Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Kemmangundi & Mullayanagiri

Feet on the ground versus armchair analysis. Sherlock vs. Mycroft. A debate for all economists, investors and macro watchers. Hop on a bike for a three-month road trip, Jim Rogers would say, but few have the ability, patience or time. Financial markets churn out millions of research reports, authored by arm-chair analysts, and the financially literate yet reality-challenged 1% (including yours truly) wonder whether the financial world we inhabit has anything in common with the “real economy”. Post the 2008 financial crisis that proved how over-paid “market folks” were relative to their contribution to the real economy, acknowledging it and maintaining a smidgen of sanity requires me to take a break every couple of months; and the traveler me more often than not rescues the markets me – a couple of hours with chatty locals can either destroy a thousand hypothesis, or reinforce them as solid facts. And demystify a lot of the jargon that passes off as “smart analysis”. In an exaggerated feedback loop, the smart investor travels to learn while having fun, while the real traveler uses his local interactions to make enough money to fund his next trip.
Momentous discoveries and meaningless philosophical discourses were farthest from my mind, the basic plan was a trek up the famous “Z-point” at Kemmangundi, a drive along those scenic, foggy winding roads to Bababudangiri, and a climb up the 1,900 metre Mullayanagiri peak. www.takeabreak.in suggested both a location www.kemmangundihomestays.com and a local driver-cum-guide. Google maps and AP’s ipad did the rest. Old-timers like us who have actually trampled around without smart phones find googlemaps extremely useful, yet I cannot avoid the feeling that all these gadgets and apps are making me dumber by the minute. A seven hour drive, the last two through some wonderfully quaint and scenic surroundings passing through Chikmagalur town, coffee estates surrounded by pine forests and sheer cliffs, which test the city driver and his small car, brought us to the edge of Bhadra forest where the home-stay is located; right in front of a tall hill and surrounded by small fields and plantations. A long walk in the crisp winter air in the evening, with the setting sun throwing off golden streaks across the reddish soil, and a rustic dinner in the common hall were real treats. These are cherished memories for a city-dweller; how complicated our lives have turned out to be!
Kemmangundi is a lovely small hill-town, flanked by the Bababudangiri hill range, with spectacular red soil and wonderful hiking trails passing through lavish green valleys, grasslands and waterfalls. From the homestay to Raj Bhavan was a 12km long narrow winding path, which the Mahindra jeep handled really well. Raju was the driver-cum-guide from the nearby village of Lingadahalli, and he made his displeasure with city drivers rather apparent. “They don’t belong here, they don’t know how to drive, they don’t have any commonsense”, he kept muttering. The jeep twisted and turned, and wafts of crisp mountain air floated in through the windows, and with every hair-pin we climbed, our lungs struggled while our ears popped. Most cars can get up to Raj Bhavan where the hiking trails start, but Raju had other ideas. “What is the point of hiking on flat terrain, climb when you can't drive”, and proceeded to subject us to the agony of a non-existent dirt track for the next 10 minutes, which mercifully ended when we came upon a large ditch. We ditched our jackets, bundled water and biscuits in to a backpack, while Raju was already disturbing the peaceful environment with his snores.
It is not supposed to be a difficult climb, but the intensity and struggle depends on the differential between how fit one believes he is, and reality. Body vs. Mind. Not very steep, yet challenging as you go higher, with some episodes of breathlessness, couple of recovery periods, and two sharp juts where one needs to be careful and hold on to the slippery rocks. We passed a family with extremely inappropriately dressed women (for the climb!) at one of the waterfalls, enquiring how far they were from the peak. A very suspicious group of teenagers, a guy and three girls, all panting heavily, said 45 minutes. It didn’t look that far, the peak was visible, the trail looked innocuous enough.
All around were steep valleys covered with tall grass that swayed to the strong winds, while the sun shone brightly and drove the chill out of our bones; glorious settings with dazzling scenery, the immense trees along the steep cliffs obscuring the deep bottom of the valley, with a lake at the horizon visible to the eye but not to my expensive camera. Surprisingly, we were all alone for the next hour as we kept climbing and taking pictures. It is only when you hit the peak and look at the watch that the realization sinks in. It was easily the tallest peak around; the towns looked like tiny dots way below, the wind turned in to strong breeze that threatened to blow away my glares, and the steep slopes of the “Z-point” looked threatening enough for me to take a step back. AP displayed previously unheard bravery and pointed out a steep trail to the very top, which I took one look at and turned around; bravery and foolhardy are separated by a thin line, perhaps as thin as the trail he wanted to take. We lingered around, trying to settle our cameras which swayed to the mighty wind, and our hearts, which fluttered with joy. The family was still at the waterfall on our way back, and one of the women asked “did you see my kid? He went out on the climb after you”. Indian mothers have a way of ignoring age, she was at least sixty and her kid would be my age. “I didn’t, there is no one around on the trail” I said, as a wave of panic swept across her eyes. “Maybe he went on the other trail up the waterfall?” “Oh yes, there he is, my child, waving at me”. You never stop being a mother, said mine once. Raju was fast asleep and we had to wake him up, knocking furiously on the windows. He looked refreshed; it had been two and a half hours since we left him at peace.
“Do you want to see the real mountainside?” Faced with such an existential question, my experience told me to nod. Raju is as rustic as one can get; rough and tough on the outside, and soft and gooey on the inside. And mindful of the fact that we were paying him top dollar, by his definition anyway, and he promised to make it worth the money. The concept of money and wealth is very urban; village-folk anywhere in the world get their basics right; never equate time with money, value a good night’s sleep, not a bank balance. Raju swung his jeep across the rickety gate that separates the village limits from the Bhadra reserve. We should have feared the worst when he said “typically, I don’t take this route if there was a family riding, but”.
There are two routes from Kemmangundi to Bababudangiri – the paved double lane that is 60kms long, or the 18km partly paved single lane cut across the hills, through the natural reserve, that only the locals or the truly lost seemed to take. Over the next 45 mins, we overtook two jeeps and a small car and passed a shuttle auto. Raju wanted us to have an “authentic mountain” experience, and that meant a minute of paved road followed by deft maneuvering across potholes, pebbles, and deep gashes on a non-existent pebble infested track that hugged the steep mountainside. The road snakes through some stunning scenery and tall mountains that jut out and end mysteriously in the strange moist and sweet fog, the sun plays hide and seek and turns the grass brown one minute and green the next, showing off bright flashes of silver as the rays bounce off some invisible mysterious objects far away. AP and me have survived each other on a million trips for the past 12 years, mainly through the art of keeping quiet. Pass me the water, I have to take a leak, I am hungry! Raju did all the talking, boasting about his driving skills while humming two decades old Hindi film songs and a decade old pop music, while we silently took in the sights and filled our lungs with the sweet mountain mist. Raju does 10-12 such trips a month and the surroundings must feel normal to him, just as a pub or an office feels to me. We take for granted what we are used to, that is the bane of our existence. Entertainment of the day was a risky overtaking maneuver which annoyed him, since he had to brake and slow down, activities he hates; a drunk driver, with four fully drunk ugly-looking pot-bellied men who were obviously lost and imagined this to be the main road to Chikmagalur asked Raju where they could borrow a 4-wheel drive. What they wanted to do with their tata indica and whether they made it alive to the town remains a mystery.
All proponents of the “Intolerance” debate must visit Bababudangiri or Dattapeetha, as it’s called by locals. Always a tinder-box, controversial, headline grabbing, a place of worship revered and claimed by both religions, and witness to several clashes over the years, our first experience with local passions had begun with a question the previous afternoon as we were driving through Chikmagalur town. Why were police and riot gear in full display, and why had they set up so many road blocks? At a particular junction, which we later learnt led to the shrine, there was a traffic jam a couple of miles long. Buses full of saffron shawl pilgrims waving orange flags contrasted with the green headgear. It was both eid and datta jayanti, on Christmas eve! The shrine was empty as we stepped in, relatively speaking, a policeman said it was bursting the previous day. "We had to lathicharge to control the crowds yesterday, the lines never stopped".
The shrine is a cave that worships, depending on who you talk to, Lord Dattatreya, Dada Hayath, the sufi saint Baba Budan, and may others. Within the cave, the first site is a dargah and the second is a formless image of Dattatreya, administered respectively by the two religions. We drank the holy water administered by the fakir, touched the image and paid our respects, and smeared the clay on our foreheads. Attendance was thin, but both religions paid obeisance at each other’ shrine. And it has been this way for as long as I can remember, said Raju. A German couple, who had found the shrine on tripadvisor and were brave enough to venture out, were very curious. The fakir called a lady and said “explain to them about Baba Budan”. “Touch the image and your prayers will be answered” said the priest, and AP translated, with due explanations. She was from Frankfurt, “I haven’t seen something like this in a long time”. Neither have I.
The peak of Bababudangiri is a further 3kms away, over steep hair-pins up the mountain, and sadly resembles a picnic spot. Hordes of families, plastic bottles and chips packets strewn, dirty clothes discarded all around, you get the drift. It is still a beautiful sight as one looks over the edge, the saffron flag fluttering at the cliff-top temple which is open on special days and can be reached only through steep stairs, must be a real treat for those who time it right. We hardly spent 15 mins at the lookout, the breeze was strong, and the people too many. We walked up and down the steep slopes and imagined what a trek up the base would take. Ten years ago, we might have actually done it, and I had climbed up the slope in my teens, but those were good times.
The base of Mullayanagiri peak is reached through an ever narrower road, about 8kms away. It is a surprise it can be reached at all by road, so steep is the drive and so exposed the road that a single twitch can send you down the scary slope. Raju laughed at the cars attempting the climb, betting which would get stuck at which turn, and he was bang on. Only the very brave or the really experienced drivers have the heart to drive to the top; I took one look down the slippery slope and the road ahead, and mumbled a quick prayer. Even a couple of off-road bikes had to ditch, but Raju motored on; after dropping us at the base, he had the energy to make a couple of quick trips, ferrying families up and down the last mile, charging 50 per head. Grinning ear to ear, and planning which arrack shop to hit that night.
From the base to the temple at the peak is a series of winding steps, which takes a toll on the knees and calves, rather than the lungs. AP felt the other way round, but we both made it to the temple in about eight minutes and two breathing breaks. At 6,330ft, it is the highest in Karnataka and deserves every accolade I ever read; the views from the peak on a bright day like this are worth all the pain and the horrid road. Six years ago, two young men climbed Adam’s peak in Srilanka in the middle of the night to feast on the most gorgeous sunrise I could ever imagine. The features on every mountain peak remain identical. Long hours of pain followed by the orgasmic thrill of actually being there, smelling the crisp mountain air, looking down at the slopes and waving at the faces laboring up the steps, celebrating with bars of chocolate and gallons of water, and those long moments of silence when you want to freeze that one moment and remember it as a highlight of your life. Mountains are exciting, they are a challenge, and Mullayanagiri certainly was one. Every mountain I climb, the same thought scares me; will I be fit enough to climb the next one?
There were about a million cars streaming up the narrow slopes as mid-day turned in to a beautiful evening, and we were lucky to escape the traffic jam on our way back. Raju laughed; “All you city-dwellers are responsible for this, imagine, a traffic jam here”. He believes the road should be blocked half-way and only the fit should be allowed to trek up. I can certainly see the merit in his argument, judging by the quantum of cars. “They are all rushing to watch the sunset, but you know what, you don’t see the setting sun from here, it is a classic tourist scam”, he said. Try explaining that to the hordes of tourists stuck in that five km long traffic jam. Evening falls quickly in the hills, and for my tired knees, it couldn’t come any sooner. Raju drove rather warily into the evening, actually braking a couple of times to let someone pass, so out of character. He must be tired; it had been a long day.
Evening was spent in the most interesting conversation I had for a long time. Next to the resort is a large farmland, I was fascinated by the striking red earth and started taking pictures. The farmer called out to me, asked where I was from, and we started talking; knowing the local lingo has its advantages. His story was one of extremes. A ten acre land divided among three families, enough to feed each but not much more, sons more interested in city life and alcohol than farming, and for good reasons; extremes of weather and prices. Potato sold at 25 a kg last year and at 5 a kg this year; rains that started as plenty tapered off right when you needed them; farm labor getting expensive every year, from 300 a day to 500 post MNREGA program; bore wells that keep getting deeper and deeper, 10 years ago at 100ft now 700ft; bank loans available in plenty and at lower rates as well, but no takers; “Where is the reward for my hard work?” he wailed. He is 47 and expects to die tilling his field, “If I don’t, who will? Not my sons”.
If the first hour was negative, the next was anything but. Ramesh owns an adjoining farmland, “that was my distant uncle you were talking to an hour ago” he started. These small town folk open up the minute they trust you, we city dwellers don’t unless our lives depend on it. “Proud of my farm, look around, I planted all these trees myself”. Arecanut trees and coffee inter-cropped in neat rows, hard labor paying dividends. His land is worth a decent 1cr today, and was bare just 7 years ago. 5-7 years it takes for arecanut to start yielding, and they yield for twice as long, three or four pluckings a year, all they need is water and fertilizer once they take root. Robusta coffee is true to its name, requires very little treatment, yields for 40 years, all it needs is shade and fertilizer. I hesitated while asking “how much does an acre yield in a year?” Ramesh was proud “8-10 lakhs after expenses in a good year”. The plants are his, maintenance expenses are his, he contracts out the farm every year to one of those estates which pay him by the yield. “I am thinking of selling my next year’s produce directly to the market in Chikmagalur, let me see what I can get”. This small town man dreams big, but entrepreneurs everywhere think alike. Risk and effort should have disproportionate rewards; only the financial world sees risk-free rewards, or is it reward-free risks?

