Istanbul, Turkey – 4/2014

February 2, 2016

Leaving the illusion of “safe” EU countries, we headed toward the border of Turkey with some trepidation. Crossing into a new country is always a little exciting, but Turkey is on a different level. A new language that was not part of Monika’s repertoire; A new religion; The first Muslim country we had visited in many years; New foods; Great memories of my last two adventures in Turkey. We filled up our fuel tanks and Jerry cans in Greece with the anticipation of $8.00 a gallon diesel. Gary got a quick Visa at the border. Monika didn’t even need one being Swiss. This would be the start of our visa march-route to China. Our exact entry date where we would meet our mandatory Chinese guide was already hanging over our heads and we still had six more countries to explore and six more visas to arrange in route.

Welcome to Turkey!

Welcome to Turkey!

It was dusk as we entered the mayhem of Istanbul. Everyone but us seemed to know where they were going. It was like heading into a stampeding herd of wildebeest only we were going the wrong way. Stoplights are like being in a drag race. If you don’t start slipping the clutch and inching forward as the yellow light appears, the next three cars behind you are already leaning on their horns. The Garmin GPS was doing its best as we entered a taxi line at the harbor. More horn honking and “what do you think you’re doing?” gestures. I dropped over a 12” curb, crossed a divider illegally and made a U-turn to get on Kennedy Drive, and there it was!! A turn-out with a smiling guy offering us hot tea and a musician strumming his Baglama. Deep breath—Yes, of course we would love some tea. Time to check our map and see where the hell we were. The parking lot where overlanders frequently stop was just a mile or so up the expressway.

The famous Blue Mosque was in clear view from our camp near the ferry harbor.

The famous Blue Mosque was in clear view from our camp near the ferry harbor.

$15 a night, (no water and a stinky one-squat-hole outhouse) was a bargain considering the location. We were right on the edge of the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara, walking distance to the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya, museums, the Topkapi Palace, the main shopping district, several Turkish baths and the Grand Bazaar, with the metro line just across the street. Pull out the chairs and table, open a bottle of Greek wine and start dinner. Welcome to Istanbul!

You want atmosphere? We were in clear sight and hearing distance of at least three mosques with their minarets that broadcast their ear-piercing ezan or “call-to-prayer five times a day starting every morning, (two hours before dawn, which is pretty much the middle of the night!) The exact time of the ezan changes from day to day and from place to place, according to longitude and latitude, sunrise and sunset, and geographical relationship to Mecca. After a few startling mornings, we got used to it.

The famous Blue Mosque by night.

The Blue Mosque by night.

Muslims observe five formal prayers each day. The timings of these prayers are spaced fairly evenly throughout the day, so that one is constantly reminded of God and given opportunities to seek His guidance and forgiveness. Not a bad idea, isn’t it?

The magical city of Istanbul is truly one of the most exciting melting pots in the world. Nationalities from every corner of the globe may be walking down the street next to you. Yes, Turkey is officially Muslim, but the dress and mannerisms in this metropolis could be from London, San Francisco, or Hong Kong. Founded by a Greek colonist in 657 BC and called Byzantium, it has been invaded by Persians, Romans, Mongols and finally conquered by the Ottoman Empire. Its name has changed from Byzantium to Konstantin to Dersaadet,’ and ‘Deraliye’ to Stamboul. The name controversy was assumed to be settled when Atatürk, the founder and first president of Turkey, officially renamed the city Istanbul in the 1920s even though Constantinople continued to appear on maps well into the 1960s. The Greeks still use Konstantinopolis on maps and road signs in Greece today. Whatever the name, the Pudding Shop was our first stop. It was where the notion of The Turtle Expedition, Unltd. was born.

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Soufli, Greece – 3/2014

January 22, 2016

Not to bore you with a history or biology lesson, but you might be interested in the fascinating drama of what silk is all about. If you don’t read any further, ponder this: Just one ounce of silkworm eggs contains 40,000 eggs (1,500 eggs per gram). The worms from those eggs will eat 3,500 pounds, (1,500 kilograms), of mulberry leaves, and will spin cocoons, which will produce 18 pounds, (8 kilograms), of silk thread. It takes 1,700 to 2,000 cocoons to make one silk dress!

Soufli 03

The growing silkworms have a voracious appetite for mulberry leaves which must be harvested daily by those who work in the sericulture industry.

As we continued east following the braided web of “The Silk Road”, we had a lot to learn and discover about this magical material. The production of silk originated in China in the 4th millennium BC. According to the writings of Confucius, 551-479 BC, sometime around 3000 BC a silkworm’s cocoon fell into the teacup of the empress Hsi-Ling-Shih. Wishing to extract it from her drink, the 14-year-old girl began to unroll the thread of the cocoon. She then had the idea to weave it. Having observed the life of the silkworm, on the recommendation of her husband, the Yellow Emperor, she began to instruct her entourage in the art of raising silkworms, (sericulture). The empress was later worshipped by Chinese people as the “Goddess of Silkworms”.

Numerous archaeological discoveries show that silk had become a luxury material appreciated in foreign countries well before the opening of the Silk Road by the Chinese. For example, silk has been found in the Egyptian Valley of the Kings in a tomb of a mummy dating from 1070 BC. First the Greeks, then the Romans began to speak about the Seres, (people of silk), a term to designate the inhabitants of a far-off kingdom, China. The Greek word gave rise to Latin sericum und ultimately Old English, silo, and Middle English silk. Though silk was exported in great amounts, sericulture remained a secret that the Chinese carefully guarded.

Soufli 01

We admired the beautiful silk dresses in the old Silk Museum in Soufli, Greece.

According to Chinese mythology, the secret eventually escaped China (probably in the early 1st century AD) when a princess who was promised to a prince of Khotan, an ancient Buddhist kingdom located on the branch of the Silk Road that ran along the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert refused to go without the fabric she loved. The Taklamakan is a vast sea of sand that we will cross in the coming months. In Chinese, Taklamakan means, “If you go in, you won’t come out.” It is one of the most arid places on earth.

The Roman appetite for silk cloth coming from the Far East was rapidly expanding, so much so that the Senate tried in vain to prohibit the wearing of silk, for economic reasons as well as moral ones. Silk clothing was perceived as a sign of decadence and immorality. To quote one Roman Senator:

“I can see clothes of silk, but if the materials do not hide the body nor even one’s decency, can it be called clothing?”—“ Wretched flocks of maids labor so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife’s body.”

The Byzantine Empire was the continuation of the Roman Empire in the Greek-speaking eastern part of the Mediterranean. They did not possess the secret of sericulture, i.e. how silkworms are reared, how they spin their cocoon and how, from these to produce a continuous silk thread. In 552 AD, the emperor Justinian sent two Nestorian monks to India and they were able to smuggle back silkworm eggs hidden in rods of bamboo, and so began silkworm cultivation in the West.

Soufli 05

The Piraeus Bank Group Cultural Foundation has received the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage, the Europa Nostra Award 2012, for its excellent museums among them the old Silk Museum in Soufli, Greece. The mansion was built in 1883 for the Kourtidis family.

There had been plenty of silk in markets along our tortuous route, but we had been looking forward to the town of Soufli, known as The Town of Silk, where that industry flourished in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The old Silk Museum, sponsored by Piraeus Bank Group Cultural Foundation, was a fabulous education. The new Art of Silk Museum belonging to the Tsiakiris Family, just around the corner, was equally interesting with displays of the full sequence of sericulture, (with live silkworms on show most of the year), and fully functional machinery and exhibits from the Tsiakiris factory.

From the beginning, the flightless female moth rests on a mulberry leaf. The male is more active. He flaps his wings rapidly to attract a female, fertilizes the eggs and dies. The female deposits up to 500 eggs on the leaf and dies within days. Sounds like pretty boring sex huh? The silkworm egg or seed as it is called is about the size of a pinhead.

(We thank the new Art of Silk Museum for this very informative note of clarification:

The romantic life of the Mulberry Silkworm (Bombyx mori) is lost in the mists of time. The Chinese started cultivating these beasties 4500-5000 years ago, that’s a heck of a long time to be under our thumbs. Consequently, the silkworm has been transformed by our requirements for more and more silk into a creature with little resemblance to its wild progenitors. 

There are no “wild” mulberry silkworms any more although some of its relatives are used to produce silk of differing qualities and appearances. If we stopped producing mulberry silk this animal would go extinct in very short order – they are totally reliant on humans for their survival. 

Soufli 02In a silk worm production facility, the moths never get near a mulberry leaf. The whole of their life cycle is completely governed by the grower’s convenience and mulberry leaves at that stage are most inconvenient. The caterpillars are given small twiggy branches to make their cocoons – scrub oak, erica, pine, etc. – in the East, they have wonderful woven baskets with concentric rings for this – but the eggs are far too precious to let the females lay them willy-nilly. Cocoons selected for egg production would have been separated and placed in carefully controlled environments (sometimes sewn together onto large “Hatching Frames”). The moths on hatching are paired and then the females are separated and placed in an individual paper or muslin bag to lay their eggs and expire. Both male and female moths can last up to 10 days but 3-5 days is more likely. It’s a bit miserable really, just hanging round to slowly die of starvation.)

The eggs require warmth and humidity. In the olden days, women would place them in a kerchief next to their bosom. In the 40’s, incubators were introduced. As the egg slowly turns into a silkworm or caterpillar it needs food, lots of it, and it only eats fresh leaves from the mulberry tree. From May through June, the worm or caterpillar goes through five growing ecdysis or molts, four while growing and the fifth to become a chrysalis inside the cocoon. In Soufli, they call the time while the caterpillars are molting “sleeps” as they stand motionless until they split the skin and squirm out, and the caterpillars are categorized into “ages” (1st age from hatching to 1st moult, 2nd age from 1st moult to 2nd moult, etc).

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Gary is holding two Mulberry branches full of silk cocoons.

As the caterpillar grows, increasing its size 10,000 times since birth to reach full size, it stops eating and begins to spin a cocoon around itself using a figure 8 motion of its head and producing a juice from its mouth. A continuous silk thread can reach a length of 1,200 m (1000 yards), (ten football fields), long and a thickness of 20–30 micrometers.

If left alone inside its finished cocoon, the caterpillar (silkworm) magically turns into a moth. When the moth reaches adult size, it will chew its way out of the cocoon, but this breaks the strand of silk. In sericulture, the moth is killed inside the cocoon with heat or steam. The cocoon is then placed in hot water and master craftswomen find the end of the silk strand and combining three or more together, wind them onto a bobbin from where they move to the dying and weaving stage.

OK, enough about silk for the moment. We need to fill our water tanks and move on to Turkey to look for a campsite in Istanbul. Where to find water in a small village? The fire station of course!

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Gary’s Birthday 2016

January 17, 2016

A little break before we head into Turkey to find a campsite in Istanbul. Just wanted to let you know that I survived another birthday. Not quite as exciting as last year’s in Mexico but no worries about bandits or kidnappings in beautiful San Francisco. Prime Rib at the famous 69-year old House of Prime Rib was a big switch from Pozole and Tacos. Biking through Golden Gate Park was fun as always. Have you ever heard of lawn bowling?

Well, there is nothing like a birthday to make you feel older, unless it’s the Editor of a major magazine doing a feature on Expedition Portal advising everyone that you are a “Living Legend”. Hiking the 168-mile Tahoe Rim Trail last summer with a 55-pound pack did reminded me that I was no longer 18, but then to make my day, yesterday I was signing up at a local physical therapy office, (my shoulder that I injured on the trail is still a bother), and the receptionist asked me twice what my date-of-birth was. She said, “I’m sure we don’t have another patient named Gary Wescott, but I can’t believe you are 71!” Yeah, made my day:)

Thank you all for your good wishes.

Gary

 

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The Silk Road 2014

December 26, 2015

Exploring the special places of Western Europe for over a year was wonderful. Of course we couldn’t see all of any one country in a month, but we had picked some of the highlights in Germany, Switzerland, France, Spain, Portugal, Monaco, Italy and Greece. Now as we prepare ourselves for what will be the most exciting part of our Trans-Eurasian Odyssey, following the Silk Road, some might wonder, what’s it all about?

Roads like this crossing the Gobi desert in Mongolia was dedicated on our detailed map as “national highway”.

Roads like this crossing the Altai Gobi in Mongolia was dedicated on our detailed map as “national highway”.

Actually, The Silk Road is not a single path but a huge network of trading routes that historically began in Xian, China and ended fanning throughout Europe, India and North Africa. The route had its beginning in 1000 BC. Later, in the 13th century, Marco Polo traveled from Venice, Italy overland all the way to China and opened the eyes of the Western World with his journal. The name “Seidenstrasse” or “Silk Road” in English was actually coined 600 years later by the German adventurer Ferdinand von Richthofen.

The magic material called Silk along with jade and porcelain came from China while East bound traders brought glass & spices from Europe and North Africa, and heavenly horses from Central Asia. In reality, perhaps the most important function of the Silk Road was the exchange of philosophies, science, technologies, cultures, religions, and unfortunately diseases.

By the 15th century, Portuguese and Brits had established the sea routes to Asia and the importance of the Silk Road faded.

This is not a camel you want to stand in front of.

This is not a camel you want to stand in front of.

The Caravans did not travel all the way from China to Europe and back. More typically, they journeyed short distances from one major trading point to another. The routes they took with caravans of perhaps 100 camels, yaks or horses by necessity had to have various stops where food, water, grazing and safety from bandits could be insured. This was complicated by the geographical roadblocks which included huge inhospitable deserts and high mountain passes often snow bound for more than half the year.

In the deserts, there were established oasis trading centers like legendary Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand, Kashgar and Turpan. In-between there were small fortresses called Caravanserais that were safe havens. The Great Wall of China was built in part to protect these important trading routes.

Our goal of the Trans-Eurasian Odyssey was to travel from Cabo da Roca in Portugal, the most western point in the Eurasian landmass all the way to the Pacific Ocean in China. Reaching Istanbul, we will be able to zero in on some of the ancient Silk Road tracks and stop at some of the old Caravanserais.

Some day this girl may be president of Tajikistan if she can get an education.

Some day this girl may be president of Tajikistan if she can get an education.

As you will experience in the coming blogs, the real treasures of overland travel along the Silk Road are the people, their cultures, their foods and the spectacular landscapes. The people, without exception, were friendly, hospitable and genuinely excited and amazed that we had come all the way from California to visit them. Food was as varied as you could expect from country to country and the selection in the market places was sometimes overwhelming. While the various cultures were influenced by religions, mainly Islam, we never felt any resentment or disrespect for our own believes. The roads varied from good paved highways to boring toll roads in China to horrible broken pavement to six-inch wash board and bathtub pot holes, mud, water crossings, and amazing two tracks in-between. In the coming months, we hope we can give you a feeling of what it is like to travel overland through the next twelve countries that many of us, including ourselves have as little knowledge as a young girl in Tajikistan has of United States or Europe. Quick!! Picture the exact location of Kyrgyzstan on the world map. And what the name of its capital? See what I mean? Fasten your seatbelt and keep arms and hands inside the windows.

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Merry Christmas and Happy New Year – 2015

December 23, 2015

Dear Friends all over the World

From our Home to Yours 
We wish you Happy Holidays or a Merry Christmas
And for all, a wonderful New Year.
Let it be full of Health, Happiness & Adventure!
May our Christmas Gift be the Wish for Peace
For all the People Around the World.

Warm regards,
Gary and Monika
The Turtle Expedition, Unltd.
Whose idea was it to wait up for Santa Claus? Let’s hope he brings a warm blanket….

Whose idea was it to wait up for Santa Claus? Let’s hope he brings us a warm blanket….(In December 2014 we visited the famous snow monkeys in Japan – a wonderful experience)

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Mt. Olympus & Dion, Greece – 2/2014

December 17, 2015

Perhaps you have never noticed that over the millennia, religion has been at the forefront of all history. Before “history” was even recorded there were poems and stories, learned, repeated, changed and eventually accepted as fact. Homer’s Odyssey and The Iliad are classic examples. Since there were no cameras or other means of recording what “was”, all religion in some way are based on mythology and the interpretation of mythology.

Mt Olympus & Dion 007Gods are in great part created and sustained by the number of people who believe in them. Take Pachamama for example. Pachamama is a goddess revered by the indigenous people of the Andes. She is also known as the earth/time mother. In Incan mythology, Pachamama is a fertility goddess who presides over planting and harvesting, embodies the mountains, and causes earthquakes. She is also an ever-present and independent deity who has her own self-sufficient and creative power to sustain life on this earth. Even today, a building cannot be built in cities like La Paz, Bolivia, before a llama fetus is buried under the corner stone to receive the blessing of Pachamama. (We did have a witch doctor bless a llama fetus that we carried over the Andes from Bolivia to Chile and around South America. Why take a chance?)

Mt Olympus & Dion 002Back to Ancient Greece: An unverifiable number of centuries ago, after Cronus had usurped control of the heavens from his father Ouranos, religion was on the move. I’ll spare you the gory details of how Cronus ate all of his children, but one boy was saved when his mother tricked Cronus by wrapping a stone in a blanket. The baby was whisked off to a cave on the Island of Crete where he was raised by the primeval goddess Gaia (Earth). In some versions the young god was suckled by the Nymph Amaltheia who may have been a goat. You gotta love mythology!

Following this line of Greek “history”, Zeus, the son of Cronus, on reaching adulthood, made his father cough back up the children he had swallowed and Zeus then married his sister Hera, as the story goes. You can find this information in books of similar size as the Bible and Koran. Interestingly, Zeus is mentioned in the Bible two times, first in Acts 14:8-13: and again in Acts 28:11:

Mt Olympus & Dion 005Zeus became the king of the Olympian gods and the supreme deity in Greek religion some 800 years BC. When the Romans came to power, they were also polytheists. Polytheists are people who believe in many gods. Zeus was essentially renamed Jupiter and other Greek gods were given Roman names.

Often referred to as the Father, as the god of thunder and the ‘cloud-gatherer’, he controlled the weather, offered signs and omens and generally dispensed justice, guaranteeing order amongst both the gods and humanity from his seat high on Mt. Olympus. That’s where we locked the hubs, trepidaciously shifted into four-wheel drive, and headed into a gathering snowstorm.

At length, we were stopped at a gate beyond which only foot traffic was allowed to reach the peak of Mt. Olympus. We had visited the cave where Zeus was raised, marveled at the temples built in his honor in Athens, and now with still twelve countries to travel throughMt Olympus & Dion 013 including Tajikistan and the Wakhan Corridor along the Afghanistan border, we felt obliged to pay him a visit. We couldn’t sacrifice a couple of bulls, but at least we got as close to Zeus as we could, not knowing if he was even home.

More history. About 30AD, a holy man named Jesus began to attract a following in Jerusalem. Jesus’ followers came to believe that he was the son of the God of the Jews and that he performed miracles. Christianity began as a small movement in the city of Jerusalem in the Roman province of Judea. Emperor Constantine ended persecution of Christians when he seized power in 306AD. Four years later, he made Christianity legal throughout the Roman Empire. He continued to worship Roman gods himself, though on his deathbed, in 337AD, he had himself baptized a Christian. (Why take a chance?) Slowly Zeus slipped into the history books.  We have heard he still has a following in Greece.

Mt Olympus & Dion 006Slithering down the wet snow-covered road to the valley, we came to Dion. This ancient city owes its name to the most important Macedonian sanctuary dedicated to Zeus, leader of the gods who dwelt on Mount Olympus. From very ancient times, a large altar had been set up for the worship of Olympian Zeus and his daughters, the Muses. It was the place where the kings made splendid sacrifices to celebrate the new year of the Macedonian calendar at the end of September. Philip II and Alexander the Great celebrated victories here, and Alexander assembled his armies and performed magnificent sacrifices here on the eve of his campaign to Asia in 334BC.

Typical ceremonies were called a “hecatomye” and were offered to Greek gods Apollo, Athena, Hera and, of course, Zeus.

During these special religious ceremonies, when they had done praying and sprinkling the barley-meal around, they drew back the heads of the victims, (a hundred bulls), and killed and flayed them. They then cut out the thigh-bones, wrapped them round in two layers of fat, set some pieces of raw meat on the top of them, and then [the priest] laid them on the wood fire and poured wine over them, while the young men stood near him with five-pronged spits in their hands. When the thigh-bones were burned and they had tasted the inward meats, they cut the rest up small, put the pieces upon the spits, roasted them till they were done, and drew them off. Then, when they had finished their work and the feast was ready, they ate it, and every man had his full share, so that all were satisfied. As soon as they had had enough to eat and drink, pages filled the mixing-bowl with wine and water and handed it round, after giving every man his drink-offering. Thus all day long the young men worshipped the god with song, hymning him and chanting the joyous paean, and the god took pleasure in their voices.”

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Metéora, Greece – 2/2014

December 12, 2015

During the last few months in Europe we had seen more than our share of churches and monasteries, but as we drove through the valley north of Kalambáka we saw the first of the amazing monasteries of Metéora, balanced on what seemed to be totally impossible rocky pinnacles and cones, surrounded by sheer cliffs. The mind first asks “how”, followed by “why”. We parked and stood looking up at one of the greatest sights of mainland Greece. Metéora literally means “middle of the sky”, “suspended in the air” or “in the heavens above”.

Meteora 113Caves in the vicinity of Metéora were inhabited continuously between 65,000 and 5,000 years ago. The oldest known example of a man-made structure, a stone wall that blocked two-thirds of the entrance to the Theopetra Cave, was constructed 23,000 years ago, probably as a barrier against cold winds – the Earth was experiencing an ice age at the time. Many Paleolithic and Neolithic artifacts have been found in some of the caves.

In the 9th century AD, an ascetic group of hermit monks moved up to the ancient pinnacles. They were the first people to inhabit Metéora since the Neolithic Era. They lived in hollows and fissures in the rock towers, some as high as 1800 feet, (550m), above the plain. This great height, combined with the sheerness of the cliff walls, kept away all but the most determined visitors.

The only means of reaching some of them was by climbing a series of long ladders lashed together or large nets used to haul up both goods and people. “The net in which intrepid pilgrims were hoisted up vertically alongside the 1,224 ft, (373-meter), cliff required quite a leap of faith. The ropes were replaced, so the story goes, only “when the Lord let them break”.

Seeking a retreat from the expanding Turkish occupation, the monks found the inaccessible rock pillars of Metéora to be an ideal refuge. More than 20 monasteries were built, beginning in the 14th century. Six remain today.

Meteora 107In 1517, the monastery of Varlaám was built. It was reported to house the finger of St John and the shoulder blade of St Andrew. Today Varlaám dominates the valley and symbolizes the fragility of a traditional way of life that is threatened with extinction.

Of the six monasteries that remain today four are inhabited by men, and two by women. Each monastery has fewer than 10 inhabitants. The monasteries are now tourist attractions which may taint their historic presence but fund the preservation of this unique way of life and religion.

An interesting plaque inside the Holy Monastery of Great Metéoron offered some answer to the “why”.

The monastic vocation is a lifetime’s unswerving dedication to Christ the Groom. The only purpose, the only passion of the monk is to follow Christ with one’s eyes turned to the heavens. The monk walks the hard, narrow path of penitence. He exchanges his own will for absolute obedience; he gives up wealth to poverty, comfort for denial, fame and glory for humiliation. The main task of the monk is to pray. His ardent heart, transmuted by prayer, opens up to and embraces the whole of creation, the whole of mankind, all the suffering souls, all the souls in temptation, whom he never ceases to love, to comfort and to succor.

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Athens, Greece – 2/2014

November 20, 2015

Back on the mainland of Greece now, our first stop was the beautiful city of Athens; a place with so much history it literally drips out of every stone. We could give you a history lesson on Athens, but if you have never been there, or even if you have, the photos here may inspire you to go, or bring back fond memories. Athens is one of those cities in the world on a short list of “must visit”.

As we head north around the top of Greece and into Turkey, the real adventure for us is about to begin. Soon everything will change; food, visas, border crossings, red tape, languages, bathrooms, drivers, and most interesting of all, the people of the next 11 countries we will visit during the coming “blog year”, which is shorter than a “calendar year”. As we catch up on our blogs, it will be sort of like following on fast forward. Hope you enjoy the Silk Road and The Trans-Eurasian Odyssey with us.

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Crete 2, Greece – 2/2014

October 9, 2015

Tearing ourselves from an idyllic camp near Elafonissis on the far southwestern tip of the island, we headed through the mountains on a tortuous highway that looked like a snake going crazy. Are there any straight roads on Crete? Our next stop was Chania (Xania).

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After days of wild camping on remote beaches, the old Venetian harbor and port of Chania with its narrow streets and waterfront restaurants was a delight. The atmosphere had a touch of Florence and Venice combined with the culture and character of Cretan people and traditions. Parking near the harbor, we were walking distance to the fishing pier and the little hole-in-the-wall taverns. We watched an old fisherman mercilessly beating an octopus on the pier to tenderize it. Later we stumbled onto a little restaurant called Hela and were treated to some wonderful Greek music while we dined on fresh barbecued octopus and other specialties. It was still not the height of tourist season so there was no wild dancing or breaking of plates on the ground. Perhaps we didn’t stay long enough.

Further along the north coast we took the short loop back into the mountains to visit the Holy Monastery of Arkadi which dates back to the 16th-century. Built like a fortress, the monastery played an active role in the Cretan resistance of Ottoman rule during the Cretan revolt in 1866. A sad piece of history: 943 Greeks, mostly women and children, sought refuge in the monastery’s old wine cellar. During the revolt against the Turks it had been used as a storeroom for ammunition. After three days of battle and under orders from the abbot of the monastery, the Cretans blew up barrels of gunpowder, choosing to sacrifice themselves rather than surrender. Powder burn marks can still be seen on the walls of the cellar.

Crete Blog 2 060Back on the coast we skirted Crete’s capital, Heraklion, to visit the nearby ruins of Knossos, the ancient ceremonial and political center of the Minoan culture, an Aegean Bronze Age civilization that rose on the island of Crete and other Aegean islands, flourishing from approximately 2600 to 1400 BC. It had been referenced in Homer’s Odyssey.

During the Palace’s first period around 2000 BC (that’s 4,000 years ago!) the urban area reached a size of up to 18,000 people. In its peak the Palace and the surrounding city boasted a population of 100,000 people shortly after 1700 BC. Walking along its deserted staircases and over its ceremonial courtyards was an amazing experience. The site was discovered in 1878 by Minos Kalokairinos. The excavations in Knossos began in 1900 by the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans and his team, and they continued for 35 years. Some of the original artwork has been restored.

While sitting in the Knossos Museum parking lot eating lunch, a young Cretan couple, Esmeralda Foutaki and Manolis Makrakis, had many questions about our journey and The Turtle V. Later, they spontaneously invited us for a day of sightseeing near Archanes and a delicious home cooked meal in their tidy apartment.

Crete Blog 2 063Climbing further into the mountains we came to the village of Myrtia, the birthplace of the famous Greek poet, novelist, essayist, philosopher, playwright, travel writer and philosopher, Nikos Kazantzakis, celebrated for his novel Zorba the Greek. Of the hundreds of his works, his Report to Greco had, without doubt, more influence on my life that any other book I have ever read.

Seeing the beautiful museum of his life in the center of Myrtia and walking around town—driving around the very narrow streets was an exciting adventure—I could feel his spirit, –his soul–, in the air. We camped just out of town. An old couple saw our truck and invited us for sip of their homemade wine. We spoke no Greek and they spoke no English or any of Monika’s other four languages, but we were able to communicate surprisingly well. The woman picked a sweet smelling carnation of her favorite variety from her garden for our mascot turtle, already halfway on its second trip around the world. A local butcher—she—was a charming lady. Agapi Spanaki saved her last side of fresh lamb chops for us the next day. The little car wash at the entrance to town was the perfect place to give The Turtle V a rinse while the owner of the café across the street invited us for coffee and his wife presented us with a bottle of homemade wine. We left feeling we had seen a special side of Crete.

Crete Blog 2 062Our final stop was the port of Heraklion from where we would take the ferry back to the mainland of Greece. We had just enough time to visit the fabulous archaeological and historical museum where many of the treasures discovered during the excavations of Knossos and other Minoan sites have been preserved, clearly demonstrating the amazingly advanced culture centuries before the Ancient Greek Civilization was born.

As a final goodbye to Crete and Nikos Kazantzakis, we visited his gravesite. The Nikos Kazantzakis International Airport in Heraklion is named after the famous author.

Below the photo gallery are a few of my (Gary’s) favorite quotes from Report to Greco. May they inspire you as they did me.

“The truth is that we all are one, that all of us together create god, that god is not man’s ancestor, but his descendant.” – Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco

“All my life one of my greatest desires has been to travel – to see and touch unknown countries, to swim in unknown seas, to circle the globe, observing new lands, seas, people, and ideas with insatiable appetite, to see everything for the first time and for the last time, casting a slow, prolonged glance, then to close my eyes and feel the riches deposit themselves inside me calmly or stormily according to their pleasure, until time passes them at last through its fine sieve, straining the quintessence out of all the joys and sorrows.” – Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco

“Reach what you cannot”- Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco

“Man is able, and has the duty, to reach the furthest point on the road he has chosen. Only by means of hope can we attain what is beyond hope.”- Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco

“Once more I realized to what an extent earthly happiness is made to the measure of man. It is not a rare bird which we must pursue at one moment in heaven, at the next in our minds. Happiness is a domestic bird found in our own courtyards.”- Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco

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Crete 1, Greece – 2/2014

September 23, 2015

OK, my long Mexican 70th birthday adventure is over except for my memories. Now, as I promised, we are picking up with our Trans-Eurasian Odyssey, which will eventually take us through 26 countries and over 40,000 miles, across impassible deserts and over 15,000-foot mountain passes, through the Stans, China, Mongolia and Siberia. Hold on for the ride.

Crete Blog 1 011We are back in Greece now, and specifically on the island of Crete. If you missed Delphi, Kalavrita, Dimitsana, Mystras, or Olympia and others on the Peloponnese, they can all be found in the list of past blogs on our web site. Just click on the country you want to visit. Meanwhile, join us as we board the ferry from Pireus to Iraklion on Crete, an island we have wanted to visit for many years. By some accounts, Crete was the heart of what we call western civilization today.

Having been on the road for almost a year and with Spring in the air, we first looked for a place to rest, catch up on travel maintenance and make a plan. It was early February and many campgrounds were still closed for the season. Camp Sisi was too, but as we drove up the driveway, the owner Kostas Tzikas waved to us and opened the gate. We could not have found a better place. Sisi had hot showers, a laundromat, Internet and room to spread out. The nearby town of Sissi with its picturesque harbor was within walking distance. Kostas and his wife both spoke English and were gracious hosts.

Crete Blog 1 030Packed for the road again, we headed first into the mountains to pay homage to the birthplace of Zeus, once considered the father of all gods and humans. He was King of the Olympian Gods and the Supreme Deity in Greek religion for hundreds of years. He controlled the weather, offered signs and omens and generally dispensed justice, guaranteeing order amongst both the Gods and Humanity from his seat high on Mt. Olympus. Even today, given the financial woes of Greece, it would not hurt to sacrifice a few oxen in his name. We certainly wanted to be in his favor as we headed east into Asia.

With Zeus at our side, we were ready for some beach time the island is famous for. Though still a bit chilly for swimming, we found some spectacular camping around the Eastern Peninsula at Váï Beach and Myrtos. Interior hills were often covered with enormous olive groves and the valleys were a sea of plastic covered agriculture. Even bananas were grown in hothouses, but that didn’t keep us from enjoying the open markets.

While the lack of crowds of tourists was a relief for us, we vowed to return again in summer with warm weather to experience a different flavor of Crete. Leaving another perfect camp, we headed west to explore more of this historic island.

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