Well, we’ve made it: the final stop of our four-month journey across Asia. We started in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia on August 20th and have travelled over 13,247 miles to arrive exactly four months later in Budapest, Hungary. Although it’s only 4,815 miles as the crow flies, we took the scenic route through China, Nepal, Tibet, back to China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and finally Hungary. We traveled 190 miles on a ferry across the Caspian Sea, 511 miles in our Mongolian van, 1,152 on various trains, 2,412 on local buses, 3,001 on three short flights and a whopping 5,981 on Calypso, our trusty Odyssey Overland truck! It’s been a fantastic journey and we are sad to end our trip but excited to be home in Wisconsin for Lincoln’s very first white Christmas!
Back to Hungary: in the 3rd century BC it was part of the Roman Empire. By 441 AD, Attila and his brother Bleda had ended Roman rule, but their empire didn’t last long. In 896 the Magyars conquered the area and in 1000, Hungary became a state under the leadership of Saint Stephen, Hungary’s first king.
When World War I ended, Hungary was on the losing side and lost more than two-thirds of its land. Their desire to regain this land led Hungary to enter WWII on the Axis side, however by 1945 the Soviets had defeated them and taken control of the government. They stayed until 1991 but did not control the state as strictly as in the Slavic satellite states. Hungary became a member of the EU in 2004 but still uses their own currency, the florint.
With only two days in Budapest and the temperature outside a chilly 0 degrees Celsius (32F), we headed out on the town to check out Buda. Budapest had originally developed as two separate cities: Buda on the West side of the Danube and Pest on the East. The cities joined in 1873 to become Budapest. After a quick walk around Castle Hill where we saw Buda castle, the Royal Palace, the Fishermen’s Bastion (the section of the fortification wall that the fishermen’s guild was responsible for defending in the Middle Ages), and the newly renovated Matthias Church. Afterward, we headed back to Pest to check out the beautiful Christmas market, packed with hand-made goods, crafts, and lots of yummy mulled wine. We drank enough mulled wine to keep us warm for our walk back to the hostel and then headed out that night for dinner and drinks.
The next day we wandered around Pest, seeing the Great Synagogue, Saint Stephen’s Basilica, the Opera House, the Terror House, and City Park. Lunch was a roasted pork knuckle from the Christmas market and dinner was a delicious Hungarian-Jewish soup house affair. Our last stop in Hungary was the famous thermal spas. There are several in the city and we chose to visit the one with three outdoor pools, called the Szechenyi Baths. They had over ten pools inside with temperatures ranging from 20C (68F) to 40C (104F). I preferred the 37C (98.6F) pool, not too hot and not too cold! Linc and I spent hours lazing about in the pools and were nice and relaxed for our last night in Hungary.
This morning we ate our very last international meal of the year, said goodbye to Europe and headed to the airport. While we’re extremely excited to be home in Wisconsin for Christmas, we are a bit sad to be ending our amazing Silk Road Journey.
Now some fun facts about Hungary:
– Hungary got its name from the Huns who settled here in the 9th century.
– The Hungarian language is known as Magyar and is a direct descendent of the language spoken by the Huns. Therefore it is not an Indo-European language and there is much debate over what other languages are related to it. The general consensus is that Estonian and Finnish are the most closely related languages.
– In 1946, Hungary issued banknotes of a face value of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 pengo (one quintillion pengo) – the world’s highest denomination ever!
– Hungarian has some very long words, including: megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért and legeslegmegszentségteleníttethetetlenebbjeitekként. Apparently there is no limit for the number of syllables in Hungarian. A new word can be made by adding innumerable prefixes and suffixes, although the meaning of the word can become difficult to understand.
– The Hungarian Erno Rubik invented the Rubiks cube.
– The word ‘coach’ derives from the name of the Hungarian town Kocs, the town where multi-passenger wheeled vehicles first appeared around 1500.
– Hungarians have won gold medals at every summer Olympics except Antwerp 1920 and Los Angeles 1984 when they did not compete. Only five countries (USA, USSR, UK, France and Italy) have won more Summer Olympic gold medals than Hungary in history.
– The national poetry taught in schools has a huge influence on the Hungarian psyche. It translates to ‘patriotic sorrow’ and according to some expats we met in Hungary, they agree that most Hungarians are a bit glum.
