Sighnaghi, Georgia 4 – 6/2014

October 21, 2016

Escaping Tbilisi without a scratch on The Turtle V, we headed east towards Georgia’s famous wine region. We’re always interested in new foods in each country, so when we spotted some ladies selling fresh bread, we had to check it out.

What a welcome we received from this peanut vendor in Sighnaghi.

What a welcome we received from this peanut vendor in Sighnaghi.

The first one was a baker and she happily showed us, explaining in Russian, how she heated up her insulated round oven with wood and then scraped the coals to the middle and slapped the pieces of dough onto the side. Monika loves interacting with vendors and has a good feel for bargaining or when they mark up the price because we are foreigners. This lady enjoyed our curiosity and gave us her normal asking price. When you don’t speak the language, it’s always easiest to use a calculator.

After we scored our bread she sent us to her friend to buy cheese. There we tried each variety and chose a big chunk of the one we liked best. Now we were ready to find a quiet spot for the night. Turning right on the first dirt road, we came upon a wide valley and discovered the perfect place right next to a vineyard to stay put for a couple of days. We opened our first bottle of good Georgian wine to complement the freshly baked bread and homemade cheese and let the hassle of Tbilisi and the Chinese Embassy drop into the misadventure file.

After the hectic traffic in Tbilisi, we enjoyed a quiet camp in the countryside.

After the hectic traffic in Tbilisi, we enjoyed a quiet camp in the countryside.

Checking our paper map and reading in our Lonely Planet guidebook, we noticed a town called Sighnaghi that was located high above the lower end of the wine valley. It was also marked as a Historic City. Following a narrow tortuous road into the hills, we arrived in Sighnaghi and found a safe spot for the night in a large parking lot just at the beginning of the town.

While the area has been settled since Paleolithic times, it was in 1762 that King Heraclius II of Georgia sponsored the construction of the walled town to defend the area from marauding attacks by Dagestan tribesmen from the northern Caucasus. Sighnaghi is very picturesque with its pastel houses and narrow cobblestone streets overlooking the agricultural and wine region of the vast Alazani Valley with the Caucasus Mountains visible in the distance.

Driving through this old arch would have been a shortcut back to the main highway but after great discussion, Monika decided it was too narrow. I said, “Fold the mirrors in, we only need an inch on each side”

Driving through this old arch would have been a shortcut back to the main highway but after great discussion, Monika decided it was too narrow. I said, “Fold the mirrors in, we only need an inch on each side”

As soon as we parked, a couple of curious boys came around and started asking questions in English. Boys will be boys when they see a big fancy truck. Both seemed quite bright and to our amazement, English was their common language. One lived in Sighnaghi and the other was visiting with his family from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. In Soviet times, they would have spoken Russian.

In the morning we set out to explore this “City of Love” as it is known because it’s apparently a destination for Georgian honeymooners. People were busy going about their lives, and there was hardly a tourist in sight. We strolled up the cobble stone streets and smiled at some of the features that reminded us of Russia.

We enjoyed the charming narrow streets of Sighnaghi.

We enjoyed the charming narrow streets of Sighnaghi.

At a shady plaza street vendors were selling snacks and displaying their wares. Men were intensely involved with a game of backgammon. Everywhere we were greeted with welcoming smiles. Natural gas seemed to be widely available. Homes had Russian style gas meters connected to overhead gas lines. A station wagon had been converted to LPG. We chatted with friendly ladies sitting at their doorsteps busily knitting and displaying their felted handicrafts. Monika bought a pair of socks from an old lady but no one could convince her to buy a wooly sheepskin hat that had a very distinct smell of the animal it came from. Gary politely got out of buying a felt hat. One of the knitting ladies pointed to a trail leading along the old city fortifications. Climbing to the top of the tower the view of the wine country was beautiful. The wall itself gave us a feeling for the Great Wall of China but that is still many miles ahead.








Georgia 3 – 6/2014

October 14, 2016

Certainly one of the more pleasant things about driving into Georgia was that it is a Christian nation. Not that we have anything against the Islamic faith. Some of our good friends are Muslim, but it was nice not to be woken up before sunrise by amplified loudspeakers throughout town calling us to prayer. In fact, driving by villages, there were often one or more church steeples, and as we noted before, the dress of mostly young women was as modern as San Francisco or London.


The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta is one of the most important Eastern Orthodox churches, a World Heritage Site.

We learned that Nino, later Sainte Nino, at the age of 14, experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary telling her that her destiny was to convert the Iverians to Christianity. Coming to Iveria, (Eastern Georgia), in the 320s, Nino won a royal convert when her prayers saved Queen Nana from a serious illness. Then, King Mirana was struck blind while hunting, only for his sight to be miraculously restored after he prayed to the Christian God. King Mirana made Christianity Iveria’s official religion in about 327. It was the second nation in Asia to become Christian after Armenia.

We stopped to visit a few religious sites, among them Musket and Bodbe. Being Sunday in Mtskheta, several wedding ceremonies in the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral were happening simultaneously and continuously, giving us an interesting experience of a Georgian Orthodox wedding.

