Yes it’s us again.
Well we are back in Samsun after nearly two weeks away visiting Anatolia – the ancient name for Asiatic Turkey, then into Georgia and Armenia. This has been a rather epic trip as we covered so much ground in the space of a short period of time, but oh so interesting if not a little crazy at times. We have walked to the back door of Turkey and through the pages of history that go with it. We were surprised by the startling variety of landscapes, from stark to forested mountains, deep gorges, steppes – wide grassy treeless plains - and highland pastures. We have again seen Mount Ararat, this time closer and from the Armenian side. The last time was from the Iranian side. Our visit into Georgia and Armenia gave us a wealth of historical fortresses, monasteries, churches and ancient ruins. We have visited museums, monuments and memorials. As these countries sit between the East and the West it seems everyone has invaded, tried to settle, and traded with this part of the world, each leaving their legacy with some astonishing sites.
We decided that we were getting a little late in the season to go inland to Ankara for visas, then return to SHAMAL and continue sailing along the Turkish coastline and then into Georgia. Plan B was to go from Ankara across Anatolia by train, then cross the border into Georgia by bus somewhere, then into Armenia, returning to Georgia and heading to the Black Sea coast, then travel back along the coastline into Turkey and back to SHAMAL in Samsun.
We started this section of travel at the new bus station on the outskirts of Samsun for the trip to the capital Ankara. Ankara is where the embassy for the Ukraine is located, and we were going to be blowing our budget here by fast tracking our visas from 15 days down to 3, at a cost of $US 170 each, but we have come this far and it would be such a shame to miss it out because we had not read the visa requirements. E.U. and U.S. citizens do not need a visa whereas Kiwis and Australians do. The trip to Ankara took five and a half hours, but it was motorway nearly the whole way and the buses are very modern and comfortable. After leaving the Black Sea region and its greenery, we travelled into central Anatolia passing through rolling hill country and alluvial plains. Acres of sunflowers and corn were waiting to be harvested whereas the grain crops – wheat, barley chickpeas etc. had already been bought in. We also passed vegetable crops, but saw few animals.
On arriving into Ankara one of our fellow passengers was concerned as to where we would stay and decided to take in upon her-self to guide us to the Metro and head us off towards our hotel. We had no problems with the language and people were always willing to show us the way. Our three nights in the capital was plenty – another big city, but the following morning – Monday - after our visit to the Ukraine embassy where we dropped off our passports, and being assured we could pick them up on Wednesday afternoon, we decided to make the most of our stay there.
We set of to visit the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations. This is a superb museum with the most wonderful collection of artefacts from many of Anatolia’s archaeological sites. The gold jewellery which dates back to B.C. was stunning. Not only that, it is housed in a beautifully restored 15th century covered market. On our way back to the hotel I found a Starbucks – oh that made a wonderful change from the Turkish coffee, where you really only end up with half a cup as the rest is grounds, and, I had even reverted back to Nescafe sacs where the coffee, milk and sugar are all in one!! I made sure we passed Starbucks on numerous occasions during our stay in Ankara.
The next morning it was off to breakfast, the usual cucumber, tomatoes, olives, cheeses, hardboiled eggs and a type of luncheon meat which was bright pink so we did not eat that, bread, jams and tea, and coffee by special request. By the end of the two weeks, with only one hotel giving us more of a continental breakfast, Alec had really had enough of eating out!!! Later that morning we headed on out to visit Anit Kabir. This is the monumental mausoleum, museum and peace gardens in memory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who was born in Salonika ( Thessaloniki ) which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. He was the Turkish military hero at Gallipoli during the First World War, and then became the saviour of the Turkish nation, which at the time was the crumbling Ottoman Empire, by leading the people to impressive victories and finally full independence. He was leader of Turkey until 1938 when he died at the age of 57. Alec has just finished the book ‘Ataturk: Rebirth of a Nation’, which was very detailed about his life. At the entry gate we were met by one of the security guards who asked us where we came from, them welcomed us by saying, Kia Ora. Funny the places you bump into people who do know something of New Zealand. We spent most of the afternoon there as the place is huge. It was really really hot outside and lovely and cool inside, besides the visit through the museum was very interesting.