Romania’s got a pretty crazy history: Prince Vlad III ruled Wallachia (part of Romania) from around 1448 to 1477. He gained the charming name ‘Vlad the Impaler’ from the punishment he used against his enemies: he would drive a wooden stake through the victim’s backbone without hitting any vital nerves, causing at least 48 hours of suffering before they died. Lovely. He also had another nickname: Dracula, meaning ‘son of the dragon’ after his father, Vlad Dracul (who got his name by being a member of the Order of the Dragon, a group founded to protect Christianity in Eastern Europe). In 1897, Bram Stoker wrote the book ‘Dracula’ based loosely on Prince Vlad III. Unsurprisingly, Vlad’s reputation for cruelty caused many other countries to fear him. In 1462 the Hungarians captured and imprisoned him. However, when the Turks attacked Hungary in 1476, the Hungarian generals had an ingenious idea: free Vlad, let him with the war against the Turks, and then assassinate him after the battles were won. They did just that. Surprisingly, in Romania Vlad is not remembered as a demon but instead as a national folk hero who protected the Romanian population from the invading Ottomans as well as the corrupt Romanian aristocrats.
Continuing the history, in WWII Romania joined Germany, sending 400,000 Jews and 36,000 Romani (more on them below) to their deaths at concentration camps. However, in 1944, Romania switched sides and declared war on Germany. But it wasn’t the end of their brutal history: In 1965 Nicolae Ceausescu became leader and became famous for exporting food to finance his schemes while his people starved. Finally in 1989, a popular priest publicly condemned the dictator, which prompted the Romanian Church to remove him from power. On 21 December 1989, while Ceausescu tried to give his last speech in Bucharest the crowd drowned him out with chants of ‘down with Ceausescu!’ Ceausescu ordered the military to fire on the crowd, but they refused and joined the people. On 23 December Ceausescu was arrested and on Christmas day he was executed by firing squad.
Now, just in case you, like me, were confused and thought that Romani people (aka gypsies) were from Romania, they’re not. There are certainly Romani people in Romania, but they look nothing like Romanians. According to our guide, the Romani people originated in India. They were of the lowest caste system, called the ‘untouchables’ (which still exists today). When the Mongols came through in the 14th century, they took these untouchables as slaves and brought them to Europe, where they continue to live today. Interesting!
Our first experience in the country was to be an excellent one: We hopped off the bus in Bucharest to look for a bus to Brasov (We would skip the capital of Romania for similar reasons we skipped the capital of Bulgaria: the Lonely Planet says that it has ‘unsightly communist-built housing blocks . . . and a crumbling historic center.’ Maybe the LP is wrong and it’s beautiful, but with only two days in Romania, we weren’t going to place our bets on Bucharest). While looking for the bus station, we stopped at a street corner and must have looked perplexed, because two metro policemen came up to us and asked ‘may we help?’ Sure! We said we’d like to get to Brasov. They said ‘don’t take the bus: unreliable. Take the metro to the train station’. They started to describe how to get there, then changed their minds and said, ‘here, just follow us, we’ll show you!’ They spoke perfect English and helped us get our metro ticket, showed us which platform to stand on, and how many stops to go to get to the train station. As a parting note, they added ‘don’t trust the taxi drivers!’ Thank you helpful policemen!
We made it to Brasov easily, avoided a taxi driver who was going to charge us four times the normal amount, and arrived at our hotel in awe of beautiful Brasov! The city had set up charming Christmas lights all over the main street and the effect was wonderful. We headed out for dinner and were pleasantly surprised with the delicious food and cheap prices!
The next day we set out to explore the town. Unfortunately, we found out that everything is closed on Mondays! So we saw the outside of the 14th century Gothic Black Church, the outside of the fortress towers, and looked longingly at the cable car up to the top of the nearby hill. Ah well. The cobblestone streets, cute 14th century houses, and city walls were more than enough to keep us entertained for the day. Anyway, it was freezing outside, so we had to keep stopping for tea/hot chocolate/mulled wine breaks.
Today we headed out to the famous Bran castle in Transylvanian, home of Dracula! And guess what our guide’s name was? Vlad! Heehee. He even looked the part: tall, skinny, slightly hunched shoulders, gaunt jaw, it was perfect! Bonus: the Romanian accent actually sounds like Dracula’s accent! I think they must have created Dracula’s accent from the Romanians. ☺ Anyway, built in 1378, Bran castle is not in fact where the real Vlad the Impaler resided, but was the home to Count Dracula in Stoker’s novel. It was originally used as a defense against the Ottomans, and then as a customs post between Transylvania and Wallachia (home of Vlad the Impaler). In 1920 it became a royal palace for the monarchy who lived there until the communist regime expelled the royals in 1948. Now it’s a tourist castle and can be rented for just 4,000 euros a night!
After one last delicious and cheap meal in Brasov, we headed back inside to chill our numbed toes and catch up on photo-editing. Tonight we head off on an overnight train to Budapest, Hungary. It will be the last stop of our thirteen-country, four-month trip across Asia!
