuments so typical of Eastern Europe,

then over to the really impressive 19th c. gold-domed Aleksander Nevski church.

There are definitely some quirky sidewalk artworks around also, as we saw.

So Dave and I head to the bus station so he can get tickets for his & Tat's ride to Skopje tomorrow, and I can inquire about tickets to Veliko Tarnovo. Well, after the lady working at the information booth acted like I was completely inconveniencing her by asking questions (so much so that she went ahead and wrote down on a piece of paper, "Central Bus Station", then the phone number so I could call instead - bitch!!@), we headed back and met up with Tat and a German couple, had dinner at a kick-ass medieval restaurant, then went for more drinks - good times!

Today I visited Bulgaria's historical, cultural and religious centerpiece (or so the guidebook says), Rila monastery. I signed up with the hostel here for the two hour ride through some pretty spectacular countryside to Rila up in the mountains.

There is a very cool story behind this place - in the 10th c. a priest Ivan Rilsky heads up into the mountains in a cave and looks for spiritual enlightenment when the country was under Ottoman occupation, then the king pays a visit and tries to offer things like food and blankets, but the priest refuses and only wants to help the poor, and soon generates this following. Today there are still monks that live in the monastery (in rooms, not caves).

We then hiked a couple kms away up in the mountains and through a crazy narrow cave,

to see the priest's tomb, as well as some really impressive landscape views.

Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
Hanging out on the patio BBQ'ing at the hostel I'm staying in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria's medieval capital city. Earlier today back in Sofia I was able to catch a ride with the German couple who were staying in the same hostel; they had bought a used 1970's Mercedes fire truck to drive across Europe & were also looking to visit Veliko. Their truck was pretty interesting, I must say - 4-speed engine that uses either propane or regular gas and motors along really slowly, sounding as though the engine wants to explode but hangs in there!

We take a more scenic, smaller road East from Sofia through the "Valley of Roses", exchanging travel stories along the way. Tim spots an ethnographic museum sign along the road in some small town so we pull over and grab some food from the small store for lunch, drive near the museum to eat, then end up skipping it altogether b/c we're running out of daylight too soon nowadays! We get back on the road to visit Kazanlak, where the ancient Thracian tomb dating back to the 4th c. BC stands - really interesting, colorful artwork.

After, we head up the mountains through "Shipka Pass" and the super foggy area - very cool!

Arrived in Veliko and having a bit of trouble pinpointing our location on the little map, were approached by a local bus driver who insisted on helping us find the correct street - and since the bus was parked and not leaving for a few minutes, pulls a younger passenger off the bus to walk me down the street and point out the correct direction - she didn't even mind, super nice! We head down and find the hostel (relatively easily, actually), now getting ready to head out for a cocktail or 2!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 01:08 Comments (0)

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