Wednesday, and in the afternoon we were to pick up our passports. We had been to the railway station to see about tickets to a place called Kars, not too far from the border with Georgia. Yes the train was going but it could be full due to the end of Ramadan, and their holiday was just about to start. We did not want to risk buying tickets yet, just in case our passports were not ready. We decided to head to the embassy early to see if they were. ‘Yes’, by midday we had them back in our little hot hands - with visas. It is always a comfort to have your passport back. We raced off to the train station and ‘Yes’ there was a double sleeper car still available. Great, so with tickets in hand as well, we relaxed in a lovely park opposite the station for the rest of the afternoon till the train departed at 6.00pm.
It was to be a 25 hour trip covering 1,100ks, a rather slow train, but we were able to see so much. The Turks are in the process of building high speed trains, but we really did enjoy this slower trip. We had our meals in the dining car which had huge panoramic windows each side so I did not miss a thing. After a rather restless night, quite a different motion to the boat, we woke to find we were going alongside the Euphrates River. Along the river banks grow reeds and smallish trees, and also poplar trees seem to thrive here. Just inland from the river the countryside is rugged and rolling and very dry and brown. In places small bushes cover some of the hills. This area is so hot in summer, but freezing in winter. We passed a couple of dams, one still under construction. These are causing a lot of controversy with Iraq which is downstream and also depends on its waters.
Later we were on the open steppes and high pasture lands. Grain crops, corn and lucerne hay is grown here, along with fruit trees and vegetables. Towns and small villages are dotted along the line, but we really are out in the vast wildness in places. The villages are still quite poor and it was interesting to see the old fashion methods of harvesting still being used. Tractors were used to cut the hay, but then a horse towing a tedder for turning the hay was used. In some places it was made into bales by machine, but in other it was raked by hand and gathered in heaps and put on trailers to be brought into stacks in the village. Also the animal dung is collected and put out to dry in flat brick shapes, then stacked to be used as fuel for the winter as wood is very scarce in these parts. The people live in villages here, not out in individual homes on their farms.
|Dung Plies, North Eastern|
High mountain ranges, some still with snow on their tops, break up the steppes. Before Kars we climb again and passed through pine forests. Kars spreads out onto the plains from a range of hills, and has a river flowing through it. On one of the rocky outcrops stands Kars Castle built in 1152 by the Saltuk Turks. But the town is said to have been first settled around 130B.C.
On an evening walk through the town, a local pulled over in his car and invited us to
have tea with him at a tea house. He use to live and work in Germany but due to racial tension against the Turks he had returned home. With little English spoken we managed to pull ourselves away after an hour of talking and solving the problems of his country. I am not too sure if Alec’s input was of a great help!!!! Then later that evening on our way home from dinner another young man asked where we were from. When Alec said New Zealand, he said ‘ your great Grandfather and my great Grandfather met at Canakkale’. He was talking about the Gallipoli campaign. Actually it was Alec’s Great Uncle who was killed there.
From Kars, with a couple of European guys who like out of the way places, we hired a driver who took us to the ancient Armenian capital of Ani. It lies 45km east of Kars right on the Turkish side of the Armenian border!! I should say the ancient ruins – earthquakes and wars destroyed much of Ani, but unfortunately the Muslims decided it should be flattened, and did their very best to do so. You drive across the steppes, then there before you stand the stunning ruins of the ancient walls and ramparts of the once thriving city. Turks now see it as a historical site and have tried to restore parts of it.
Ani’s population was approximately 100,000 as it was one of the important cities on the east west silk route. Once through the partially restored city gates you look out over the ruins of churches and cathedrals among the long grasses. It is quite eerie but also breath-taking. We wandered about the ruins for about three hours climbing to the Citadel to get a good view over what is left of the city. Inside the Big Cathedral, which is one of the buildings to be still pretty much intact, we found a cow resting out of the sun in one of the niches – see photo. Alec wanted to know if it was Christian or Muslim cow, as the Cathedral was used by both!! We also saw the cave dwellings outside the city. One third of the city was protected by a deep gorge which now forms the border between Turkey and Armenia. Border Guards were present in their lookout towers on the other side. We had been told not to venture up to the Citadel or beyond as this area is out of bounds, but others were doing so, so we didn’t feel that it was a threat. I got some great photos from the Citadel.
The following morning it was off to the local bus station to find transport to the border with Georgia. A country with a population of 4.5million who gained independence with the breakup of the U.S.S.R. in 1991. We could not enter Armenia which is closer to Kars, as the border crossings between Turkey and Armenia are still closed. It is all to do with the genocide where 1.5 million Armenians were killed starting in 1915, but the Turks refuse to admit saying they died of disease and starvation. This issue is still not resolved hence the borders are still closed. The countries still trade, but via routes through Georgia.
