Sunday, 24 August 2014

Istanbul to Armenia by train. (Terry)


The Istanbul to Ankara high speed train is up and running at last.  For the past two years, you had to get a bus from Istanbul to Eskisehir (see earlier blog for more info on this wonderful small city.) and then catch the train on to Ankara.  One way, Ankara to Istanbul, business class, is TL113.  More space than flying business class and easier boarding experience. 

The YHT (Yuksek Hizli Tren) stops 35 km from Istanbul. It’s still called “Istanbul” but not if your hotel is around Taksim Square.   It’s an outer suburb by a long way.

You get to Ankara to nearly the middle of the city, opposite Genclik Park.  A new station is under construction.  The way the Turks build, it could be ready next week!  They blocked off the underground passage to the other side of the tracks (pity, it was where our hotel was) and the next day they already had lines of concrete trucks and a concrete pump truck pouring the foundations for the new station.
Genclik Park

From Ankara station, you catch the Dogu Express.  Dogu simply means East because that’s where it goes.  It’s not an express, it stops all the way along the line, even at crossings where an informal drop point has grown up over the years and cars gather to retrieve passengers or put them on.

The trip takes 27 hours and a sleeper cabin is highly recommended.  It leaves Ankara at 18:00 each night and arrives in Kars around 21:00 the next night.  It leaves Kars around 07:45 in the a.m. and arrives back in Ankara around 10:am the next day.  Although it is only about 900km direct from Ankara to Kars, the journey is about 1400 because you follow a) the rivers and b) go between towns as the train is a service train, not a sightseer’s train like the Canadian ones.

The Sleeper bunks

The one way fare to Kars is only TL 79.25, or about $40 Australian dollars.  The sleeper cabins have a fridge, a wash basin, power point and a cupboard.  Beds are premade so when you pull your bunk down, it’s ready to get into.  Toilets are clean - forward toilet in each of the sleepers is Western, aft is Turkish-style.

The best all-round view is in the dining car, usually two up from where they put the foreigners.  Beer is same price as in bars around Istanbul and Ankara, about $4.50 for a 500ml bottle of Efes (good stuff, see my Beer Tour of the World in our blog).  Food is basic Turkish and the range does diminish over time.  Certainly on the way back your options reduce.  Still, it’s good quality and enough on the plate to keep you happy.  The old chef doesn’t speak any English at all but you can draw what you want and out it comes.

You will find the dining car is where the Turks will want to talk to you.  These Turks tend to be less exposed to westerners as many come from the far east where there is little interaction as the few tourists who do visit sit in big buses and stay in their groups.  Many of them will be curious as to why you are bothering to go out there.

The landscape of the Taurus Mountains is quite spectacular, and the train follows rivers most of the way.  A large SD card in your camera is advisable.  Circular Polarising filter necessary to snap out of the windows.

Following a river gorge - the headwaters of the Euphrates River are here!

In Kars, we stayed in the Hotel Temel.  Very basic, no aircon in the rooms but designed to stay cool.  Showers hot but no curtains so the water goes everywhere (we figured it was their problem, not ours – if they didn’t want water all over the floor, they would have put curtains up, eh?)  Beds were good, linen sharp and inviting.  The hotel staff are unfailingly polite, and the owner (big boss the others call him) presents every day in his suit and tie.  Breakfast was simple Turkish cold meat and fruits and cheeses.  We were waiting for a taxi to the train station when we left and the boss arrived for work and took us instead.

