Tuesday, April 26, 2011


I felt another case of The Dread coming on as I found myself traveling towards Cappadocia. I really knew nothing about the place except that I had been told I absolutely must go there by Laura in Urumqi, Jamie in Kazakhstan, Phil in an overpriced expat pub in Aktau, and every other traveler I'd met who'd been to or knew anything about Turkey.

And why not feel The Dread? Every other "must see" place had been overhyped and overcrowded and overcharged. The Dread was strong as I got off the bus in Goreme. It was a town built for tourists, with it's streets lined with tour shops, restaurants, souvenir stands and boutique hotels built into the volcanic rock cones that the region is famed for, known commonly as "fairy chimneys".

But The Dread soon receded! Cappadocia turned out to be one of the most stunning places I've been on this trip, and Goreme even turned out to be quaint and pleasant. And furthermore, I got my slacks sewn back up in five places after wearing them daily for almost three months for a mere seven dollars.

The best part about the whole region - and Cappadocia is a massive region and not just a canyon or town for those as ignorant as I was when I arrived - is that you can walk out of the most touristy town for 30 minutes and be completely alone out of eye and earshot of anyone else, away from the coachloads of tourists the place unsurprisingly attracts.

The region is a result of a shitload of volcanic ash that compressed itself into layers of rock of varying hardnesses, and was subsequently eroded into canyons walled by smooth fingers of crumbling rock cleaved and divided by dry water sluices, sheltering fields of dick-shaped stone pillars. And nearly everything was carved out by a number of ancient peoples, many of whom were early Christians that fled here to escape persecution, that built well-organized cave homes with pigeon roosts, windows, shelves, staircases, and light and air shafts. And that's not to mention the churches with disintegrating murals or underground cities built for protection.

I spent one day hiking without much aim through a number of canyons, climbing up and down the walls at will, hiking over the spongy ground to the next canyon to slide and scrape down, seeing only one other couple hiking around. The canyon floors were covered in long grass cut only by well-trodden foot paths, small trees were blooming with what looked like white and pink cherry blossoms. The natural beauty, the mysterious history behind the abandoned dwellings, and the absolute silence and solitude had me in awe at every turn.

I spent another day hitch-hiking a 50 miles or so in a loop that brought me from Goreme through the city of Nevsehir to an expansive underground city that housed several thousands of people during times of strife, to crumbling canyon with a pristine river running along the flat grassy bottom below vertical walls spotted with empty carved windows and doors, and back through Aksaray to Goreme.

I spent another day exploring a short network of canyons so riddled with multi-floor houses and churches that the entrance was walled off and you had to pay to get into the "open-air museum".

Cappdocia is touristy as hell, and the natural beauty is undeniable. But the real beauty is that despite the busloads of mononational group tourists, you don't have to see anyone else if you don't want to. The Dread has no place here.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Georgia Photos

I've uploaded more photos! On the right, you can find the link to my photo album, or just click here.

Georgia was a really beautiful place. I only spent four or five days there because I thought I had to rush towards Istanbul to make the start of the course I'm taking. I definitely want to go back. Tbilisi might be the most beautiful and enjoyable city I've been in.

A Train Slideshow Movie

I really enjoyed the trains in Turkey. The ride from Erzurum to Kayseri was better in terms of comfort (an empty 1st class cabin rather than an empty 2nd class cabin) and scenery, but I didn't take many photos from that. Here are photos from the train from Kayseri to Istanbul, with the song I listened to over and over again, since it seemed to fit my mood perfectly. It was a fantastic ride.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Azeri Photos!

I have uploaded more photos! It's an album from Azerbaijan. It's really easy for me now. I have my own computer, a reliable connection, and my own place to live, but I'm still busy.

I'll upload Georgia and up-to-date Turkey photos later. I wouldn't want to do it all at once and give my loyal audience too much to handle would I? You can find the link, as always, on the right-hand sidebar.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sick, For Once

It had been about six and a half months of traveling with nothing worse than mild hangovers and early stages of colds that fizzled out when I finally started feeling bad. Not a bad run.

It was also right after Jamie and I got off the ferry from Kazakhstan and were standing around on the sidewalk outside Baku port, waiting for a couch-surfing friend of his to pick us up. We had no idea how long it would take, and as we were standing on the sidewalk the headache, bodyache, sorethroat, and general flu symptoms that had been minor enough to ignore started getting stronger.

A semi-truck stenciled with the seductive eyes of a woman pulling a hijab across her face turned in toward the port, and a young man walked by with a baby rabbit in a box, sheltered against the wind. Cars kept zooming by on the one-way street, and it seemed like our ride would never come.