Now for your Romania fun facts:
– The Romanian Palace of Parliament in Bucharest is the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon.
– The first ever perfect score of 10.0 in gymnastics was awarded to a Romanian gymnast named Nadia Comaneci in 1976 at the Montreal Olympics.
– Why does the Romanian language sound so familiar to our ears? Because it’s a Romance language, closely related to Italian, French, Spanish, Catalan and Portuguese.
– In 1884, Timisoara, Romania became the first city in the world to be lit by electric street lamps.
– The meaning of the word ‘Transylvania’ is ‘the land beyond the forest.’
– The Black Church in Brasov (which got it’s name from a fire that blackened the walls in 1689) has the largest organ in Europe. It was built by Berlin’s famous organ builder Buchholz and has 4,000 pipes.
Bulgaria is not a country that’s ever really been on my to-go list, but hey, we’re here! And it’s actually really nice. The food is certainly delicious, the people are really friendly, and we can once again use our Russian and Cyrillic that we learned in the former USSR states! Zdrasvutye! (hello) Dasvidanya! (goodbye) Spasiba! (thank you), piva (beer), dasvidanya (goodbye) and, of course, nasdrovye! (cheers). The Russian Ladas are back in style and it feels like we never left Central Asia (well, except that the food is infinitely better!)
Our first experience in Bulgaria came about two minutes after we entered, at one am in the morning on our night bus. Bleary-eyed from being woken, we were ushered off the bus for passport checks. After getting my stamp, I went to get back on the bus, but found that it had moved. Luckily our bus-lady was there, so I pointed to the bus that I thought was ours and asked ‘this bus?’ She smiled and shook her head from side to side in what I can only describe as the Indian head wobble! (For those of you who haven’t been to India, the ‘India head wobble’ is a curious wag of the head from side to side in a figure eight. It looks a lot like ‘no’ but in fact means ‘yes.’) I was left rather confused but figured from her smile that despite her shaking her head from side to side, she really meant yes. Later on, we found out that some Bulgarians do indeed shake their head for ‘yes’ and nod for ‘no.’ Interesting.
In the morning after a transfer at Sophia, we arrived in the little town of Veliko Tarnovo, the medieval capital of Bulgaria. We decided to skip the current capital Sophia because the Lonely Planet describes it as a city with a ‘lingering Soviet tinge, blocky architecture, and a scattering of stubborn Red Army monuments.’ No thanks! Veliko Tarnovo was cute, quaint, and a perfect place to spend our two days in Bulgaria. After checking into our mini-apartment (money goes a lot further here!) we headed out on the town to explore. Lunch was a pizza, pasta and beer affair that only cost us half as much as we would have paid for the same meal in Turkey. We love Bulgaria!
We wandered around town for the afternoon, taking in the pretty cobblestone streets, chatting to the souvenir vendors, and looking out over the s-bend river that winds its way through town. It was a chill-out and drink a bottle of wine type of evening for us that night.
The next morning we awoke with high aspirations of a 12km hike to a nearby monastery, but those plans were dashed when we decided to sleep in till 10am, have a leisurely brunch, then explore the fortress for longer than planned. Ah well. The Tsarevets Fortress is pretty cool: it was used from 1185 to 1396 when Bulgaria was a monarchy. In 1185 they gained independence from Constantinople and the kingdom lasted until the Ottomans took over in 1396. During that time, 27 monarchs sat the thrown. The remains of 400 houses, 18 churches, the royal palace, execution rock, and several watchtowers are still around to be explored. It was another wonderful and relaxing day in Veliko Tarnovo.
This morning on our way out of town we had a humorous encounter with our taxi driver. We had to get to the Western bus station, called Zapad. We hailed him down and asked to go to the Za-PAD ow-toe-BOOS stay-SHUN (Zapad Autobus Station (emphasis on the caps). Confused look. Showed him our ticked which had Zapad written in Cyrillic for him. No glimmer of recognition. Tried again. Za-PAD? Nope. ZA-pad? OH! ZA-pad! Of course! Get in! . . . and we were like, really? Was he messing with us or actually didn’t understand us because we put the em-PHA-sis on the wrong syl-LA-ble? We’ll never know!
I’ve found some pretty great fun facts for Bulgaria, so don’t skip the next bit:
– Bulgaria is the oldest country in Europe that hasn’t changed its name since it was first established in 681 AD.
– Bulgaria produces 70% of the world’s supply of rose oil, used to make some of the world’s most popular perfumes. Over 1,000 rose blossoms are used to create one gram of rose oil.
– Mark Zuckerberg is of Bulgarian ethnicity: his grandfather emigrated from Bulgaria in 1940.
