Trabzon and The Sumela Monastery

Thursday 02 July

Trabzon is a colourful place.  A(n) (in)famous port on the black sea with an ancient history as part of the silk road, its streets are a thriving hub of markets, street food, knock-off football shirts and hostels that double as brothels (first hand experience).  You’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Mos Eisley.    Early in the morning, thankful our organs are where they should be, we change hotels and then set out for a day trip to the only thing really worth seeing.  The Sumela Monestary.

Our hotel room view

Our hotel room view

Sitting at 1,200 metres, it was founded in AD 386 as tribute to the Virgin Mary.  It’s famous not just for its nose bleeding height and climb, but its many murals and paintings in the “Rock Church.”  Regardless if you have a faith or not, it is nonetheless an astounding testament to man’s desire and ability to attempt to climb closer to something that doesn’t exist.

Where eagles dare

Where eagles dare

There’s a ridiculous amount of green-sweatered kids running around taking endless selfies, school teachers vying desperately for control.  But when they depart and the visitors thin to a personally more manageable amount, there’s a unique sort of peace that descends.  The monastery functions mainly as a tourist attraction now, and you can see why, with beautifully dramatic vistas from its crows nest locale.  It was fascinating to explore its nooks and crannies, before the hike down to fledgling tourist trap shops and restaurants, where a bowl of hot cheese is more delicious than it might first sound.  The Turkish government are investing heavily in restoration with the recent resurgence in visitors, and it’s well worth a look if you’re passing through.  One more ticked off the Atlas Obscura website.

With Trabzon not really having any other pull, and the feeling I’ve outstayed my welcome in Turkey, come the dawn we strike for Georgia.  Wine awaits.  Copious amounts of wine.

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Hitchhike to India leg 38: Goreme to Trabzon

Wednesday 01 July

This could potentially be one of the most difficult hitches to date, but buoyed by our recent success in Turkey, we fearlessly marched out a little later than recommended for such time and distance.  Goreme is nearly just one road in and out, so it was a simple task to walk to our first spot.  With the early rising balloon crowd now back at camp, and the airships stowed for another day, traffic was minimal.  Yet within minutes we’ve snagged a ride to the highway, and seconds later bagged a pick up to Kayseri.  We’re were on our way.

Destination known

Destination known

Dropped on a fast intersection of the bypass, in the shadow of the dormant volcano Mount Erciyes, and we’re getting all kinds of attention from curious truckers and locals from both sides of the road.  They do so love jamming their horns here.  A full transit carrying three guys slows to a stop, just casually blocking the inside lane as they check Olivia out.  Moments later, after some deliberation with himself on the hard shoulder, a shady type decides he’s going our way.  I’m hesitant, and actually quite thankful when he appears to want to drop us at a bus station, and we can make our excuses and exit.  A number of drivers don’t understand the concept of hitchhiking, and will insist on taking you to public transport.  This can be especially frustrating when you’re convinced they’re going your way, only for your heart to sink as you’re pulling into a bus depot.  Regardless of his genuinely considerate offer,  I leave a leg in the foot well of the vehicle while Olivia ensures all our stuff is out.  Including Olivia.  You just never know when they’re going to drive off with something important still inside.  Still, he’s left us in a better spot, and a quick pick up can take us as far as Şarkışla.

It’s another uneasy one.  He looks like an aging character from the expendables, hiding behind serial killer aviator shades having spent too long on a sun bed.  He barks Turkish at me in a non-too friendly tone.  He makes the slidey, index-finger gesture to imply if Olivia and I are having sex.  At one point we think he asks if I want to drive.  It’s all a little uncomfortable, and a little aggressive, culminating in him demanding money when he drops us off some time later.  I’d heard of such incidents, where some drivers demand cash at the end of the journey, and you have to establish beforehand that you can’t pay.  I’ve been lucky enough to avoid this so far, but this encounter leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  This doesn’t last long, as lucky for me Olivia has a Magnum ice cream problem and we take a breather in the shade of a gas station, safe, well, but with some 500 K still to go.

