Travel (43) Cambodia (8) Turkey (8) Opinion (7) Ramblings (7) Economy (6) India (6) Odisha (6) Orissa (6) Andaman Nicobar islands (4) South Africa (4) Badami (3) Siem Reap (3) Aihole (2) Angkor Wat (2) IPL (2) Pattadakal (2) Port Blair (2) Ratnagiri (2) Royal palace (2) Virupaksha temple (2) killing fields (2) Abbey Falls (1) Aberdeen Jetty (1) Adam's peak (1) Addo elephant national park (1) Agastya tirtha (1) Ajabgarh (1) Amanbagh (1) Analya (1) Anegondi (1) Angkor (1) Angkor Thom (1) Angkor national museum (1) Antalya (1) Anuradhapura (1) Aspendos (1) Australia (1) Badami cave temple (1) Badami festival (1) Balugaon (1) Bambooflat (1) Bangalore (1) Baphuon (1) Baratang (1) Battambang (1) Bayon (1) Belgaum (1) Bhagamandala (1) Bhitarkanika (1) Bhootanath temple (1) Bhubaneswar (1) Birur (1) Bloukrans bungee jump (1) Blue mosque (1) Bosphorus bridge (1) Byomkesh Bakshi (1) Canakkale (1) Cango caves (1) Cape fold mountains (1) Cape of Good Hope (1) Capetown (1) Cappadocia (1) Cave temple (1) Cavusin (1) Cellular jail (1) Celsus library (1) Chalukya empire (1) Chandipur beach (1) Chandrabhaga beach (1) Chapman's peak drive (1) Chatham island (1) Chedi (1) Chiang Mai (1) Chilka dolphin (1) Chilka lake (1) Chinnaswami stadium (1) Choeung Ek memorial (1) Citadel (1) Cleopatra's pool (1) Colombo (1) Coorg (1) Cricket (1) Crocodiles (1) Cuttack (1) Dambulla (1) Dardanelles strait (1) Devrent valley (1) Dhauli (1) Doi Inthanon national park (1) Doi Suthep (1) Domitian temple (1) Dubare (1) Durga temple (1) EPL (1) Eastern gallery (1) Ek Phnom (1) Elephant sanctuary (1) Elephant stables (1) Elephant terrace (1) Ella (1) Ephesus (1) Football (1) Fountain of Aeropolis (1) Gahirmatha (1) Galaganatha (1) Galata bridge (1) Galle (1) Gallipoli (1) Ganapatiphule (1) Garden route (1) Goa (1) Golden Temple (1) Goreme open air museum (1) Grand Andaman trunk road (1) Grand bazaar (1) Grand theater (1) Haddo (1) Hadrian gate (1) Hadrian temple (1) Hagia Sophia (1) Hampi (1) Havelock (1) Hernando Tellez (1) Hierapolis (1) Ho Chi Minh city (1) Homer (1) Hospet (1) Hotel Venetian (1) House of Virgin Mary (1) Hout bay (1) Iliad (1) Independence monument (1) India credit rating (1) International sand art festival (1) Isa Bey mosque (1) Istanbul (1) Izmir (1) Jagannath temple (1) Jarawa (1) Jeffreys bay (1) Jirkatang (1) Jog falls (1) Just Lather that's all (1) Kamalapura (1) Kandy Golden temple (1) Karwar (1) Kendrapada (1) Khandagiri (1) Khola checkpost (1) King Jayavarman (1) Klein Karoo (1) Knysna (1) Kolar (1) Kolhapur (1) Konark (1) Konark festival (1) Konkan Coast (1) Kontigudi (1) Kusadasi (1) Kushalnagar (1) Lad khan temple (1) Lalitgiri (1) Leper king (1) Limestone caves (1) Lingaraj temple (1) Lotus mahal (1) MCG (1) Macau (1) Madikeri (1) Mebon (1) Mehmet pasha mosque (1) Melbourne (1) Melbourne cricket ground (1) Mount Harriett (1) Mount meru (1) Mukteswar temple (1) Mulbagal (1) Murudeshwar (1) Myoli beach (1) National museum (1) Neak Pean (1) Oudtshoorn (1) Pamukkale (1) Panaji (1) Papanatha temple (1) Pasabag (1) Perge (1) Phnom Banan (1) Phnom Penh (1) Phnom Sampeau (1) Polannoruwa (1) Pra That (1) Preah Ang Chek (1) Preah Khan (1) Preah Palilay (1) Puri (1) Radhanagar Beach (1) Rajarani temple (1) Rajasthan (1) Rating (1) Robben island (1) Rolous group (1) Ross island (1) Route 62 (1) Royal Gardens (1) Royal centre (1) Saigon (1) Samudrika museum (1) Sangameswara temple (1) Satapada (1) Schliemann (1) Sector rotation cycle (1) Sedgefield (1) Sehzade mosque (1) Selcuk (1) Shekar Dattatri (1) Side (1) Sigiriya (1) Silver pagoda (1) Simon's town (1) Someshwara temple (1) Sound and light show (1) Spice bazaar (1) SriLanka (1) Stone chariot (1) Sulemaniye mosque (1) Sultan Ahmet mosque (1) Sun temple (1) Suryavarman (1) TB dam (1) Ta Prohm (1) Ta Som (1) Table mountain (1) Taksim square (1) Talacauvery (1) Tax payers in India (1) Technical Analysis (1) Temple of Apollon (1) Temple of Artemis (1) Thailand (1) Tiger sanctuary (1) Tonle Sap (1) Tooth relic (1) Topkapi palace (1) Toul Sleng (1) Troia (1) Troy (1) Tsitsikamma national park (1) Tungabhadra (1) Uchisar castle (1) Udayagiri (1) Udaygiri (1) Vespasian gate (1) Victoria and Alfred waterfront (1) Victory gate (1) Vietnam (1) Vijayanagara empire (1) Virupakshi temple (1) Vittala temple (1) Wat Phnom (1) Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (1) Wat Preah Prohm Rath (1) Wat Samroung Knong (1) Wilderness (1) World heritage site (1) Yivli minare (1) bamboo train (1) bat cave (1) high frequency data (1) irrawady river dolphin (1) rock art (1) salt water crocodile (1) temple spires (1)