It was early in the day still. I just wanted to shower in hot, hot water and go to sleep. Jamie was joking that he would get in nothing but a Benz or BMW, and that the each approaching luxury vehicle was bound to be ours.

When Jamil finally showed up, he was in fact driving a Benz. A slightly older model, but Mercedes nonetheless. I got my shower and got my nap, and woke up feeling good enough to head out of the house to have dinner downtown and hang out at his girlfriends apartment.

That was a mistake. The good feeling I had after the nap didn't last long. I suffered through dinner in a brick-walled restaurant by fountain square, and when we moved to his girlfriend's bohemian pad, I just took a nap on a mattress in one of the high-ceilinged, empty rooms while everyone else drank cheap wine, beer, and chatted by candlelight.

The next day I went out with Jamie, Jamil, his girlfriend, and one of her roommates on a little day excursion outside of Baku. I wasn't up for it, but felt I had to participate in some sort of social role since I was taking the hospitality of a stranger.

It was a bit exhausting but turned out to be a good choice. We made an unscheduled stop at a showy mosque on the side of a busy road, and waited forever for the girlfriend's roommate to finish taking pictures and asking questions. He was some sort of young journalist.

We made another stop to trudge across industrial wasteland to try to find a large sculpture of Lenin's head out behind some refinery. We didn't find it, but stumbled upon an old Soviet tank graveyard, and crept in past the rusty fence to take pictures, climb over the rusty hulks, and generally fuck around. We waited again for the journalist kid as he ran back to take more photos of shit he could've taken pictures of when we were there the first time.

We finally made it to our original destination: Qobustan, home to a bunch of petroglyphs carved onto ancient rocks in what used to be a verdant forest thousands of years ago, but what was now just rocks on a hillside. It was interesting, but underwhelming.

Then we went to see some mud volcanoes. The pressure of natural gas below the surface caused gray mud to bubble up to the surface and occasionally fart its way out in bubbles and burps. We tromped around for awhile, and I got mildly splattered with mud when I was standing downwind of one little volcano that Jamie threw a rock into.

The journalist kid was last to get the car once again. I hadn't been too keen on trudging all around the Azeri wastelands, behind factories and over dirt hills painted in rust and grays and browns, and his journalistic dalliances had took up a lot of time. Just doing his job, can't complain too much, but I was still sick and had plans to meet a friend for dinner in town that had to be delayed, and was tired and still felt miserable.

I was feeling better when I met Paul in fountain square, splattered with mud in the only pants and shirt I owned. I especially felt better when we decided to eat Indian food. God, that shit is good, and I hadn't had it for too long.

Paul was a champ and paid for the dinner, an outrageous $50 with a couple of beers each. We caught up on our travels. I last saw him in Yangshuo, and now here he was again, living in Baku for an engineering internship making more money on per diem allowances than monthly wages.

The next day, Jamie hit the road early, hitching back to London. I walked around the old city in a state of renewed flu misery while Jamil was out at work. I took in the old sights and tried to enjoy the beauty as best I could. The city was truly a sight for sore eyes after eight days in Aktau, even in my feverish state.

I half-napped in a public toilet, and walked along the promenade which is paved with stones that are exceedingly bright and painful in the sunshine. I went to the top of the Maiden's Tower, and took photos in the alleys of the old town. I did my best.

By the time I got on the train that night, after fearing Jamil wouldn't be home in time to let me in to pack up and make the train, I was ready to sleep. It was a Soviet train, with tiger-print benches and mattresses with a maroon floral pattern straight out of the Victorian era. I had a kupe cabin to myself. It was sparse and simple, but clean and and even had memory foam pillows. I really indulged myself and took two pillows since I had the whole thing to myself. I regret only that I wasn't well enough to drink beer by myself.

I fell asleep to the rocking of the train, and woke up near the Georgian border free of fever and sickness.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Best Trains Ever

I entered Turkey from Georgia by the black sea. There are no trains up there, so I had the good sense to take a bus - of which there are plenty in Turkey - to the nearest train station.

This meant a 9 hour bus ride from Hopa - an alleged hooker town according to my young Norweigian friend - to Erzurum overnight. The bus was new and clean, but it's still a bus.

We stopped about every 30 minutes, and the open door letting the cold air in kept waking me up. It was miserable. I got dropped off in the middle of the night at an empty bus station in Erzurum, and got hosed for 10 Turkish Lira for a 5 minute cab ride to the station since I had no idea where it was and it was 3:30AM.