We wandered around Kars a bit to see the old sites - the castle is quite spectacular and you can drive up there despite what Lonely Planet says.  There are a few other sights to see also and the new museum, quite a ways out on the edge of town, is worth a look.  It’s about 2.5kms from the main drag.  We walked it. 
Kars from the Castle

Restaurants are all over – alcohol service is rare.  A specialty of Kars is Goose, but because it costs TL60, it is not always ready and waiting.  If you really want it, perhaps pick your favourite restaurant (the first two in Lonely Planet are OK) and ask the day before.  Goose flocks are all over so we were careful walking past the stone farm fences in case there were some we didn’t see – they are cranky sods.  There are also very large woolly Anatolian Sheep Dogs.  Good luck trying to steal a sheep when these guys are watching them.  They’re usually quite placid but that’s only when they don’t own the territory you meet on.  If they own it, they get all proprietorial and put on quite a threatening display, followed by a very nasty bite if you are a bit slow on the uptake.
Not the type to pick a fight with for sure

A lot of Turkish cheese is quite mild but in Kars they sell Kasa Eski (eski means old in Turkish) in any one of maybe 20 or 30 specialty shops with cheeses, village butter (don’t tell your cardiologist about this stuff) honey, nuts, dried fruits etc.  Kars is famous for its honey and you can actually do “The Honey Walk” if hiking is your bent.  The shops are a feature of Kars, as are the specialty shops way down west in Datca where they sell almonds and olive oil, or in Elmali where they are famous for apples (and where they make darn good cider also)


The abandoned city of Ani.

 The ruined city of Ani

The city of Ani was fought over for thousands of years.  It was eventually abandoned in the 1700s.  It lies about 40km east of Kars.  There is no real tourist industry in Kars so you will need to negotiate with a taxi driver for a trip out there.  There is one guy who has a deal with the hotels – when you are checking in, they ring him and he will talk to you about a trip to Kars.  He speaks good English.  HOWEVER, despite him saying he himself will be there in the a.m., this is not necessarily the case.  See my review of Kars on Trip Adviser (surprised they published it).  If you do get a taxi from the train, see what he will do.  You MUST specify a 3-hour wait, not two.  The site is very spread out.  They will try to wriggle down to two, two and a half but insist on 3.  Should cost you around 120TL maximum for the two of you, or $60 Australian. Less if they try and cram more people in.
The Church of the Illustrator - you literally cannot see this until you are on it.

There are numerous buildings on the site, quite spread out.  The Church of the Illustrator is out over by the river and down a slope – you cannot see it until you are almost on it and it is quite large.  The fence around the bottom is the Turkish border with Armenia.  It is the point beyond which you cannot pass, although the actual border is a little further out – the Turks have military bases in this “no man’s land”
Guard tower on the border - war was not that long ago.
 The Old Silk Road crossed here

One of the most striking points of interest is the ruins of a bridge that crossed the river once upon a time.  On the far side, you can see a track leading to what would have been the on-ramp.  This is where all the caravans on the Old Silk Road crossed over for hundreds of years, on up into the city of Ani for shelter, rest and food.  It is worth taking a moment to sit and consider the trade that walked this way. For those who have watched numerous documentaries on the Old Silk Road, the Taklimakan Desert, Tamerlane and the Trans-Siberian Railway, this single spot affords a powerful reflection on trade between very distant cultures. It is down by where the Nunnery was, or the Church of the Virgins.
The Church of the Virgins

There are three more churches within driving distance.  Just going to one of them added another $20 Australian to the bill and despite them all saying they know where they are, our guy was on the blower phoning a friend for directions. 

For the biblical minded, you are not very far from Mt Ararat when you are in Kars.  You can climb Mt Ararat but is costs a very large dollar and takes about 3 days.  Permits, guides etc. (you are not permitted to climb without a guide) will set you back around Australian $1,500., big money in the scheme of things.
The Cathedral of Ani

The family that occupies the land on which the ancient monastery buildings stand (see Lonely Planet) has daughters with reddish hair and freckles. (Where the church is, not the monastery building.  If you go out there, even the girls warn you about next door’s dogs!)  Yes, the Celts invaded here around 300BC from areas around Germany and set up camp.  (They were referred to as the Galatians so dig out your St Paul).  It is not uncommon to see Celtic features in the East of Turkey, as Galatia was centred on Ankara and points east – lots of red and ginger hair, ginger beards, freckles and fair skin.  The church on their land dates from 870AD.  They use it to store hay.  They have a hay cutter with a sort of blower on one end.  They feed hay in the blunt end and it gets blown out in small bits into the church.  They’ve blocked up the windows so it just fills up and doesn’t blow back out.  Better use for it than just letting it sit there for 1,200 years doing nothing.