Refreshed, we’ve hardly got our packs on when we’re in the cab of a grinning trucker who’s jaw must surely ache from smiling.  He reminds me of a Colombian drug cartel baron.  I’ve always been taught to be wary of the over-friendly ones, and I’m a little on edge when he takes us off route, beaming and bouncing around like a school kid on ten bags of Skittles.  However he drops us in a great location, probably better than were I’d planned, and bounds out of the driver door to have a photo with us.  Of course this was purely so he could have a squeeze of Olivia, and enjoys it so much, he gets out a second time claiming the picture didn’t take.  She’s not having any of it this time, and as we’re shaking off around nine gypsy kids begging for money, we make purposeful strides up to the main road.  We’ve had a bit of a shaky start.  I’m hoping it gets a little smoother and I turn to Olivia to express my concern:

“We want a young driver, decent enough English, wrap around sunglasses, fast car, decent tunes, long distance.”

What do you think we got?

Yayah ticks all the boxes, and plays some cracking tunes for about 280 K, in the comfort of a Toyota Yaris.  We miss our original turning, and once again go off course, but this route is just as good anyway, if not better.  He goes out of his way to drop us in a decent spot, just outside of his destination of Erzincan.  The sun is keeping low now, and we’ve still got 233 K to go.  But we’re on home straights and morale is high.

Our penultimate ride with two Turkish men sees one of them phone ahead to a bus driver at their destination.  Once again we attempt to explain that we’re not using public transport and that it’s “auto-stop” only.  I make the universal “we’ve got no money” finger rubbing gesture as we pull in behind a coach.  The driver, co-pilot and our own hosts for the last ride scoff at such nonsense, and insist we board the bus, loading our packs into the open luggage compartment and indicating we don’t need to pay a penny.  Winding up into the mountains as darkness creeps in, this hospitality is only bettered when we’re invited to dine with the driver and co-pilot at a road-side depot.  Again, money is refused.  We can barely believe our luck as we reach Trabzon city limits after nightfall and in sleazy rain.

And sleazy indeed.  We’re in a brothel.  Well, a hotel with a brothel in the basement to be exact.  A heavy-set receptionist with a skin head and thick Russian accent takes our passports.  Girls arrive and are ushered into a back room door.  According to various booking sites, Trabzon has something of a reputation for hotels doubling as dens of iniquity, and as a bustling Black Sea port with hundreds of years of history on The Silk Road, you can understand why.  Still, the latch is on, the key in the lock, and the CS gas spray in arms reach.  I contemplate sliding the wardrobe over the door, (as I did in a Colombian hotel), but fatigue wins and I pass out.  12 hours, 761 KM and still 1 Aussie.  Hopefully she’ll still be there in the morning.

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Cappadocia

Monday 29 June

Look at any travel brochure or website for visiting Turkey and you’re almost guaranteed that they lead with a picture of this place.  The mythical, magical wonderland of Cappadocia.  You’re basically on a Star Wars set.  In fact, George Lucas himself took inspiration from this fairy tale land for scenes in his epic space saga.  And as much as the area is beautiful and stunning to explore, so too are there a plethora of touristic delights to enjoy.  It’s the thinking wo/mans amusement park.  And yet it never really feels overcrowded.  This I assume is attributed to the thousands of Asian tourists who visit here shuttled off to do day tours following their early morning balloon rides.  And if there is one thing that Cappadocia is famous for; it’s the balloons.

Up up and away

Up up and away

Hot air ones obviously.  Not the kind you give a lung to blowing up for parties.  Every morning just before dawn, thrill seekers and those not terrified of heights wake in the dark to be transported to launch sites all across the valley.  From there they pay top dollar to be lifted 1600 metres into the sky in a wooden basket attached to a tarpaulin with propane gas tanks above their heads.  OK so I’m not the best at selling it, but then again I don’t need to.  Apparently it’s an incredible experience, and who am I to dilute it with my own scorn and fear?  From my vantage point safe on terra firma, I can safely (literally) say, that it was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.  I counted 95 colourful airships taking silently to the skies, defying gravity, like a Galileo thermometer.  Serene, peaceful, mesmerising, and simply breathtaking.  Another world indeed.