This is the situation I left when I got on the train at 5:30 in the morning. I had unknowingly bought a first class ticket for about $40 for the 16 hour ride. I had my own cabin to myself, with a little fridge and sink. The car attendant made my bed and gave me snacks. The train was modern and new and clean. There was a rug on the floor.

The window was enormous and crystal clear. It's surprising how big a difference something simple like a large, clean window can make to the enjoyment of the countryside.

And the countryside itself was spectacular: craggy mountain passes, muddy rivers, rolling hills with tongues of lingering snowfall.

The dining car was a bit overpriced, but beer and food were available, and I ate and drank since I brought no supplies with me.

I met a German kid who also had his own cabin, and we chatted in the dining car and I kicked his ass in chess due to an egregious oversight he made that gave me his queen. That seems to be the only way I win chess games.

I didn't want to get off when I arrived in Kayseri, bound for Cappadocia. The train was that comfortable and nice.

After my time in Cappadocia, I was happy to get back on the same train, the Dogu Express, Kars to Haydarapasa in Istanbul. It's not that I didn't like Cappadocia - it was fantastic - it's just that getting on a train is a real pleasure. The feeling of movement, the knowledge that you're going somewhere and all you have to do is sit back and read and rest, the luxury of space and being able to walk around.

I rode second class to Istanbul, about $20 for an 18 hour ride. My cabin could sleep 4 people, but I had it all to myself.

The best part about Turkish trains is that evidently, no one takes them. That means there are no crowds, no rush, no crammed compartments.

The second class bed wasn't quite as nice as the first class, but it was all to myself. Who can complain?

The car was second to the rear, in front of the first class car. The window was still big, the landscape was still pretty, though more development was obviously to be expected as we approached Istanbul.

I met no one this ride, but got to recline in my bed, reading Atlas Shrugged, and occasionaly entertaining some of the few other passengers with my presense as a foreigner.

Great views, cheap tickets, empty cabins, smooth rides. Turkish trains have been the best yet.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Luck and the Ferry

Bad luck is all too obvious when traveling: I miss a train; a consulate is closed for a national holiday; I point at some Chinese characters on a menu and get a grilled cow dick wrapped around a hotdog on a stick; someone in the bunk across from me snores.

Good luck is a bit harder to spot, and thus less appreciated. When things are going well, I just assume that's the way it should be, damn it. I try not to think about how something good could have gone bad because that's far too easy.

Jamie and I were hoping for some good luck for a change on a Wednesday morning in Aktau. I'd been in town a week, and we were due to pick up our visas. The Azeri consulate is the direct opposite of the Kazakh consulate in Urumqi: empty, orderly, civilized, comfortable, pleasant. We had our visas before lunch, a sign of things to come, perhaps.

We were walking around that one-horse port town of Aktau, thinking of how great it would be to get a phone call saying, "Hi, a boat is leaving in three hours. You should have time to pack, buy a bit of food and get to the port. Can you make it?" We were teasing ourselves the way hungry men describe their favorite meals to each other.

Then my phone rang. I was expecting this: a ringing and vibration from my pocket that, once I looked at the ID and saw it was one of our Kazakh friends in town, would smash our instantly risen hopes.

It was our friend Bakyzhan. We were deflated. Then he told us the Avon girls at the travel agency had called him instead of me and there was a boat. We were over-joyed: salvation from somewhere unexpected!

I immediately made phone calls to say goodbye to our local friends, and sent this to one of our taxi drivers: "Hi Saken, our boat to Baku is leaving tonite. It was nice meeting you! Goodbye and good luck with the dog fights!" He picked us up one day then put his bleeding half Caucus Shepherd, half Alibi into the trunk to bring to the vet.

Looked like our luck was changing. We ran to the travel agency, ran to the ATM to get cash, ran back to pay the Avon girls, and ran to Bakyzhan's apartment to pack our stuff. We stocked up on food and souvenirs, and got to the port, making sure to say hi to the truckers that Jamie hitched into town with, and who were all still waiting for their own boat a week later, getting drunk on cheap vodka and watching films in a curtained cab.

All we had to do was wait an extra 40-plus hours in the port waiting room beyond the scheduled departure (thick fog delaying on- and offload of cargo - we called it Gypsy Breath), constantly bothering people because no one could give us straight info in English. Then the easy part of assuming a confident and commanding posture to convince the border official to stamp me out of the country even though I had failed to get some redundant registration stamp earlier in Kazakhstan. Then we just had to spend a night on the boat before we actually set sail - more Gypsy Breath problems.