We were taken by a Dolmus -mini bus - to the town of Ardahan in a corner of north-eastern Turkey, and there waited for the bus which comes through from Istanbul. It never arrived!! There were four of us, Alec and I, a German back packer and a young Georgian man returning home. Sometime later another mini bus arrived with a rather grumpy driver and his ‘friend’ who were to take us through to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. Oh help, the trip to the border was horrific. Not too much time to admire the scenery as you were watching the road for the driver. You would have thought it was 'one way' as we drove on both sides of the road. Out on the straight bits it was foot flat to the floor!! There was no way he could sit behind another vehicle. No we had to pass no matter where – corners, brows of hills and the works!! And that cell phone!! This is a place I would have thought we would have had no coverage, but no he had it glued to his ear, so that meant only one hand on the wheel. We arrived at the border post two hours later exhausted but alive.
On the final approach to the border down a very winding road we drove past over a hundred trucks waiting in line for their turn to be checked through. Dozens of those were Iranian registered tankers. So much for the UN sanctions. I don’t think they were returning for another load of milk!!!! More like another load of oil. We piled out of the mini bus and through passport control. Oh dear we arrived behind two busloads of Iranians on their way home. The Turkish side was quite straight forward, but the Georgian side, we had an Immigration Officer having a bad day. He wanted silence – from a crowd of Iranians, no way. So he would hop out of his booth every so often and yell at the top of his voice and then stand there and glare at us all.
|North Eastern Anatolia|
Three hours later we had been processed and went off to find our mini bus, vehicles are processed with their drivers through another channel. No mini bus and no driver. He had arrived at the border without his paper work – on purpose – as he did not want to go any further!! We found this out from our young Georgian friend. Interesting. We had paid to go all the way, but thank goodness in this part of the world transport is nice and cheap. Now our young Georgian returning home could speak for us which was most helpful. He told us the Turkish driver had abandon us – great!! He phoned the mini bus company. Not sure about that conversation. I tell you we were in the middle of nowhere. Not a town or village in sight, just a remote border post. Next the four of us were bundled into a car and driven to a petrol station just up the road. We were each asked for a couple of dollars. Not sure what for but we handed it over thinking we would get to the next town. No, we were told to get out of that car and into another. I was then handed a sum of money which I think was a refund on our bus ticket. Then the petrol pump attendant hopped in and drove on with just the three off us. Here our Georgian friend left us. We thought that it was a bit strange that the petrol pump attendant would take us to Tbilisi as that is a five hour trip. Well about seven minutes down the road we had just passed another car and pulled over and were told to hop out and go with this new fellow. His English was not the best but we understood we would be taken to the next town about 25ks away called Akhaltsikhe. That was another interesting ride. He had his daughter with him who had her head out the car window being sick most of the way. Alec pipes up and says ‘do you think this guy is into people smuggling!! - Thanks Alec, well we are in a bit deep now. On that section of the trip we passed a number of churches and statues, and each time we did the driver took his hands off the wheel and crossed himself. On one occasion he had his mobile in his left hand, was crossing himself with his right hand, hence no hands on the steering wheel !!! In due course we did arrive safely in the town and were dropped off at a boarding house for the night. Meals not included. Welcome to Georgia!!!!
We are travelling with minimum luggage thank goodness. We each have a small back pack. Just a change of clothes and basic toiletries. Well a chance to look at another new place. Alec and I walked the streets of Akhaltsikhe to find dinner, don’t think they eat out much here as we only found one restaurant open and it was very basic. After a ‘sort of meal’ we went off to find a market to get some fruit for breakfast. The boarding house was very basic and reasonably clean, but we were so tired that we were grateful to get a good night’s sleep. The name Akhaltsikhe means New Castle, and there was a castle on the hill overlooking the town. Its population is 46,000 so it was not too small. It was very Orthodox Christian with statues everywhere and a big church dominating the centre of town.