This wedding party appeared in their Chokha, a traditional outfit from the 9th century. It was rarely seen under Soviet rule but now it's a strong show of Georgian national pride.

This wedding party appeared in their Chokha, a traditional outfit from the 9th century. It was rarely seen under Soviet rule but now it’s a strong show of Georgian national pride.

But now it was time to head to Tbilisi to collect our Chinese visa. Getting closer to the capitol also meant that the intensity of Georgian crazy drivers and road conditions multiplied. 

Humps, bumps and potholes were enough to keep our speed to a max 40-mph. Unmarked 5” speed bumps would suddenly appear for no apparent reason and had to be crossed at 2-mph in our truck to avoid breaking something or getting air. Since no one obeys any posted or unposted speed limit, the bumps were somewhat effective. They reminded us of crossing Brazil where the speed bumps are twice as high. If they tried that here, the BMWs would get high centered.

Should we mention parking? Joke! On a 4-lane road, the lane on the right is not a lane. If that fills up, you just double or triple-park wherever you please. Parking on both sides of a narrow side street quickly turns it into a zero-clearance alley unless you’re driving a mini car. Sidewalks were perfect parking areas as long as you could get half your vehicle off the road, and even that was not too important.


This cafe was located at the Round Garden (Park) in Tbilisi near the UN Headquarters. We parked just around to corner while waiting for the Chinese Embassy to open. A keen eye can spot The Turtle V behind the tree in the distance.

Arriving in the capital city of Tbilisi, the drivers and traffic were nearly humorous. Interchanges were something like a scary ride at an amusement park that had somehow gone wrong. We ended up hiring a taxi to find the Chinese Embassy. It was closed for the three-day long Dragon Boat Festival. After a long two days and two nights parked half on the sidewalk of a side street near the Chinese Embassy, UN Headquarters and the Round Garden, we were informed that they do not issue visas to foreigners unless they are living or working in Georgia. We were shocked. Plan B??

We escaped the madding traffic of Tbilisi with only a couple U-turns and more grey hairs and found a quiet camp in a meadow overlooking a pleasant valley. It was time to take a deep breath.


Georgia 2 – 6/2014

October 6, 2016

A day in our peaceful river camp gave us time to reflect on this new country. Thoma, the gentleman who had presented us with wine, cheese and bread the evening before, adamantly insisted we go and visit his mother in her house above the river the next morning, even though he would be out of town. Her nephew, Giorgi, spotted us walking up and invited us in for Chai. We knew from our experience in Russia that Chai, “tea”, is usually not just a cup of tea.


Cousin Georgi waved his hands even more than Monika does. There was much toasting going on!

We were delighted to meet Thoma’s mother and she immediately set about cutting up vegetables as she continued to make homemade bread. Her last version was very special. She mixed handfuls of homemade cheese into the dough before baking it in her little electric oven.

Meanwhile, Giorgi entertained us with his homemade semi-sweet Georgian white wine, not our favorite, but who can refuse. We had great conversations. Mostly Giorgi was talking, waving his hands even more than Monika does. Mom understood what he was saying, chuckling all along. Though we understood only little, we could just laugh and agree.

The experience gave us an interesting perspective of how many people live in this ex-Soviet country who are not zooming around in their luxury BMW’s and Mercedes Benz’s. Their beds were a single metal frame and a thin mattress. A wood burning stove was their primary source of cooking and heat in the winter. They did have a television that was on continuously with political announcements and news. An open hat & coat rack and a little closet/cupboard shared a wall with their kitchen cabinet in this one room home. The kitchen sink consisted of two buckets of water but there was no running water in the house.


From the Ubisi monastery’s potato patch, one could see The Turtle V parked down below. It was a great and quiet camping spot.

The shower in the adjacent storage room, (The water supply probably came from a tank on the roof.), was a pipe connected to a rusty wood-fired hot water heater that we were not sure worked any better than the aging washing machine. More laundry may have been done by hand. We didn’t dare to ask about the toilet but we figured it was just the common squat outhouse. They were proud to show us the new pump that drew water from the well and ran out of a spigot in the yard.

Despite these third world living conditions they were extraordinarily hospitable. Thoma’s Mom prepared a care package of a warm loaf of bread, a bag of walnuts and some fresh eggs (and this after her son had brought us a loaf of bread, a big hunk of cheese and a bottle of wine the evening before), and the cousin insisted we take a two liter plastic bottle of wine with us back to the truck. It would have been impolite to refuse any of this.


Healthy looking cows were our only neighbors. No wonder, Thoma’s Mom’s cheese tasted so good.

Monika somehow had a feeling that this may happen so she brought some little gifts of safety pins, (which are always welcome), and soaps in a zip lock bag. She showed Mom how to use the zip lock and stuck in a few Laris (Georgian currency). Mom smiled gracefully, quickly closed the bag and tucked it away before Giorgi stepped back into the house.