Fortunately we had our own cabin after Jamie threw a conniption fit about having to share a room with an Azeri guy whom he thought might snore. Our place was complete with woolen Soviet blankets, cold and cold water, an opening porthole window, and orange and plastic wood decor; a interior style that truly said, "Goodbye Kazakhstan, and bon voyage!"

Monday, April 4, 2011

More Photos - Finally!

It's been a long dry spell. I have finally managed to upload photos though.

I've skipped my return trips to Lao and China, because I don't have those photos with me at the moment, so lay off.

Instead, you get to see Kazakhstan; perhaps more interesting?

I blame the long delay on unreliable and sparse Internet access throughout Kazakstan.

Click here, or on the link to the right, as always.

Is The Love Gone?

I noticed a disturbing trend recently. I was in the one-horse port town of Aktau, Kazakhstan, a thoroughly drab and uninteresting place. I realized I had been looking forward to leaving nearly every country I had been in for the last several months.

This is not a good sign for a traveler. Was the love gone?

I'd been waiting for days and days in Aktau for a ferry that runs without a regular service to Azerbaijan. One must rely on some pretty girls that work in the travel agent/Avon beauty shop to call you up on short notice whenever the boat pulls in, which could be today or next week.

The shore of the Caspian is littered with bottles and garbage, everything is expensive beacause it's an oil town, and there is nothing to do. Really nothing. In Aktau, they don't even have street names. Everything is labeled by district, building number, and then apartment. An address reads like a prison number: 22-7-84.

Well I got to thinking. Before I was dying to leave Kazakhstan, I was in China dying to leave for Kazkakhstan, and before that I was in Lao dying to leave for China, and before that I was in Thailand dying to leave for Lao, and before that I was in Lao again, dying to leave for India via Thailand.

It did not seem like a good pattern to me.

But fear not! I simply had grand ideas about how much fun I'd have in the next place. I'm in Azerbaijan now, wishing I could stay longer, but a 5-day transit visa is limiting my choices. Baku is a beautiful city, even in a mildly feverish state.

I look forward not to leaving, but to arriving at my next destinations: Tbilisi, Georgia, where I'll relax for a couple days before moving on to Turkey where I'll be for at least five weeks of studying in Istanbul.

The love is not gone.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Great Success!

Contrary to my general opinion on long-distance buses, I enjoyed the ride from Urumqi to Almaty very much.

The best part was that I was leaving China, which I was fed up with, mostly due to unbearable train rides of inconceivable length, the frustrating pursuit of a baffling girl, Kafka-esque visa processes, a long-ignored desire to move westward, and the overwhelming omnipresence of gray sprawls and humanity.

The bus had only two rows of bunks, making each wider and more comfortable than the three-rowed buses I had previously been on in China. The passengers were Kazakh, making them less prone to spitting, screaming on cell phones, and smoking on the bus.

Leaving Urumqi, I felt wonderful, thinking that I had gotten a lot out of the city, and I had nothing to regret about leaving. Reclining on my bed, I watched as a young boy clomped through snow in shoes far too large for him. Two pairs of beautiful Uighur girls approached each other on the street and kissed the others on their cheeks in perfect unison. I said goodbye to Chinese characters, BYDs, and filthy icicles.

I had plenty to read, the 1200 dense pages of Atlas Shrugged, and a headlamp to light up the pages when the sun fell.

Exiting China through their border, I was once again held up, my passport scrutinized, the supervisor called over to clear me. I expected it at this point. Entering Kazakhstan, a guard pulled me aside, filled out my form for me, and had me skip everyone else in line. “Welcome to Kazakhstan!” another said as he waved me through the exit gate.

It seemed like as soon as we got into Kazakhstan, the sky was blue and there were snowy peaks in the distance. We passed untamed open land beyond lines of trucks waiting to clear customs and get into China.

The weather changed from spring warmth, to gusty winds, to rain, and eventually snow.

The people on the bus were nice to me. I stood out, but not as a freak to be gawked at, but as someone to be interested in. People talked to me instead of wordlessly taking my photo, and one guy bought me a meal at a rest stop because I hadn’t changed any money yet.

When we arrived in Almaty, snow had begun falling. I had the phone number of a CouchSurfer, but no address, and no phone on which to call, and no money with which to buy a SIM card. I wandered around in the darkness for a bit before some of the passengers insisted on putting me into a sort of taxi. They threw some luggage into a massive van, and a kid drove me to an ATM, then let me use his phone to call my host, and dropped me off, no charge.

Not a bad welcome into Kazakhstan.