– The first computer and the first wristwatch were both invented by Bulgarians: John Atanasoff and Peter Petroff.
– The Cyrillic alphabet was invented in the 9th century by two Bulgarian monks: Cyril and Methodius. Bulgaria was the first country to use the Cyrillic script.
– Bulgaria is part of the EU, but uses the Bulgarian lev instead of the euro.
– The Bulgarian government was one of only two countries that saved their Jewish population from being sent to Nazi concentration camps during the holocaust (the other country was Denmark).
– A Bulgarian folk song ‘Izel y Delyo Haydutin (Delyo the Outlaw Has to Go Outside)’ is one of the songs sent into space in the 1977 Voyager space program, aimed to make contact with extraterrestrial beings. It’s still playing. (No wonder they don’t want to contact us! ☺ jokes)
– Spartacus was a Thracian gladiator, born in Bulgaria in 109 BC. He is famous for leading a slave revolt against the Roman Republic.
– Bulgaria is fourth in the world for per capita university education, after the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom!
– Bulgaria’s last lion was killed during the campaign launched by Xerxes the Persian king around 480 BC.
Cappadocia dates back to the 8th century BC to the time of the Phrygians and is still in use today. Nowadays, most of the rock churches and monasteries are just tourist destinations, but many of the homes carved in the rocks are still being lived in or have been converted to hotels. We even got to stay in one of these! It was fascinating to imagine who else had lived in that room during the past 2700 years or so . . . check below for photos.
On our first day in Cappadocia, we headed to the Goreme open-air museum to see some of the beautifully frescoed cave churches. These churches were probably carved in the 4th century AD but not frescoed until the 8th to 10th centuries. We also went to lots of great lookout points to see the amazing Cappadocia landscape. Before lunch, we saw a highly entertaining fashion show at a leather workshop. Then at the end of the day we visited a carpet-making cooperative. In Uzbekistan, we learned that if a carpet has more than 320 knots per square inch, a child with tiny fingers probably made it. In Turkey, they sold carpets with 600 knots per square inch! However, the co-op paid for the women (and children?) to work at home with their own loom, so could work as many hours as they had time for. If the kid chooses to work, is that okay? How do we know if they’re choosing to work or if they’re being forced into it? Hmm . . . I think if I ever buy a carpet, I’ll choose one with 320 knots or below just in case!
On the second day we were up before the sun to head out on our sunrise air balloon over Cappadocia! It was touch-and-go for a while while we waited for the weather to calm down, but finally our guides deemed it calm enough to go for a ride, and we were whisked off to our balloon! As it was about -3C (27F), they thankfully had it almost all blown up when we arrived so we didn’t have to wait around in the cold. Linc and I had each been on one balloon ride before, him in Kenya and me in Tanzania, but only 3-8 balloons flew per day there. Here, there were 34 balloons flying in low season! Everywhere you looked were beautiful air balloons. Our pilot informed us that the limit is 100 and in summer, there are almost always 100 balloons flying every day!
Our flight was chilly but beautiful. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the sunrise because it was snowing, but the flakes falling on our faces during the ride made it just as magical as a sunrise. Our pilot was Turkish, and we rode with two Argentinians, one Filipino, and three Saudi Arabians. So in our balloon of nine people, we covered all five habitable continents! (If you count Saudi Arabia as Africa and Turkey as Europe). The Saudis were surprisingly normal: they wore jeans, they joked around, and they even spoke to me and the other girls on the balloon like we were normal people (imagine that!) I thought men were generally not allowed to speak to women in Saudi Arabia? Anyway, they were all absolutely thrilled to see their first snow ever (they were about 35 years old!)
After our wonderful balloon ride and celebratory champagne, we were off on another day of sightseeing in Cappadocia. We started with a 4km hike through the Rose Valley. It wasn’t snowing at the time, but there was still snow on the ground from the day before which made everything sparkle. In the afternoon we visited the Kaymakli Underground city. No one knows when they were built or who built them, but the cities could possibly have been built as early as the 8th century BC by the Phrygians. It was seriously like stepping into an Indiana Jones film! Apparently the cities were used as hiding places during times of war or invasions. There are over 200 underground cities, with the largest one having space for 20,000 people! The coolest part about these cities is that they had huge circular stone doors that they would roll into place when under attack. From outside, the doors were impossible to move (check below for a photo). Other modes of defense included small corridors between rooms that would prevent a Roman soldier from moving quickly down (and also prevent more than one coming in at a time). The underground city was definitely a highlight of our trip to Cappadocia.
