Monday, 5 October 2015

Hit the Highway

Late June: [I’ve been asked by a reader to provide the time of each post, since they are so far behind and so infrequent that where in time this story is happening sometimes becomes muddled. I will start doing that.]

The D010 highway stretches all the way along the Black Sea coast from Amasra in the west (well, centre, really, but there’s not much at all west of Amasra) all the way to the Georgian border in the east, just past the border town of Hopa. This would be, more or less, our route for the rest of our time in Turkey (with one major detour, but that’s for a later blog post). But now, in Amasra the most complicated and the most interesting part of the D010 lay ahead of us.

You see, while much of the D010 is direct, well-traveled multilane highway between major cities, the 312km section between Amasra and Sinop – the next Black Sea city headed east – is a windy, single lane track up and down the coastal mountains, connecting little fishing villages all the way along. Intercity buses won’t make the trek – they prefer the tamer inland highways. But this section of the D010 holds particular beauty given its exciting topography and stunning views of the coast. The appeal of this stretch was actually one of the things that drew me to the Black Sea coast in the first place, and we were excited to conquer it. To do so, we’d need to be taking local dolmuşes between the little coastal communities along the way. We’d be at the mercy of unreliable timetables, slow-moving transport and a limited amount of daylight. But we were also in no rush, and the point of this trip is to sometimes have some real adventures and maybe get off the beaten path a bit. In fact, I had looked into this little segment of our trip even before I had left Canada, and I was excited for the adventure it would hold.

And so we awoke early, in the hopes of finding morning transport to take us east along the coast. We were out of the door before 8 o’clock, and soon inquiring around about where we might be able to find a dolmuş. We found a couple men in a little shack with a dolmuş parked outside, who seemed knowledgeable and confident about schedules. Lots of gestures, my broken and limited Turkish, and notes scribbled on paper. And then: yes, there was a dolmuş that would take us east, as far as the little town of Cide, 67km east. But, we’d have to wait a bit – there was only one dolmuş a day, at 10am. It seemed it would be leaving from outside the post office, as far as we could understand. But we weren’t prepared to stand on the side of the road aimlessly for that long, and hey, this town is known for its beaches (no more than 500m from the post office, to boot)! And so that’s what we did.

Not a bad way to spend the morning, eh?
The beaches were fantastic. It was warm already by this time in the morning, and completely deserted – the combination of early morning and Ramadan meaning the beach wasn’t very popular. When we got there, there wasn’t another soul in sight, and throughout our time there, the only people who showed up were beach employees who set up chairs and garbage cans – I guess in expectation of more holiday-makers later in the day – but they left us fully alone. As is common with beaches, we did very little – we read, we napped, we chatted in the sun. At one point a happy looking stray dog came wandering along the beach. He jumped into the water, and splashed about and then came back onto shore. We walked up to us not really looking at us but seeming generally in a good mood. He stopped just a few feet away, smiling off into the distance.
“Don’t you dare!” we yelled in unison, but it was too late. The dog shook his fur and we were prayed with dirty dog water. He immediately trotted off, still smiling his doggy smile. Nice.

Eventually it was coming closer to the time for us to catch our dolmuş, and so we picked up our bags and headed back to the post office. There we waited, getting more and more nervous as time went on. What if it didn’t come? What if it had come early and we already missed it? What if we had miss understood, and we weren’t waiting in the right place? But then an old man with a white beard wandered close-by to us. “Dolmuş? Cide?” Jess asked. And he nodded. We seemed to be in the right place.

And sure enough, the dolmuş did come. Right on time, pulling up in front of us. We clambered in, and the adventure began.

The journey along the highway was immediately fantastic. Our dolmuş struggled up hills, and then tore down the other side, all the while whipping around corners. It didn’t take long for us to leave Amasra behind, and we were in the rural areas of the coast. Life on the Black Sea coast flickered past us as we whizzed through the little towns dotting the coast. We stopped frequently, for locals to jump on and off, as this dolmuş was probably the only public transit passing through town in a day. Every newcomer onto the dolmuş would give us a nice long stare, and all eyes would be drawn to us whenever we did something “noteworthy”, such as laugh too hard or get excited about a view.
And what views they were. We’d bump along through forested areas, and then emerge quite suddenly out near the water, with amazing vistas of the Black Sea and its stunning shoreline in front of us. It was incredibly hard to get good photos – we had to physically lean out of our small, square window, and the bumping and jiggling and stupidly fast speeds made it hard to catch the view we wanted. Rereading what I’ve written so far on this adventure, I’m not sure if I’ve emphasized how truly bumpy the ride was. It was SO BUMPY. But the sights were incredible, and I hope that at least some of these photos capture the region’s beauty.

Glimpses of the Black Sea

Hanging from a window

Sea and coast.

So lush.

Sometimes the sea is just pretty.
Somewhere around mid-day, our dolmuş pulled into Cide, the end of this particular route. We asked about onward travel east along the shore, and they told us there’d be another dolmuş leaving in a couple hours, connecting Cide to another town, İnebolu.

With time to kill, we decided to wander into the town itself. I guess you could say that CIde wasn’t anything super special, but it was a bright sunny day, and people were friendly. We found a little café with cheap food (about a dollar fifty for a delicious chicken wrap) and the only free wifi in town (what luck!). We hung out there for most of our Cide layover, buying some fresh fruit from a local vendor on our way back to the bus station (with requisite confusion and laughter over what we wanted), and finally loaded up for the ride to İnebolu. Our ticket was for a 2pm departure – and that is indeed when we first pulled out of the bus station – but it took us quite a while to actually leave Cide. First, we drove down the main street INCREDIBLY slowly, honking regularly to make sure that we weren’t missing anyone who wanted on. Then, we stopped partway through town outside a bakery. The driver called back into the dolmuş – “does anybody want bread?” A bunch of people called out, and the driver ran inside for the group order. When he got back after five minutes or so, he passed bread back from his seat, and people passed their money forward. It was really quite amusing.

It looked like we were finally on our way, except the driver got a call on his cellphone as we were about halfway out of town – apparently someone else wanted on the dolmuş and had missed it, so we went all the way back to the bus station to pick them up. No one seemed at all bothered by the slow start, and it was all just part of the experience for Jess and I, so we just laughed and shook our heads in incredulity.
Cide at midday.
The ride from Cide to İnebolu was a long one, but an equally beautiful and exciting one. The forests were just as lush and the mountains just as stunning, and the Black Sea just as blue. The sun got lower in the sky, making everything prettier. There were still lots of bumps and lots of times when I was sure centrifugal forces would launch us off a cliff as we tore around a corner, but I loved pretty much every moment of it. Eventually we pulled into İnebolu, at around 5:30pm. We were still only just over 100km into the full 312km journey. We would have been happy to go further that day, but the staff at the bus station all told us we were out of luck. If we wanted to get to Sinop, we’d have to wait til tomorrow. Sure we’d be able to go onward tonight to another smaller town, but then we wouldn’t really be any further ahead the next day, and might not be able to find accommodation. Fair enough. Staff recommended us a hotel in town, and we taxied there. The room was plain and standard, but there was one of those hilariously tacky holograph-type pictures of puppies, which changes depending on where you stand in the room.

More window pics.

Passing little Black Sea villages

Gorgeous views.
İnebolu was an interesting little town. It was very much a fishing town, and was evidently not used to having tourists. This was also the first place on our travels where we really felt the effects of Ramadan – nearly every eatery was closed in town. We had been traveling all day, and were quite hungry, but nowhere looked like it was willing to serve us. Of course we begrudged no one for this, but our stomachs still grumbled. Finally though we found a restaurant that graciously agreed to serve us food before sunset, and the meal we had turned out to be one of the most delicious iskender dishes I have had anywhere in Turkey. İskender, for those who didn’t catch it in a previous post or who forgot, is thinly sliced beef over small pieces of bread, all cooked and served in a delicious tomato-based sauce. It’s probably my favourite Turkish dish. We had actually read on an online forum that there was a restaurant in İnebolu with “the most delicious iskender” but we had kinda been skeptical. So I guess the moral here is that the internet isn’t ALL lies!

Walking around İnebolu after dinner was interesting. As sunset came, people began bustling about, and a number of restaurants opened to serve (mostly male customers) under dingy fluorescent bulbs. We walked out to the water’s edge for sunset, and the sky was again lit up with incredible colours, made especially beautiful tonight by large puffy clouds high in the sky. We bought delicious fresh cherries from a local vendor with few teeth a voice not unlike Christian Bale’s in the Batman movies. Then we retired to our room as a thunderstorm came in, and we enjoyed the evening Black Sea air through the open window of our dry room.

The view from our hotel window in İnebolu. At least the mountains in the background were pretty!
The next morning, we got up early in order to make our way to the bus station in time for our 9:30am ticket time. The day was cloudy and grey, so it certainly wasn’t a bad day to spend in a dolmuş. A lot of the views along the road were still spectacular, but the overcast skies dampened the picture-taking potential. After an hour and a half, we arrived in the little town of Türkeli, where we needed to make our final transfer to a Sinop-bound dolmuş. We had about an hour to kill in Türkeli, and we were pretty hungry so decided to try to find some lunch. The man at the station very happily told us he’d watch our luggage while we went out. We saw a restaurant near the station, but quickly realized it was closed – of course, Ramadan! We must have been looking hopelessly around at where we might find an operational restaurant when a local woman approached us. She told us in Turkish that she could lead us to a place that would be open. She led us through the rainy Türkeli streets, finally pointing us to a restaurant a good five or ten minutes’ walk from the station. It wasn’t far, but there’s no way we would have found it without her help. She chatted to me a bit as we walked – welcoming us to her town and asking where we were from. It was nice to use a bit of Turkish to be understood. The restaurant served börek, a delicious cheeses-stuffed pastry, and the man working there also asked curiously about where we were from, where we were going, and how we had gotten here. Overall, the Türkelians seemed to be very kind!

Such a blah day. Nice to be in a dolmuş and not in the rain.
At noon, we finally boarded our last dolmuş, and in less than two hours we arrived in Sinop. The last stretch was still plenty bumpy, but I think it’s safe to say by this part of the highway, we had left behind the most stunning cliffs and sea views. Sinop is an interesting little city on the water, sticking out on a promontory into the Black Sea, creating a very protected natural harbour.

As we came into Sinop, the sky started to clear, with some sunlight breaking through the grey. It lightened as we weaved through the town’s streets trying to find our guesthouse. When we got there, the sun was now shining brightly, which made the gorgeous view out of our window over the Sinop harbour even more gorgeous.

Hotel receptionist.
We still had plenty of day left, so we headed along the harbour front until we reached the old city’s fortifications. These were originally built in the year 72 to by the Pontics (on the site of the Hittites 2000BCE fortifications) though have been restored and repaired by the Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks and Ottomans who followed over the centuries. Hidden within these fortifications was hidden what I consider to be a real gem of the Black Sea coast – Sinop’s Tarihi Cezaevi or Old Jail. The former prison isn’t, I suppose, terribly old – it was built in the late 1800s and still used into the 1990s, but its appeal laid in the fact that we were pretty well free to wander the entire grounds, and the buildings are incredibly spooky. Creepy hallways, cells with metal bars, and terrifying scratches on the walls (it’s hard to know what’s legitimately left by prisoners, and what is graffiti that came after, but either way it was all rather chilling). The walls were in faded, peeling colours, the lighting was poor, and we found ourselves jumping in fright over little sounds and movements. We laughed nervously a lot. Plus, we learned a bit about the prison itself – apparently some famous treasonous folk were kept (and tortured) here. But I’ll let the photos try to convey the atmosphere of the place.

Old city fortifications.

The harbour/

The Sinop Prison

Do you dare to enter?


Jess looking like Gollum, while taking a closer look at some of the old chains used on particularly bad prisoners.

The prison courtyard.

I just love this look.

A building out of my nightmares.
When we finally left the prison – we actually had to be repeatedly reminded by the guards to get going because we simply didn’t want to leave even though it was closing – we explored some of the other sights of Sinop. First, a statue of Diogenes the Cynic, the Greek philosopher born in Sinop in 410BCE (and one of the “founders of cynicism”. What a title, no?). Diogenes was famous for publicly embarrassing Plato and for disrupting his lectures by eating loudly in the middle of them. He also apparently mocked Alexander the Great publicly. What a guy.

Then, we checked out the Alaadin Camii – a mosque with a simple interior, but a beautiful, spacious and lively courtyard (people were playing ping pong!). Across the road, we were able to peer into an old medressa from the 13th century. It’s shops and cafes now, but it still boggles my mind that it’s lasted this long.
Diogenes the Cynic.

Old fortifications. Jess wasn't gutsy enough to cross the road with me.

Jess in the Alaadin Camii.

The medressa.
We found a nice place for dinner near Sinop’s clock tower (which we had seen in miniature back in Safranbolu), where they graciously agreed to serve us before dusk (Ramadan was still in full swing). My broken Turkish seemed to be enough for the wait staff to find us hilarious. I appreciate that they were in a good mood even though they were serving food during Ramadan and may have been fasting themselves!

After dinner, we hustled up the streets of Sinop, trying to find a good view of the water. We finally slipped through a gate into a schoolyard and jogged to the cliffs overlooking the water just in time to see the sky in all its beauty, with tremendous colours lighting up the sky. Being in the schoolyard put a decent buffer between us and the rest of the city, and for a moment it was as if we were the only ones for miles around. As we stood there, a calming breeze coming in off the water, and the darkness building behind us, we heard the minarets of the city, in unison, give the call to prayer. It was quite the moment.
The Sinop clocktower.

Sunset over Sinop.
The next morning, we awoke to bright sunshine over the harbour – quite a view to wake up to! We had considered only one night in Sinop – we had seen most of the city’s sights the previous afternoon after we arrived – but we liked our accommodation and we had heard that there were some other natural wonders in the area. Having been in towns and cities for the last good chunk of our trip, we figureed it would be nice to get out into nature again. We decided we’d check out the Erfelek waterfalls, a little ways to the south of Sinop. This is a series of more than 28 waterfalls, one after another, which is popular for little day hikes with tourists and locals alike. We took a dolmuş from Sinop to the little of Erfelek itself, where we found a taxi that would drive us the further 17km to the park where the waterfalls were. The drive was fairly long, considering it was only 17km, but it was windy and at times the roads were pretty rough. We were very definitely leaving behind the urban world, as we drove deeper and deeper into forested area, around stunning blue lakes.

Finally we arrived at the park, and after agreeing on a return pick up with the taxi driver, headed out onto the path. Right at the entrance of the park, however, there was a little café, some souvenir and textile vendors, and, most importantly, a delightful group of little puppies. Of course we had to stop – they were just delightful little things, falling all over each other and being utterly adorable. One of the shopkeepers nearby spoke some English and helped introduce the little cuties.

River at the park entrance.
Adorable puppies!
Finally we pulled ourselves away and headed for the waterfalls. The first one was already beautiful – a stunningly blue pool at the bottom of the falls, all surrounded by lush green.

The hike continued past more waterfalls, each with their own beauty and uniqueness and it was truly lovely. We had seen on the schematic map at the beginning of the trail that there was loop that you could do, circling through a forest and looping back down the length of the river, passing the waterfalls. We had only a moderate understanding of where this loop started, and so we just made some guesses about where this path actually was. It was nice at first, walking through quiet forests and enjoying the greenery around us. It became clear after some time, however, that this perhaps wasn’t the right path, and we found the trail petering out near a roadway. Realizing we were probably lost, we got off onto the road, and followed that, hoping it would connect again to a path. As we walked, a car passed us going the other direction, and the driver stopped and called out to us. With my broken Turkish, I learned that the road we were on headed to a village, several kilometres away. “If you want the waterfalls,” the driver said, “you’ll have to cut back into the forest.” The last of the waterfalls was supposedly parallel to where we were now. Thanking the driver, we trudged into the brush.

There was no path. It didn’t take long before we could see the river ahead of us in the woods, but it was down in a ravine. We knew we had to get there if we wanted to get back on track, but there was no easy way down. What ensued was a somewhat terrifying, truly hilarious descent, sliding down cliff slides, getting fairly muddy and risking our lives (or something like that). But when we finally got to the bottom, happy and whole, it wasn’t long at all until we found ourselves back on the trail where we wanted to be.
The first waterfall

Such pretty blues and greens!

Each waterfall unique from the others.

Jess and the waterfalls.

Jess standing epically, and looking up at the cliffs and waterfalls.

If you are reading this blog and you don't know that I love fungi, you are a stranger. Which is fine. But I hope you enjoy this mushroom photo.
In fact, we emerged very close to what seemed to be the end of the pathway, and the classically-Turkish çayhanı (teahouse) located there. There was a man working there all alone, up in a little shack on the cliff-side, and there were little wooden tables spread out around the forest clearing. The man approached us as we sat, and asked if we wanted anything to drink. We wanted tea, but he didn’t have it (how very un-Turkish! We later learned he just had to make it and it would have taken several minutes, but we didn’t realize it at the time). He did have ayran though, a salty, yogurty Turkish drink (which grows on you, honest) and I thought I’d take a taste. I’m glad I did! It turns out the ayran was homemade, and was being stored in the river’s cold waters to keep it fresh. He pulled on a long, thick rope, dragging up from the watery depths a huge churn-like container, from which he finally poured me a nice big glass. To be honest, I feared it would make me terribly sick, but it didn’t, and it was delicious, and it was such a cool process (pun intended) to see him pull it out.

Once we had finished our break, we got back on the trail and the walk back was fantastic. We saw more of the actual waterfalls this time, and there were some great views from the cliffs across at the lush surrounding areas. It was a great day hike.

When we got back to the trailhead, we had some time to kill before the taxi driver came back, so we played a game of backgammon and messed around with the puppies a bit, and it was great.

Views of the surrounding green mountains.

One more waterfall for good measure.

On the drive home, the taxi driver agreed to stop and let us take pictures of the gorgeous lakes we passed.

It looks so pristine!
Back in Sinop, we dined at the same lovely restaurant, and then tried to see the sunset by climbing up the hill on which the city is built, in the hopes of getting a good view over the city. Unfortunately, this didn’t work as well as we had hoped, and we ended up not getting a very good view of the sky at all. But we were able to walk out on the peninsula to where the city ended (with an ominous military base nearby) and get a nice view over some rolling hills and grazing cattle.

Thus ended our time in Sinop, and the next morning we headed out early on a bus to Samsun and then to Ordu, to what would be some of the greatest Turkish hospitality we would ever experience!

Real Time Update: I’m writing this post from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. We’ve left behind Uzbekistan and its architectural wonders for Kyrgyzstan and its natural ones. A real highlight (of the whole trip!) was doing a three-day horse trek into the mountains near Arslanbob. Can’t wait to blog about that (if I ever get there!) Thanks for still reading J

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

To the Black Sea

It was 6am and I was back in Ankara. And it was cold, something I had not experienced in quite some time. I had just come off of an overnight bus from İstanbul. I had tried to sleep, but you know how it is on a bus. I sluggishly dragged myself through the early morning streets of Ankara back to my old place. As I passed the little shop around the corner from my home, I saw the owner opening up for the day. He did a double take and then waved when he saw me, as if he had thought I was gone forever and was now surprised to see me back.

I still had my key, so I didn’t have to wake anyone. I collapsed onto my bed, and fell asleep.
The reason I was back in Ankara was to get visas. I needed to secure one (Uzbekistan) and apply for a second one (Turkmenistan). My first day, still exhausted after only a few more hours of sleep, I dragged myself downtown. The Uzbek embassy was in a bit of a hard-to-get to neighbourhood, a part of town I had never been before. I realized that I had never really used the Ankara bus system very much when I was here for the past semester. The places I needed to go were all on dolmuş routes, or maybe via metro. The few times I had taken a bus, it had been with a Turkish student who knew exactly what to do, and I just followed blindly. So now I found myself back in a city where I thought everything would be smooth and comfortable and “just like home” and instead I was going through all of the challenges of being a new-comer to a city. Ah well, I’m all about adventures.

I don’t want to bore you with the details of embassy visits, but I will say that it wouldn’t have been possible without the genuine kindness of a local guy. He was a travel agent, at the Uzbek embassy on behalf of a number of his clients (truck drivers), but he stuck around and waited for me to process my visa. I needed to go to a bank to make a payment, and he escorted me there. You couldn’t pay into this account without a Turkish ID number (which seems ridiculous to me) and so he provided his. I thought maybe he had waited just because he needed to go to the bank anyway and might as well help me out. But no, he was even more generous than that – he had no business of his own at the bank, he was simply taking time out of his day and being helpful! It certainly would have been a much less smooth of a process without him, that’s for sure. And so I secured visa number one!

On my way home, I was passing through downtown and was incredibly hungry. Because Kızılay (downtown) is all commercial garbage anyway, and because I had a moment of weakness, and because I had never tried it yet in Turkey, I ate at… Burger King. I confess. Now, the reason this is interesting, though, is because what it showed me about Ramadan. If you’ve been reading other blog posts, you’ll know that by this time, Ramadan was well underway. Most of my insights in previous posts into the way it affected my travels had actually been in hindsight. I didn’t really realize Ramadan was happening around me, even though I knew in theory that it was. Until I came to Ankara. Perhaps because Ankara is such a conservative city, and perhaps because I know Ankara intimately when it’s not Ramadan, but I was suddenly able to see a lot more of the effects on the people. Teahouses and cafes that are usually full all day long were much less so here in Ankara, and I noticed far less smoking and food selling in popular areas like the Kızılay parks.

But anyway, back to Burger King. Even in Ramadan, there was still a steady flow of customers – by all means, not everyone is a practicing Muslim in this country. But what really surprised me, and even shocked me, were the women in headscarves eating hamburgers at a table nearby. This revealed that despite all I have been learning about the Islamic faith, and specifically how it fits into the lives of Turkish people, there are still some big gaps. I know there are some exceptions for who needs to fast – those who are sick or elderly or children do not need to – but from what I could see, these two women, chatting away happily, didn’t fit those criteria. It seems strange to me that they would be practising Muslims as far as the headscarf was concerned, but not as far as observing Ramadan, one of the key tenets of Islam. This raises questions about how much certain practices are, or have become, cultural in Turkey rather than religious. What does the headscarf mean to these women? What does – or doesn’t – Ramadan mean to them?

Back at home, I finally saw my roommates again. I had missed Yasin and Mustafa, they are such good fun. And, lucky for me, they had a surprise planned for me for dinner that evening – together we would share iftar, the Muslim breaking of the fast after dusk during Ramadan. Of course, I wouldn’t actually be breaking a fast (and neither would be Yasin, incidentally, who only fasts at home with his family), but Mustafa would be, and it was a real honour to be invited along for this important meal. During Ramadan, many restaurants prepare a set iftar meal, since with everyone eating at exactly the same time, it would be near impossible to take orders and serve the hungry customers on time. And so this is what we did for iftar, in a neighbourhood restaurant. When we got there, the restaurant was already quite full of people, all sitting anxiously at tables, waiting for dusk. Looking into kitchen, we could see the waiters and cooks frantically serving up and stacking, three dishes high, plates and bowls of identical meals. On the restaurant televisions, the ‘Ramadan coverage’ was playing. ‘Ramadan coverage’ is just my word for it, but during Ramadan many channels have little boxes in the corner of the screen, indicating the time for breaking fast in the various cities of Turkey. Because breaking the fast comes at dusk, not at a particular hour, it changes a little bit depending on geography, and every city across the country (and, naturally, the whole world) thus breaks fast at a different time. The little indicators tell the exact times (ex. Ankara 8:28pm, Bursa 8:30pm, İstanbul 8:31pm, etc.) and then flash in green when that time is reached. We waited, Yasin and I chatting away, but Mustafa quiet, waiting, waiting. Soups and salads were placed in front of us, but still we could not touch it.

Ramadan selfie! Yasin on the left, Mustafa taking the photo on the right.
Finally the screen flashed Ankara time, and at the same time, we heard the muezzin, or call to prayer, outside the restaurant, echoing through the city from a dozen minarets. No one waited any longer – immediately, everyone was eating. We each started by eating a date – this is the traditional way to break the fast, with the sweet, sticky fruit. Then it was dinner much as usual, except with multiple courses. For dessert, we had güllaç, a traditional milk pastry that is generally eaten during Ramadan.

As wonderful as it was to see Yasin and Mustafa again, and to catch up as quickly as possible on all of the news from METU, Ankara, and both of their lives, I didn’t have a lot of time with them. The next morning, I was off to another embassy again, this time to Turkmenistan’s. After a few hours there – smooth enough, though lots of waiting – I got myself back downtown and headed straight for the bus station. That morning, Jess had left İstanbul, headed for the Anatolian town of Safranbolu, just a few hours north of Ankara, and I was to meet her there.

I got picked up at the bus station by our guesthouse, since it’s outside of the town proper, and so I came down into Safranbolu by car, with a great view into the valley and onto the town below. Safranbolu is a picturesque little Anatolian town, and has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage town for its preserved old Ottoman buildings. It sits in a little river valley, surrounded by high cliffs, and looking down from these - as I did from the car - you can see the rustic old roofs and painted houses.

When I arrived at the guesthouse, Jess was already there, waiting for me. Despite such a short time apart, it was nice to be reunited. We were definitely in a good travel groove, and very used to each other's company. Being apart was like disturbing some sort of balance. 

Our guesthouse was in a beautiful old traditional house, well preserved in the classical style of the town, and our private room was spacious, comfortable, and pretty (and, I think, the most expensive room we paid for the entire time in Turkey). It was late in the afternoon by this time, but we wanted to see the town and so we ventured out. With the sun low in the sky, the buildings were lit up with bright, orangey light. We climbed up a steep road to a small park (there was supposed to be an entrance fee, but somehow we avoided it. Huzzah!), which had a beautiful view over the town in the valley below. With the sunset lighting, the town was breathtaking. Many of the buildings are built with wood frames, shutters, and balconies, and all of them have red tiled roofs. It is thus the quintessential Ottoman town, and each building is unique, a fascinating look back in time. From our vantage point, we could see so many of these little gems below us, it was fantastic. The sunset itself wasn’t overly fantastic, since the sun slipped behind nearby mountains before it could actually set, but the dusky lighting created the perfect atmosphere.

Anatolian houses.

Overlooking the city from above.

Like us, this kitty is looking out over red-roofed Safranbolu.

Traditional Safranbolu homes.
With the little while of daylight we had left, we ventured back into the town and down some little side streets, in search of an interesting mosque at the northwest end of town. We passed children playing on the street, and saw more of the gorgeous houses up close. We came along the edge of a small river, and followed it out of the town. The houses became further apart, and there were now lush gardens and orchards around the homes, giving things a very rural feel. Finally, we came to a bridge crossing the river, and just up the river a few metres from the bridge was the mosque we had come looking for.

It’s an interesting mosque because, for whatever, reason, its builders decided to put it directly over the river. As you can see, the mosque is built on an archway that spans the river itself. And so while we didn’t go inside, one can surmise that when you are praying, you are doing so physically over the river. I have no idea why this is, but I do think it’s kinda cool.

Wandering out towards the edge of town, where things get green and quiet.

The mosque over the river.

The river running below the mosque. Random, eh?
For dinner we ate at a little restaurant on a side street not too far from our guesthouse. The best part of the meal were these delicious, garlicy dolma. Dolma is a dish that stretches from (at least) Greece to Turkey to the Caucasus, through the Arab world. Dolma is rolls made of grape leaves, containing all sorts of things, but usually rice and/or minced meat. These ones here in Safranbolu were incredibly rich, but also incredibly delicious, and I think the best dolma I’ve had anywhere (it helps that I have a very soft spot for garlic – thanks to my Ukrainian genetics, I think), and I’ve had a LOT of dolma over the past few months.

The next morning was a little dreary, with grey clouds hanging over Safranbolu. But there were sights to see, and so we were off nonetheless. We walked up to the regional museum which, like the park from the day before, provides a pretty good view over the whole town. Sadly, the lighting on such an overcast day wasn’t nearly as good for photos.

The regional museum actually has a few components. The first is a big, bright yellow building, which was once the Safranbolu town hall. We didn’t go in, because the fee seemed a little high for what we thought we’d see, but the outside of the majestic building was still quite a sight. Behind the old town hall is a garden of miniature clock towers. Yes, it’s a bit of a strange concept, and I have no idea why it’s located in Safranbolu of all places. But there are a whole bunch of replicas of clock towers from cities all across Turkey, each about a metre high or so. I happen to like clocks, so I actually enjoyed it, but it still seemed strange to me. But it was fun to pick out the İzmir clock tower which we hadn’t seen too long ago, and which is one of my personal favourite clock towers in the world (What’s YOUR favourite clock tower, oh reader?).

Jess does this thing in her blog where she posts embarrassing photos of me. Now it's my turn. No idea what she's doing here, but in the background  is Safranbolu.

Looking across the town at the misty mountains on the other side.

The old Town Hall building.

The clock tower miniatures in the clock tower garden. 

Here's the Izmir clocktower - my favourite!

Behind the clock tower garden is an old jail, which has also been turned into a museum. I paid the entrance fee to go in, but Jess opted out. It was quite small, so fair enough, but still kind of interesting. There were an assortment of old film gear (cameras, those clacky chalkboard that say “Scene 4. Take 3” which they slam down before a scene, rolls of old films) for some reason, and then a collection of artefacts from the region, ranging from traditional costumes to old farm implements from the area. It was all moderately interesting. My favourite part, however, was a little room at the end of the museum, which had a collection of black and white photographs on the walls, depicting daily life in towns in the far east of Turkey. Again, I’m not sure why they are here in Safranbolu – especially since this region is known to be the heart of the Kemalist movement, where nationalists reject the Kurdish claims for autonomy in the eastern cities pictured here – but they were moving and fascinating anyway.

In a room just off the front hallway of the museum, there were some instruments. We're not sure if we were allowed to touch them, but there was no one around to tell us otherwise, so here's just Jess "playing" some traditional instrument.

The back of the old town hall. Really a very pretty building.
We then headed back into the town, in the hopes of visiting the local hamam, the Cinci Hamam. One a dreary day like this one, it seemed like the perfect time to get a nice scrub in a hot sauna. And, to sweeten the deal, the Cinci Hamam is one of the oldest operating hamams in Turkey, and is renowned throughout the country. Just our luck, however, the hamam was closed for the long term for renovations. It was a huge disappointment, and we agreed that it was one of our biggest disappointments of our whole time in Turkey. Life’s not so bad, if that’s the case, is it?

Instead, we ventured around to some of the mosques in town, which were pretty buildings. In one mosque, an imam was teaching a young boy from the Koran, which was an interesting thing to witness, listening to the imam correct pronunciation of the Arabic while the boy tried to read.
In contrast to the quiet studiousness of the first mosque, the second mosque was lively, and even rambunctious. There seemed to have been a class for children – something comparable to Sunday school in church, and they had finished up the lesson. Now, a game of football had broken out, and the young boys ran wildly around the room trying to score. I had never seen a mosque used as a rec centre before, but the man in charge didn’t seem to be concerned (I personally was worried for the glass chandelier), and it made me happy to see the mosque as a symbol of life and vitality and youth and community.

A boy being taught from the Qu'ran in a Safranbolu mosque.

Safranbolu has these little model houses for sale. But there's something particularly special about this display. Can you figure out why I snapped this pic?

A soccer game broke out in the mosque.
Our final Safranbolu wanderings brought us down to the street of metalworkers. Probably in large part due to the UNESCO status of Safranbolu, there are a number of blacksmiths down in a corner of town who work away in traditional methods to make pretty little metalwork items, from jewellery to dishware. It had started to rain a little bit, so escaping into the warm little workshops was a nice respite. One of the vendors was quite friendly and had a little of English, and Jess bought a pretty little dish from him. He was then even able to point us the right way through the town so that we didn’t get lost in the windy little streets.

Another pretty, traditional, old Safranbolu building, with a pretty, traditional, old goat as an inhabitant. He was yelling at us from his window. Can you pick him out?
Having felt like we had seen quite a decent amount of Safranbolu, we picked up our bags and headed out from the little town. We were headed now to the Black Sea coast, which would carry us all along most of the rest of our trip through Turkey until we crossed eventually into Georgia.
We had to transfer buses, which made the trip seem longer than it should of, but late afternoon brought us into the picturesque little harbour town of Amasra. Some people describe it as the Black Sea’s prettiest Turkish town, and I think there is a good argument to be had – the location is great, jutting out into the sea with two harbours – a “large” harbour and a “small” harbour – one on each side, making the town surrounded by water on three sides.

