Eskişehir, Turkey 8 – the people – 5/2014

May 18, 2016

While Gary was fascinated with Meerschaum pipes and Zeus, I want to share some more photos of the Eskişehir area, its people, street scenes and the botanical garden. Eskişehir is a modern, clean town with pedestrian streets, funny sculptures, elaborate monuments in round-abouts and interesting parks. I just loved the houses of the beautifully restored Old Town where we strolled around, visited the Meerschaum museum and absorbed the atmosphere. People were busy with life or just sitting on park benches watching the world go by. It was a very welcoming and friendly scene.

The smell of fresh bread beckoned us to a bakery, and following our nose we discovered how the popular sesame bread rings called Simit were made. They are sold throughout Turkey . The busy bakers invited us in and happily posed for photos. In the end, we were presented with a tasty Simit, just pulled out of the oven.

Eskişehir People 32The master meerschaum pipe carver, Mr. Besim Aktaş, patiently answered all our many questions and was very helpful in our quest to learn more about meerschaum mining. His store sold all kinds of Meerschaum products including pipes, letter openers, hairpins, jewelry (necklaces, ear rings, finger rings, brooches and beads) etc. I was surprised that the intricately carved brooches, like the pipes, were as light as a feather. He called a cousin in his home village and told him he was sending us his way to see the mining process. (see Turkey Blog 7 and

Arriving in the village, we found a parking lot adjacent to a community center with a large covered balcony were old men were gathered for their morning “tea” klatsch. Not a woman in sight. None spoke English but as it turned out, several had worked in Germany for a few years so thanks to their rudimentary German, we were able to communicate. They had many questions for us. As tradition has it, we were immediately served with a glass of tea before Mr. Aktaş’ cousin brought us to the area where villagers were working in the shafts and tunnels. The miners were pleased to demonstrate their simple but functional extraction methods and showed us around. I took their invitation to climb down into one of the pits, first using a rope to hang on for a few feet and then climbing a chicken ladder. Just like the gold miners, they used picks and shovels to loosen the dirt in search of nodules of meerschaum. It was backbreaking work in sometimes very cramped tunnels. One miner even demonstrated how he lights and uses his oil lamp. Yup, I made it up the rope again.

Eskişehir People 37Back in the village, we stopped at a house with a porch to drink a soda and learned a bit about the villagers’ lives. Nearby were some old men shooting the breeze and across the street was a lonesome fragil man enjoying the Spring sun. We were told he was over 100 years old and that his wife had recently passed away. There was no family left in the village to care for him. How does he survive, I asked. Some of the kind women in the village bring him food and help when needed. I guess, that’s Turkish Social Security at its best. I walked over to say hello and asked if I could take his picture. He smiled, extending his hand in greeting and seemed pleased for the moment’s attention he received. Too bad we did not speak Turkish. Imagine, born just before World War I during the Ottoman Empire, he could have told us many stories about his long and probably hard life.

After having returned to Eskişehir where Gary bought his treasured meerschaum pipe from Mr. Aktaş, we were looking for a quiet place to spend the night on the outskirts of town and spotted a botanical garden on the GPS. It was a weekday so there were only a handful of visitors. Some mountain bikers peddled by, a group of guys barbecued shish kebabs over a small grill, and a few families were out for an evening stroll. A river had created a large island where a well designed garden with interesting features included trees, shrubs and flowers, water fountains and ponds, art work, educational information, exercise equipment, playgrounds and pick-nick areas. Visitors who passed by greeted. The ones who spoke English stopped to chat. By sunset we were alone and it felt perfectly safe to stay for the night.