At the camper, we inspected the loaf of commercial bread that we had purchased in the previous town. While beautiful we realized it was cheap, tasteless white bread. It was so bad, Monika quickly cut it into pieces and fed it to the local chickens and a pig, no doubt a “delicacy” for them. Nothing gets wasted.

Before leaving the next morning, we visited the 9th century Ubisi monastery the village is famous for. Monks were busy reciting their prayers. Monika wore the customary head covering and a skirt while she lit a candle.


The 9th century Ubisi monastery was visited by many pilgrims.

Across the street from the monastery there was actually a recycle bin, a trashcan and an outhouse for the pilgrims who visit the monastery. The outhouse consisted only of a squat hole. Unfortunately, some people missed the hole and the water spigot was broken off.

Heading down the highway, it was interesting to see the old Soviet style houses that would be typical in this part of Georgia. Many fences were made of ex-landing platforms similar to the aluminum ones we carry on the back of the truck.

We couldn’t resist stopping at one of the roadside stands that sold a unique sweet bread called Nabizi. Worth a try for 1 Lari, ($.50), The “shingles” advertising Nabizi were actually made of clay.

The bad news was that we were still having trouble reading the pretty Georgian signs and despite the famous Georgian wine, grocery stores stocked mostly juices and beer, probably because most families made their own wine. The good news was that this was no longer a Moslem country so pork and sausages were readily available in meat markets.


Georgia 1 – 6/2014

September 29, 2016
Only cows were our companions on this meadow next to the river.

Only cows were our companions in this meadow next to the river.

Georgia!! New country. New language. New alphabet. New customs. Crossing the border from Turkey was a breeze, no visas required, but we had been warned that Georgian drivers made those in Istanbul seem tame. It is really hard to describe them. Crazy, idiotic, suicidal and moronic are terms that fall short. In addition, a large percentage of the vehicles (30-40%) are high-powered luxury BMWs, Range Rovers, Mercedes, Audis and Peugeots that seem to be practicing for the Daytona 500. Many are right-hand drive, making us wonder if they were stolen in Japan or Great Britain and sold on the black market. If a luxury car goes missing in Switzerland, the running joke is you’ll find it in Georgia.

A local guy named Thoma waded across the stream with homemade bread, cheese and wine. Monika had already cozied up to a local dog. We may need to stay here another day.

A local guy named Thoma waded across the stream with homemade bread, cheese and wine. We may need to stay here another day.

To complicate matters, whether drivers are in beat-up Lada Nivas, delivery vans, BMWs or semi 18-wheelers, most drivers seem to be suffering from acute “rectalclaxonitis”. “Rectal” coming from that part of their body where their brains are located and “Claxon” from the Mexican word for horn. Any time there is a slight tightening of the anal sphincter, the horn sounds.

Thoma's dog adopted Monika immediately even though Thoma insisted he was crazy.

Thoma’s dog adopted Monika immediately even though Thoma insisted he was crazy.

The roads vary from sorta OK to narrow two-lane pocked with potholes and a “suicide lane” in the middle. To be realistic, the painted lines are just for decoration and have no relation to direction of traffic. There is always a “passing lane” in the middle regardless of road width or oncoming traffic. Approaching vehicles flash their lights to tell you that yes, they see you, and yes, they know there is no room to pass, and yes, they are going to pass anyway.

All this is made more exciting by the fact that the right-hand drive vehicles must pull out into oncoming traffic to see if there is any oncoming traffic. We kept a safe distance and a constant watch for the next idiot coming up behind us.

These kids were very curious about us and The Turtle V but very polite and rather shy.

These kids were very curious about us and The Turtle V but very polite and rather shy.

We were adjusting, and getting used to reading paper maps again. Despite having two of the most sophisticated GPS units available, the Navigattor and the Garmin neither of them had detailed information on Georgia. Road signs were interesting and we were relieved that most of them were also written in our alphabet.

After a few heart-thump incidences on our second day in Georgia, we came around a bend and Monika spotted a meadow by a river below which turned out to be a pleasant camp. We had no sooner unpacked our chairs and fired up the BBQ that a man named Thoma living above in the village waded across the stream with wine, cheese and bread. Maybe this was the hospitality Georgians are known for?



The Black Sea, Turkey 20 – 6/2014

September 22, 2016

Escaping the dimly lit tunnels of Derinkuyu, we felt like moles coming out of our hole. We had to wonder how thousands of people could live in such conditions for months at a time.

Our travel clock was ticking a little faster now and we headed directly to Ankara, the capital of Turkey, to “try” to get our visa for Turkmenistan. More on that joke later. Georgia did not require a visa nor did Kyrgyzstan. We received our visa for Tajikistan in Istanbul and we had an email-visa for Azerbaijan. David Berghof at Stantours in Almaty, Kazakhstan, had arranged our paperwork and visa for Uzbekistan that gave us permission to “wild camp” for two out of every three nights. While we still did not have a visa for China, we did have an absolute etched-in-stone date when we had to meet our guide at the border.——tick, tick, tick, tick.