Raju was happy as well, “made decent money today”, and at dinner, he was seen standing in for one of the resort help; they frequently help each other out, belonging to the same village. “I will sleep well today, tomorrow is another struggle”, he said before signing off. “What is happening in Bangalore, I heard you have pubs the size of dance floors? It must be fun!”. What we have, we take for granted. Pubs, forests, family, bank balance, health, a good night’s sleep. Life is all about choices. Raju his jeep and long drives to Mullayanagiri, Ramesh his farm and 2am watering alarm, AP his badminton, and yours truly, his travel, music and long runs. And a pledge to keep my sanity as China increasingly becomes the buzzword in global markets.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Vietnam - Part 2 - Dalat

Van called it the honeymoon capital of Vietnam - "It gets really cold, great weather to cuddle". Perched at a height of 1,500 meters in the central highlands and blessed with a year round temperate weather, the most striking feature of Dalat is its uncanny resemblance to a European town. A large man-made lake at the center of the town, gorgeous pine forests that dot the countryside, farms cut in to the steep hills, dazzling flower-shows, excellent local produce of fruits and vegetables, a golf course, streets lined with pubs and restaurants, a quaint old railway station with furniture from the 1900's and a toy train that runs on narrow gauge, and chateau styled villas at strategic corners! Of-course the town was built by the French, to escape the stifling summer heat down in the plains. Everyone comes here for their summer vacation, said Van. The joke is that Dalat has a population of 200,000, while in the summer it rises to a million, the rest are tourists.

It was the first day of my two-week group tour with www.straytravel.asia, which Kamal from www.takeabreak.in had assiduously researched, and built a three week program
around, when I went to him with a one-line request "Take me to Vietnam". We suit each other's needs, he uses me as a guinea-pig to test his partner network, and I trudge along, in the hope of digging out stories and interesting people. After what seemed like an hour finding the pick-up point early in the morning in HCMC, and it turned out to be a rather ramshackle backpackers' in a seedy part of the town, I had just settled down to grab a breakfast, when in walked Dean and Sandy, and out came Sandra from the dorm. Last to arrive were Billy and Van, our tour leader, and Mr.Cam the driver. "How many are we?" "Just the six of us till Hoi An, and then some more expected to join", chirped Van. The tourist season was yet to get going, and we were just the second bus of the season. So, 3 Kiwis, a German, an Indian, and 2 locals. All the usual suspects.