We had no plan for accommodation when we arrived, so when we were approached by an old toothless woman for a room, we happily negotiated a good price, and found ourselves escorted to a pretty little room with a balcony. No waterfront view and no wifi, but still a pretty little apartment. There was even a shared kitchen with the neighbouring rooms, which was a nice touch. We only wanted to spend the one night in Amasra, so we headed out immediately to see what we could of the town.

The overcast clouds that had haunted us in Safranbolu had disappeared somewhere between there and here, and opened up the sky into a beautiful expanse of blue, making this a perfect introduction to our first taste of the Black Sea coast. We walked down to the “large harbour”, which was just a few hundred metres from our apartment, and stared out at the beautiful blue water. We walked out the length of the pier, and enjoyed the relaxingly cool breeze and beautiful sunshine views over the Black Sea. From this vantage point we could also look east along the coast, in the direction we would be heading the next morning. We saw the tall green cliffs that characterize the Turkish Black Sea coast, and which would define the next part of our adventure. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves!

The beach at the "big harbour"

Amasra boats.

Walking out on the jetty, looking east. You can see the characteristic Black Sea cliffs ahead.
We eventually pulled ourselves out of the lull created by late afternoons sitting in salt-water-fresh air, and headed back down the pier to the edge of Amasra’s Zindan Castle. The castle sits on the end of a peninsula, jutting out into the sea, though a short bridge connecting it to the island of Boztepe means that it doesn’t feel like the “end” of the town. Zindan Castle was built by the Byzantines, then appropriated and repaired by the Genoese when they came through in the late 13th century (astonishing to think! Genoa seems so far from Amasra! But it’s an interesting connection, since Jess and I traveled to Genoa on our first international voyage together, to Italy four whole years ago). We climbed up some steep steps from the waterfront into the castle itself. Zindan Castle is now a residential area, but it has maintained many of its original walls, which cut through the town, oblivious to the growth of modern houses. The narrow, winding streets mean it is still a fascinating place to explore and brush shoulders with locals going about their daily lives.

From the castle, looking down on the harbour.

Cats (so many!) sunbathing in the streets of the castle. Behind them is an old Chapel, dating back to when Christians were the majority in this region.

We watched kids on trikes and old women with bags of produce walking under these ancient arches. Amazing how the old and the new weave together.
One such winding street we found ourselves on brought us downhill towards the water’s edge. We soon found ourselves in a little cove, protected on all sides (not that we needed protection on such a glorious afternoon) except for a little passageway out into the water. There wasn’t any other soul around, and it felt like we had been transported to another world. We had a great view of the north end of Amasra’s bluffs, and out to a little barren island which, if I can interpret the local travel guide’s poor English translations, might have been “Rabbit Island”, named for its ridiculously high rabbit population (no predators, maybe?) – though we didn’t see any rabbits from our spot. We explored the little cove, clambering over rocks, and found a little grove of mulberry trees just outside an old abandoned shack. Lucky us, mulberry season was in full swing, so we picked some from the trees and our mouths exploded with flavour. It felt like we weren’t even in a city.

A little Black Sea cove, all to ourselves.

Rabbit Island, all to ourselves.

Looking up at old Amasra from our cove.
When we wandered back up the hill into the castle again, we crossed Kemere Bridge, which connects the Zindan Castle to the island of Boztepe, which is itself another castle, called the Sormagir Castle. This castle lacks walls, because the high cliffs over the sea protected the town anyway. By walking the southern length of the castle, we were able to get a good view back towards Amasra, sitting pretty on the water’s edge as the sun descended.

Looking back at Amasra proper from Boztepe. Just in the shadows, to the left of the town, you can see Kemere Bridge.
We walked back from Sormagir Castle to the mainland, exiting Zindan Castle again via its historic gateways. Back in town, we had unexciting food for dinner at a local hole in the wall, though stray dogs and ogling locals kept the meal interesting anyway.  We decided to have the regular after-dinner tea at a sea side place instead, and found a delightful little terrace overlooking the water, with a beautiful view of the setting sun. And what a sunset it was. The sky was clear, lit up with gorgeous oranges and pinks, and the waves of the Black Sea crashed up against the wall, showering sprays up into the fading light. It was a truly phenomenal sunset, and I would confidently say it was one of the most beautiful I have seen in my entire life. And it was a fantastic first night on what would be an incredible trip along the coast.

An incredible sunset.

Real Time Update: I’m posting this from Bukhara, Uzbekistan. I’ve been here in Uzbekistan for a week now, having met my friend Cayley up in Nukus on the 2nd of this month, and we have since traveled south to Khiva, and then to here. It’s fascinating to really, truly be on the Silk Road now, and really be immersing ourselves in the history. I really can’t wait until I can finally share pictures of it! Bukhara, like Khiva, is a fantastic Silk Road city, and one of the major drawcards that brought me to this fascinating country in the first place; exploring it has so far been incredible.