Block up all the windows and pour chaff in.

Red hair and freckles on the Armenian border with Turkey
We booked our return when we booked our out-ticket to make sure we could get back – it is usually full days in advance and we had to wait a week for a spot.

The land is rich and fertile, with large herds of cattle, complete with cowboys and cowgirls, sheep, goats, geese, and many horses.  Kids use their horses to get around on.  It is a major wheat growing area, and they also grow a vast range of vegetables to boot.  Plenty of water, rich brown dirt but unfortunately heavy snow in winter so they lay up large supplies of hay.
 You might have a tractor but you still pitch by fork.

Bee farmer's collection of hives - magnificent honey in this whole area.



Saturday, 23 August 2014


Ankara is not a city to fall in love with at first sight. Our first sight was a long, hot, dusty, hilly trudge through streets full of litter, most of it a carpet of tout cards for escort and massage services. Apart from a couple of grandiose banks, the architecture was soviet-style brutal concrete blocks, softened only by their crumbling edges. It was the end of Ramazan holiday, so most shops and cafes had their shutters up and the people milling around looked hot and listless, especially the women in their scarves and long gabardine raincoats. Back at the hotel we checked out what there was to do in Ankara and hoped that we could tolerate it for three days while waiting for the Friday train to Kars.

Fortunately, it got better. Next day we purchased a metro card which greatly improved the transport options, then headed to downtown Ulus, the old historic centre. Here a Hittite/ Roman/ Byzantine/ Seljuk castle sits at the highest point, presiding over the densely built-up surrounding hills and offering the most appealing perspective on Turkey’s capital. The streaks of graffiti on its walls were almost compensated for by a man playing traditional music in the courtyard, which did contribute some atmosphere to the scene. The old town itself is a pleasure to wander through, with restored Ottoman buildings now housing small shops and traditional crafts along with some more upmarket stores.

Ankara Vista from the Castle
 This chappy was very good.
We went to the main museum as usual and this one – the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations – is a beauty, with artefacts cherry-picked from all over Turkey. The building itself is a lovely restored Ottoman market and the collection is organised as a walk-through time tunnel, beginning with the fossil record (Turkey’s own early hominid, Ankarapithecus) and progressing through the Paleolithic, Bronze, Assyrian, Greek, Roman, Phrygian, Ottoman and Republican ages. For an Australian tourist in these parts, there is a constant sense of just how lived-in every place is, often by entire civilizations that you’ve never even heard of. And with this comes a sense of just how fragile and temporary even the greatest cultures can be – loot a few temples, burn a few libraries, assassinate a few leaders and it’s all but over; just a pile of stones, an olive tree and a herd of goats to mark the spot where a great philosopher taught, an artist crafted something beautiful or an engineer planned a complex water system. The highlight of the museum is the collection of artefacts from the Gordion burial mounds, which include the presumed remains of King Midas, along with remarkably well-preserved metalwork and furniture.
King Midas

Another museum is worth a visit here – the private Industrial museum of Rahmi Koc, once again in a beautifully restored Ottoman building. This quirky museum has collections of trains, cars, motors, tools, toys, instruments, pharmaceuticals, old photographs, Ataturk memorabilia, cameras and film paraphernalia, diving gear and lots more, all well presented and with helpful labelling.
Ceramic piece in the industrial museum

On our last day we decided to take an evening stroll to Ataturk’s Mausoleum before an evening rendezvous with a group of Ankara’s Geocachers at a local bar. The Mausoleum is an impressive sight, visible for miles at the top of a wooded hill and lit up after dark. There is a museum of Ataturk’s possessions (including his dog) and a photographic record of his funeral. The collection of documents is testimony to the man’s enormous energy and vision in establishing the modern Turkish state – it’s no surprise that virtually every business, home and even vehicle in Turkey has a portrait of Ataturk or a copy of his famous signature in pride of place. We had expected the tomb itself to be a place of utmost respect – like Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum in Hanoi, where the pilgrims file silently past with bowed heads, many of them in tears – but here people were chatting and taking photos, even the Turkish tourists. Oh well. Apparently Ataturk himself never wanted a mausoleum anyway.