Dalat is about 300kms from HCMC, and it takes about 7 hours. The roads are decent, but progress is slow, and it takes some getting used to. If you do 40kmph on an average in Vietnam, you are lucky; the upside is you have lots of time to get familiar with your co-passengers. We passed through the plains, quietly rose up in to the highlands meandering through some dense forests and roads that hugged steep cliffs, drove through picturesque villages and farmlands, stopping for lunch at one of those scenic restaurants. The last 75kms in to Dalat were bone-jarring, the repairmen were out in full strength on the roads, but Mr.Cam kept a smile all through. We reached Dalat around 4pm, checked in to our hotel, where the manager said "No AC and no TV, you don't need them in this town". 

The beauty of a small town is one can walk through and explore, and all the sights are nearby. It was a Sunday evening, the city square was closed for traffic 7-11PM, and the skateboarders and walkers were out in full force. So were the street food vendors, and delightful aromas filled the walkways. The streets, as Van promised, were full of young couples, in layers of clothing, and holding hands, and we, a motley group of odd-looking tourists in shorts and t-shirts and soaking up the crisp hilly air, must have stuck out like a sore thumb. Surprisingly, very few foreigners were around. "I told you so" said Van, "this is the best time of the year to visit Vietnam, off-season prices and very little crowds", as she handed another rice crispy and noodle soup.

Hill towns have a certain old-world charm about them, Dalat is no exception. Time goes by slowly, people are friendlier, food tastes better, the air feels crisp, and one has more energy. It seemed to rub in on our group as well, Sandy dug out her lonely planet guide book the next morning at breakfast, Dean caught the waiter and extracted the "must-see" places in town, and I ate the largest breakfast I could remember. The benefit of group travel is you can always find someone with similar interests, and we quickly agreed on the plan for the day, and hired a taxi to ferry us around. Everything apparently was just 15 mins from the city center, or VND70,000 per ride. 

To the cable car, we asked the taxi driver. And will you wait for us to come back in a couple of hours? In 10 mins, we were buying a return ticket to "Truc Lam pagoda". The pagoda is on top of a far-away hill, and the narrow winding road is a favorite cycling trail for youngsters, Sandra choosing a day full of biking rather than tagging along with us. The cable car affords some spectacular views, with the city of Dalat on one side, thick pine forests on the other side, with the valley between the two hills full of small farms growing vegetables, and town-folk waving to us as they worked the fields. It was easily the best Monday morning in a long time. The mountain-top pagoda comes in to view as the cable car rises to the other hill, and you catch a glimpse of the magnificent blue lake at the station. Built in 1994 with golden and yellow arches, and bright red tiled roofs, the pagoda seems cut off from the world, and is incredibly peaceful, if not for the truck-load of Russian tourists who somehow thought ringing the large bell at the entrance was fun. We walked down a pathway that led to the lake, took in the sun and the surroundings, contemplated a boat ride, questioned why the Chinese would buy property in Auckland and the meaning of our lives, in that order, talked about our families and found common interests. And found to our surprise, the cab waiting at the exit. "I told you I will wait, so next to the Crazy house, right?" the driver said. 

When architect Dang Viet Nga started working on this project, it was apparently so controversial that local folk stonewalled the construction for years, relenting only after the Hanoi Govt. intervened. Look it up, and you will see why the guesthouse (yes, you can stay here, and it isn't very expensive, USD40 a night) frequently makes it to the "10 most bizzare buildings" list. Dreaming up something so convoluted, and unconventional, shaped like a giant tree is one thing, but incorporating all those natural elements in to its construction such as vines, spiders, snakes and ladders, elephant trunks, caves and nameless twisting forms, and making them look as if they belong in the structure is another thing altogether. They are still building elements as we speak, there are now 10-themed guest rooms, each named after an animal and resembling its den! We stumbled around, not knowing what to expect. The crazy house defies logic, but it is magical! Some love it, some hate it, but everyone wants to see more. Most agree they felt like a child, as they pass through the tunnels and enter the caves. All for VND40,000.

Another 10 mins drive and we were at the "Old French station", one of those colonial structures with a red tiled roof, large brown windows, and big brown furniture dating back centuries. Opened in 1938, and once part of the Dalat-Thap cham narrow gauge railway line 84kms long, it is today a joy-ride on a toy train. 20 mins in a rocking carriage brought us to the village of Trai Mat. The train emptied and the crowds started walking, Sandy's research did not say what to do in the village, but hard nosed tourists that we were, we sensed the crowd knew something we didn't. When a large Chinese contingent walks in a single line, you blindly follow. A 5 min walk got us to the "Linh Phuoc pagoda", a chinese influenced 7-storied structure with beautiful blue and white mosaics, great arches and bright colors, and a large standing Buddha in dazzling yellow. Carved ceilings, brightly painted walls, and a sitting Buddha in the main hall, surrounded by a large number of golden and jade Buddhas. Sometimes, you must toss away the guidebook and go with the flow, the thrill of discovery is so rare in this modern world, it must be cherished. On the way back, a Colombian guy with two beautiful Spanish girls from Mallorca on the train wanted to take a selfie with me. Apparently, I was the first Indian he ever met. The word "trail-blazer" comes to mind.

Dalat lake dazzles under the evening lights. The town spreads out from the lake, all the fine dining places are located on its shores, a beautiful pathway goes all around it, full of locals walking and running. It was 19C, and with a mild breeze, a beautiful evening. The market square which was bustling yesterday, was empty. It was just 630PM, but the locals knew rain was in the air. Halfway on my walk around the lake, a few drops and panicking locals and I knew the day was up. When was the last time I tasted rain drops so sweet? And why was I not tired after the exertions of the day? Why was I so excited on the toy-train, surely the Spanish women had nothing to do it! A few streaks of lightning and a low rumble drove me inside a pub, and it turned out to be an authentic Thai offering. Tom Yum Kung and Pad Thai in Vietnam? But that is what travel does, serves up experiences that you can never imagine. Vietnamese coffee and walnut cake at a delightful road-side deli, while a light drizzle left the roads with that misty sweet aroma of fresh earth. The hotel manager was right, you don't need the AC or the TV in Dalat. But you definitely need a blanket.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Vietnam - Part 1 - First look and Ho Chi Minh city

I love the window seat. On flights, trains, buses, everywhere I go. You can rest your head as you sleep, you don't have people stepping on your feet as they get up and down, you don't have to worry about your handbag, safe as it is under your feet, you don't have to talk to your neighbors, the stewards make an extra effort to feed you, and best of all, you never get bored peering down at the landscape below, and can take as many pictures as you wish. Kids making a racket behind you, peer down. A young couple getting dirty on the next seat, peer down. Boring love stories playing on in-flight entertainment, peer down. Forgot to pack your book, peer down. The key to a successful "window seat" experience though is to use the bathroom before you board the flight. 

All I could see from my window for an hour after we took off from KL was the blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand. Then the muddy, brown flat lands shaped by the great Mekong river, the lifeline of much of South East Asia, and the little villages fed by the soil and silt it deposits. It is an incredibly flat terrain, with the Mekong snaking its way through the landscape, its brown waters broken by the yellow and green paddy fields, and the red and blue tiles of the villages. Ho Chi Minh city announces its arrival by its skyscrapers as the flight starts circling into descent. It looks large and wide, its 10Mn population spread across 24 districts making it the largest city in the country. It was raining on one side of the city as we landed, and it was bright and sunny the other part, with a rainbow beginning to form at the horizon. Welcome to Vietnam.