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 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 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.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Turkey - Part 3 - Troy & Iliad

One of the most famous archaeological sites in the world with 4000 years of discovered history - UNESCO's description. Diane Kruger, Eric Bana and Brad Pitt, with that incredible goof-up of Achilles looking on as a plane flies overhead, in that amateurish Hollywood movie, saved only by its larger-than-life sets and oh, Diane Kruger. Troia immortalized in Iliad by Homer, who lent it the name, history and fame, at least a part of which was fictional. Which one had I signed up for?

Day tours to Gallipoli and Troy are dime-a-dozen from Istanbul. A 630AM pick-up from the hotel, transfer to a large coach, then the rush to beat Istanbul morning traffic. A quick round of introductions, at which Aussies/Kiwis visiting Gallipoli outnumbered a smattering of other nationalities visiting Troy 5:1. Chet the guide had a few words of commiseration for us losers."You will see enough of Gallipoli for free, and twice, as we drive through the place, while these guys will see nothing of Troy". "It is a long drive, the sun will be out, and there will be a lot of walking, so better rest". As good an advice you can get.

Turkey has first-world infrastructure. Motorways are well-maintained, there are enough restaurants and joints, it is a well-known trail, so quality tourism infrastructure exists all the way. Breakfast was a huge spread at a large roadside restaurant, where I had my first history lesson on Gallipoli from Oliver, over many cups of tea. There were to be more such through the day from Diana, Emily, and Ross. All the way from Brisbane, Wellington, and Darwin to pay their respects at the ANZAC memorial.

The countryside was green. Sunflower fields dominated, followed by a smattering of vineyards, and lots of tomatoes and watermelons, which the locals sell on their pick-ups by the roadside. Not many people or animals in sight, but they are all at home, escaping the hot sun said Chet. It was 33 degrees. Scenic drive, farms and restaurants on one side, and the sea on the other side. Note to self, I must drive down this route. 4 hours and 275 kms later, the road swung around and we had our first glimpse of the pretty port of Gelibolu, or Gallipoli, on the Dardanelles strait. The view of the gulf of Saros and the steep drop down to the sea level are by themselves worth the drive. 