This gentleman was the owner of a grocery store where Gary was able to use a propane exchange tank to fill our almost empty bottle.

Wishing we had another year or two to explore other parts of Turkey, we sped north on good highways toward the Black Sea. As excellent as the highways and freeways were, there is always construction. Outside of Samsun was unusually chaotic with lanes being closed and detours around work areas. Then it happened. Three lanes merged into one lane with very little warning. As a white van tried to merge in front of me from the right, I swerved to the left and my mirror caught the edge of a road construction sign. The sound was horrible and the damage was obvious. The mirror had exploded. I parked while Monika ran back to pick up some pieces but they were useless.


This Turkish mechanic spontaneously took over Monika’s job of lowering the spare tire. No, we did not have a flat. Gary wanted to put the spare into rotation.

Driving the next 20,000 miles through insanely maddening traffic without a side mirror was out of the question, but like Mexico or Russia, Turkey is a land of can-do. We hadn’t driven 5 miles before we saw the sign for automotive repairs. There were dozens of garages specializing in various mechanical problems from transmissions to windshields. We found a small shop on one of the back lanes who not only had replacement mirrors, (apparently broken mirrors were a common problem), but in our case, he simply took the frame from our broken mirror, cut a duplicate and siliconed it in place. The remote electric controls were history but the mirror was still adjustable. If that was the worst incident on this whole trip we would be lucky.


Boys are always fascinated with The Turtle V.

Harbors make great places to stop for the night. Local fishermen and kids hanging around fishing piers were friendly and curious. After a couple of peaceful nights overlooking the Black Sea we turned inland for one last side trip to visit the village of Uzungöl.

Located in a green valley between high rising mountains overlooking a pretty lake, it sounded like a nice place to spend a day or two. In the center of town was a beautiful mosque. Unfortunately, the tourist trade had discovered Uzungöl so there were several restaurants, hotels and tourist shops. We found safe camping in a large parking lot on the other side of the lake. The apparent peacefulness of the valley was broken periodically by the “call to prayer”. Though we had been accustomed to this in Istanbul, the religious leaders in Uzungöl didn’t want anybody to miss out. Loudspeakers on light posts and telephone poles throughout town echoed the muezzin’s voice across the lake. Apparently, it has become a popular place to visit for the more extreme Saudi Arabia Muslims, with the women dressed in their full body armor.


The pretty valley of Uzungöl was our last stop in Turkey.

Thanks to our ongoing connection with Internet using our Vodafone EuroSim card, we were starting to get reports from other travelers, very few that there were. One particularly interesting blog was about “The Tunnel from Hell” or “The Tunnel of Death” in Tajikistan. Started in 2006 by the Russians but never finished, it is 5 kms., (3 mi.), of narrow 1 & 1/2 and 2-lane potholes, very few lights and almost no ventilation. Choking smoke from belching diesel trucks make visibility extremely limited. Locals have shared stories of people dying inside due to traffic jams when they were trapped as they succumbed to carbon monoxide. We will tell you more about that as we get closer. Sounds like a fun place huh?

Back on the main road we headed up the coast on the superhighway, hopping from harbor to harbor. The area is known for black tea and we could see the bushes growing on the sides of the mountains. With fuel being almost $7.00 a gallon in Turkey, we didn’t want to fill up until we reached Georgia, but we had to get a couple of gallons, so we pulled off onto a frontage road. A truck stop had a large paved parking area where I asked permission to do a quick spare tire to rear swap, getting our spare into circulation. Of course they said no problem and even helped me take the tire off and used air wrenches to tighten lug nuts.


Yes, some Turks have blue eyes. Turkey has been a melting pot of European and Central Asian cultures for centuries.

Right across the street we happened to notice a little general-purpose store with exchange propane tanks. We weren’t out yet but since we knew we had the correct adapter for the Turkish exchange tanks, I walked over and asked if we could borrow a tank and just pay for the fuel. No problem. Ended up meeting the man’s family, taking pictures and even camping there for the night. Once again, the process of filling a propane tank took about three minutes. I will discuss this later in a special blog but the thing to bear in mind is that propane is not a gas, it’s a liquid. LPG stand for “liquid petroleum gas”.

Whenever we cross borders we always make sure that the truck is clean, and we are clean and neat. Just makes things go faster. After a quick stop at a roadside restaurant where there was a guy with a one-man carwash business, we crossed into Georgia and took a deep breath after an easy and friendly border crossing. Now where to camp the first night?


Derinkuyu Underground City, Turkey 19 – 5/2014

September 15, 2016

Before we left the Cappadocia area there was one more place we had to visit. Over the years, we have seen some amazing underground construction. The famous Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá in Columbia is a Roman Catholic church built within the tunnels of a salt mine 200 meters (660 ft.) underground. The Hole N” The Rock home in Moab, Utah is a 5,000 square foot home with 14 rooms. A cavernous bathroom is referred to as “a toilet in a tomb.” Albert Christiansen spent 12 years drilling and blasting out his hole in the rock, and even then it wasn’t finished when he died in 1957.