Immigration was quick and easy. I got my visa sticker, was asked to go to the last counter, but the guy waved me to the next, although it was empty. And so on, each immigration official waving me to the next counter. They were all empty. And the guy at the first counter again asked me to go to the last. I smiled and said they sent me here. He smiled and stamped my passport, and out I was. As I kept looking out of the cab on my way to downtown Saigon and my hotel, two things stood out; the yellow French bungalows reminding one of the history of Saigon as the capital of French Indochina, and the innumerable 2-wheelers that seemed to occupy every inch of the road. 

My hotel guide suggested a walk in the afternoon and an umbrella. It was hot, humid and bright, but in exactly 10 mins, in rolled a thunderstorm that lasted about 20 mins. Typical Saigon weather in the rainy season, said the Brit with whom I ended up sharing a narrow strip of shade during the storm. Saigon is a bustling city, and it seems there are as many motorbikes as humans. "Beware when you cross the road" warned the traffic policeman, seeing my camera, is there a bigger touristy giveaway? Huh, you want to advise an Indian about traffic? I have seen it all and driven on far worse roads and traffic, I said to myself. And promptly got caught at a crossing, with only a kind old woman saving me from being driven over. Saigon bikers do not obey any rules, or signals. The key, as the old woman taught me, is to keep moving ahead with a wave of your hand, and they will drive around you. A t-shirt summed it well "If it's green, I cross. If it's red, even then I cross". I didn't see much of the city except downtown, I just had one night before starting my journey across the country. But there were truckloads of backpackers, with as many pubs and street joints dotting the city. Fish and chips, a beer and dessert for $5. If this was any indication of what the food cost, I had changed too many dollars at the airport.

Vietnam was the only country is South-East Asia I hadn't set foot on. Over the past decade, and over the course of many travels, I had ticked off much of the region, including Cambodia in 2014, which was at the top of my bucket list, especially Angkor Wat. You've seen one, you've seen them all, I said. And how different could Vietnam be, I reasoned and pushed it to the back of my list. AP asked me the exact same question. Kamal from takeabreak.in designed a terrific road trip and convinced me it was worth the money. I think he uses me as a guinea pig to discover new destinations; I love it. It is a win-win relationship.

The intriguingly S-shaped country is roughly 3,500kms long, of which I would cover two-thirds. The two major cities Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city officially, but everyone calls it Saigon) and Hanoi are 1,800kms apart, and connected by a ram-rod straight highway that hugs the coast. 50kms narrow at it's center and expanding to 600kms wide up north, Vietnam is uniquely diverse. Over the next two and a half weeks weeks, our www.straytravel.asia tour bus passed through cities, river deltas, central highlands, sublime coastline, sheer cliffs, dense tropical forests, and some of the largest paddy fields, stretching as far as the eye can see. We hiked through mountains, discovered pretty towns and lakes, drove though roads that seemed to drop off the face of the earth, explored huge cave systems, walked across ancient capitals and pagodas, and criss-crossed wild and dense national parks. We tasted an incredible variety of street food and sampled the culture, with different influences ranging from Khmer in the south to French and Chinese in the north. And experienced both the best and worst of the weather, hot and humid, wet and tropical, cool and misty, calm and serene. And got caught in typhoon "Vamco", which briefly threatened to ruin our trip. Three weeks which I would look back fondly as incredibly exciting. Sometimes, and only sometimes, whims turn out right. I love telling stories, and my three weeks in Vietnam had many.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Turkey - Part 8 - Cappadocia

It was unreal, almost alien. Behind me stood a flat pale brown expanse, with a tall white mountain at the horizon jotting up high in to the crystal clear sky. Ahead were these strange yellow and black phallus like structures, stretching as far as the eye could see. Some formed part of a range that extended up the hillside; others were just monoliths pointing to the sky. If you woke me up and said this was Mars,  it wouldn't be so far-fetched, some of the Hollywood depictions have been far more earth-like. Probably because our imagination is grounded. It did not "feel" normal. Only the arches and squares cut in to the almost indistinguishable houses, built into the strange looking hill indicated human activity. Along with the ubiquitous bright red Turkish flag flapping in the wind. This was Cappadocia.

The shock was even more intense, since I hardly had a glimpse of the landscape the previous evening, courtesy Turkish airlines. Foolishly, I had chosen to fly from Antalya to Istanbul, and then to Kayseri, the nearest airport to Cappadocia. I admit, I  had doubts right from the start. Antalya and Kayseri were 600kms apart, 8 hours at a stretch by road. I could have taken an overnight bus. No, there is a connecting flight, it takes just 2-1/2 hours, and it costs roughly the same, said my local agent, and I caved. I took 5 internal flights in a fortnight in Turkey, none of them ever took-off, or landed on time. There are no apologies offered, the captain blames the traffic congestion or late incoming flight. And this is across all airlines. We in India take punctual flight arrivals for granted, atleast in recent times. My flight was delayed by 8 hours, first because the incoming flight from Istanbul was late by 2 hours, which meant I couldn't make the connection, and the next flight to Kayseri was 4 hours away, and it landed 2 hours late. So much for a 2-1/2 hour flight. I landed at 11.30pm at Kayseri, and the drive to Cavusin where I was staying was an hour. It was pitch dark, I cursed myself every minute the whole day, and the camera I had carried in my backpack felt heavy. Thank god for the airport pick-up. They had no choice, there were five of us arriving in Kayseri on various flights, and not one of them was on time. No more internal flights wherever I go, I promised. But the pain had its benefits.

Cappadocia is a high-altitude plateau, semi-desert like, and lies dead-center in the Turkish heartland. And it is as distinct from the rest of the country as it can get, both in terms of landscape as well as culture. The name is Persian, "Katpatuka" meaning "the land of horses"; and even today, farms across the region have stables, and the Cappadocian horse is highly prized. The region is believed to have been continuously occupied since 6C BC, it is hot and dry in the summers, and it snows here in the winters. The rest of the country I had seen over the past fortnight was green and fertile. This was more central Asia steppes, low mountain chains, large rolling grasslands, and sparsely populated. Even the dogs looked different. Large and fierce. The one guarding my hotel was called Chet, it looked like a husky, and had piercing blood red eyes. But an ear tickle and a belly rub, and we were friends.

The province of Cappadocia is famous for its natural wonders - the geological rock formations. Millions of years of volcanic activity and erosion by elements have left the whole area pock-marked with strange pillars and minarets, rock formations that defy imagination, craters and valleys that stretch for miles, and soil with colors that change depending on the time of the day. Inhabitants over centuries have built churches, monasteries and dwellings into the hills, these rock-cut structures add to the topography; unlike our modern cities, they feel a natural part of the surroundings, and at first glance, you would have trouble distinguishing the natural from the human-built.

Our group the next two days was all South-Asian. Two Chinese couples on their honeymoon, and who hadn't heard that temperatures here soar to 41 degrees, a Japanese family, a globe-trotting Vietnamese couple, and me. We were on the grand tour, and our accents were driving the guide nuts. After a brief period of struggle, he lost patience and said "no more questions, I will talk and explain, and you will go along and see what you want". Worked really well. It was a blistering day, but there were hardly any tourists around. The caves are much cooler and they stay at the same temperature through the day, said the guide. No wonder people built cities in the caves.

We started with one of the underground cities which were built by the early Christians to escape persecution, complete with houses, temples and schools, and even ventilation systems. The next stop was "Uchisar castle", with its rooms and windows cut into the rock, and rising higher than the surrounding flatland, it is worth the climb for the great views it offers of the region, and is a fantastic photo joint. At the abandoned 2C AD Greek village of "Cavusin", with its hillside monasteries, houses and cave systems, we saw what the guide meant. The caves were clearly much cooler than outside, and even seemed to have a slight breeze. And dampness, it was summer!"Devrent valley" with its red, pock-marked lunar landscape and rock formations that resemble animals, was puzzling. It is a large valley and all around are strange formations that defy gravity. Eons of erosion by wind and water have left these incredible contortions that at first instance look brilliantly carved. The guide would point at one of these structures, and say "doesn't it look like a camel?" and we would go "yes, yes, there's a camel". But it worked only when he suggested an animal. The human mind is incredibly susceptible.