No words required

No words required

Goreme is the central hub.  A town cut out of the rock the area is so famous for, vying for tourist dollars with cave hotels, balloon flights, regional tours, massage spas and ATV hire.  The unique, geological rock formations were sculpted by the three volcanoes in the region, and then carved into cute little homes by troglodytes (cave dwellers).  The persecuted Christians flooded the place around the 4th Century, turning many of the caverns into al-fresco churches.  Goreme open air museum is well worth a visit to experience the handy work of  some early god-botherers.

Christians.  Christians everywhere...

Christians. Christians everywhere…

My only bum note during my time here was struck by an aging American woman.  Driving around Charlie-and-his-angels-style in a hired jeep,  I was rather perturbed when, on asking for a picture of me and my attractive Australian companions, the following exchange took place:

“Where are you taking them?”

“Somewhere romantic…”

“Well they’re both gorgeous so I don’t think so”.

Kick a man when he’s down.  Clearly her 60 year old conservative ways were aghast at the possibility I was having a threesome.  As if I would ever do something like that…

No seriously I wouldn’t.  It’s just not happening for me.  Can’t seem to make it work.  I’ve come close so many, many times…

Nasty,  condescending woman just out of shot to the right, but still no chance anyway

Nasty, condescending woman just out of shot to the right, but still no chance anyway

I digress.  Underground cities, naked in a valley of giant cocks, a museum of female hair, joy riding in a jeep, spine-bending massages, nearly stranded in a ravine, and my first ever encounter with a camel.  It’s fair to say I got my money’s worth visiting this place.  But it is the balloons that will live long in the memory.   I will be back, and with it, perhaps conquer the fear that holds me so steadfast to the ground.

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The Museum of Hair

Sunday 28 June

Something to put you off your dinner.  I discovered this little gem while scouring through my new favourite website; Atlas Obscura.  Hidden away in a pottery shop in Avanos, Cappadocia, is The Museum of Hair.  A carpet of female only strands of mane adorn the walls and ceiling of the cavernous ceramic emporium, hanging down like the wig of a creepy giant witch.  It’s not really for the squeamish or faint of heart.

The Museum of Hair

The Museum of Hair

Begun in 1979 (a very good year), the story goes that the potter was saying goodbye to a life long love, and in doing so, she cut off a lock of her hair to remember her by.  Not to be outdone, other female visitors decided to add their donations.  Romantic maybe, but there’s more than an hair (ouch) of suspicion surrounding the exhibit, and one gets the impression that these women are actually all buried under the pottery.  Regardless, the collection was growing (sorry) at an alarming rate, and the Guinness Book of World Records eventually took an interest.  Today, over 16,000 strands of hair spiral down around you, tickling your face like a cobweb.  Ladies who cross the threshold are invited to add their own locks, where they come from, and their contact details.  This is apparently because every month a “winner” is chosen at random to return and enjoy a free day of pottery lessons.  Well I suppose there must be some fringe benefits. (Sorry again).

Hair everywhere

Hair everywhere

Of course as a result you’re not really allowed to take pictures, on account of the vast array of female email available, so my hasty shots are not the best.  But this did make me chuckle.  “Ooooh, she’s got a sexy bit of hair, I think I might stalk her on facebook”.  To be honest, it wouldn’t surprise me, especially since there are a number of ladies who have included a photograph.  Lonely hearts hair dating.  I think the Turkish guy who caretakes the collection will simply pick the hottest girl who cuts off a lock and invite her back for the pottery scene from Ghost.

And so the collection shows no signs of being trimmed. (I’ll stop I promise).  My companions both added their contributions and then we were lucky enough to catch a German tour group being treated to a pottery demonstration.  Hair and ceramics, together in one curious shop in Cappadocia.  You might not be into this kind of thing, but I’m sure it’ll grow on you.

I’m done now seriously.