|Soviet Style Apartments,|
Next morning it’s back to the bus stop. We buy another ticket and within an hour are on board another minibus heading for Tbilisi. Well if we are to use the local transport system we had better get used to the driving, and "quick smart". That is the way they drive here. Chain smoke, cell phone in the other hand, foot flat to the floor, no time for photos Ann, and that was a pity as we did pass interesting and quirky sights. People were selling fruit and vegetables on the side of the road, and one town had hammocks of every size, shape and colour out on display which would have made a nice picture – not to be. The other was a guy holding up a humongous live hare by its ears for sale – not a shot of that either. Never mind still very interesting. We had dropped from the high grounds of Turkey to greener lands and more forested areas. On one section of this drive we passed through a very pretty valley with huge blackberry bushes dotted along the roadside. Families were out with a variety of containers, including the children, collecting the plump ripe berries. I had to chuckle as it brought back memories of my childhood when Mum and Dad would take my two brothers and me out on one of these “picking expeditions”. Older brother John with his sheath knife spent more time hacking the noxious weed away, so his container may contain just enough to cover the bottom. Younger brother Murray would return with his token 4-5, but a purple mouth and tongue as “fresh is best” I think that must have been his motto!!
On arrival into the capital we made our way to a beautiful boutique hotel in the heart of the old city with a price to go with it. We had been passed on its name by a fellow yachtie, and felt we had earned a little luxury. As it was early afternoon we dropped off our bags and headed out to see the city. It was founded in the 5th century and the old city with its narrow winding alleys, beautiful old churches, caravanserais, bathhouses, and traditional balconied houses makes for a gorgeous place to wander through. We also walked the Rustaveli Avenue which by contrast is wide and tree lined with cafes and fine old 18th century buildings.
Here we found the Georgian National Museum. Now I thought we had seen a beautiful collection of B.C. gold jewellery in the museum in Ankara, but this collection was startling. I also learnt a little more about our friend Jason who went in search of the Golden Fleece. As streams in the Kingdom of Colchis – present day Georgia – contained gold dust, the way it was collected was to place a shaggy sheepskin fleece into the stream thus collecting the gold particles as the water flowed through it. See the story just may have more truth to it than first believed to have?
|Sculptures on a bridge, Tbilisi|
This is where Alec had his lovely breakfast. Fresh fruits, cereal and yogurt. Then we were on the move again. Back to the bus station to find transport to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. It is only a small landlocked country today, but in ancient times stretched between the Caspian and Mediterranean Seas. It has a population of 3.2 million and claimed to be the first Christian Nation on earth in the year A.D. 301. It became independent from Russia in 1991. Since then it has had a war over a province with its neighbour Azerbaijan.
Yes another mad driver. Once at the border it was all out of the bus again and through immigration. We needed to buy a visa here, but it was only 6 euros each. This time the bus was waiting for us!! We then drove through a gorge for about two hours with a river flowing through and steep wooded hills on each side. Also lots of old Soviet era factories which were now abandoned. It looks like that when the Russians walked out there was no more use for them. This area seemed quite poor. We learnt that the economy benefits today from cash coming in from the millions of Armenians who live overseas.
We then drove out onto another high plateaux where hay and grain crops were being harvested. This time we saw hardly any machinery. It was being cut still with scythes by hand and turned with a pitch forks and gathered in using horses and trailers. Again the mountain tops were still snow clad. Another harsh climate here. We dropped onto lower plains outside Yerevan and there in the distance in the haze stands Mt Ararat. It is the sacred symbol of the Armenian nation, the Armenian statehood and the lost territories – to Turkey - of western Armenia. Quite sad really as the Armenian nation has such strong ties with the mountain and the lands around it.
After being dropped off at the bus station we made our way to Republic Square in the centre of town. First we needed a cold drink and the internet to look for a room. We sat in a street café outside the Marriott Hotel, ordered two fresh lemon juices and two tonic waters. Once all finished we got the bill – 22 euros – or $NZ 34 !!!!!!!! No that can’t be right. The Wi-Fi was free. No, the bill was right. One lives and learns don’t they.
|Sardarapat Memorial outside|
Next morning we hired a taxi and driver and off we went to see some sites. The taxi was a new Lada - shaped a bit like an old Hillman Hunter. The taxi even had WiFi , and the meter was in the rear vision mirror. Alec was impressed. He could use his Google earth map on the iPad as we were driven around. Plenty of Cathedrals, Monasteries, and the Memorial at the site of the 1918 Turkish invasion where the Armenians stopped them. It was a long hot morning and we had walked for miles, so the afternoon was spent relaxing. The climate here is also one of extremes with winter temperatures dropping to -30 degrees Celsius and summer temperatures to +41 degrees Celsius.
|Ruins of a Cathedral|
After breakfast the following morning we walked to the Museum of the Armenian Genocide. There is enough proof to say that it really did happen!!! The afternoon saw us catching a mini bus back into Georgia, but this time we took a different route. I asked the driver if I could sit in the front with him so I could take photos. At first he said no, but about half an hour out he stopped the bus and told me to climb in with him. Not sure now if that was the right move. He found it amusing that I wanted to put my seat belt on and proceeded up the road at high speed, just to give me my first thrill I think. Then he decided to point out things I should take photos of. We had different ideas on that but I took shots anyway just to appease him. We were going so fast most pictures just came out as a blur anyway. He was also smoking the whole time, and after the first packet of cigarettes I felt as if I had smoked the whole bloody lot with him as well – second hand smoke from his.
We went up past Lake Sevan which really is a beautiful alpine lake situated at an altitude of approximately 2000 meters above sea level. More blurred photos. Then we headed back towards the border passing more monasteries and churches situated in pretty hill country, some very barren and some tree clad. It never ceases to amaze us where one finds these monasteries and churches – in the middle of nothing and no-where!!
|Border Crossing into Georgia|
That evening we were back in Tbilisi at the same little boutique hotel. We had been away from SHAMAL for some time and it was now mid-August, so decided we had better start heading back, as much as we would have liked to have spent more time looking around Georgia.
We still had the Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria to visit before the end of the sailing season. The following morning before leaving Tbilisi we walked along the banks of the River Mtkvari and crossed the new pedestrian ‘Peace Bridge’. It is made of glass and steel and has a light display system with 30,000 LEDs and 240 sensors installed which make a grand display at night. The Georgian President says it is a symbol of Georgia’s journey from the past to a better, brighter future. Yeah right!! Who started the 2008 five day war with Russia??? On the bridge we met a young South African who was heading for the cable car, as we were. We arrived to find it did not start operating until 11.00am so went for a coffee together. He ate a huge breakfast. Once the cable car opened we rode it to the ruins of the old fortress which overlooks the city.
|Ann Alec on Peace|
That afternoon we are back on yet another mini bus, for yet another hair-raising trip, with yet another crazy driver! This time we are heading for the Black Sea city of Batumi. The countryside we pass through here is very pretty with alpine like villages set among lush hilly country-side. It’s a bit like NZ where you can snow ski in the morning and be surfing in the afternoon – weather and conditions pending!! We passed through the town of Gori, the birth place of Stalin. At another stage on this trip the co-driver, who was sitting in the back with us, decided it was getting too warm. Rather than open another window, it was much easier just too open the sliding door and hang onto it. We were traveling at well over a 100kph at this stage!!
We arrived at the Black Sea coast at the town of Poti and then headed to Batumi. By the time we arrived it was around 10.00pm and all we wanted was a bed for the night. Another interesting little exercise. We were taken by taxi to a rather seedy place, but it looked clean and safe enough. The guy at the desk insisted on holding onto Alec’s passport till we checked out in the morning. At midnight just after we had fallen into that deep sleep, we were abruptly woken by two or three people trying to get into our room. Alec went to the door and told them to bugger off as the room was taken. That did not work at first, but then the guy from the front desk arrived and they disappeared. Alec decided to pay our bill there and then ( found enough US dollars ) to get his passport back. We were on our way back to the bus station just after 6.00am the following morning.
|Black Sea Coastal Highway|
So it was back to yet another border crossing, which went quite smoothly, and then on to Samsun following the coast nearly the whole way on the new Black Sea coastal highway, which is great. We were now back on a big ‘normal’ bus. Refreshments served every couple of hours, and even Wi Fi. And, we were driven at a civilised speed. Another interesting factor was that the area around Rize on this coast is the heart of Turkey's tea plantations.
SHAMAL was sitting in the marina having been kept an eye on by all of Alec’s ‘new’ friends who were pleased to see him again. We had a German Yacht come in beside us who wanted to know about the ports and coastal anchorages after Istanbul. They hope to enter that area next year. We were only too happy to pass on information. They had arrived into the Black Sea from Europe by coming down the Danube and had visited Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria, so had charts and information for us which was also wonderful.
|Cimits, a bread like|
The next three days were spent resting, restocking up on fresh supplies and waiting for a change in wind direction. We were heading back to Sinop around 80nm back along the coast of Turkey where we will check out of the country before setting sail for head the Ukraine.
Well that is more than enough information this time, so we will sign out.
|North Eastern Anatolia|