The mushroom shaped fairy chimneys at "Pasabag" or "Monk's valley" are almost religious; cones of two or three rock pillars, standing on almost polished trunks, and they in turn on mounds of rock rising in to the sky. The monks and hermits who built the chapels at the top of the 20m chimney must have felt cut-off from the world, one could sit at his window and see the valley, the rocks and the sunset and feel at peace. 

The most spectacular of them all are the frescos and rock-cut churches of the "Goreme open air museum", a UNESCO world heritage site. One of the largest cave dwelling complexes in the world, this area is full of subterranean cities, churches and monasteries cut in to the hills that date back to 4C AD, and is one of the earliest instances of the spread of Christianity in the country. The constructions are so harmonious with the setting and the rock formations, not even an inch feels out of place. Spectacular remnants of an ancient civilization that flourished in this out-of-world setting between the 4C to 12C AD. I am not a religious man, but these monasteries perfectly belong in these volcanic valleys and ridges. God must exist, no human can even imagine this landscape, less alone build it. 

More evidence of me growing old turned up that morning. We were at Pasabag, and our group was passed by a beautiful woman, wearing a flowing red Turkish dress, with a paltan of cameramen and assistants. Is she getting married? No, she is not Turkish, it seems there is a photo-shoot, said the guide. I stood a handshake away and stared at that chiseled face, a face i knew i had seen before, but couldn't place to save my life. I took a couple of photographs, and she was posing for the shoot. Our group went around the place, and on our way back, she was still on the rocks, in the hot sun. The two parts of my brain however, weren't jelling. "Who was she, and where had I seen her?" We went off to lunch, where a beer and a delicious turkey meant the question faded away, till I wound up on the flight back home two days later, reading an Indian magazine, and she was on the cover. Nargis Fakri, in flesh and blood, a handshake away, without crowds mobbing her, and I couldn't place her. That's middle age, and the transition is scary. Better bring out the bucket-list. I bet this wouldn't have happened a year ago. Maybe the place had something to do with it.

Ozcan, my guide in Antalya is from Cappadocia, and he had warned me "either you will love it or hate it". It is such a bewildering landscape that your senses aren't sure, and your mind refuses to believe it exists. Once you settle down though, Cappadocia has many activities for the adventure-seeking. Humongously expensive hot-air balloon rides, farms that offer horse-back tours, and buggy travel expeditions. And cave hotels, where even in summer, air-conditioning feels unnecessary. My room at the hotel at Cavusin, "Rose valley house" had neither a fan nor an AC, and I felt the need for neither. The attractions in this province are very real, and Turkish tourism does a great promotion. They have built perfect infrastructure even in this heartland, so spaced out and different from the rest of the country. When do we in India learn? Where there is infrastructure, there go the tourists. And it is all about choice. If I am spending good money, it better be worth it.

My last night in Turkey ended very much the same way as the first; politics and beer, over a multi-course home-cooked dinner. A continuous thread ran through each of the discussions over the fortnight and all those places I stayed in; opinionated, hot-headed locals pleading for moderation, employment, lower prices and a stable political system. "We don't want violence, we want jobs and stability". In a country where 40% of the population depends on agriculture and tourism, it is a powerful voice. Moderation and development, not violence. The re-run vote takes place on 1 Nov. Will the next Govt. listen?

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Turkey - Part 7 - Perge - Side - Aspendos

Why does Turkey have such a large number of ancient sites of historical importance? Geography must certainly play a role, the country is strategically located, a bridge between Europe and what was then known as Asia-minor, that the large European Greek and Roman empires strove to control large parts of the Aegean and Mediterranean coast, which is where most of the ancient sites have been discovered so far, ranging from 3C BC to 5C AD. Countless migrations and reigns of occupation by various populace starting with the Greeks, Romans, Lydians, Persians, Byzantines, Seljuks and Ottomans have left their myriad influences on architecture, religion and history. Meanwhile, the less-explored Eastern parts of the country are now turning up evidence of even ancient neolithic sites, particularly the recent discovery of Gobekli Tepe, possibly the earliest known ritual temple belonging to 10C BC. And the beautiful part is, each of these sites is so dramatically different in nature, spread, architecture, construction and occupants, inspite of belonging roughly to the same period. 

I was barely coming to terms with the cultural legacy of the country, hopping from Troy to Ephesus, Hierapolis to Antalya, too much to take in such a short period of time. Imagine my distrust when I found my 65 year old guide saying "Perge-Aspendos are the best preserved examples of Greek-Roman cities in all of Turkey". Tourism hard-sell or enthusiasm undimmed by age? 

The earliest recorded archaeological finds at Perge, a large city in the region of ancient Pamphylia, about 15 kms away from Antalya, and located on a coastal plain between two rivers, date back to 5C BC. Continuous habitation from 3C BC, colonization by Greek migrants, influences from Lydian and Persian kingdoms, and finally Roman empire in 4C AD have left well-preserved ruins of a large, well-planned city. There are references to Alexander in 330 BC, the mathematician Apollonius of 200 BC and St.Paul in 50 AD. Not 2C AD, 2C BC the guide kept repeating through the day! And with good reason, for the mind often skips over minor details, like a couple of centuries, when faced with 2500 years of history.

What you see at Perge are endless rows of tall columns spread out in all directions, in well-spaced parallels and perpendiculars, flanking paved streets and surrounded by evenly spread stone walls on one side and open spaces on the other. The main street extends for about 1-1/2 kms through the ruins, while the one-story high walls point to large establishments, houses and store areas, extending about 400m in width. Thousands of other columns and carved stones are strewn around the whole city. Water channels run parallel to the main street, stretching from the "Fountain of Aeropolis" through the city, and extending up to the hill side. Some of the columns have inscribed arches, many of the walls and gateways are curved, most of the standing constructions are a story high, except the guard towers which are possibly two stories. Some of the columns are carved with animal figurines and the agora is a rather large round structure at the center of the ruins. Excavations were ongoing, and the team said they were waiting for permission to work on the surrounding fields, which were now privately owned and the Govt. was negotiating with the owners. Meanwhile, a Bollywood crew were filming a song, blaring music from loud speakers, and flimsily clad local artistes were cavorting on one of the structures. Indian movies shot in an ancient ruins in Turkey? 

Look at the details of the plan of the city, my guide exhorted. And tell me, does it not point to the existence of a large, important city? Look at the arches and the columns, the huge walls and the water canals, does it not support my thesis of a large population? 2C BC, not AD. Yes sir, but please explain how a Indian film crew gets permission to dance on the temple pedestal, while a team of local archaeologists wait patiently for Govt.'s permission? Well, we have so many ruins that we do not care to preserve them, said the guide. See those fields around, they are growing millet right on 2500 years of history. India and Turkey seem to have a lot in common, ancient history and disregard for it included.

Our group today was as diverse as it could get. A Lebanese mother-daughter pair, a Saudi Arabian male nurse, a Libyan and a Syrian who had met in Istanbul and were now traveling together, a German family and an Italian couple, plus the usual Aussie group of two couples. And me. Whenever there are Aussies, you get good conversation, this time about American politics and Chinese buying property in Brisbane. But the Saudi nurse was chatty as well, he was the first from his country any of us had ever met, and we launched a volley of questions. The guide said during the season, the largest groups were the Germans. Analya, about an hour's drive from the town, had 60,000 German settlers. And Antalya had a lot of Russians buying property. Why sir, asked the nurse. 300 days of sunshine, a land rich in agricultural produce, a city not as crowded as Istanbul and nicer to live, plus a unique history to boot. Mark my words, Antalya will be the second largest city in the country five years, whenever money and people flow in, development is not far behind, thundered the guide. That you have right, chimed Rachel and Mike, look at what's happening to the once sleepy city of Brisbane. I could have said that's the story all over India, but it seemed pointless.