Much before the first world war for which it is famous, Gallipoli was used as a naval base, controlling the strategic area of Marmara and Dardanelles. Various invasions, and several battles over the centuries followed, and once can see why. Chet said it was said whoever controls Dardanelles strait controls Constantinople. Just 4.8kms wide at the isthumus that connects Gallipoli peninsula to the mainland, and the scene of the battles in 1915. 100,000 dead and many more injured, how many episodes of insanity does mankind need to realize the futility of war? We drove past some of the ruins of the old town, the city castle and tower from the 14th century, with running commentary from Chet. Just enough time for a minute stop at Cape Helles memorial and Anzac cove, and the family we had to pick-up there, on our way to lunch and Troy. 

Post an equally large lunch, the larger Gallipoli group went their way, and the smaller Troy group loaded on to the ferry to Canakkale, and crossed over to the Asian side. An educational and tourist town, said our new guide Kharim, although I can't imagine how the two get along. Again euro quotes and more tourists than locals. From here, Troia is 35kms, about 25 mins drive up and down some pretty roads. Another note to self, why am I not staying in Canakkale?

Kharim turned out to a dread-locked, witty guy from Canakkale, very proud of his history but possessing that bit of magic that separates the really good tour guide from the ordinary, honesty. The first sentence he uttered almost ruined the day, and bought gasps from our group of ten. "We don't know if the Iliad is true, and whether Troia actually existed as and when Homer described it". What, I am about to enter the most celebrated UNESCO world heritage site, and my guide is dampening my enthusiasm! But once you enter the site, you realize what he is trying to communicate.

Troy is an exercise in imagination. I imagined huge fortress walls, castles, theaters, baths and fortification. They do exist, but all in ruins; elements, earthquakes, battles and destruction in that order. Almost everything that exists today was discovered by a German archaeologist Schliemann in 1870, who now has a "trench" named after him. Apparently so obsessed was he with discovering the lost treasures of Troy that he razed down some of the most ancient relics ever found in human history. Kharim and most of the guides have these wonderful picture books, one that shows some of the first photographs from 1870's that show before and after Schliemann, and another that is a reconstruction of what ancient Troy must have looked like. And with these, and boundless energy and folklore, interspersed with enough caveats to fill a red herring prospectus, Kharim narrated the city's history.

The ruins we are still discovering today are based on Homer's Iliad and his descriptions. We call the city Troy or Troia because Homer named it so. And archaeologists today are still digging and reconstructing. The guide points out several references from Iliad, the impregnable fortress surrounding the city, of which only a part of 20ft the walls remain, the direction of the wind that plays such an important role in the tale and brought riches to Troy, the plain along the Aegean coast 5kms away from the sea, that was once a harbor and gave Troy its locational advantage. They all exist, but the scale is what you have to imagine. The citadel and the fortress protecting it, immense and unconquered till it succumbed to a wooden horse. The paved stone ramp in the center of the ruins, whose purpose remains unexplained. The layers of history, the innumerable columns that once stood, the temple of Athena, the grand theater, the public baths and the agora; all remains of multitudes of civilizations, built on the remnants of the past.

23 sections of the defense walls around the citadel, and eleven gates, dating back to the bronze age, and the famed wall section which has all nine remnants from Troia 1 to 9 over the ages, stone inscriptions still undecipherable, had our small group excited. How could one not be, in the presence of 5000 years of history? Then Kharim introduces several mysteries. Why are there no records of the city either before or after Homer? Why was it abandoned so many times, and then rebuilt? If this was such a large and important city in history, and had a huge population, roughly 170,000 in those days, where are the cemeteries? Or human remains? What about the large burial places that Homer alludes to? If the Trojan horse and the battle did happen, historians trace it back to 1250-1350 BC. A large battle did take place in the plains surrounding the city, historians have discovered large-scale man-made destruction, but was it over Helen? And where is the treasure, for which Schlienmann destroyed a major part of the ruins? And where are the remains of the more recent civilizations? Why did the city and history vanish out of collective memory before Schlienmann re-discovered it in 1870?