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Hitchhike to India leg 37: Antalya to Goreme, Cappadocia

Thursday 25 June

Antalya is a dump.  Actually to be honest I’ve got no idea whether it is or not because I’ve not left the crap hotel we’re staying in save to eat and be taught pool by a German master.  However, when cutting through town the first day we arrived I’ve turned to Olivia and said; “we’re leaving asap”.  It’s one of those places I loath to find myself in, riddled with beach going booze tourists and insalubrious hang outs.  Alas, it was a means to an end, and after some life administration, (one for the book), we’re on our way for what appears to be a tough hitch to Goreme.  The balloons of Cappadocia await.

The best thing about Antalya:  learning from a master.

The best thing about Antalya: learning from a master.

According to hitchwiki and google maps, Goreme is some 600 KM away through B roads and mountain trails.  Usually when attempting this kind of hitch, I’d opt to stagger my signs.  By that I mean write one for the next big town, then the next, and so on.  This time however, I through caution to the wind and put my faith in humanity.  And in a hot Aussie chick.  I scrawl what I hope reads “The Road to Goleme” on the remains of a dumpster found box.

The Road to Goreme.  I think.

The Road to Goreme. I think.

We start early, but unsure how to reach city limits, cheat a little by taking a cab out of the centre.  It’s a fast road, with traffic screaming through, but I’m amazed when in little more than five minutes we’ve got a ride to the next town.  Lacking my usual map printout and not wanting to take up a drivers time using Olivia’s iPhone, I’ve written a list of towns on the back of my sign.  The trucker points to the one he can take us to and we’re on our way.

Serik is only minutes down the road, but anywhere was better than where we were, and the more drivers realise that every little distance helps, the more likely it is that hitchers will be picked up.  The closer we get, the easier it becomes.  We’re barely out of the cab before we’ve got a ride to Manavgat, and from there it’s seconds again before someone picks us up and drops us at the junction to turn North on the road to Goreme.  Barely 9 am, three rides in, and we’re flying.

A short walk to a shady spot out of the glaring sun and we almost needn’t have bothered.  A battered Yugo estate pulls in ahead, and we scurry to catch up.  He can take us to Akseki, and after he’s thrust bottles of water and his business card on us (farmer), we’re dropped at a junction just before it begins to get mountainous.  Traffic volume slows to nothing.  It’s getting hotter.  The grass rattles.  I fear our luck for the day has run out.

Four minutes.  Literally four minutes and two or three cars later before a Mercedes screeches to a halt.  Inside are three, suited and booted Turkish lads, gel slicked hair and shiny watches.  “Yes, yes get in!”  Demands the driver.  I’m a little reluctant considering the ratio of them to us and space in the car, but ever fearless, Olivia bounds over and is throwing her bags in with wild abandon.  Here we go again.

And once again the dangers of hitchhiking come to the fore.  No, not kidnap, rape or murder; but with the skill of the driver.  Or in this case, lack thereof.  He’s rocketing down the mountain for large stretches on the OTHER SIDE of the road.  We’re blistering over blind summits knowing full well that if something is coming the other way, it’s game over.  He’s taking corners like he’s playing Mario Kart.  Scrunched in the middle back seat with my guitar squeezed on my lap, it’s yours truly that’s going to get the worst of it, and you’d have to identify my body by my dodgy British teeth.  Then he calls up a mate and mentions something about Australia.  Here’s where we’re to be sold for our organs.

But good as gold, he’s dropped us safe and sound on the road to Konya, after contacting his English-speaking cousin to find out how we’re to proceed.  Bless him, he thought we wanted to take the bus, but with fortune seriously favouring the brave, we’re not about to give up yet.  329 KM to go, lives, limbs,  and everything else intact.

Waving goodbye to the three amigos, and it begins to get silly.  You’re having a laugh Turkey.  We’ve not even put our sign out, when a large camper van with family in tow swings in.  They slide back the door and crisp wrappers, coke cans and luggage litter out onto the roadside.  Unperturbed, they enthusiastically encourage us to lump our bags in with theirs.  The two little girls hop into the back, and for the next hour or so, we’re subjected to surround sound sing/dance along ABBA.  We’re offered chocolate and fruit.  The dad belts out tunes and shakes his graying, windswept, comb-over hair like he’s Benny Andersson himself.  We’re passed Konya in the early afternoon.