This large room might have been used for assemblies or church services.

This large room might have been used for assemblies or church services.

Given the engineering skills of the Swiss it’s not a big reach to grasp how they built the Forte Ospizio San Gottardo in 1894 at the summit of the Gotthard Pass, Switzerland. The Fort mounted two single 120mm gun turrets, both capable of reaching the Italian border. Completely underground and out of sight, the complex included dormitories, kitchens, ammunition depots, generators, repair shops, field hospitals, rooms for the sick, bakeries, etc. and provided space enough to accommodate 100 to 600 soldiers for a timespan of up to several months.

Now we stand in front of Derinkuyu, (“Deep Well”), Yeralti Sehri, (“Underground City”). Located in Cappadocia, Derinkuyu is a large multi-level underground city. It provided a refuge for the region’s Proto-Anatolian inhabitants through the ages. From Byzantine times through 1923, it was known by its Cappadocian Greek inhabitants as Malakopea. It served as a refuge from the raids of the Umayyad Arab and Abbasid armies. The city, and we can call it a city because it had the capacity for 20,000 people, contained living quarters, food stores, kitchens, stables, churches, wine and oil presses, ventilation shafts, wells, and a religious school. It has at least eight levels with a depth of 85 m, (280 ft.).

No elevators, only hand carved rock steps.

No elevators, only hand carved rock steps.

Now open to the public, as we walked through its tunnels, rooms and pillared caverns, it was hard to imagine that this was all dug by hand; no power tools, no electricity, no dynamite and maybe not even any wheelbarrows. The massive complex may have been excavated one bucket at a time.

The historical region of Cappadocia where Derinkuyu is situated contains over 200 underground cities, carved out of a unique geological formation called tufa. All are at least two levels deep. They are not generally occupied today. Derinkuyu is one of the best examples.

The oldest written source about underground cities is the writings of Xenophon around 370 BC. In his seven-book series, Anabasis, he writes that the people living in Anatolia had excavated their houses underground, living well in accommodations large enough for the family, domestic animals, and supplies of stored food. That’s 2,386 years ago! The city’s origins may even be earlier than that, possibly related to the ancient Persian Zoroastrian tradition. We need not go back any further than that to appreciate these amazing underground feats of labor and engineering.

PS. National Geographic reports that in December 2014 yet another underground city was discovered. This one is even larger than Derinkuyu  and contains over 50 miles of tunnels and 11 levels. It is located under the fortress of Nevşehir in the Cappadocia region and may be the largest in the world.


Cappadocia, Turkey 18 – 5/2014

September 8, 2016

It was a crisp morning in central Cappadocia. Like melting butter, the warm sun was just oozing across the bizarre landscape. It might have been a Wednesday or a Thursday about 300 AD. Beyda leaned out the door of her two-story home and yelled to her husband: “Ahmet, would you please empty the poop pot? It stinks!! And while you’re down there, bring up a jug of water.” Ahmet yelled back, “ Are we out of water already? You use too much!!” Beyza shouted back, “Don’t complain. It was your idea to build our home inside one of these weird stone pillars”.

Cappadocia 18 069

The panoramic view over the Göreme area was impressive.

Weird, strange, bizarre, crazy—all can be used to describe the landscape of Cappadocia in central Turkey. Approximately 9 to 3 million years ago, can’t really be exact, sedimentary rocks formed in lakes and streams, and ingnimbrite deposits were left from ancient volcanoes. After the eruption of Mount Erinyes, about 2000 years ago, ash and lava formed a protective layer of hard rock in the Cappadocia area. Erosion by weather, wind and water left the basalt on top of the softer rock, forming the present day fairy chimneys. If the protective cap falls off, the pillars erode into nothing.

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Uçhisar (also called Uçhisar Castle) is situated at the highest point in Cappadocia, just 5km from Göreme. The top provides a magnificent panorama.

People of the Göreme region discovered that the soft rock called Tufa could easily be carved into houses, churches and monasteries. Some of the churches contain interesting frescoes and elaborate Byzantine art from the post-iconoclastic period (after 842). When the Cappadocian Greeks were expelled from Turkey in 1923 during the population exchange between Greece and Turkey, the churches were abandoned and stayed hidden because only the Christians knew where they were.

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Uçhisar, Cappadocia. How ingenious to realize one can carve out a house instead of building one!

The town of Göreme was a pleasant place to wander around. Having a specially prepared cup of real Turkish coffee was a treat. The street markets were a perfect place to restock on supplies. One van even turned out to be a portable hardware store. Looking for a place to camp for the night, we remembered meeting Dawn, a Scottish woman, at a campground in Italy the previous Christmas. She told us about the pension she and her ex-husband had started many years ago. Now, her daughter, Sabina, runs the completely renovated Köse Pension. Apparently, it used to be favored by hippies and overland travelers. We found it just a couple blocks from the center and it was the perfect place for a base. Sabina was very welcoming and gave us permission to park in front of the complex. The Köse Pension is still a favorite for budget travelers, but you’d never know it from looking at the beautiful rooms and the big swimming pool in the pretty courtyard. We indulged ourselves with a fabulous three-course Turkish feast for a reasonable price. As a bonus, we could even do our laundry, something we hadn’t done since we left Istanbul. The smell of fresh bread awakened us early in the morning and to our delight, there was a wonderful bakery just across the street.