Historians and archaeologists are still trying to put together all the pieces of the

puzzle, said Kharim. Since he raised the queries, he had to have the answers. For we one-day visitors, it was all a bit too much to take in. Would I have been happier if I were told it were all true and Helen and the Trojan horse did exist? Digs were still on, we saw several groups of archaeologists at work, and apparently they were finding more of the city, rather cities. And they had five sq. kms more to dig, and reference back to Iliad. Maybe we need Schlienmann's ghost to provide some of the answers. Kharim believes we will not discover all of Troy in our lifetimes. From the spread of the ruins I saw in those four hours, he is probably right. 

The biggest congregation of tourists, and the most widely photographed in the ancient city occurs at the exit. No, it isn't a hidden monument. It is the Trojan horse, wood-looking but cement-built, built in 2001. Everyone wants a photograph, a selfie, a climb up the kitschy-looking structure. Modern tourism. 5000 years old ruins and one spends maximum time at the horse. Maybe the symbolism outweighs the sentiment. There were seven nationalities in our group, and we asked Kharim which country contributes the largest visitors. He looked around, and said "I don't know, maybe Chinese. But I'll tell you who are the silliest. The ones who ask me if this is "The Trojan horse". Always the Indians!" 

We rode back in silence, retracing our steps through the drive, and the ferry across the strait, which miraculously transforms into 25 mins from the 10 mins it took the other way. Ocean currents and the wind, said one of the crew. The Gallipoli group too landed at the same time, they were quiet as well. "Too much to take in one day" said Emily. I agree, and we furiously exchanged notes on what we saw. If you want to see history as it is being discovered and are willing to put imagination to good use, go to Troy, it is worth the long drive. From what the Aussies and Kiwis said, Gallipoli was quite emotional for them as well. And one piece of advice, as long as you have the time, stay at Canakkale and visit both. And pray you don't encounter Schliemann's ghost looking for treasure.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Turkey - Part 2 - Istanbul

It is all about location. For centuries, river-fronts and strategically located harbors and ports have given rise to civilizations and great cities, which derive their importance as economic and political powerhouses, owing to trade, and cultural hot-spots, as they attract and sustain diverse population, religion, art and culture. None as historically significant as Constantinople or Istanbul, "the city" in ancient Greek.

Straddling two continents, and controlling the Bosphorus strait, Istanbul has had a chequered history, dating back to the Byzantine era. Influenced and shaped by its various occupiers, starting with the Greeks, Romans, Crusades, and the Ottomans through the ages, Istanbul today is a living historical exhibit; one can literally peel away layers and ages. It was the largest and wealthiest city of the ancient world, owing to its command of the trade routes between the Aegean and Black sea, Europe and rest of the world. Trade brought wealth and fame, religion, and people and conquests. Alternating in history between Christianity and Islam under its various conquerors, it is today a glorious mix of the new and the old, culture and history, architecture and religion. 

My fellow tripadvisors' had warned of the traffic; but being an Indian, and accustomed to not having any rules when on the streets, one tends to neglect well-meaning advice, especially if its free. It was a glorious summer day early August when I landed at the Sabiha Gocken airport. It was hot and humid, out came the shades and in went the jacket. My hotel was 55kms away, in the old walled city and close to the Grand bazaar, and my driver, as I later came to recognize in that casual Turkish manner, said one hour, and added "maybe". Later in the trip, whenever a local said "maybe", I came to learn that it meant either a "best estimate" or "no idea".

The first drive into the city from the airport is make or break time. First impressions are tough to dislodge, they permeate into the subconscious and play a huge role in how I look back at the city. My driver though was heartless. He pointed out "Bosphorus bridge" and the plaque that said "You are now entering Europe/leaving Asia", an enticing glimpse of the water, and before I could whip out my camera, said "too much traffic, no stop". 