After another uncomfortable overnight bus from Cappadocia to Istanbul, we were back in the capital and had another two days to explore this beautiful and ancient city. We headed to the Archaeology Museum where tombs from the 6th century BC were on display, then headed to the Topkopi Palace, home to the Ottoman Sultans from the 15th to 19th century. I’ve never seen so many emeralds, rubies and diamonds in my entire life! The Topkopi Treasury even has the ‘spoonmaker’s diamond,’ an 86-carat colorless pear-shaped diamond that was originally bought (uncut) by an ironmonger for three spoons! After a bit of shopping at the Grand Bazaar (probably the best bazaar in the world, no joke) we called it an early night and caught up with some sleep.
On our last day in Turkey, we headed to the Blue Mosque, which was impressive, but not overly. The highlight of the day was definitely the Basilica Cistern, a massive underground cistern also nicknamed the ‘Sunken Palace’ due to its grandeur. Built by Emperor Justinian around 550 AD, there are a total of 336 columns. Most of these columns were built using materials from older buildings such as the Temple of Artemis. When the Ottomans took over from the Byzantines, they installed their own water system and the Cistern was forgotten about for several centuries. In 1985, 50,000 tons of mud was removed and it was opened for tourists!
Overall, we had an incredible time in Turkey. However, before you hop on the next plane to come visit, we did have a few downers:
– The food is disappointingly average. Unless you REALLY like meat on a stick, you’ll probably also be disappointed. With Istanbul being the crossroads of civilization for thousands of years, we thought they’d have a bit more spice. If you want quality food it’s very expensive, and unfortunately at one point in time we deemed McDonalds to be of higher quality and cheaper priced than much of the other food available.
– Because Turkey has so many top sights, it means that there are heaps of tourists. Although we came in ‘low season’ and it was freezing, we encountered more tourists in Turkey than in all the other countries we’ve been to on the Silk Road combined! More tourists means higher prices and lots more hassle. You’ll get asked/coerced to buy a Turkish carpet about ten times a day!
– A young American guy at our hostel got majorly scammed: he was traveling on his own and a nice Turkish man befriended him and they went to a bar together. Once there, the Turkish man ordered everything. They had a great time, but when the bill came it was $400! A large man at the door blocked him from leaving and he was intimidated into paying the bill. Major bummer! The Lonely Planet DOES warn of this scam, but it’s such a shame that it happens. It makes travelers so jaded to even speaking to the locals, and that’s one of the best parts about traveling!
Now your last Turkey fun facts:
– The local firewater is called raki, which means ‘lion’s milk.’ The local saying is ‘if you drink two rakis you feel like a lion. If you drink more than two you feel like lying down.’ We wisely avoided ANY rakis.
– Fuel here is atrociously expensive! At 4.50 lira per liter, that’s about twice the price of Australian fuel ($2.25 AUD per liter) and 2.5 times the price of American fuel ($8.4 USD per gallon).
– Which came first, the country or the bird? Turns out it was the country! Although the turkey bird is native to the Americas, Europeans mistook them for the guinea fowl from Turkey when they first arrived.
– ‘Aslan’ is the Turkish word for lion (like in Narnia)
– The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is 540 years old, has 4,000 shops, 22 entrances, and 25,000 workers!
– Turks introduced coffee to Europe, and also gave the Dutch their famous tulips.
– Julius Caesar proclaimed his celebrated words, “Veni, Vidi, Vici (I came, I saw, I conquered)” in Turkey when he defeated the Pontus, a formidable kingdom in the Black Sea region in Turkey.
– Writing was first used by people in ancient Turkey. The first clay tablets in the ruins of Assyrian Karum date back to 1950 B.C.
– Saint Nicholas, also known as Santa Claus, was born in Patara, Turkey and became the bishop of Demre, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.
– The oldest known human settlement is in Catalhoyuk, Turkey (7th millennium B.C.)
We’re in Turkey. I love Turkish bread. We ate Turkish bread in Azerbaijan. We had it in Armenia. Georgia too! But as soon as we crossed the border into Turkey, poof! It disappeared! Is Turkish bread some sort of weird export-only food like Fosters is to Australia? Is Turkish bread actually not from Turkey? We’ve been here a total of five days now and we’re still scratching our heads . . .
Anyway, onto more unperplexing items: Turkey is amazing! Compared to every other country we’ve been to on this Asia portion of our trip, it’s certainly the easiest to travel around. The people are enormously friendly and love to joke around. The bazaars are a shoppers heaven, the busses are all on time, the bathrooms are spotless and the weather . . . well, the weather could be improved. All the days have been sunny so far, but the temp has dropped below freezing the past few days!