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It was a chilly morning when we took off with the hot air balloon to view the Göreme area from the air.

Göreme’s National Park with its strange rock formations has become a popular tourist destination and is a World Heritage Site since 1985. From the ground level it’s quite an amazing place to walk around, discovering the odd fairy chimneys or wondering how long it took to carve out some of these rock homes. Still, perhaps one of the most exciting ways to see this geological wonder is from the air in a hot air balloon. Sabina gave us some tips on where to find a company that was recommended because of their skilled pilots.

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We are ready for an adventure!

As we lifted off the next day that advise proved to be well taken. The certified pilots of these hot air balloons need to read the wind very carefully, judging where the updrafts and downdrafts occur. Their goal is to get you as close to some of the more interesting formations without bumping into them, drifting up high for an overall view and then maneuvering the balloon back to its appropriate landing point. In our case, the pilot was actually able to land the balloon basket in the bed of a flatbed truck. We all piled out and enjoyed the traditional champagne toast that seems to be an essential part of hot air balloon trips.



Caravanserais, Turkey 17 – 5/2014

September 2, 2016

We were now starting to feel that we were truly following the Silk Road. As we drove northeastward across Turkey, we could imagine long caravans of camels carrying furs, hides, charcoal, iron, gold, wool, jade, silk and other luxury goods traveling from Europe to China and vis versa. Some of these caravans may have been made up of hundreds of camels, “The Ships of the Desert”. Their route was determined by safe stopping points where they could replenish food, water and exchange goods. Small fortresses called caravanserais sprang up. We had not seen any evidence of the “Silk Road” as we crossed Europe except for one caravanserai near the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.


Caravans may have been made up of hundreds of camels, “The Ships of the Desert”.
(Source: Silk Road Caravans website:

Just for an interesting comparison, between 1683 and 1834 a similar route was established by exploratory Spanish expeditions that included Jesuit or Franciscan missionaries. They established a series of military outposts and missions stretching from Loreto, southern Baja California, all the way to Sonoma, north of San Francisco. It was called El Camino Real or The King’s Highway. The missions were often protected by Spanish military and provided safe havens for travelers whatever their business might have been. At a length of some 600 miles, (965 km) along both Californias, small towns sprung up around the missions like San Diego, Santa Barbara, and San Francisco, long before other highways were built. The original El Camino Real slowly faded into history though today, Highway 101 closely corresponds to the officially recognized El Camino Real.

The Aksaray-Sultanhan is the largest Caravanserai in Turkey.

The Aksaray-Sultanhan is the largest Caravanserai in Turkey.

The Silk Road followed by Marco Polo was such a route, but when it reached Asia Minor and the Mediterranean in the West, it began to fan out in all directions to deliver its precious goods. Caravanserais, like the missions of California, were no longer the only places for travelers to rest and replenish. We have often explored the old missions of California for their romantic history. Now we were excited as we began coming upon ancient caravanserais in Turkey.

A typical large caravanserai consisted of two sections, an open area for use in the summer and a covered one for winter. Fortified walls and a massive gate kept unwanted intruders out. In the center there was often a small mosque for prayers. Around the courtyard were rooms used for the kitchen, dining, bathrooms, and living and sleeping quarters. Other rooms were used for fodder, stables, warehouses for storing goods, and sometimes, doctors, veterinarians, and farriers, (horseshoe makers), were on hand. Many resembled small fortresses with guards in watch towers to protect the caravans from bandits.

These two local kids were delighted to have their photo taken with The Turtle V parked in front of the Obruk Caravanserai.

These two local guys were delighted to have their photo taken with The Turtle V parked in front of the Obruk Caravanserai.

Silk Road goods carried overland were not loaded onto camels and carried to and from China and Europe. They made their long journey in a piecemeal way, with lots of loading, unloading and trading at the caravan stops along the route. Few people traveled the Silk Road from one end to the other as Marco Polo did, or as we were doing.

Caravanserais were free for the first three days. Owners made their money from charging fees for animals, and selling meals and supplies. They often supplemented their income by gathering manure to sell it for fuel or fertilizer. The price for manure was set according to the animal that produced it and how much straw and grass was mixed in. Cow and donkey manure was regarded as high quality because it burned the hottest and kept mosquitos away.

Graffiti on an archway inside Aksaray-Sultan Caravanserai. What might they say?

Graffiti on an archway inside the Aksaray-Sultan Caravanserai. What might it say?