The first impression was a city of huge geographical spread, spread out over several rolling hills (it resembles Amman in its geography, and coincidentally, is also built on seven hills), distinctly Asian in character, with wide clean streets, and chaotic traffic. "Not bad traffic" my driver nodded. You would think that all those flyovers would help, but the pile-up extended for miles. It took me an hour and a half, on a Friday afternoon to get to my hotel from the airport. But the advantage though, when you arrive on a long flight and have absolutely nothing to do, is it makes for some wonderful snaps of city life. Another opportunity came on my third night in Istanbul, late at 1130PM, when I counted traffic for 17kms on the speedometer, as we drove by, mercifully on the other side. "Football match, maybe" said my helpful guide, with a wink. And with that, I discovered another of Istanbul's passions, football. But the traffic is as noiseless as it can be, a concept unknown to an Indian. Istanbul drivers must be used to it, they wait patiently, without honking, and stick to their lanes. Transpose them to India please.

Istanbul is a city of mosques. For a city of 17Mn people and counting, it seemed there were as many mosques. And each of them has a history, centuries and ages. The first one i stumbled upon, by the simple fact of its ezan waking me up from my landing siesta, was the "Sehzade mosque". The map I plucked at my hotel said mosque left, bazaar right. A simple plaque at the entrance declared it built in 1548, apparently then standing on the third hill of the city. And as a helpful local, whom I cornered into giving me a tour of the mosque by professing my love for Galatasaray FC said (Drogba and Schenider played here!) most mosques are still in use; they could be as old as 400-600 years and people still pray in them every day. "Living history" he declared, as he explained the basics of what is now accepted as a unique architectural legacy, the Ottoman era. And then casually showed me the "Valens aqueduct" at Ataturk Bulvari, through which the road to Taksim square passes through. 4th Century AD, and they use it as an archway to a road. When you live in a city that has such a history, it must be hard not to take it for granted.

I spent the next two days in various group tours, exploring the length and breadth of the city during the day, the bazaars and squares post lunch, and the bridges and riversides in evening. The heart of Istanbul's culture and its famous architectural wonders are tightly packed in a square, all within walking distance of each other. My guide was DK, a sprightly young woman, who not only saved me from the horrors of having to be around Indian tourists (honestly, we are the worst behaved and the loudest, when will we ever learn?) but was patient to a T. We started at Sultan Ahmet or the "Blue mosque", Hagia Sophia, Topkapi palace, Sulemaniye mosque, Dolmabahce palace, Galata tower, Basilica Cistem, and then moved on to the Spice market, Grand bazaar, and finally to Taksim square. 

I kept asking "why call it the Blue mosque?", and DK kept saying "wait till we get inside". You see the main dome, some of the smaller domes, and six minarets only at a distance from the Sultanahmet square, or from one of the bridges. Built in 1616, and considered one of the best preserved examples of the Classical era, the blue ceramic tiles, the intricately designed stained glass windows through which sunlight filters through, and the low hanging chandeliers give the place a certain mysticism,  and an indescribable aura. The richly decorated pulpit and the carved marble pillars, the great blue and white carved dome, the red carpet, and those walls inscribed with verses from the holy quran make the "Blue mosque" a wonderful architectural exhibit. 

Hagia Sophia is unique. It was a prominent church, then a mosque, and is now a museum. Once the ancient world's largest cathedral and the seat of the king, the interiors are richly carved, with great details on the mosaics and on the galleries. Some of the ceilings still have the original christian carvings and motifs, and the wishing column at the corner is rumored to have supernatural powers. The circular medallions on the columns, with their huge inscriptions, are among the later additions, but they seem to add to the melange. The climb to the upper gallery is worth the effort; some of the most spectacular views and photo opportunities are here, including the royal gallery.

Topkapi palace is a UNESCO world heritage site, and is recognized as one of the best examples of Ottoman architecture. Now a heavily guarded museum, it has several sacred relics of historic and religious significance, including the staff of Moses, and the swords of David and the Prophet. The Treasury displays some of the imperial jewels and other riches of the Ottoman empire, along with other artifacts such as weapons, clothing, and calligraphic manuscripts, arranged in four main public display rooms along the large courtyard, and multiple other small displays. Built on the Bosphorus in the early 15th century, Topkapi is a wonderful testament to the glories of the empire and the rich cultural legacy of Istanbul.

It helps that the bazaars are covered, for the Turkish summers are hot and humid. August is the perfect time to visit Istanbul, daylight lasts till 8PM, there are a million visitors, and you feel the energy. The city basks in the sunlight and glows in the night. The "Grand bazaar" is inside the walled city and must be one of the oldest in the world, at around 500 years or so. A large number of streets, innumerable shops, tightly packed, it seemed there were more tourists than locals. The "Spice bazaar" is about 150 years younger, and much smaller and narrower. Both the bazaars are bustling with energy, aromas and people. Spending time here is an adventure, even for someone as claustrophobic as me. And the shopkeepers keep hustling you in, and feeding you bits of those wonderful Turkish sweets, Baklava, Turkish delight, pomegranate tea!

Istanbul is also a great city to walk around, provided you carry your water. Hawkers sell 1 lira bottles on the streets, ordinary hotels like mine do not have water in the rooms, and everyone buys it at the dinner table. Must be quite a business this, DK said water bottles during summer and scarfs during winter, that's what sells. Three evenings in Istanbul were spent on long walks along the river, and crossing its three Bosphorus bridges. "Otel Hamidiye" where I stayed (there doesn't seem to be a H in Turkish, or is it the script?) again is all about location. Rude manager, cramped over-priced room, but close to everything in the walled city. I walked from the hotel, over the bridge, and all the way to "Taksim square", the first evening, and learnt I could have taken the metro, Taksim being the Central station. Full of restaurants, hotels, pubs and shopping centers, it comes alive in the evenings, and a mass of humanity descends here. So young and so vibrant. But walking through a city, discovering its sights and by-lanes, and taking to the locals beats a metro ride any day.

They fish on the "Galata bridge". Not the family outing that you imagine, which happens on the greens along the Bosphorus, when families set-up barbecues; this is a full-scale picnic with beer, food, kids and dogs. This is the serious "I fish here everyday and make a living out of it" kind. Ishai in "Street food around the world" fed me two bits which I wanted to check. The first one is true; they are commercial fishermen and there are about 50 of them, each with two or three lines, couple of buckets of feed and their catch. Broken english and sign language took nothing away from the delightful conversation. I offered them a Turkish delight from the previous day, and they offered me tea, and a chance to snap them in the act. The second bit was the most popular street food, "Balik ekmek". A grilled small fish, wrapped in a loaf of bread, served with lettuce, onions and tomatoes. You stuff it all in the bread and pour lemon juice on top for garnishing. All for 7 lira. My dinner that night consisted of roasted corn over coal, balik ekmek, and ice-cream. Cost me 15 lira. The sights came free, so did the "Raki", a swig of which a very drunk old chap lying next to me forced down my throat, when I told him I was from India. Best things in life are cheap. Like fresh air, good food and free entertainment. But not for the locals, as my drunk friend reminded, it takes USD1000 a month to live comfortably in Istanbul, rents are high and inflation is a pest.

The final evening was reserved for a cruise along the Bosphorus. Very touristy, but why not? Hasan, my guide kept saying "here is Asia, here is Europe". I had walked across the strait many times over the past three days, and frankly couldn't see the difference. Still, bragging rights about having crossed the Asian landmass and setting foot on Europe must count for something. Hasan had some interesting opinions. I struck a conversation around football and politics, these topics always work. The history behind the secular origins of the country, run-off elections in Nov, a populace split right across the conservative and secular parties, major parties not able to agree on a coalition, economy and job prospects not looking up, along with my indiscreet rushes to the window to take snaps, made for a wonderful evening. Even the company was looking prettier, although for a lone traveler halfway across the world, any company is good company. 

Lira at an all-time low, as Turkey joined the U.S aerial bombing on the Syrian border, and the timing of the strikes, so close to a new election, made for an intriguing dinner table discussion, with two Aussies, and a local family, and we concluded that politicians anywhere were not to be trusted. Why did it take a couple of hours to arrive at the golden truth? There was a mild breeze as I walked back to the hotel, streaks of light razed across the evening sky, it was a full moon night, while the bright lights of Istanbul glimmered at a distance across the Bosphorus. Location it maybe, but Istanbul puts up a really good case for bragging rights as one of the most historically significant, and vibrant cities in the world. A wonderful mix of the old and the new.