We drove for 45 mins to the resort town of Side, one of the best known classical sites on the coast, and as old as 7C BC, again courtesy the guide. We drove through the main street in town, lined with ruins of homes and shops, some of which still have fragments of their original tiles, below city gates with arches notable of which is the "Vespasian gate", down to the ancient city and the beach. Continuous settlements from Alexander's time in 3C BC to the Romans in 4C AD, a large trading population and a naval defense port have led to a large spread of ruins in the ancient city, separated by a wall and a moat from the mainland. The city walls are extremely well preserved, the theater not so much, crumbling yet large, couple of temples and a hospital of which the walls and a part of the stone roof remains. The most important structure though is the "Temple of Apollon" with its five tall standing columns and a part of the roof and facade, right on the edge of the beach. But what Side is today, is a successful resort town. The harbor street and the main square are full of street restaurants, vendors hawking everything from Gucci to Rolex, and crowds of tourists, most of them seemed Russian. As Rachel said, "well, we have finally landed at the most touristy and crowded ruins in all of Turkey". The tourism takes a lot away from the feel of the ruins and history, which take a distinct backseat to commerce. Maybe that's the way to draw crowds. The guide did not even bother to step out of the bus, "I hate this place, 5000 years of history and we have reduced it to pubs and hotels, and gucci". But it's a thriving town, the no-vacancy board at several hotels were the first I had seen in two weeks. Maybe all the Russians congregate here. Would I spend 2 hrs driving up and down from Antalya to Side? Yes, but that's me.

It had been 5 hours since we started from Antalya, and lunch was at a lovely riverside restaurant on the way to Aspendos. Turkish lunches are huge spreads, you have a table full of protein, vegetables and greens, bread, rice, fruits, and desserts. Is it just the restaurants or do you eat this at home? Yes, we do, said the guide. Food is a very important part of our culture, and we have multi-course meals. That explains why in summer, villages are deserted from 12-2pm. Rightly so. The river fish was succulent, the bread freshly baked, vegetables amazingly flavored, watermelon and oranges very fresh. I told you, Antalya has some of the best produce in the country, chimed the guide. Does the tour come with a siesta, we could use one. Rachel needed no prodding to launch in to Australian politics, and the exploits of her kids. Mothers everywhere are the same, proud and emotional. The Aussie couples were on the exact same itinerary as mine, 2 days behind. I told them my stories, obviously embellished with my exploits. They promised to reveal Greece's secrets, their next stop. The Saudi nurse tried to explain why he was majoring in obstetrics. Female anatomy eh! The German family muttered about visiting Analya. It was a delightful lunch.

A drive of 30 mins through beautiful countryside and crossing traces of what looked like a large river brought us to Aspendos. From the same period as Side, and populated from 500 BC, the city is known as the site of the best preserved ancient theater in the country. Built sometime around 160 AD, the acoustics of the theater are of such quality that it hosts the "Aspendos international opera and ballet festival" every year, and boasts of attendance up to 10,000. Seven stories high at the main entrance with the back resting against a hill, the two-storied high stage was originally covered with marble pillars, of which only their base now remains. 40 free-standing columns support the theater at the back. Large arched windows at the top let the breeze in, a sort of natural air-conditioning, and the festival is apparently quite famous in these parts. Why and how did this particular theater, among all the others I had seen across the country over the past two weeks, survive in this pristine mint condition, I have no clue. Neither did the guide, but he was very proud of it.

A rather difficult climb up the hill at the back of the theater leads to an upper city and a lower city. The "Basilica" at the top of the hill affords excellent views of the surrounding hills, fields and traces of the river, and if one looks closely, once can see glimpses of free-standing aqueducts, two-stories high and once 15 kms long, which carried water up to the hill-top city. Roman engineers were rather ingenuous, the water went down and then up. The upper city has enough traces of paved walkways, arched gates and other architecture for us to imagine a population once thrived here. But Aspendos is all about the theater. The climb up the theater steps, the hill and the upper city, and 38C weather left even the Indian and the Saudi, naturally accustomed to heat, panting. We split an orange juice and discussed religion. And Turkish women. And marveled at the magnificent history and cultural heritage of the land. The guide was right, the country had so many ancient ruins that it is difficult to track all of them. Three in a day, and I was struggling to keep up and remember the sequence. Which one did I enjoy the most? Difficult choice, but Perge. Good enough for Bollywood, good enough for me.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Turkey - Part 6 - Antalya

"From there I went to Antalya, a most beautiful city. It covers an immense area, and though of vast bulk is one of the most attractive towns to be seen anywhere, besides being exceedingly populous and well laid out. Round the whole town and all the quarters mentioned there is another great wall. The town contains orchards and produces fine fruits" - Ibn Battuta - 1340 AD. I concur.

The tour company missed my pick-up from Pamukkale. After an agonizing 2-1/2 hr wait at the hotel, multiple calls back and forth between Onur my local contact, Kamal my India contact, and the local tour company, the reason I was given was "driver family problem". As cooked-up as it can get. But in my 10 yrs of travel, I have heard most of them. They offered to put me on a public bus, and said it would be very comfortable. I did not protest, I like public transport, you get to see more of the countryside, you hear some local stories, and make a few friends if you are lucky. So instead of being picked up at 9AM on a private car from Pamukkale, I was put on a nice-looking public AC bus to Antalya. It is clean, has food, water and wifi, said the friendly bus driver in broken english.

For 40 lira, 4 hrs and 250 kms, I would take the bus any day. The changes in the landscape are intriguing. From high flat grasslands, we passed through several low mountain ranges and shrub land, the land turning from brown to green, with increasing vegetation. Then came a stretch of immense green plains, with lots of fields at the foot of barren, brown, almost dry hills up to Yazir, where from where the road snakes through "Gulluk Dagi Termessos Milli national park". Thick dense forest, temperate and stunningly green, with sheer cliffs and narrow ravines accompanying the road, and mountain rivers and lakes dotting the landscape. So they do have forests in Turkey, do they large large animals? The end of the national park marks the first signs of the city of Antalya.

With a history dating back to 200BC when it was established by King Attalos the second of the Pergamon dynasty, and passing through Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, Antalya is a flourishing town with gorgeous Mediterranean weather, and an important naval base from historical times and has a rich history. As resort towns go, it is as pretty as it gets. The old town is charming, with its rows of brightly colored houses, cobbled narrow lanes, street restaurants and pubs, and heritage houses converted in to hotels. The new town  with its beaches surrounded by mountains, rows of expensive looking beach-front villas and resorts, well-manicured streets, those beautiful trams that run through the roads, and a large floating population give it a European feel. 12.5 million tourists visited Antalya in 2014, all prices are quoted in euros, so we know where most of them were from.

The old city has a lot to offer in terms of history, and my guide much more. Ozcan was probably the most outspoken and interesting tour guide over the fortnight. We walked and he talked. I had to prod him and he would go off on a long soliloquy about the history, economy, people, politics and so on. The city center of Antalya with the Ottoman era clock tower, the beautiful "Cumhuriyet square", the 2C AD "Hadrian's gate", the Old city walls and the various guard towers, several mosques including the beautiful "Yivli minare" and "Mehmet Pasha" - a long hoop of the old city takes a good 4-5 hours, a great way to spend an afternoon, ending with a beautiful sunset at the port. As with the old, the new city is best explored by foot or by tram. It is obviously touristy, but doesn't feel so. 

But the best part of the two days was Ozcan. If ever I would pray for a guide, it would be him. Emotional, opinionated, and chatty. I would ask him a question and he would take off for the next 20 mins, managing to walk at a brisk pace, and pointing out several ancient architecture along the way. "Economy is not doing well at all, look at lira falling below USD3, this tourist season is terrible, that is Mehmet Pasha mosque built in 18th century, look at the beautiful minarets, politics is taking a heavy toll on tourism, i will ensure both my sons have a good education and learn english". He is from Cappadocia where his farming family ekes out an existence "agriculture doesn't pay the bills, we hardly save, most Turkish families today are stopping at two kids, it is so expensive to rent in cities". 