Eskişehir, Turkey 7 – In search of Meerschaum pipes – 5/2014

May 11, 2016

Escaping the magical city of Istanbul where one could spend years exploring side streets, markets and mosques, we had to move on. While we have always followed the words of John Steinbeck in his book, Travels With Charlie. “Don’t take the trip. Let the trip take you.”, unfortunately we now found ourselves on somewhat of a march-route. Spring was on the way, and while we wanted to spend as much time as possible in each country that lay in our route along the Silk Road, we now had affixed the date of when we had to enter China and meet our guide. In addition, each of the several countries we would now travel through had their own visa requirements and often entry and exit dates that we had to observe or lose time in that country or the next one. Our early-morning escape through the maddening traffic of Istanbul took us across the Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge (also called the second Bosporus bridge) and onto the continent of Asia. Wow!! Major crossing!

Turkey Blog 7 38So little time and so many places to visit in Turkey, we had to make some choices. Back in my college days I had become an avid pipe smoker. Pipes have been fashioned from an assortment of materials including briar, clay, ceramic, corncob, glass, meerschaum, metal gourd, stone, wood and various combinations thereof, most notably, the classic English calabash pipe. While I could never afford one back then, the famous Turkish meerschaum pipes were always touted as the smoothness smoke. One of the things on our Turkish wish list was to find out a little more about meerschaum.

Meerschaum, (German for foam of the sea), is a soft white clay mineral also known as sepiolite. While meerschaum is found in other countries around the world, the pure white Turkish meerschaum has been prized for centuries. The first recorded use of meerschaum for making pipes was around 1723 and quickly became known as the perfect material for providing a cool, dry, flavorful smoke. The porous nature of meerschaum draws moisture and heat into the stone.

Turkey Blog 7 35Chiefly obtained from the plain of Eskişehir, it occurs there in irregular nodular masses in alluvial deposits that are extensively worked for its extraction. It is said that in this district there are 4,000 shafts leading to horizontal galleries where the search for lumps of meerschaum is ongoing. When first extracted, meerschaum is soft. However, it hardens on exposure to solar heat or if dried in a warm room. Prepared for carving, the natural nodules are first scraped to remove the red earthy matrix, then dried, again scraped and polished with wax. The crudely shaped masses thus prepared are turned and carved, smoothed with glass-paper, treated with wax or stearine, and finally polished with bone ash. When smoked, meerschaum pipes gradually change color. An old meerschaum will turn incremental shades of yellow, orange, red, and amber from the base on up.

Turkey Blog 7 37

This miner introduced Monika to the art of extracting meerschaum.

Turkey Blog 7 36Our trail led us to the town of Eskişehir and then to the village of Gundüzler and the nearby hamlet of Beyazaltin where our search for meerschaum ended at a hole in the ground about 20 feet deep. Monika, fearless woman that she is, promptly lowered herself down a rope and descended a rickety chicken ladder into the darkness with two Turkish guys leading the way. Would I ever see her again? After considerable laughter and a couple of buckets of dirt hauled up with a hand-crank windless, she reemerged from the depths with a chunk of meerschaum in her hand.

Turkey Blog 7 33With a better understanding of the mysterious foam of the sea, we headed back to Eskişehir where we visited the local museum. There were some amazing beautiful examples of what artists had done, but I was not looking for a piece of art to display in a glass cabinet. I wanted a “smoking pipe”, and that led us to one of the several shops in town.

It was there we met Mr Besim Aktaş again, a master carver himself and an avid pipe smoker, he knew what I was looking for. ( I chose a small intricately carved pipe that had an outer layer of tiny holes, kind of a shell around the inner core, that would take all the advantages of the meerschaum’s attributes for a cool, dry smoke.

Tobacco was introduced to Europe from the Americas in the 16th century. American Indians ratified important agreements with a Peace Pipe, and we supposed the Incas and the Mayans might have had occasions for a smoke.

Turkey Blog 7 34While pipes can be used to smoke stuff other than tobacco, unlike cigarettes or cigars, one does not normally inhale the smoke, so there is no real addiction. The aromas of pipe tobaccos, there are literally hundreds of blends, are mostly not as offensive as cigarettes or cigars. You don’t just mindlessly grab a pipe and light it up. It’s a process that you do on purpose, like opening a bottle of good wine and sipping it consciously. It’s a hobby more than a habit.

