An afternoon in Ohrid

Friday, March 26, 2010

Magical Cappadocia

We left Istanbul early and arrived at the Neveshir airport, about an hour's drive from the area of Cappadocia, at just after 11. We left the next morning at 11:45, so we were in Cappadocia for less than 24 hours, but what a fabulous day it was. Cappadocia is in the center of Turkey and the two towns that tourists usually stay in are Goreme and the town we stayed in Urgup. Driving to Cappadocia reminded me of the drive in Central Washington from Ellensburg to Sun Lakes. The are is pretty much scrub desert, until you come to this amazing geological area. It is riddled with rock formations, caves and canyons. Many of the hostels and hotels are in caves and have a variety of cave rooms. When residents in previous times wanted a new room in their cave home, they just carved out another one! It was also considered a holy area by early Christians, but I get ahead of myself.

We had nothing planned for the first afternoon and night there, so first we climbed the hill in Urgup and looked around. I had seen an area when we were coming through on the van transport that I wanted to go back to, but didn't know the name. I looked at a map and saw something called the red canyon and decided that was it, so we asked how to get there. The lovely woman we asked said we could take a taxi, hike the 5 km down the canyon, and the taxi would meet us at the town at the end. Sounded great to me! Lillian had the foresight to circle the town we were supposed to meet the driver in and got his phone number. He took us up to the top of a hill - nothing was there and I had to ask where the trail started! It was definitely not the place I was thinking of but looked interesting, and an adventure was in order. So off we started. The picture of me above is at the start of the trail. I had thought to bring along some water but we had little else.

Lillian is a city girl but game. I didn't tell her that I had worries about finding the trail all the way down - what if it branched? - and then finding the driver in a town we didn't know or even really know where it was! But the trail was lovely and the day was perfect, so why not? And all my worries came true, but they were nothing in comparison to the wonders we saw. Religious hermits had made a mecca of the canyon centuries before, carving out churches and cells to retreat to and contemplate. Many of the cells were in caves high in the cliffs - how they got up and down and kept food and water I have no idea. The trail went down the middle of one canyon and then skirted others, each more beautiful than the last. We took a wrong fork in the trail but it just took us around a route overlooking the canyon that gave us a more beautiful, albeit longer, hike. I was in heaven. We saw only a few people, and that was towards the end. Mostly we were alone in a paradise of wonder! Amazingly, about 3/4 of the way down we met an enterprising Turkish man. He was standing by the side of the trail with a little stand filled with fresh pomegranates and oranges and a juice squeezer. I had a glass of fresh pomegranate juice - heavenly. A while further down we saw his home base - the Flintstone cafe set in a cave by the first church on the trail coming up - the way most people came.

I thought the taxi driver might be waiting for us at the bottom of the trail, but alas no. I looked at the map and at first didn't think to look at the city that was circled, so I asked a local, who of course didn't speak English (and I didn't speak Turkish), where the town was, unfortunately the wrong town. It never ceases to amaze me how you can communicate with others. He told us, and off we went. Then Lillian pointed out the town that was circled, and looking to my right, I saw a town that was closer that I was sure was the correct one. We walked there, and sure enough, it was the right town. Now, how to find the taxi driver, who by this time had been waiting for probably 2 hours. Lillian tried to call him, but we couldn't figure out how to work our cell phones in Turkey. I walked towards a place that looked like it might have tourists, found some nice men in an outdoor cafe who were going to call our driver for us, when magically he appeared and picked us up! There's nothing better than a wonderful adventure with a good outcome!

We figured we deserved some proper pampering after that, so we went to the Turkish bath pictured above. Everyone should get a real Turkish bath sometime in their lifetime. For about $14, we had warm water poured over us, sat in a sauna for 5 minutes, rested on a warm rock, then had two young Turkish men, dressed only in towels, come in and take us to a side room. There one scrubbed all the dead skin off my body, washed my hair, and gave me a minor massage, while the other gave Lillian a full body massage and a body shampoo. Then we switched. After rinsing us off, we went back out to the warm rock and laid around and talked before finally going in to the entry area, sitting around a warm stove, and getting served tea. It was, quite simply, wonderful. A delicious dinner in a little Turkish cafe, a walk around town, and off to bed - a perfect day.

The next morning we were up early - we'd reserved a hot air balloon ride. In the height of the season, there are over 50 balloons per day, and even in early March there were around 20 taking off from different sites. It was gorgeous - like a fairy tale being in one and watching the others rise to fill the sky with colors. We left at dawn. Sixteen tourists fit in each balloon, 4 to a compartment, with the balloon operators being in a center compartment. Climbing in was a treat - the sides are about 4 feet high with two little footholds. I was so graceful getting in that they lifted Lillian up and put her in! It was beautiful - we floated up to a 1000 meters and had a heart-soaring view of the valley and all the places we'd been the day before. I had forgotten my camera but got to take lots on Lillian's which I'll publish on facebook one I get them. I was snapping photos like a madwoman! Landing was tricky and interesting - the main pilot said that March was difficult because you could never tell what the winds were going to do, and the wind on the ground was often different than the wind in the air. Indeed, we attempted 2 landings before they found the best spot, surprisingly to me on the side of a hill. The slope of the hill helped stop the drag of the balloon. Afterward we had a champagne toast, drove through a drainage ditch to get back to the road (balloons don't always land close to roads), and returned to the hotel for a sumptuous breakfast - have I mentioned yet that the food in Turkey is fabulous? Then we quickly packed up, caught the van back to the airport, and were off to our next adventure in Kushadasi. But of course, you'll have to wait for that........

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Istanbul is a huge city and in two days we saw only a smidgeon of it. The first night we had a fresh fish dinner under the Galata Bridge and watched the lights of the city and river. The next day we explored Sultanmed, the main tourist attraction part of the city. First we went to Topkapi Palace where the Sultans lived during their long reign of the Ottoman Empire. It feels like the United States has been in existence for a long time, but it has half the life span of the Empire. In its heyday, it covered much of southern Europe and the middle East and beyond - in fact, Macedonia was a province of the Empire for over 400 years and separated from it only in the late 1800s. Since it existed during times of great exploration and the gathering of fortunes, the Sultans acquired riches beyond imagination - at least my imagination. The Vatican must have treasures that are equal, and maybe the royal family in England, though that may be a stretch. A part of it is on display at the palace - diamonds as big as a small fist, countless emeralds and rubies, all inlaid into cups, knives, bowls, crowns - prosaic items made magical by their splendor. It was amazing to see. We went to the famous Blue Mosque - huge and magnificent, and I drank salep, which I love, from a streetside vendor. The Aga Sophia (Church of Sophia) was closed on the day we were there, which gives me an excuse to return to see that and the cisterns. We wandered down to the grand bazaar - what a sight. There must be thousands of vendors in there, and you can wander through the labyrinth for hours. Every step a vendor is saying, "hi, how are you" "where are you from" "I have nice things here, just take a look". Sometimes they misguess where you are from, but it's pretty easy, I think, to spot Americans. And of course part of the fun is knowing that everything in the bazaar is overpriced and you need to bargain. "No, no, I'm not really interested" "I saw a nicer one elsewhere" "I don't have the money" etc. I bought a kilim, a small rug that the vendor swore to me had been hand woven by the Kurds in the East. Before I bought it I left the shop, and he came running after me offering less than half of what he had originally offered it for! I'm sure he still made a healthy profit and I had the satisfaction of knowing I had bargained him down!
The next day we took a walking tour of the old Jewish district of the city. The Empire sent ships to bring the Jews expelled from Spain during the inquisition, and Kemal Ataturk had welcomed them as part of the republic when it was created, so for hundreds of years there were several big Jewish districts in the city. They held positions of influence. Since Muslims, according to the Koran, can't charge interest, the largest banks were owned by Jews. As the Empire declined, many immigrated, and those that were left in areas like the Balkans were for the most part killed during WWII. I hadn't thought of Turkey as being high on terrorist targets, but the main synagogue in the Galata district was bombed by terrorists. As a result, security was tight. We were supposed to submit our passports 4 days in advance so the tour could make sure we weren't terrorists and make arrangements to get into the synagogues. We were unable to do that, but saw a lot of the Galata district and the Jewish museum which was in an old synagogue.
That afternoon we took a tour that took us to the Spice bazaar - which I really preferred to the Grand Bazaar. Since there are many spices I have trouble finding in Gostivar, I bought some curry, cumin and nutmeg. The smell was fabulous. We also saw the New Mosque, new being relative since it was built in the 1400's. Finally, we took a boat trip down the Bosphorus. It was cold and rainy, but the trip was still interesting. It gave me a better feel for the scope of the city, and the mix of ancient buildings and modern condos was fun to see. That night we went to a club that had traditional dancing. We were hoping to see a whirling dervish, but no luck - this club didn't have them. What was most interesting to me, though, was the mix of people who were there. I'm not sure of all the nationalities, but there were Iranians, Moroccans, Japanese, Korean, Libyans, and us! Istanbul is probably the most international city in the world.
Up early the next day to catch a flight to Capadoccia - but that tale is for another day!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


One of the nice things about the Peace Corps is that we accrue vacation days, and another PC friend of mine and I decided to spend our first 6 days in Turkey. It was surprising to me that Istanbul was almost due east from Skopje. In my mind's map it was considerably south, but if anything, Istanbul is a little north. It's also very close. Our flight took only a little over an hour - less than the time it takes to fly from Portland to San Francisco! We flew on Turkish Air - a lovely airline that actually served us meals on every flight we took (we actually had 6 different legs), even though the shortest was a little under an hour. I didn't realize how little I knew about Turkey until I went there.

I was expecting warm weather - remember I thought it was south - but instead the weather was cool and rainy. Istanbul is a huge city - 15 million people - 9 million of whom live on the European side and 6 million on the Asian side. It was selected the European Center of Culture for 2010 - another surprise. We stayed close to the Sultanamed district, named that because the Sultans lived in Topaki Palace which crowns the hill there overlooking the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. Our hotel room was small but the hotel staff were great - they bent over backwards to make us happy. Breakfast was included, and it was a huge layout of all kinds of yogurt, cheeses, salads, eggs, breads, lots of eggplant, zuccchini and other veggies - a feast. We got to the hotel late afternoon the first day and by the time we were settled it was time for dinner. We went to a fish place under the Galata bridge by the fish market and watched the boats go by. One of the things I love about Istanbul is that people are there from all over and you hear a variety of languages and see a variety of people whereever you go. Istanbul - I was there - seems like a dream. More later.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

After snowing all night, it's bright and sunny - so beautiful with the mountains covered with snow and the blue sky behind them. Monday is International Women's Day, which is a big deal here. People bring presents to all the women workers and in the town square there are booths set up selling the usual presents. This is the first time I've seen live plants sold, so I bought a couple to cheer up my apartment. But since people usually are buying presents for a multitude of people, what you see mostly are small artificial flower arrangements, toiletry items, bras and other lingerie, along with toys for the kids. A lot more women are out today, too. Usually it seems like Gostivar is populated mostly by men - there are always large groups of them hanging in the square and walking along the streets, but today on my walk I saw lots of Albanian women. They often walk in groups arm-in-arm, and in their long black coats and shameers from the back they looked like pods of penguins walking along.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Small things part 3

Sometimes I feel like I've fallen down the rabbit's hole into Wonderland. Everything here feels backwards. The hot water faucet is on the right instead of the left. Righty tighty and lefty loosey doesn't work here - it's the opposite. When you go into something, you don't pull the door out, you push it in. Things that look like light switches aren't. At least 3 times I've turned the boiler off instead of the bathroom light, and wondered why I have cold water and a bathroom light on. Small things like these have a funny impact - I have to be conscious of what I'm doing and can't operate automatically.

Two news items. First, I got a bicycle. Peace Corps keeps some for volunteers to use when they need them for work. Sadly, the one I got doesn't have working gears and is too small, so I feel a bit like my knees are in my chest whenever I use it. According to policy, we have to wear a helmet when we ride, which is a great idea for me! Every time I've used the bike I can hear people laugh as I go by, knees flailing up, helmet on, and legs a-pumping away! But it's better than nothing, and nice to be able to get out and ride at least a little.

Second, next week I'm heading to Turkey with a friend. I am very excited. I've seen so little of the world, and this is brand new territory! And it's related to Macedonia - the Ottoman Empire ruled Macedonia for 400 years! I promise I'll publish some pictures when I return!