If you’d have said to me that we would make this location by this time I would have ended myself laughing.  And it just keeps getting better.  Barely out of the hippie van, and the reverse lights of a convertible jeep blink on up ahead.  Seconds later we’re riding in style to a better chance of a longer hitch.  200 KM to go.

Convertible hitching

Convertible hitching

Once again our board is out for mere seconds before a grandfather picks us up.  Literally a grandfather, he’s on the phone to his granddaughter who is apparently learning English.  Seeing an opportunity to impress, he’s thrust his mobile at Olivia, and she’s having a merry old chinwag over the blower as I contemplate just how astounding this hitch has been so far.  Easily the best driver I’ve ever been picked up by, a few hours later granddad takes us all the way to his home in Aksaray.  We pull into housing estates, and a grinning teenage girl greets us.  He’s taken us to meet his granddaughter, offered us delicious Turkish sweets, and a short English practice lesson later, dropped us on the road to Nevsehir.  What a legend.  I’ve a glassy eye as we’re within touching distance of our destination.

And again!  Before we can catch our breath, a big rig pulls over.  The beaming trucker can take us all the way to Nevsehir, which is practically over the finish line, and is the closest large town to the Cappadocia tourist hub of Goreme.  We sink back in contentment as the mechanical behemoth grinds into life and we rattle through Turkish countryside.

For mile after mile now, Turkey has stretched out before us.  We’ve hardly had an opportunity to take stock, but as we edge ever closer, and in the comfort of knowing we’re making base by dinner time, we can allow ourselves to relax.  Well at least I can.  Considering this is Olivia’s relatively fledgling experience of hitching, she’s a hell of a lot calmer than I am.

The landscape is vast.  On perfectly straight (and brand new) roads, the horizon seems to take an age to reach, and then you’ve another horizon to reach again.  Fields of corn as far as the eye can see.  Half finished buildings.  The occasional horse and cart.  And there we were, sitting high up and pretty, powering through endless country as king and queen of the road.

You know the story by now.  Shaking hands and bidding farewell to our last long distance driver, and we’re in the back of a car for the final leg in minutes.  Olivia seems a little nonplussed, as if she never really doubted it, but I’m punching the air with delight, drawing looks of bewilderment from passers-by with my shouts of “YES!  YES!” to the sky.  We’ve made it.  Our driver is a smartly dressed local:

“I’m Ballon”  He exclaims.

“Nice to meet you, I’m Stuart”.  I shake his hand enthusiastically.

The penny drops instantly as I realise he was trying to say he was a balloon pilot and not that he was an actual balloon.  This has Olivia in stitches as we’re dropped slap bang in the centre of Goreme, still in blazing sunshine.  But I don’t care.  10 rides, 651 KM, and just under 9 hours.  We’ve arrived faster than public transport could have taken us, and from the little we’ve seen so far, Cappadocia looks incredible.  I never thought hitches like today were possible.  But then again; I’d never been to Turkey.

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Hitchhike to India legs 35/36: Izmir to Antalya

Friday 19 June

I’ve picked up a companion!  For the first time since Germany, I will be hitching the next few legs with a partner in crime.  Olivia is a friend I made in Istanbul, and for some reason she wants to accompany me for a while on this crazy adventure.  So for the next few entries, it’s going to be a welcome ‘we’ rather than a lonely ‘I’.  And I get a skivvy to take photographs of me and hold my hitch signs.

Hitching in style.

Hitching in style.

We jump the train to Izmir airport, scoffing at travelers taking to the skies.  We’ve got more class.  You wouldn’t think it though, as the two of us are sweating buckets by the time we’ve walked miles up and round a highway to find a spot to head South.  Having a girl with me clearly works however, as we’re picked up in no time by a large, burly Turk with hands bigger than my head.  And it doesn’t take long before he’s fulfilling the stereotype of testing our “relationship”.  He makes a gesture sliding his fingers together to inquire if we’re having sex.  It’s actually safer to say we’re family so I’ve heard, but I nod firmly anyway and hope that it’s enough to put him off.  Regardless, he drives like a bat out of hell in a possible attempt to prove his manhood.  Traveling miles out of our way, it’s the first time my hand has lingered on my CS gas spray for a while.  I feel lucky to be alive as he drops us off course, and I’m forced to alter my hitch sign.  Olivia however was apparently thrilled.

There’s a swing chair just outside a garden store by the side of the road.  I take great pleasure in sinking into it and sucking on an ice cream as I make Olivia stand with the sign.  It’s 40 degrees, and I’m sharing a similar decomposition to that of my tiramasu magnum.  Being from Oz, she can handle it.  Needless to say the ploy works, and we’re picked up soon enough by another large Turk who looks remarkably similar to the last one.  The ride to Aydin passes without incident.

Now I really do feel as if I’m cheating.  Having an attractive female companion gets you picked up in seconds, and we’re dropped just outside a lovely restaurant to have a slap up meal.  Usually on a hitch I wouldn’t dream of eating until I make my destination, but what with lounging on a swing seat, and relaxing in a garden bar, I’m living the life of Riley.  It’s a short trek to a decent spot when we’re done, and once again sexy, tanned, female legs are working better than my own whiter shades of pale.  A dumper truck pulls in within minutes.

Olivia rides shot gun, and I pass out in the truckers sleeping cabin behind the seats.  It’s not long before we arrive at Denizle, from where we choose to take a mini bus to visit Panukkale; the world famous thermal pools, in an astounding geological rock formation.  We decide to bed down for the night, considering the overwhelming amount of Asian tourists, in the hope that rising early we can catch the water with little human traffic.

Panukkale

Panukkale

One night turns to two as I’m not feeling it.  The heat is getting to me, and with several poor nights sleeps in Izmir, I decide to take a breather in an air conditioned room.  With me bending her ear relentlessly about my recent trials and tribulations of the heart, Olivia spends a welcome day by the pool.  The site is worth a visit, if not spectacular, and be prepared for a significant amount of impeccably dressed Asians with selfie sticks, and tanned, hairy bellied, man-boobed speedo hunks posing for this years calendar.  Thankfully, we’re underway bright and early the following day.

Olivia wanders

Olivia wanders

In a fake pool

In a fake pool

Then it just gets ridiculously easy.  A short walk to the edge of town and a cold meats truck takes us into the city.  First vehicle, first ride.  The freezer compartment proves handy as it cools the water in our packs.  Barely holding our sign out, and we’ve a second ride all the way to our destination of Antalya.

And it’s a massive rig hauling 40,000 gallons of Efes!  What a stroke of luck!  Or rather it isn’t, as we soon realise our folly when the road snakes into the mountains, and we’re crawling along at 20KPM.  With some 200KM to go, this could be a long drive.

BOOZE!

BOOZE!

But it passes comfortably -albeit slowly – enough.  Our host barely speaks, save to offer us juice and snacks from a roadside gas station.  He drops us on the city limits, and with the afternoon sun still scorching hot for me, we opt for a cab to our hostel.

It’s a total dive in a town I don’t want to spend more than a minute in.  It’s already feeling like Kavos MK II.  They didn’t know we were coming.  There’s no lockers or locks on doors.  The toilet doesn’t flush.  First world problems maybe, but when you experience this first hand by evacuating the rotting remnants of last nights beer and wine only to discover it remains for all to enjoy, it’s not pleasant for anyone.  On top of this delightful gift, and with my health not being in tip-top shape, I throw up the dodgy burger I had moments ago.  A rich bouquet with notes of barley wafts from the cludge, and I beat a hasty retreat.  I only hope my Korean room mate can forgive the desolation I deposit in the jax, because it ain’t shifting anytime soon.

But let’s look at the positives.  The hospitality in this country is astounding.  We’ve wanted for nothing, and our waiting times for rides as been mere nanoseconds.  However the next hitch is a difficult one.  It’s not been done before, it’s not too close to the Syrian border but we’re edging that way, and the roads don’t really connect easily.  However there’s safety in numbers, and I think I’m seriously going to like hitching with a girl.

Incidentally a beard update.  It’s slowly coming in, in patchy swathes, a bright red hue.  Thanks Dad.  I look like a drunk ginger beaver.

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