Quick history time! Turkey is old. Well, okay, everywhere is old, but Turkey still has some very old stuff around. There is evidence of people living here for the past 10,000 years! The Hittites were here from about 3000 BC to 1200 BC; around the same time as the Ancient Egyptian Empire was thriving. In 2500 BC, the Hittites invented the pottery wheel and became wealthy from their wares. After them the Greeks came, then the Byzantines, and the Romans after them. In 330 AD, the Roman emporer Constantine came to Byzantium (now Istanbul) and founded the city of Constantinople. It became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and was the main city in the Byzantine Empire for over a thousand years. In 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks and was renamed Istanbul. After WWI, Turkey fought a war for independence with Greece and won with the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. An independent secular Turkish republic was born. Phew, enough boring stuff!
We arrived first in Istanbul, but since we’ll be back in a few days we’ll leave that for the next blog. The first stop of our six-day tour around Turkey was Gallipoli, the site of a long drawn-out battle between the Turks and the Allied forces in WWI. The Allies included the ANZACs (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps), British, and Indian troops. On 25 April 1915, they landed on the beach hoping for an easy victory. Nine months and countless casualties later, the defeated Allies withdrew. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (the soon-to-be president of new Turkey) was responsible for the successful Turkish defence. The main sights include the memorials to the Kiwis, Australians and Turkish soldiers as well as the trenches and the landing beaches.
Next it was off to Troy! Made famous by Homer in his poems the Illiad and the Odyssey (and even more famous by Brad Pitt in the movie Troy), Troy was the site of the great Trojan War between the Greeks and Trojans. There are nine cities built on top of each other. Troy 1 was founded around 3000 BC and Troy 9 destroyed around 500 AD. Various fires, earthquakes and other disasters caused the destruction of one city and the rebuilding of the next. Troy 7 is considered to be the Troy Homer describes, with the great Trojan War taking place sometime around 1200 BC. Legend has it that the gods made Helen (a Greek) fall in love with Paris (a Trojan). This would have probably been fine if Helen hadn’t already been the wife of Menelaus, who was the brother to Agamemnon, king of Greece at the time. After many years of battle and many heroes slain (including Achilles and Hector, aka Brad Pitt and Eric Bana), the Greeks finally tricked the Trojans by pretending to retreat and leaving them a parting gift of the wooden horse. The Trojans brought the horse into the city and celebrated all night. While they were sleeping, the Greeks crept out of the horse and opened the city walls for the rest of their army to enter and take the city. Historians argue that the Trojan War was more likely an attack to seize the abundant gold in the city and had nothing to do with Helen, but that’s not as romantic, is it?
After Troy, we headed south along the Mediterranean coastline to visit Ephesus, the third largest city in the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria. Our first stop was the ruins of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. (The other six are the pyramids of Egypt, the Colossus of Rhodes, the gardens of Babylon, the lighthouse of Alexandria, the Statue of Zeus, and the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus.) It was built around 550 BC and was twice the size of the Parthenon in Athens, but was destroyed only two centuries later in a fire in 356 BC. Greek and Roman legend has it that the god Artemis was too preoccupied with the birth of Alexander the Great (in 356 BC) to save her temple from burning. The Greeks rebuilt the temple and it stood for another thousand years until it was destroyed again in a 4th century AD earthquake. Because Christianity came to Turkey in the 4th century, the temple was not rebuilt. Today, there is only a single tower left from the original 127 columns. Most of the building material went to building structures in Istanbul, such as the Basilica Cistern and the Hagia Sophia.
Other sites in Ephesus included the beautifully reconstructed library, which was the third largest in the ancient world after Alexandria and Pergamum (also in Turkey). Unfortunately the books at the Ephesus library were given to Cleopatra, who deposited them in the Alexandria library that of course burned down. Most interestingly, there is a secret tunnel between the library and the brothel that just happens to be across the road! The theater was huge, seating 25,000 people. Our guide explained that you could tell it was used for gladiator events because the walls in front of the seats were about 6 feet high. In non-gladiator theaters, the seats go all the way to the ground. The theater was still used in the 1980’s and musicians such as Elton John, Diana Ross, Sting and Ray Charles performed there.
Leaving Ephesus, we headed east to Pammukale, famous for its white pools called travertines. Next to the travertines is the ancient site of Hierapolis, a Roman spa resort where people came to use the baths. The water is around 35C (95F) and felt wonderful on our toes as the air temperature was a chilly 3C (37F). We got to walk down a portion of the travertines, and then Linc took a dip in ‘Cleopatra’s Pool,’ an ancient pool made in the 7th century AD.
Tonight we head to Cappadocia on an overnight bus. Maybe Cappadocia will have some Turkish bread? Come back soon to find out and to see more great Turkey photos.
Now for your Turkey fun fact time!