Our curiosity satisfied, we headed southwest on backroads toward the coast of the Aegean Sea, but first a quick stop in the town of Aezani, an ancient city in western Anatolia where we would find the Temple of Zeus and the combined theater-stadium complex built by Hadrian in 125 AD. You may recall that for thousands of years in what we now call “Western Civilization”, Zeus was the head “God”. There were other Gods and Goddesses beneath him, (He loved to delegate.), but he had the final word and he was worshiped by learned philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates and a major part of the world before they discovered it was not flat. It never hurts to pay respects to Zeus, though we had no bulls to sacrifice.


Istanbul 6, Turkey – 4/2014

March 30, 2016

We are market junkies, and we’ve wandered through some of the best, but there is only one Grand Bazaar. Call it a “shopping mall” if you want to homogenize it, but Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is much more. It started as a small market in 1455, and grew into an important trading center on the Silk Road, expanding into what must be considered a city within a city. Today it’s a labyrinthine of some 3,000 covered shops selling virtually everything you can imagine. It incorporates 16 caravanserais, (stopping places where traveling caravans of camels, horses and men could safely rest and trade their goods), connected by 64 lanes, (actually marked lanes if you can find the sign), mosques, banks, a police station, restaurants, cafes, and work shops, all under one roof, surrounded by walls and locked gates at night. Outside those gates are hundreds of other shops and two of the most impressive mosques in the city, the Süleymaniye and the Beyazit.

Istanbul #6 54I recall my first experience in the Grand Bazaar. Every shop keeper invited me for a cup of tea and by the time I had worked my way past the gold section, the meerschaum pipes, the leather and clothing lanes, the rows of hand-painted pottery, the amazing selection of teas and spices—–I was thoroughly lost. Finally, by chance, I emerged from a gate several blocks from where I had entered.

With a proper map, you can weave yourself to specific sections if you’re looking for a new suitcase, a teapot, a belly dancing dress, carpets, gold, silver or pearls, or just a place to have lunch. Along the way you’ll pass little boutiques offering an amazing selection of teas for that beautiful copper teapot you should have bought. If you see something you like, bargain hard and the price may come down 50%, but you may never find it again and a GPS is useless inside the covered domes. After several forays into the Grand Bazaar, Monika, professional navigator that she is, could actually find the same pottery shop three times in a row.

Istanbul #6 30A few blocks away near the Galata Bridge is the separate Spice Bazaar where, along side stalls selling dried meat, fish, cheese, olives and Turkish Delight sweets, you can find piles of every spice known to man; Cumin, Ginger, Turkish and Indian Saffron, sweet and hot Paprika, Garam Masala, and various mixes for meat, fish, chicken and your imagination, all sold by the gram and you can taste before you buy. Little hand grinders are a specialty.

We quickly became aware that being a tourist put a mark on our forehead for pickpockets and the elbow-to-elbow crowds required caution. These bazaars are where locals do their shopping and there was not a Wal-Mart in sight.

Aside from being overwhelmed by the selections, getting lost and the relief of actually finding the same shop twice, (not to be confused by not still being lost), you soon realize that you will never see it all, a good enough reason to come back the next day and start over——lost.


Istanbul 5, Turkey – 4/2014

March 23, 2016

After a quick Shish Kebab on the street and a glass of fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, we headed over to the astounding and fascinating Topkapı Palace and museum, home of the Ottoman Sultans for nearly 400 years.

The Palace is an extensive complex rather than a single monolithic structure, with an assortment of low buildings constructed around courtyards, interconnected with galleries, passages and pavilions that stretch down the promontory towards the shores of the Bosporus. The total size of the complex varies from around 592,600 square meters (1,944,225 square feet) to 700,000 square meters (7,534,983 square feet), depending on which parts are counted. Don’t ask how many bathrooms. Many of the walls of the palace are ten feet thick, so it mostly escaped structural damage during the 1999 Izmit earthquake.

This is of the many exquisite sitting rooms we walked through.

One of many exquisite sitting rooms we wandered through.

Checking the map in our Lonely Planet guide, we saw that there were four main courtyards, essentially beautiful parks with lush gardens and fountains. Clearly, we would need two days to see it all.

The palace kitchens alone consisted of 10 domed buildings. They were the largest kitchens in the Ottoman Empire with a staff of 800 to 1,000 people and the capacity to prepare up to 6,000 meals a day. We’re not talking about paper plates either. Chinese and Far Eastern porcelain was highly valued and was transported by camel caravans over the Silk Road or by sea. The 10,700 pieces of Chinese porcelain displayed are thought to rival that found in China as one of the finest collections in the world.

Istanbul #5 22We didn’t want to miss the Harem. What’s a Harem? Among several definitions, it is a separate part of a Muslim household reserved for wives, concubines, and female servants. One might have a romantic image of beautiful girls, (concubines), skimpily dressed, parading around with their only job to please the master, like “Peel me a grape, honey.” In this case, being the home of the Sultan, Topkapı’s Harem had more than 400 rooms with hundreds of concubines, children, and servants. There were special rooms for the Queen Mother, the sultan’s consorts and “favorites”, the princes and the concubines as well as the eunuchs, both black and white, who had been castrated in order to make them reliable to serve the royal court. The “favorites” of the Sultan were conceived as the instruments of the perpetuation of the dynasty in the harem organization. When the “favorites” became pregnant they assumed the title and powers of the Official Consort of the Sultan. As it turns out, many of the women in the Sultan’s Harem had considerable political power.

The Sultans from centuries passed would no doubt be astounded by this modern view of Istanbul.

The Sultans from centuries passed would no doubt be astounded by this modern view of Istanbul.

Recalling my first visit years ago as a neophyte traveler, I remember being astounded by the unimaginable wealth found in the Treasury. The Imperial Treasury is a vast collection of works of art, jewelry, heirlooms of sentimental value and money belonging to the Ottoman dynasty. Many are of solid gold and other precious materials and covered with diamonds, emeralds and rubies. I recall two enormous solid gold candleholders, each weighing 48 kg, (105 lbs), and mounted with 6,666 cut diamonds. The Imperial Treasury is without doubt one of the world’s greatest treasure chambers.

Every room we entered had amazing detailed paintings, rare woods inlayed with mother of pearl, beautiful tiles, intricate mosaics. The whole Topkapı Palace and museum is just something you have to see to comprehend. The obvious wealth of the Sultans puts Donald Trump to shame.


Istanbul 4, Turkey – 4/2014

March 14, 2016

Some of the most amazing examples of engineering and architecture in the world are places of worship. We had seen a few of the most impressive; St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England, the National Palace in Mafra, Portugal, the Basilica La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain, the Cathedrál de Cordoba in Cordoba, Spain, the Vatican in Vatican City, Italy, just to name a few, but standing in a class by themselves are the imposing mosques of Istanbul, and we just happened to be camped beneath the most famous one, The Blue Mosque, (called Sultanahmet Camii in Turkish). Known as the Blue Mosque because of blue tiles surrounding the walls of interior design, it was built between 1609 and 1616 during the rule of Ahmed I. Since it is an active mosque, it’s closed to non-worshippers for a half hour or so during the five daily prayers, so timing was important for a visit.

From our camping spot on the Bosporus we had a great view of the Blue Mosque.

From our camping spot on the Bosporus we had a great view of the Blue Mosque.

The equally beautiful Hagia Sophia (from the Greek: Ἁγία Σοφία, “Holy Wisdom”; Latin: Sancta Sophia or Sancta Sapientia; Turkish: Ayasofya), has an interesting history. From the date of its construction in 537 until 1453, it served as an Orthodox cathedral and seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople, except between 1204 and 1261, when it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral under the Latin Empire.

In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II who ordered this main church of Orthodox Istanbul 4 42Christianity converted into a mosque. The bells, altar, iconostasis, and sacrificial vessels and other relics were removed and the mosaics depicting Jesus, his Mother Mary, Christian saints and angels were also removed or plastered over. Fortunately many have been restored. In 1931 it was secularized and was opened as a museum in 1935. Today Hagia Sophia is the second-most visited museum in Turkey.

Famous in particular for its massive dome, it is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and is said to have “changed the history of architecture”. It remained the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years, until the Seville Cathedral in Spain was completed in 1520.

The colors and patterns of the various domes in the Blue Mosque were exquisite.

The colors and patterns of the various domes in the Blue Mosque were exquisite.

Back when the Hagia Sophia was first transformed into a mosque, Fatih Sultan Mehmet The Conqueror, (Seventh Sultan Of The Ottoman Empire), and his followers prostrated themselves for the first Friday prayer, however, there was a slight problem, since the direction of the building was not facing toward Kaaba, the center of Islam’s most sacred mosque in Mecca.

There is an interesting column at the northwest of the building with a hole in the middle covered by bronze plates. It’s called the “perspiring column” or the “wishing column”. According to one legend, the dampness in the small hole is believed to be a tear of Virgin Mary. Rumors appeared during the East-Roman period that it had a healing effect on humans. People believed that they would get better if they put their fingers into that hole on the column and then rub them to the place where disease was felt. You can also just make a wish. We did.


Istanbul 3, Turkey – 4/2014

February 25, 2016

Problems!! Perhaps not critical or life threatening, but the convenience of having hot water without having to start the engine was addictive. When our 14-year-old Espar D5 Hydronic fluid heater, which could also preheat the engine on cold mornings and serve as a backup heater for the camper, started to have trouble firing up back in Greece, we were concerned. Being the international company that Espar is, they had a fully staffed service center in Istanbul and the manager even spoke English. His email that read: “No Problem. We have all service parts for your D5 Hydronic.” was a relief, knowing there were passes over 14,000 feet in route across Tajikistan followed by a 4,000 mile drive across Siberia in the winter.

Only in Istanbul would a 400-year old mosque be called "New".

During our evening cruise both the Galata Bridge and the New Mosque were basking in the afternoon light. Only in Istanbul would a 400-year old mosque be called “New”.

Their complete service center opened the doors to us, told us we could safely park in the guarded compound in front of the shop while repairs were made, and even insisted on inviting us for lunch. Given the age of our Espar, the easy fix was to replace the unit with the latest model and add the new altitude compensation kit in the process. We took a hot shower to celebrate.

Returning to our campsite just around the corner from the entrance to the Golden Horn, we couldn’t help but notice the parade of cargo and oil tanker ships coming and going from the Black Sea. Looking at the map, the Bosporus is a natural strait and an internationally significant waterway that forms part of the continental boundary between Europe and Asia and separates Asian Turkey from European Turkey. Like many cities on major rivers, lakes or oceans, it’s always interesting to see them from the water, so a sunset cruise was in order.

Pulling out from the docks just a couple blocks from our home base, the captain turned left up the Golden Horn, also known by its modern Turkish name as Haliç, a major urban waterway and the primary inlet of the Bosporus. This gave us the wonderful opportunity to see the famous Galata Bridge that I recalled walking over back in 1969 when it still floated on pontoons. The crowds of fishermen were still dangling their lines over the edge to catch the ebbing tide while others just below them sipped a cold beer and munched fresh-baked simits (sesame-encrusted bread rings) or smoked their apple-scented argils, (Turkish water pipes), in the restaurants and cafés. What an amazing backdrop with the Galata Tower on one side and the 400-year old New Mosque on the other basking in the afternoon light.

What a crazy artsy photo of the Bosporus Bridge!

Couldn’t resist to share this crazy photo of the Bosporus Bridge!