The Ataturk Mausoleum lit up behind our hotel, with a crescent moon above

Behind me is almost every Lonely Planet ever published.
We walked on through leafy suburbs to the Varuna Gezgin Café del Mundo, a splendid bar/ café with about four levels including a rooftop, an international collection of beers, and every corner decorated with fascinating stuff from the proprietor’s many years of world travel. Terry was in heaven, especially after a dry few days in Ankara city. We enjoyed meeting the local geocachers: once again it’s proven a great way to get off the beaten track and see a different aspect of a place.

Café De Mundo
Then early on Friday morning we headed for the station, discovering on the way that the tunnel under the highway and railway had been bricked up and it was a very long walk around – fortunately an enterprising taxi driver had discovered this too and was busy making a killing on five lira trips back and forth to the station. We were there in plenty of time, and settled comfortably into our sleeper car for the 26 hour journey east across Turkey to Kars on the Armenian border.

 The Dogu Express to the Armenian border

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Eskisehir (Terry)

We arrived in Eskisehir very late at night.
Our bus was late getting into the massive Otogar at Bayrampasa, where we had been waiting since 10am.  10am bus - full, same for 11am bus so 1pm it had to be.  It was supposed to be there at 12.30 but didn't arrive until 1:30.  Traffic out of Istanbul over the bridge was horrendous - took an hour to go 7km.

Then first opportunity the driver had to leave the traffic behind, he went down a hill without looking ahead and got the bus jammed between two sections of road - front jammed down, rest of bus still on the road.  Then he tried to jack it up - ?  You get it up in the air, it still has to go either forward or back, eh?  Anyway, after over an hour of pissing about, two different tow trucks coming, plus a crane truck, and a small forklift, which only managed to lift its own wheels up, a big forklift came and lifted enough to get some planks underneath.  Off again.
This part of Turkey (around Izmit) is very densely populated and has extensive infrastructure.  Consequently, our progress was excruciatingly slow through city after city as we inched through ports and dockyards.

We finally arrived in Eskisehir around 11:30pm and caught a taxi to a hotel Carol booked online as the bus was pulling into town. We were at the “Madame Tadia” and what a superb hotel it was.
We only booked for a night as we wanted to find out about our train on to Kars. We walked to the station in the morning and found out the first sleeper berth to Kars was the next Friday, a week away!  Oh well, travel at the end of Ramadan, expect to be in considerable company.  We researched Eskisehir a little and found to our great joy that this city is a Gem of the first order.  We decided to stay until Tuesday, and to go to Ankara for a few days on the bullet train, then go on to Kars, have a few days in Kars and return again on the sleeper.  The return will be a little different - Turkey's new high speed link from Ankara to Istanbul begins tomorrow and the new train will do the trip in 3 1/2 hours at 250kmh.

It was supposed to begin on the 11th July but there were several incidents of cable theft (Gypsies in the area!  and before anyone gets all P.C. about it, read the National Geographic article of September 2012 about them and "metal trading")

Eskisehir is pronounced “Eski” as in what you put your beer in for a bbq, “sh” as in be quiet I’m watching the footy, and “here” as in where are you? - I’m right here.

The city is home to two universities, with the Anadolu University being the 2nd largest in the world by enrolments (nearly 2m, mostly external, served by 88 student centres).  The mayor of the city is a folk hero here, particularly among the young adults.  He is an Economist, of course, who has created a superb municipal vista, with wide leafy promenades, great facilities and a series of useful quirky initiatives.  For example, all the city streetsweepers use brooms made of birch twigs.  Free, biodegradable, have worked well for thousands of years. Why not?  There are gondolas on the city canal that runs through town.  The gondolas are made in the city workshops.  The gondoliers all promise not to sing.  Every street corner and intersection has a statue of some sort.
New Orleans Blues in the middle of Turkey

A city character, immortalised

Gondolas on the Porsuk River 
We visited the Archaeology Museum first, as we usually do, and we were touched by the grave stelae there - memorials by simple citizens for their husbands, wives and children.  One was for a chap who died when he was struck by lightning, which said "Well, enjoy yourself while you can because you don't know what's around the corner."  Another said" Live your life to the full because you can't bring anything you own here (to the tomb).  Another was put up by a lady for her husband Mytine, and her three sons (Polykronos, Phosphorus and Bubba - don't remember the last one) who were all "taken suddenly".
A circle of grave Stelae
They have a chariot set up in front of an interactive screen, like a race car video game, with leather reins that guide the horse.  You can drive around the ancient city, but it's a bit hard to control because the horse goes quite fast.  Lots of mud houses got bowled over and there's a very pissed off blacksmith in town, too.
Horse racing, 300BC
The tomb of King Midas is a bit south of here, about 65kms.

We found a nice bar, “Sleepless” in “Bar” Street, and took up a position each night on the street tables, having a beer and a wine before our dinner.  Beer was cold and the wine Carol was served was more than just generous, it was about two normal glasses and only 10TL.  Whatever time Happy Hour was, we seemed to be there for it.
Bar Street, Sleepless on the right
There is no Big Red Bus in Eskisehir so we got on the electric light rail.  According to the map, there are two lines, the red and the blue.  As we were heading to what we thought was a visit to Kent Park, with the Mayor’s latest innovation, an artificial beach, the tram took a righty when it should have taken a lefty.  We were greatly surprised to find we were on a third route which hadn’t made it onto the maps as yet and off to the furthest points of town we went.  Luckily, on the very last stop, a security chappy got on and took one look at us and thought “I don’t think they’re locals”.  He offered to show us where the closest crossover point was for the two lines and even got off the tram to guide us.  That’s Turkey all over.
Eskisehir's Beach
On the Sunday, we went for a wander along the canal/river to look at the bridges.  We found about 13 of these and whilst ordinarily you would pay heed to The Bridge of Sighs, Tower Bridge, Ponte Vecchio etc, and have scant regard for bridges in small cities, these are different.  In fact, each is different from the one before.  They are painted different colours, quite strikingly, have different ornamentation and also each has a different span method – and are supported in different ways.  Another Eskisehir tradition.

The Turquoise Bridge near our hotel

The Blue Bridge, next one up.

The White Lace Bridge

The Purple Bridge
There are about 13 of these - you get the idea.
We also went up to the old Ottoman quarter - a great tourist attraction here and full of visiting Turks and their families.  In the large mosque, there are workshops for artisans who carry on an old tradition of carving Meerschaum, found in the area (I always thought it was found in the Netherlands)

Ottoman houses in Odunpazari

Many are being restored completely

The biggest Meerschaum pipe you've ever seen.


Mostly we ate at the Lokantasis we found, but on our last night we dined in some splendour in the garden surrounds of Meze, a Lonely Planet recommendation.  It was very nice indeed and even though it’s one of the city’s best, it was still only TL70 or $35 for the two of us (no alcohol as we’d already had our drinks over at Sleepless)  Breakfast in our hotel wasn't to be dismissed lightly, either.  I was reliably informed that it was something I am not used to, healthy.
Madame Tadia's prepared breakfast
 Monday a.m. it was off to the train station and our first journey on a rocket train.  We had Business Class seats and they were very comfortable, with lots of space around them and an in-flight TV system.  Unfortunately, all the movies were dubbed into Turkish, not subtitled, so I was a bit lost.

Off to Ankara in 1hr, 10mins it was.

Monday, 11 August 2014

The Street of the Cold Fountain (Terry)

The Street behind the Hagia Sophia takes you back to the old days of the city. Soğukçeşme Sokağı (literally: Street of the Cold Fountain) is a small street with historic wooden houses in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, sandwiched in-between the Hagia Sophia and Topkapı Palace. The car-free zone street is named after the fountain situated at its end towards Gülhane Park.

We were walking along the street looking for a Geocache placed by a friend from Istanbul.  Tricky little cache, as it's placed in an alcove right outside a unit occupied by the street’s guards.  The street is iconic – there are 10 old Ottoman style houses in it, 9 of which are owned by the Turkish version of the RAC.  The 10th is a library owned by a Foundation set up by an Istanbul lawyer, who also donated the other 9 houses to the Touring and Automobile Club of Turkey.  (he was President, board member etc for years.)
Each house is named after a flower and has that flower planted outside it.

We couldn’t find the cache and gave up, walking down the street towards the bottom of the hill.  We stopped outside the library and I was reading out loud to Carol from the cache notes about the library.  Out of my view, but in Carol’s view, was a man in a window of the library.  He heard me reading and motioned to Carol to come to the door, which we did.  He invited us in to the library and gave us a private impromptu tour.  What a wonderful place to live! 
There were two floors that we were taken to and they are packed with reading desks and superb built-in bookcases, photos of old Istanbul and of a Greek church a little ways out of town.  He gave us old books to browse, showed us the charts and generally made us welcome in this very private environment.  His name was Zia and I can’t place the relationship to the library’s founder, Celik Gulersoy, as Mr Gulersoy never married and lived alone. 
Zia and Terry

I purchased a book from him on a famous Greek church in Istanbul (called, of course “Chora”) that was written by Celik Gulersoy in 1986.  He wrote many before his death in 2003. 

It was a wonderful experience to be able to see the library and the building’s artworks, a chance opportunity not given to many people.



Imagine a city that contains the whole population of Australia, concentrated on seven hills and spanning one of the world's major waterways, straddling Europe and Asia. Over the last couple of thousand years, it has been the centre of three empires, as Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul, centre of the Ottoman Empire. Apparently Istanbul has been in a state of decay and decline since the fall of the Ottomans, particularly when Ataturk decided to shift the capital to Ankara to break with the past. The writer Orhan Pamuk says the city's mood is "huzun", a kind of collective melancholy resulting from the awareness that one's days of greatness and beauty are all in the past. He says that Istanbulus cannot avoid daily contrasts between the remnants of empire and the ugly realities of the modern city. He was writing a decade ago, however, and for us the city seemed to be full of energy and life, with those glimpses of the past serving to deepen and enrich the experience of walking around the broad streets and steep narrow laneways of the city. You wander down a busy shopping street, for example, and nestled between a phone store and a boutique is a tiny old cemetery, its seven graveposts topped with stone turbans. The man with his golden shoe-shine stand, the simit seller and the sardine fishermen on the Galata Bridge have been there in some form or other for hundreds of years. Great monuments and museums, as well as bazaars, galleries, shops, gardens, restaurants and everything else you can think of, make this Turkey's social and cultural capital, even if the politicking happens in Ankara.

A popular T shirt slogan says "Istanbul: you call it chaos - we call it home". And for an outsider, particularly one from a small town, the chaos reigns supreme. Peak hour is something to behold, with buses, dolmuses, taxis, ferries, cars, bikes, pedestrians and even the odd brave horse and cart engaged in deadly combat, with sound effects. Yet it all works, and a couple of hours later a relaxed crowd is strolling the streets along the waterfront or shopping on Istiklal Street's endless pedestrian mall.

What follows is a short photo-stroll around the city, an attempt to capture some of its energy, contrasts, quirkiness and timeless beauty.

Ancient and modern Istanbul

 Spice markets
 Incredible treasures in the Archaeology Museum

 Blue Mosque
 Shopping frenzy in Istiklal Street
 Flower market, Taksim Square
 Layers of the city, overlooking the Bosphorous
 Ladies making manti, Turkish ravioli
 Beautiful Ottoman houses
Barbarossa Memorial

  It's all happening here.
 Fried sardine sandwiches, 7 TL
 Hagia Sophia, the Church of Heavenly Wisdom
 Fishing from the Galata Bridge
Colour in the alleyways
Classic sunset cityscape