– 60% of all the figs in the world, 80% of all dried apricots, and 90% of all hazelnuts in the world are from Turkey.
– Turkey is a secular country, meaning everyone is free to choose his or her own religion. About 99% of the country is Muslim, although many do not practice. Many men drink alcohol and many women uncover their heads.
– The first peace treaty in history was signed near the Red River in Anatolia (Turkey), between the Hittites and the Egyptians, in 1259 BC.
– 80% of all white silk in the world comes from Turkey. The silk here is naturally white as opposed to slightly cream-colored in other parts of the world. Still, the white silk is only about 1% of the total silk in the world.
– Thank you in Turkish is tashi kur ederim. We had a hard time remembering it until a local gave us a great tip: tea, sugar and a dream! Close enough ☺
In Tbilisi we made a mad dash around the city to see all the sights in the half-day we had left. In the Old Town we were treated to more Georgian hospitality when we entered a wine bar intending to have a glass before dinner. Turned out it was just a wine store that sold bottles but offered free tastings. Three chacha shots and several glasses of wine later, we wandered out of the store in a pleasant haze to join the group for a dinner and dance show. This turned out to be one of our best nights yet! With liter jugs of red wine costing only $6 and the white only $3, our group was well into our third or fourth glass of wine each when a large 1.5-liter jug of white just appeared on our table. After some puzzled looks, our waitress informed us that the table next to us had bought us a jug of wine! We cheers-ed them, (guarmarjos!) duly drank it down, and showed our appreciation by buying them a jug for their table. Then the wine-war began! They buy us a jug, we buy them a jug, and on and on and on till we were all well and truly tipsy. After the dance show finished, we were invited to get on stage and dance ourselves, which we certainly did until late in the night.
The next morning it was headaches all around but the fond memories made up for the pain. That day we headed north to the beautiful mountainous area of Kazbegi, home to Mount Kazbek. But unfortunately the day was not fated to be a happy one. We stopped for photos at a breathtaking mountainous lookout where we all climbed on the roof to snap a group photo. While we were waiting to climb back down, Hels had a freak accident and fell off the roof onto concrete below. Thankfully, our three nurses and one doctor on board were able to attend to Hels until the ambulance arrived. She was sent to the hospital in Kazbegi and later to Tbilisi to get x-rays. The scans revealed a fractured skull, a fractured lower spine and a small bleed in her brain. Doctor Bruce translated that this was actually very lucky and all of these injuries will heal on their own in time. Other fortunate events included the fact that we were in Georgia with access to decent medical care, that Kirsten and Pete (the owners of Odyssey Overland) had just finished their trip in Istanbul and were available to come take over, and that Hels insurance would pay for her and Rogs to fly at sea level (to prevent further injuries to her brain) back to England for further care. So of course although it was a terrible accident, there were many lucky aspects of it.
After a somber day in Kazbegi and another in Tbilisi while we waited for Kirsten and Pete to fly in, we said a tearful goodbye to Rogs as he headed to the hospital to take care of Hels. With our new crew of Kirsten and Pete in the cab, Calypso took us west to the town of Kutaisi. We visited the Bagrati Cathedral and stayed in another lovely home stay. In order to drown our sorrows, Pete had the right idea that night to buy us a five-liter jug of wine. And another. And another. Fifteen liters later, the group had forgotten all about Hels and Rogs (ok just kidding!) and were loving our new guides ☺.
Headaches again in the morning (can you see a pattern here?) Pete had insisted the night before that Georgian red wine does not give you a hangover because there are no preservatives. My head would certainly contest that statement! That day we headed to the pretty coastal town of Batumi on the Black Sea to spend our last night in Georgia.
Although the Odyssey trip does not finish until November 30th in Istanbul, Linc and I had to depart a week early in order to get back to Sydney to attend Brin and Tim’s wedding on the 30th. After a relatively easy border crossing from Georgia to Turkey, we spent our last night with the group in a pretty mountain town called Macka where we visited the Sumela Monetary.
On the morning of November 25th, Linc and I had to say goodbye to the group. After spending three months straight with them (every day all day!) we certainly grew close to our Odyssey family and were sad to leave them. So many great memories were made in the past few months, and I hope we will be able to stay friends and meet up again in the future!
And now for your last Georgian fun facts:
– Queen Tamar (1184-1213) was ruler during Georgia’s greatest time when its land stretched through most of Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as parts of Turkey and Russia. Georgians still refer to her (without irony) as King Tamar.
– Georgians only toast their enemies with beer. Friends are toasted with wine or spirits only.
– The Caucuses includes the highest mountain in Europe, Mount Elbus, at 5642m (in present-day Russia).