I asked him why there was so much strife in Turkey in the last three months, and he blames politics and misguided, under-educated population. The last elections threw-up a fractured mandate, and the November re-elections will be no better, all parties use war and violence to further their own agendas, he says. "Look at what war mongering has done to tourism this year". Last year, he had 5 walking tours a week, this year maybe 1 in 3, partly violence and negative media in Turkey, and partly fall in ruble. Russian tourists dominate the Aegean and Mediterranean coastline, and they have been conspicuous by their absence, I hardly saw any in the last 10 days. "Turkey is a secular republic and this is our biggest strength, but people refuse to grow up, we need more education and move away from religious fanaticism", he goes on. "What are we passing on to our kids?" he wails with tears streaming down his face. He makes USD900 a month and saves a bit for family, and says that's barely enough. Hasan in Istanbul said USD1000  a month was the minimum to live in Istanbul. "I will never go to Istanbul" says Ozcan, too crowded, too expensive, too touristy. I invite him to India. He says some day, we exchange numbers and part and I feel a twinge of regret. 

I retraced the old city the next evening and walked the new city, along the tram lines, beaches, hip resorts and villas, parks with stunning views of the beach, the markets and the squares. The long "Konyaalti avenue" is beautiful in the evenings. The roads were busy, but the restaurants and pubs were empty. The days were sunny at 38C, not too hot for an Indian, and the evenings were breezy and crisp. The locals complain of crowds, and with a lot of migration from surrounding provinces, in spite of the rich agricultural lands, Antalya is now 2Mn strong, the largest city along the coastline, and tourism and infrastructure seem to have kept pace. But as everyone said, this year was terrible for tourism and footfalls have fallen to less than a third, so have my tips. "We need moderation and acceptance, not extremism" said Ozcan. I wish you peace and happiness my friend. They are in short supply in the world. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Turkey - Part 5 - Hierapolis - Pamukkale

Cotton castles - hot springs with medicinal properties - Limestone walls hanging off cliff-side - Ancient Greco-Roman city built high up on the hillside - travertine terraces - underground volcanic activity - UNESCO World heritage site. It seemed Pamukkale-Hierapolis had it all, if one were to go by the travel brochure. Surely they couldn't have made it all up, however much you may want to discount tourism hard sell. Another heritage site after Ephesus, and from the same period? I wasn't sure, but the Argentine-Spanish couple on my group tour to Gallipoli said it was mighty impressive.

It creeps up on you. Kusadasi & Silcuk are classic agrarian counties with fertile soil, large green expanses and incredible produce. As you drive along the excellent highway to Denizli province, the sense is that you are climbing, but you are not really sure. Youngsters in the coach helps to while away time, I had 3 young Aussie girls on their break-year, and two Italian couples for company. Green fields are replaced by high brownish grasslands, surrounded by mountains on the horizon, with the soil alternating between brownish grasslands and pale green fields. In 200kms and 3hrs, we had gone from facing the Aegean sea to the rich volcanic terrain of the "River Menderes" valley. Turkey has a very diverse landscape, and I was seeing quite a bit of it as the river "meanders" around.

A few minutes out of the pretty town of Pamukkale, and you sense something isn't right. The sign says the ancient ruins of Hierapolis, but all I saw were those giant white fields of cotton, quite out of place on a steep hillside. It is noon, and the harsh summer sun creates the perfect illusion, and it takes a while for the mind to get accustomed to the brightness. It is the creamiest white, glistens under the bright sun, throws camera angles out of whack, and hides everything behind it. Where were the ruins?

The hot springs and calcium terraces are the main reason the city of Hierapolis was built. Used as medicinal spas since 2C BC and arising out of volcanic activity in the region, the great baths and pools led to the rise of the city on the steep terraces, overlooking the surrounding valley and the lake, about 500 metres high. The highest point on the surrounding hills, on a clear day as this one, one can see as far as 30 kms on all sides, said my guide. Medicinal pools and natural protection afforded by the terrain and steep slopes. The cotton candy can apparently be seen from the town of Denizli, 25kms away. 

Hierapolis is a large hillside Greek-Roman town, built sometime in the 2C BC and thrived till the 14C AD, when it was finally abandoned. The natural springs and hot baths, with continuous rebuilding of the earthquake prone settlements, ancient Greek reliefs and a Roman city layout makes it a perfect walking terrain. They hand out maps of the ruins with prominent locations at the main entrance; it makes eminent sense to follow the path from the "South Roman gate" to the "Northern necropolis". You will need a cap, glasses, and lots of water, it gets stifling hot and most of us ended up shirtless by the time we got back.

They are ruins, for you don't expect any man-made structure, so high up in the hills and exposed to the elements to survive 2000 years. The ancient city is half-preserved, so what you see are great baths around which city life must have revolved, for the views from here are stunning to say the least; you also see the still-standing large gates "Domitian" and "Frontinus" at two ends of the city, the theater whose main facade still exists, with probably the best views for miles, some of the central temples of which a few pillars, the back wall, some inscriptions and arches remain. The large agora or market-place, the pillars and large base of the gymnasium and latrines, and the nymphaeum from which water pipes snake away to various points in the city show details and organization. The tombs found in the two Necropolis, built with limestone and marble are well-preserved and indicate a large population either lived or died here, probably the latter.

Tourists flock to "Cleopatra's pool" with its rumored cures for everything under the sun, and the terrace pools, which extend almost the entire length of the ancient city and cover the slopes in dazzling white. Hot springs, calcium carbonate and limestone, and volcanic activity react in ways only scientists can understand; what they leave behind is a natural wonder, about a km and a half long and 300m wide stretch of water, in great white pools. I can see why the ancient people believed they could cure any disease; so much so that they came here to die from the surrounding lowlands. If god created these wonders, surely they must have some use for humans. 

The guide was smart. He gave us a short history of the place, pointed some places on the map, and left us alone. Only fools walk around when it is 40 degrees with no breeze, but tourists and foolhardy goes hand in hand. The theater looks an easy climb, but the mind tricks the eye. It is an uphill climb and takes at least 2 bottles of water, but the views and the breeze that mysteriously appears at the top makes it worth the effort. And your sweat-drenched clothes dry in exactly 5 mins in the breeze, as long as you hold them up to the sun. I can almost believe that the views from up here extend for 30kms, as the guide claimed. The oldies among us seemed to have more energy than the youngsters, they just laid down in the pools while a few enterprising 35-yr singletons like me ended up walking to the north gate, the still-unnamed structure on the side of the cliff and the necropolis, climbed up the theater, went all the way round the cotton fields to the other side of the city, and still had energy to enjoy the ice-cream show. Don't miss the Turkish ice-cream stalls at the entrance after your walk, it is intensely soothing and the hawkers put on quite a show, it is almost a performance. The Chinese loved it, they were shooting videos.

Only one question remained unanswered. Where did Hierapolis get its water supply from, surely the natural springs weren't enough for such a large city and a floating population, and there were enough pipes running around to suggest an efficient water system existed here. My guide shrugged. It was hot, we were tired, and the Italian couples had a bus to catch. The Aussie girls were majoring in fashion and showed off some of their designs. All I had energy for was to check-in at the hotel in Pamukkale and sleep through. Ah, what would I give to be 20 again? Or would I? Is it better to be young, poor and full of dreams, or middle-aged, moderately rich and world-weary? Time is cruel, you blink and a decade has passed. Another reminder that what matters is the present, and you have to make the best use of it. And I was.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Turkey - Part 4 - Ephesus & Kusadasi

Any self-respecting Turkey travel brochure has two constants - The Blue mosque towering over the Bosphorus in Istanbul, and the Library of Celsus in Ephesus. One of the most photographed images in the country, the facade of the library is featured on a 20 lira note, draws a million visitors to Efes, the Turkish name for the Greek site Ephesus, a UNESCO world heritage site. I had been to the first, now it was time to head to the second.

A short flight from Istanbul brought me to Izmir, from where the beach resort of Kusadasi beckoned. Izmir airport looks shiny, under-utilized, and over-staffed - my driver said it serves primarily as a connection to Kusadasi, for the "rich Russians" and Ephesus. The drive is spectacular, with a hilly landscape, distinctly Mediterranean feel, and fabulous roads. The town of Kusadasi bursts into view, hidden behind the hills, with a gorgeous sea-front, beach villas, promenade, cafes and pubs, pretty at sunset and dazzling at night. It looks like a rich man's vacation paradise, and acts like one. Expensive, full of tourists, prices quoted in euros, although my driver said this year has been terrible due to ruble depreciation. "Russians splurge, while the Europeans are cost-conscious". The Byzantine castle just a few meters in the sea, on Pigeon island is the prettiest sight at night. The Russians obviously disagree.

While Kusadasi flaunts its riches, I was here for Ephesus. Nizam picked me up from my hotel, took one look at the port, where three cruise ships were docked, and said "looks like a good day, not too much traffic". Apparently, Kusadasi is a major port for cruise ships, and in the peak season, which was now, 10-15 ships line the port, with all those aboard making way to Ephesus. "Gets very crowded, all you see in your photographs are heads!" Our tour bus had 15, 3 Kenyans, some Americans, couple of Spanish, some locals from Istanbul on holiday. 

The drive to Ephesus took 20 mins, and on the way, we passed several boards with directions to Efes 1,3,5. The history of this site extends back to 10C BC, and settlements kept shifting and are still being discovered, resulting in the curious numbering. Natural disasters, numerous earthquakes, wars, destruction and reconstruction, and only partial excavation makes the site, and the area around Selcuk village a hotbed of history. The site of Ephesus started in the Bronze age, with several burial sites and pottery fragments discovered recently, rose to prominence with the Greeks, had its golden moments during the Roman era, and today is one of the best preserved Roman site in Turkey. The history and construction extended in to the Byzantine era, when an earthquake and silting up of the harbor led to a gradual decline and abandonment of the town by the 9C AD.

It was 36 degrees and there was no breeze. But Nizam kept saying it is one of those better days, and we should see as much as possible before the lazy cruise crowds came in around lunch. A good guide can add a lot to a tour, and Nizam was the best guide I had the whole fortnight. If you are around the area, ask for him, it is worth the effort. There is a lot to see here, and the history is unbelievable. And do listen to your guide, for they are walking encyclopedias. The location itself is special, flanked between the steep slopes of Bulbul Dagi mountain on one side, the public spaces and buildings extending on the other side, and descending all the way to where the harbor once was; natural protection and access to the sea made Ephesus one of the largest city of Roman Asia minor.

You get an idea of the spread of the city when walking through the main courtyard, and the agoras. You also feel it under the blistering sun and the soles of your burnt feet. It is estimated that the walls of Lysimachus that surround the city enclose an area around 1000 acres. One sees ruins high up on the mountain walls and remnants of earthquakes and wars all around; columns lying on the ground, buildings half destroyed, statues with their heads missing, steeles with inscriptions eroded or scratched, smashed rocks and half-completed pillars. A city that rose and fell. And then lay abandoned, open to the elements.

The highlights are the "library of Celsus" that dominates most postcards, and the "Grand theater". The facade of the library has been reconstructed from original remnants, and it is an imposing structure, constructed around 125AD, atleast two stories tall, and with a grand entrance resembling more a palace rather than a library. It is rumored that at its peak, the library held 10,000 or more scrolls, making it the most widely stocked in the Roman empire after Alexandria. The Grand theater, constructed first in 1C BC and renovated by Romans, was supposedly the largest in the empire, with a seating capacity of ~20,000. The Greeks used it for music and theater, and the Romans added gladiatorial fights, and once can see why. It is three stories high, has almost perfect acoustics, overlooks the mountain and the ancient harbor, with the adjoining harbor street and agora giving it an imposing feel. 

Criss-crossing the site are several aqueduct systems, the most advanced in the ancient world, water mills, and several baths, all a testament to the glorious past. The roads to the marketplace are wide, at least a mile long, paved, and were once covered with domes, of which only some archways remain. The "agora" at the south gate behind the library is huge, overlooking the ancient harbor, and must have supported a large marketplace. Most of the buildings are two-storied, multi-columned of which the triple-ailed "Basilica" built in 11AD stands out, with its large columns and seated statues of which only the pedestals and some inscriptions stand. So does the gymnasium, with its U-shaped baths, recreational halls, all of 12,000 sq.ft at last count.

Several terrace houses are still being excavated. Remnants of several temples, chief of which were those of "Domitian" and "Hadrian", multi-storied structures with domed roofs and high columns, but which today are an exercise in imagination, as just their bases survive. A Steele with Goddess Nike and several other partially preserved statues remain mute spectators to history. Nizam reels off history and statistics, paints a pretty picture of a glorious town and a thriving populace at its zenith, and asks us to imagine. The pathways, the temples, the palaces, the library and the harbor. The bustling agora and gladiator fights. From what you see here, it isn't very difficult. The crowds start building around 12pm, as Nizam promised, and I keep getting a lot of heads in my snaps, particularly around the Celsus library. Everyone wants to take a picture here, and most want themselves in it, and I can never understand why! Although a reconstruction, it is the grandest building at the site, and took 11 years to put together, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, said Nizam. 

We went off to a buffet lunch, where the spread and the variety was dazzling. Lots of greens, tables full of vegetables and fruits, rice and protein, and a full table of olive oil and desserts, the Greek influences are very prominent. The Greek coast is just 40kms by sea, and lots of poor Turkish villagers hire boats in the night and try to sneak into Europe, said Nizam, in an eerily prophetic disclosure. This was mid-July, much before the migrant crisis and boat deaths became front-page news on BBC and CNN. "What can the poor do? except hope for a better life across the sea?" asked Nizam. I suspect the question is moot.

The famed "Temple of Artemis" stands, all of a single column, in the nearby town of Selcuk to which Nizam's family belongs. Built in 570BC and one of the seven wonders of ancient world, the reconstructions are all one can hope to see here. Nizam shows us an artist's imagination and we let out a collective gasp. And then he asks us to imagine. He comes from a farming community, traces his family history back to 2C AD in the town of Selcuk, is well-versed in the site's history, and is a moderate Turk. Agriculture has been the mainstay in this Aegean area for centuries, and the land gives my family all we need; fertile soil and enough produce for us to export, says he. As a final stop, we visit the "Isa Bey mosque" built in 1400 AD, and the "House of Virgin Mary", considered the last resting place of Mary, and visited by several popes recently. 

Late in the afternoon, we stop at a traditional carpet weaving center in the town of Selcuk. The couple from New York must have bought a couple of years worth of carpets, and the Australians did not hold back either. "Don't you have traditional carpet-weaving in India as well? Is it also a cottage industry?" asked Nizam, and we exchanged notes. Pain-sticking work, pieces of art, and all they lack is marketing. The benefits of globalization and the internet age take time to filter through to those who need it the most, the farmers, the artisans and the poor. Turkey in this case is no different from India, and I suspect the same applies across the world. Driving back through the countryside, the three Kenyans advise me of the best time to see wildlife. And reiterate that it is far beautiful than what you see on NGC. The night life of Kusadasi was at its peak as I stepped out for a walk. Corn, mussels, ice-cream and water for 5 lira was dinner, while music blared out from a nearby pub. It was my seventh night in Turkey and the mid-point of my trip, I had seen so many fabulous places and met interesting people. Who said you can't have fun alone? Company is over-rated, and i intend to prove it.