As the sun crept lower we motored back up into the Bosporus, passing by the Rumelian Castle that is situated at the narrowest point of the busy strait. With the help of thousands of masons and workers, the fortress was completed in a record time of 4 months and 16 days in 1452. On our return home, the spectacular Bosporus Bridge connecting Europe and Asia gave us an amazing light show!! What a magical city!


Istanbul 2, Turkey – 4/2014

February 16, 2016

With our truck safely parked on the edge of the Bosporus, we were a short walk from Sultanahmet Park and two of the most impressive mosques in the city, but our first stop was the famous Pudding Shop, a small café and restaurant that has hosted travelers for decades. Even Bill Clinton had stopped by in the 60’s and revisited during his presidency. Officially called Lale Restaurant, it got its nickname because overland travelers could not remember the name but only that it was famous for its pudding.

A famous stepping-stone from Europe to Asia, the Pudding Shop has seen a long stream of overland travelers headed east and returning with tales of adventure.

A famous stepping-stone from Europe to Asia, the Pudding Shop has seen a long stream of overland travelers headed east and returning with tales of adventure.

It was here, as I sipped a cup of thick Turkish coffee in 1969, that a  blue 109 Land Rover Dormobile parked across the street and popped up the top. At that moment, a seed was planted in a process I now clearly recognize as The Secret. It took a couple of years to germinate and still a second trip to Turkey before that blue Land Rover found me in a used car showroom in San Francisco. Named La Tortuga Azul, (The Blue Turtle), as they say, “The rest is history”. The Turtle Expedition, Unlimited was born. It had been over 40 years since I had strolled the streets of Istanbul. I am happy to report that much has not changed and Mr. Namık Çolpan, the son of one of the founders of the Pudding Shop, welcomed us with customary Turkish warmth.

Istanbul 2 23

This dinner looked world class and was very delicious!

Food was on our mind and shopping for fruit and veggies was easy in the small street stands and little grocery stores. Of course we do most of our own cooking, but sampling a few of the local restaurants is part of travel, and the Turkish have been refining their recipes for a couple of thousand years.

A Shepherd Pie prepared at the table.

A Shepherd’s Pie prepared at the table.

Walking down a few side streets the old wooden buildings showed the age of this historic city. Lonely Planet guidebook in hand, we were able to identity some of the points of interest like the grand Republic Monument. Commissioned by the great reformer, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to the Italian sculptor Pietro Canonica and unveiled in 1928, it honored the leaders of the struggle for independence and the formation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Previously, under Shari’a (Islamic religious law) in force during the Ottoman Empire, public monuments were not allowed—they were considered “effigies” (portrayals of beings with an immortal soul) and therefore forbidden as idolatry. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk wanted to make the point that Turkey was now a modern and secular republic with division of state and religion, and introduced many political, economic, and cultural reforms. He officially renamed the city “Istanbul”, (historically it was either Constantinople, Byzantium or Istanbul), and encouraged women to wear western clothing but interestingly enough, forced men to dress like westerners.

Turkish sweets are very popular

Turkish sweets are very popular

We couldn’t resist poking through the archway into of what appeared to be an old caravanserai where traders along the Silk Road could tend to their animals and trade goods. Now it was a parking lot with various shops. One woman was busy weaving a beautiful carpet. We guessed it could take years to finish, one thread at a time.

One of many vendors in the Sultanahmet Park.

One of many vendors in the Sultanahmet Park.

Wherever we went the sweet smell of roasting corn on the cob and chestnuts was in the air. A quick sandwich at one of many “shish kebob” shops was mandatory.

While this is very definitely an Islamic country, we saw extremely few women in full chadors in this fabulous city. Sometimes called “the blacks”, we were told that they were probably rich tourists from Saudi Arabia. Many local residents of Istanbul don’t particularly like them. “They look like terrorists.” One commented. They were not, of course, but it was interesting to watch the women trying to eat a sticky piece of Turkish Delight or sip a cup of tea lifting their face veil with one hand every time.


Istanbul 1, 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.


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).


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!


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.