– Remember the Russian space monkeys? They were trained in Georgia! Eight monkeys from the Abkhazia Academy of Sciences Research Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy made space flights in the 1980’s. And if you believe the rumors, this academy was also the unfortunate site of a Stalin-era experiment to breed female monkeys with human sperm to create strong-bodied but weak-brained humanoids to help populate the USSR and build a Soviet future. Creepy.
– Remember the story of Jason, the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece? Well, turns out it may not have all been made up. In certain regions of Georgia, people sifted for gold in the rivers by placing a sheepskin across the rocks. The tiny nuggets of gold would collect in the wool. People still use this method today!
– Stalin was born in Georgia in the tiny town of Gori. Although he certainly caused the death of millions of people, it can also be said that without the Soviets in WWII, Nazi Germany may well have won. Stalin still has a few fans in Georgia: when they removed his statue in 2010 from Gori, police had to operate at night and sneak it away.
Ahh, Georgia! Over the past week we’ve been welcomed to the country with true Georgian hospitality (namely, a lot of wine!) This post has grown far too long, so I’ve broken it into two, one with events before Linc and I went to Armenia and the next with our adventures after Armenia. Enjoy!
Georgia is one of three Caucaus nations wedged between the Caspian and the Black Seas. Their language is ancient, with their own (completely undecipherable to our eyes) script. Similar to Armenia, the Georgians trace themselves back to Kartlos, the great-great-grandson of Noah. They call themselves Kartvelebi people and call their country Saqartvelo (land of the Kartvelebi). In the 4th century, Georgia was the second country to declare Christianity as the state religion (only a few years after Armenia).
Our first stop was the beautiful Lagodekhi Nature Reserve where we bush camped for the night in a lovely forest full of colorful fall leaves. Linc and I took a quick hike to get a better look at the Greater Caucuses, the mountain range that separates Georgia from Russia. Our guide Zaza started out the Georgian hospitality by bringing a ten-liter bottle of wine that we shared around the fire that night. Next it was off the cute little town of Signaghi where we stayed in home-stays. Linc and I wandered down to the old wall and found a great restaurant overlooking the valley where a small band of four old men were playing live music. We spent a wonderful evening listening to them while playing cards.
After a quick stop at Gremi to visit a beautiful old citadel, we spent the night bush camping outside the town of Telavi. Sadly, this would be the last bush camp of the trip for Linc and I. Although our tent always had a slight eau de damp smell, the zipper frequently stuck and some of the hooks were impossible to unhook in the morning, we had some great times in our tent watching movies, playing cards or just chilling out. The ‘Taj Palace’ kept us warm throughout many a chilly night and we were sad to be packing it up for the last time. Maybe we’ll be back on an Odyssey trip someday and the Taj Palace will still be in use . . . I hope so!
Usually on bush camp nights we cook dinner ourselves, but that night we were headed to a wine tasting and the winery had offered to cook us some Georgian food. How could we refuse? During the wine tasting, we learned how they ferment the wine in large clay pots buried in the ground (called qvevri). The grapes are left for about six months to ferment. After the juice is drawn off to make wine, the rest is distilled into a grappa-like local drink called chacha. What followed the wine tasting was a great night of all-you-can-drink wine and chacha, mounds of delicious Georgian meat dumplings, and a yummy cake to celebrate Sam and Mindy’s engagement! Congrats Sam and Mindy! Our guide Zaza even organized some heart-shaped paper lanterns to celebrate the occasion. It was a fantastic night and we all stumbled back to our campsite in high spirits.
It was an early start the next day for Linc and I as we checked out and made our way to Armenia without the group for a few days.
Now here are a few Georgian fun facts:
– Georgia has attacked corruption and crime head-on by replacing almost the entire police force after the peaceful 2003 Rose Rebellion that installed the current government. By 2011, Georgia had risen from 133rd to 64th in Transparency International’s corruption ranking.
– The oldest early human remains outside of Africa can be found in Dmanisi, Georgia. They are 1.8 million years old.
– The first wine in the world was probably made in Georgia—there is evidence of winemaking in the region 7000 years ago.
– The legal alcohol limit for driving in all three Caucuses countries is zero.
– Georgians don’t call their country Georgia, they call it Saqartvelo. The word Georgia probably comes from the Persian name for Georgians, gurj, which was probably picked up by medieval crusaders.
– Tbili means ‘warm’ in Georgian, and Tbilisi got its name from the hot springs nearby. Alexander Dumas and Alexander Pushkin were both known to bathe here.
The second Georgia post will be coming soon!
I'm from Wisconsin but currently live in Perth, Australia. My boyfriend and I are taking the year off work to go traveling! Check out our Itinerary to see where we are now!