Archive for December, 2010

Traveling Back in Time in the Turkish Countryside

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

21 – 24 September 2010, Safranbolu, Turkey

Regardless of how much we enjoyed our time in Istanbul, we were excited to move on. Prices in Turkey’s capital are higher than the rest of the country and we were curious to see how people live outside the city. Hoping for a respite from the large tour groups dominating Istanbul’s popular sites, we reserved a room in Safranbolu, seven hours east of Istanbul and more likely to be frequented by Turkish tourists than foreigners. Nestled along a picturesque canyon and filled with the country’s best preserved Ottoman architecture, Safranbolu seemed like a comfortable place to kick back for a few days.

Bus travel in Turkey is reputed to be efficient, affordable and comfortable but six months of miserable bus rides had left us feeling cynical. Expectations low, we waited for the bus to Safranbolu while enjoying our lunch of fruit and freshly baked bread. The bus pulled up right on time and we were thrilled to discover a modern bus with spotless interior, designated seats for each passenger and no one standing in the aisle. As the bus got going, we were overjoyed to find that it only made regularly scheduled stops rather than slowing down every five minutes to pick up passengers on the side of the road. The biggest shocker of all may have been the cleanliness of the bathrooms when we stopped for a break. We hadn’t seen bathrooms this clean since we left Japan! Normally after traveling by bus, we arrive at our destination feeling tired, cranky, dirty and sweaty but after seven hours of traveling on Turkey’s smooth roads, we arrived in Safranbolu feeling rested and content.

Safranbolu’s primary attraction is the old town and we spent much of our time simply wandering through the area’s narrow cobblestone streets. Filled with historic Ottoman wooden houses, many of which have been beautifully preserved, it was easy to envision the way Turkey may have once looked. September is the start of Safranbolu’s low season so it almost felt like we had the place to ourselves as we passed by countless sweet shops selling Turkish delight and small stores filled with locally made handicrafts. As we browsed through a blacksmith’s shop overflowing with unique metalwork, he seemed just as concerned with offering us tea and showing us pictures as he did with making a sale. This was one of our first encounters with Turkish hospitality and as we traveled throughout the country, we realized that situations like this are exceedingly common.

We woke to picture perfect blue skies on our last full day in Safranbolu. Eager to take advantage of the weather and curious to see the surrounding countryside, we filled our daypacks with the essentials and set off on foot from our hotel. Our final destination was Incekaya Aqueduct, about four miles from the city. We hoped to follow the gorge but never found a path so ended up walking through town instead. This was a blessing in disguise as it gave us the opportunity to see Safranbolu’s less touristy areas and interact with people along the way. We continued to be amazed by the friendliness and generosity of the Turks we met; everything from buying a bottle of water to glancing at our map resulted in friendly banter. At one point, an older man greeted us on the street and invited us to join him for tea. Stepping into a shaded courtyard filled with men smoking, drinking tea and playing Tavla we were greeted by a few curious stares but no one seemed to mind that we obviously weren’t regulars. Our companion did not speak English so we sipped our tea and communicated through hand gestures and smiles before he graciously paid the bill and we went our separate ways.

After reaching the outskirts of Safranbolu, we walked through a couple of tiny villages but never saw any signs pointing us in the direction of the aqueduct. Just as we began to doubt its existence, we rounded a corner and saw its arches looming high above the canyon walls. An impressive 116 meters long, Incekaya Aqueduct was once used to bring water to the area’s residents. Although it hasn’t been used for hundreds of years, it was restored in the 1790s and has retained its beauty. Having worked up an appetite, we found a spot in the shade and settled in for another lunch of fruit and freshly baked bread topped with peanut butter. Stomachs full, we crossed the gorge atop the narrow walls of the aqueduct and spent some time exploring the area. After taking photos and relishing the peacefulness of our secluded spot, we reluctantly headed back to Safranbolu.

Tracking the Mountain Gorilla

Monday, December 13th, 2010

8 – 12 September 2010, Uganda

After our stay at Byoona Amagara we were feeling recharged and ready for the real reason we’d come to Uganda: to track mountain gorillas. Our gorilla experience had actually started several weeks earlier when we arranged our tracking permits. The roughly 700 remaining mountain gorillas live in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda and in a group of three contiguous national parks in the Virunga Mountains spanning Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mountain gorillas live in family groups led by a dominant silverback male. Some of the gorilla families have been habituated, meaning the gorillas have become accustomed to regular contact with tourists. Each country sells daily permits to visit these habituated groups. In Uganda the permits are handled by the Uganda Wildlife Authority, and payment must be made in person with cash. We’d received mixed information about whether it was necessary to buy a permit in advance, so we decided to work with a friend of our overland tour leader to secure the permits for us. We sent him the money, including a ten percent commission, via Western Union. We were a little skeptical of the entire arrangement but once we arrived in Kampala we found that he not only existed, but that he’d bought our permits as promised.