Some of these caravan stops became rich cities, including Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand and Kashgar, places we will visit in the coming months. As the stopovers grew, they included banks, exchange houses, trading firms, markets, brothels and places where one could smoke hashish and opium. After leading a large caravan of unruly, obnoxious camels across the desert or over the high mountain passes through the Wakhan corridor where winter temperatures could drop below -20°F, some measure of relaxation was probably acceptable.

Unfortunately, we only had one camel, our trusted Turtle V, but we always found safe parking nearby for the night, and being outside gave us the great opportunity to meet the local people.



Konya, Turkey 16 – 5/2016

August 26, 2016

Welcome to Konya, otherwise known as Iconium, and yes, we are still in Turkey, and history runs deep in this part of the world. Excavations have shown that the Konya region was inhabited during the Late Copper Age, around 3000 BC. The city came under the influence of the Hittites around 1500 BC. These were overtaken by the Sea Peoples around 1200 BC. Then there were the Cimmerian invaders in 690 BC and after, it was part of the Persian Empire, until Darius III was defeated by Alexander the Great in 333 BC. Fast forward a little. During the Byzantine Empire the town was destroyed several times by Arab invaders in the 7th–9th centuries. During the Roman Empire, under the rule of emperor Claudius, the city’s name was changed to Claudioconium, and during the rule of emperor Hadrianus to Colonia Aelia Hadriana. See what I mean about history?

So you might be wondering, what are these Whirling Dervishes all about?

Today Konya is one of the most devote Muslim cities in Turkey, but in Christian legend, Iconium was also the birthplace of Saint Thecla. The apostles Paul and Barnabas preached in Iconium during their first Missionary Journey in about 47–48 AD.

For Muslims and non-Muslims alike, the main reason to come to Konya is to visit the Mevlânâ Museum and to witness the famous Whirling Dervishes. The Mevlânâ Museum is one of the biggest pilgrimage centers in Turkey. More than 1.5 million people visit a year, most of them Turkish.

The Mevlânâ Museum is also the mausoleum of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi, a 13th-century Persian Sufi mystic also known as Mevlânâ or Rumi. At the entrance to the mausoleum, the Ottoman silver door bears the inscription, “Those who enter here incomplete will come out perfect”. We are now perfect!

Many of the exhibits are actually in small cells where the dervishes once lived, like monks in a monastery. Some rooms had life-size mannequins depicting everyday life scenes. There were examples of some of the traditional Turkish musical instruments we would hear later. In the mausoleum there is a casket containing strands of Mohammed’s beard, and a copy of the Koran so tiny that its author went blind writing it.

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Konya is an important pilgrimage town. Women dress according to their custom.

As interesting as the museum was, what we really came to see were the famous Whirling Dervishes. Just down the street we found easy parking at the modern Mevlânâ Cultural Center. So you might be wondering, what are these Whirling Dervishes all about? The members of the Mevlevi Order, named for their founder Mevlevi (Turkish) or Mevlânâ (Persian), belong to the Sunni or orthodox mainstream of Islam. Their ritual is an act of love and a drama of faith. The singing of poetry, rhythmic rotation, and music is mesmerizing, creating a synthesis that, according to the faithful, induces a feeling of soaring, of ecstasy, of mystical flight.

The basis of their worship stems from the belief that the fundamental condition of our existence is to revolve. Think about that. There is no object, no being, which does not revolve. The shared similarity between all created things is the revolution of the electrons, protons, and neutrons within the atoms that constitute their basic structure. From the smallest cell to the planets and the farthest stars, everything takes part in this revolving. Thus, the Whirling Dervishes participate consciously in the shared revolution of all existence. Cool huh?

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The Whirling Dervishes in the Mevlânâ Cultural Center in Konya danced to ever changing lights.

The Mevlevi Sema ceremony represents a spiritual journey; the seeker’s turning toward God and the truth, a maturing through love, the transformation of self as a way of union with God, and the return to life as the servant of all creation. One of the beauties of this seven hundred year old ritual is the way that it unifies the three fundamental components of man’s nature; mind, emotion, and spirit, combining them in a practice and a worship that seeks the purification of all three in the turning towards Divine Unity. But most significantly, the enrichment of this earth and the well-being of humanity as a whole.

The Whirling Dervishes played a vitally important part in the evolution of Ottoman high culture. From the 14th to the 20th century, their impact on classical poetry, calligraphy, and the visual arts was profound, while music was perhaps their greatest achievement.

Interestingly, unlike the hymns we hear in Christian churches, since the dogmatists of Islam’s orthodoxy opposed music as being harmful to the listener and detrimental to religious life, no sacred music or mosque music evolved except for the Mevlud, a poem in praise of the Prophet Muhammad chanted on high occasions or as a requiem. Mevlânâ and his followers integrated music into their rituals as an article of faith. In his verses, Mevlânâ emphasized that music uplifts our spirit to realms above, and we hear tunes of the Gates of Paradise. Consequently, the meeting places of the dervishes became academies of art, music and dance.






Myra, Turkey 15 – 5/2014

August 15, 2016

Following our short visit to Patara, the birthplace of the man we know as Santa Claus, we couldn’t resist stopping in Myra to see the church where he spent much of his life and where he died. According to one source, the earliest substantiated records of Myra was in 168 B.C.