Our bus trip from Kampala to Kabale brought us within 100 kilometers of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, but we were still several hours away from our actual entry point. Bwindi covers a relatively small area but travel around the park is slow because the roads are unpaved and deeply rutted. According to our guide book getting to the park was easy: any taxi driver in Kabale would know where to take us based on the gorilla group specified on our permit. As soon as we stepped off the bus we were bombarded by drivers offering their services. We showed our permit to one of the drivers and he confidently stated that he knew exactly where to drive us. Setting out for Byoona Amagara, we were relieved that our plans for Uganda and the gorillas were finally coming together.

Two days later our confidence slipped a notch as Allison, Paulo, and I stood waiting for the driver a full hour past the promised time. When he finally appeared he offered no coherent reasons for his belated arrival, but with neither a better option nor much time to spare we tossed our bags in his car and set out for the park. Our confidence slipped a little further when one of the car’s already bald tires went flat and was replaced with an equally bald spare. We hit rock bottom when we arrived at Nkuringo Gorilla Camp after dark, in the pouring rain, and were told by the owner that we’d been driven four hours in the wrong direction. If we didn’t delay we just might make it to our entry point by morning. Recurring theme of our trip: taxi drivers are the root of all evil.

Robert, the British owner of Nkuringo Gorilla Camp, sat us down for a hot meal and talked through our very limited options. Our chances of reaching our intended entry point were slim: we’d need to drive through the night, the roads were getting worse, and we had no spare tire. We didn’t even know if the driver, who never actually acknowledged his error and had strolled off to nap in his car, would take us there. Robert instead proposed a second option. The nearby Nshongi family had recently split when superordinate silverback Mishaya broke from the group, taking several other gorillas with him. The UWA wasn’t yet issuing advance permits for the newly formed Mishaya group but they were issuing them at their local office. Using cell phones, radios, and a motorcycle Robert was able to reach the park ranger, cut through several thick layers of Ugandan governmental red tape, and arrange for us to visit the Mishaya group.

The next morning, after a briefing by the rangers, we started our hike through dense jungle but on level, established trails. After an hour the terrain grew steep and after about three hours our guides had to clear their own trail with machetes. By this point we were also a little worried; the two advance trackers who’d left before us had yet to find the gorillas and we had only a couple more hours before we’d have to turn back. Our guide, Godfrey, left to help the trackers and we waited nervously for an hour before he finally returned with the news that they’d found the gorillas. After another hour of strenuous hiking we sighted two juveniles playing in a tree, although they quickly ran off. We struggled to follow but finally caught up with the Mishaya group when they slowed to rest on a hillside in the thick jungle. Rain started to fall as we peered through the foliage at Mishaya and his family. We watched for an hour as the adults rested and the young gorillas played in the trees. Our walk back to the ranger station followed an easier route but we arrived dirty, tired, and a little disappointed. We’d met other travelers whose moderate hike emerged to a clearing where they watched the gorillas under a sunny sky. After stumbling and crawling for nine hours we left Bwindi with only glimpses of the gorillas. Allison and I headed back to the camp while Paulo rejoined our esteemed driver for the first leg of his long journey back to Brazil.

We spent a day recuperating at Nkuringo Gorilla Camp before setting out on foot for for Kisoro, where we planned to stay for a few days before continuing on to Rwanda. Kisoro borders the Virunga Mountains and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, the second home to the mountain gorilla in Uganda. UWA doesn’t sell advance permits for Mgahinga because the gorillas occasionally cross into Rwanda. Still feeling like our experience in Bwindi was somehow lacking, we inquired at the park office and found that there was plenty of openings for gorilla tracking in Mgahinga. After an hour of number crunching we decided that our budget could be stretched to include a couple of additional tracking permits. The next day we took a taxi to the park and simply paid the ranger, avoiding all of the hassle that preceded tracking in Bwindi. To reach the gorillas we started with an easy uphill hike through farmland, and then walked another hour through an open secondary forest. We found the gorillas much as other travelers had described them: they were sitting in a clearing, and we had unobstructed views of the entire family.

As we walked down the mountain we reflected on our two experiences with the gorillas. Both were unforgettable. In many ways the gorillas are strikingly similar to ourselves, and looking into their eyes it’s not hard to imagine that there’s a kindred consciousness looking back. It’s tragic that these creatures have been pushed to the brink of extinction, although after seeing the poverty in the nearby villages it’s easy to understand why conservation hasn’t always been a top priority. In Mgahinga we had an easy hike and excellent views, but we also came to appreciate that in Bwindi’s primary forest we saw the gorillas in their true natural environment.

Check out the Gallery for more pictures from our time with the gorillas.

The Allure of Istanbul

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

16 – 21 September 2010, Istanbul, Turkey

We arrived in Istanbul early in the morning after a red eye flight from Uganda. Willing ourselves to stay awake during the ride into the city, we watched with bleary eyes as the city passed by the tram windows. Despite our fatigue, I was captivated by the beautiful old buildings lining the narrow cobblestone streets and the hundreds of minarets dotting the skyline. We checked into our hotel and were immediately impressed with the building’s character and cleanliness, as well as with amenities like hot water, comfortable beds and fast internet. After two months of camping and subpar hotels in Africa, we couldn’t help but feel spoiled.

Former capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires and the only city in the world to straddle two continents, Istanbul bears the mark of many cultures. With such a colorful and extensive history, there are seemingly endless options for places to visit and things to see in Turkey’s capital city. If we had visited Istanbul towards the beginning of our around the world journey, I have no doubt we would have run ourselves ragged trying to see as much as possible. However, our arrival in Turkey coincided with the six month mark of our trip. After half a year on the road, we had adopted a different attitude towards sightseeing. Rather than exhaust ourselves trying to visit all the major tourist sites, we moved at a leisurely pace and took time to simply enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of this extraordinary city.

During our five days in Istanbul, we spent the majority of our time in the neighborhoods of Sultanahmet and Beyoglu. Sultanahmet is Istanbul’s Old City and a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site filled with the city’s most famous sights. While Sultanahmet has the potential to be charming, its close proximity to the major tourist attractions means that the streets are filled with tour buses and the sidewalks packed with a nearly constant stream of tourists. During the day we braved Sultanahmet’s crowds in order to visit the sights but once the sun set we retreated to cosmopolitan Beyoglu for delicious food and a breather from the tourist crowds. Beyoglu’s best feature is Istiklal Avenue, a 3 kilometer long pedestrian street filled with shops, cafes, restaurants, galleries, pubs and theaters. The street looks and feels like State Street on steroids and is an ideal place to spend an evening wandering and people watching.

One of the most impressive sights we visited in Istanbul was Aya Sofia, the Church of the Divine Wisdom. Originally built in 537, it was later converted into a mosque by one of Turkey’s greatest conquerors. In 1935 it was declared a museum and is now Istanbul’s most famous monument. We didn’t think much of Aya Sofia from the outside so we were pleasantly surprised when we journeyed into the building’s interior. The massive domed ceiling is incredible and it was fascinating to see the contrast between the Christian images on the walls and the Islamic calligraphy on the dome. We spent more time in Aya Sofia than originally planned because there were so many things to appreciate including some impressive mosaics depicting the Virgin Mary, Jesus, saints, emperors and empresses. Covered in plaster when the building was converted to a mosque, some have been uncovered and restored or partially restored. Despite their fragile state it’s easy to appreciate how much time and effort clearly went into creating these masterpieces.

Across the street from Aya Sofia is the Basilica Cistern, once used to store water for the city’s palace and surrounding buildings. We descended the stairway to find a cavernous space filled with 336 marble columns supporting an arched ceiling. The columns were salvaged from ruined buildings and although they’re roughly the same size there is great variation in their styling. Two columns sit atop oddly oriented Medusa heads. The Basilica Cistern turned out to be one of our favorite sights in Istanbul; it’s beautifully preserved and despite the same crowds that fill every tourist sight in the city, the subterranean space felt somehow more hidden and untouched.

We made sure to visit a few of Istanbul’s other highlights, including the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the Spice Bazaar, and the Grand Bazaar. However, we most appreciated the city when we escaped the tourist surge and sought out areas frequented by locals. Turkey was significant as it marked our first visit to a predominantly Muslim country. It was interesting to see mosques throughout the city, women in headscarves and to hear the Islamic call to prayer reverberate through the neighborhoods. Not since Cape Town had we seen such a clean, beautiful and modern city. The food was also a welcome change, and Istanbul offered our first taste of Turkey’s abundance of fresh fruit and incredible bread. We entered Turkey with no definitive itinerary, and five days slipped by before we found the initiative to venture further afield.