Fast forward to more recent times, in 325 A.D. the area became a Roman province district with Myra as its capital. The bishop of Myra at that time was Saint Nicholas, though he was not canonized until after his death.

St. Nicholas of Myra

St. Nicholas of Myra

Well, as time marched on, the harbor silted up and various earthquakes and invasions left the town and the church in ruins or the state of being rebuilt.  Saint Nicholas was and is of great importance to the Christian world, especially to the Greek and Russian Orthodox. In his lifetime he had a wide reputation for performing miracles and he was known as the protector of children, young people, seamen, travelers and the poor. The St. Nicholas’ tomb in Myra was a popular place of pilgrimage. As a significant religious site, Myra enjoyed considerable commercial benefit because pilgrims needed to be housed, fed, and otherwise provided for.

Italian merchants in both Venice and Bari, Italy, saw an opportunity to bring such advantage to their cities. In 1087 Bari sailors and merchants on their way home from Antioch broke open the tomb with an iron bar. The sailors spirited most of the bones away to the ship, escaping just ahead of the townspeople coming in hot pursuit.

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The once buried St. Nicholas church of Myra was amazingly well preserved.

Now here’s a weird part that I had never heard of. When the sailors first arrived at the church they asked the monks where the “manna” was extracted. What’s manna? According to the St. Nicholas Center’s website, manna is a pure water formed in the tomb of the Saint. One might guess that it is some form of condensation. What’s interesting is that after the remains of St. Nicholas were transported to Bari and the new crypt was built for the purpose, the “manna” continued to be formed and does so to this day. (In Christianity, the “translation of relics” is the removal of holy objects from one locality to another.) Every year on May 9, the Feast of Translation, (of the relics from Myra to Bari), is celebrated. The Rector of the Basilica, in the presence of a delegate of the Pope, solemnly extracts the crystal vial containing about 50 ml of the pure “santa manna”. The liquid is mixed with holy water and distributed to the faithful. Conserved in small ampules or beautifully hand-painted bottles, the liquid is taken as a drink or sprinkled on the part of the body that is suffering from an illness.

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The sanctuary (alter area) of the St. Nicholas church in Myra.

This phenomenon is not easily explainable. The possibility of infiltration of water from the outside has been absolutely eliminated and excluded. It has been proven that the casket containing the bones of the Saint is totally impermeable. Notwith-standing the various solutions that have arrived from numerous hypothesis, whether they may be supernatural or natural expla-nations for the phenomenon, the “manna” is an authentic relic, because it is a liquid that remained in contact with the bones of the Saint. This explains why there is such a great devotion to this day. (In religion, a relic usually consists of the physical remains of a saint or the personal effects of the saint or venerated person preserved for purposes of veneration as a tangible memorial.)

Apparently a similar invasion from a fleet of Crusader ships coming from Venice in 1099 also managed to find a copper urn hidden under the St. Nicholas church floor which was engraved ”Here lies the Great Bishop Nicholas, Glorious on Land and Sea.” It was the rest of the bones that the Bari soldiers had left behind.

The frescos surviving 800 years in alluvial silt were astounding.

The frescos surviving 800 years in alluvial silt were astounding.

Back to Myra, in the late 12th century or early 13th century a natural disaster, probably an earthquake, caused a shift in the bed of the River Miro’s that resulted in a terrible flood. The city of Myra and the church were filled with muddy floodwater and alluvial silts. Today, the new city of Demre lies approximately 6 meters, (20 feet!), above the ground level of Myra and St. Nichols church. So the church and all its amazing frescoes was completely buried for about 800 years. Some serious digging was needed.

In 1963 the eastern and southern sides of the church were excavated. In 1968 the former tomb of St. Nicholas was roofed over. The floor of the church is made of opus sectile, an art technique popularized in the ancient and medieval Roman world where materials were cut and inlaid into walls and floors to make a picture or pattern. Common materials were marble, mother of pearl, and glass. The patterns on the pavements in the interior of the church are examples of the skilled craftsmanship.

The beautiful opus sextile patterns on the pavements and interior walls of the church are examples of the skilled craftsmanship.

The beautiful opus sextile patterns on the floors and interior walls of the St. Nicholas church in Myra are examples of the skilled craftsmanship.

Wall paintings in the burial chamber of the church date to the 12th century. They contain 15 scenes in the life of St. Nicholas. The dome of the prosthesis chamber used by the clergy for preparation of worship contains 12th century paintings of the holy communion of Christ offering bread and wine to the 12 apostles. Numerous other frescos throughout the church would be best interpreted by a theologist, so let the photos tell the story. Just be amazed that they survived.

After all that, if you’ve read this far, you may still be surprised that Santa Claus does not really live in the North Pole with his reindeer and his elves. He actually came from Asia Minor. To quote the famous radio announcer, Paul Harvey, “And now, you know the rest of the story.” If you really want to know more, check out this fascinating website for all the details: