Friday, January 28, 2011

Change, hopefully with restraint

Boy did we narrowly dodge some interesting (in the way the Chinese curse someone to live in interesting times) developments in Egypt. That people are already gathering at the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo to forestall any looting or ransacking of that extremely important vessel of the human record is heartening, but a bit scary. Hopefully people will be able to get back to peaceful conditions without many being hurt, as well as many works of art and sources of understanding of those that went before being lost or damaged. With similar demonstrations of dissatisfaction and discontent happening in Tunisia and Yemen, one wonders what might be afoot in that part of the world.

Good luck to us all.

“To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.”

~Abraham Lincoln

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Backtracking: more Turkey & NYC

The circle of the trip then brought us back to Istanbul for a few more days, though the lame travel agency nearly shafted us by not booking the plane tickets it was supposed to have set up sometime earlier than 45 minutes before takeoff. Istanbul had loads to see, and we had a great time in the archaeological museum there seeing many relics from places we’d visited and other places (the Alexander Sarcophagus was indeed amazing). Hagia Sofia, which is one of those amazing buildings from antiquity still in use in the 21st century, consumed much space on memory cards with way too many photos being taken.

The Topkapi Palace, where the sultans hung out consumed nearly an entire day of the trip. The roofs on the towers shown below and the conical tops of the fireplaces inside the palace totally reminded me of gnomes and other fanciful creatures. There were also plenty of riches to be seen there, including the famous Topkapi Dagger, with its rather large emeralds on the handle.

After a long flight from Istanbul, we arrived just prior to a nor-easter storm dumping a bunch of snow on New York City. The icy wind was really blasting the next morning when the view was taken in (here, of the Flatiron Building) from the lower observation deck of the Empire State Building.

In true “Ghostbusters” fan fashion, the pilgrimage was also made to the New York Public Library, with its fabulous main reading rooms.

A considerable amount of time was spent acquiring tickets for and attending a taping of the Late Show with David Letterman, which was a fun change of pace. Seeing place that the Beatles played way back when was pretty interesting, too. It's amazing how brief the time line of events in this country is compared to other places in the world.

So, other than a marathon stint in the Greyhound bus system for just over 30 hours, I made it home in one piece, though pretty tired. This trip garnered me my 41st country and my 7th continent on my life’s travel list, and seemed to be just jam packed with cultural and historical treasures, not to mention a wide variety of landscapes.

What comes next? That's a good question, which I'm working on now, but who knows what will actually come to pass? Life keeps itself interesting in that way, for sure.

“Next to seeing land, there is no sight which makes one realize he is drawing near home, than to see the same heavens, under which he was born, shining at night over his head.”
~Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before the Mast

Backtracking: Turkey Part 1

A couple hours in an airplane changed the dynamics of our surroundings drastically, as we hit the ground running seeing the sights in Istanbul, Turkey. The first afternoon we saw a couple sights, including the Blue Mosque (not pictured) and the Basilica Cistern. That latter sight (pictured below) was one of those places I’ve always wanted to visit, since seeing a movie at a young age that featured it. In this case, the movie in question was “From Russia With Love”, and the cistern totally did not disappoint.

It was then off on a whirlwind trip of western Turkey over the next three days. The first stop was the World War 1 battlefield on the Gallipoli Peninsula. We mostly visited the more northerly sights, including this small graveyard near ANZAC Beach, with “the Sphinx” in the background. Visiting here reminded me of the battlefield at Gettysburg, with lots of much-fabled locations and names and events that took place during the battle. While this is not a battle that is paid much mind in the U.S., having lived and worked around plenty of Aussies and Kiwis, I understand why it figures so importantly in the relatively brief histories of their countries.

The next day we visited a place some guy named Homer (not Simpson) wrote about a few years back: Troy. Yeah, Troy. This is a real sleeper of a destination. It’s not the most visually striking or breathtaking, but it really felt like a very special place. Nestled amongst sleepy farmlands, this multi-layered city is still just hanging out there with its record of ancient human habitation through the ages. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have someplace like this just hanging out in the neighborhood. It was pretty cold that morning, so there was frost on the grass in the shaded areas and frozen pools of water in the hollows atop some stone pillars.

In the afternoon of the same day, we visited the Acropolis of Pergamon looking over modern-day Bergama. This set of ruins was home to the famous Pergamon Altar, which now resides in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany. It also sports one of the steepest amphitheaters of antiquity, and a masterful work of engineering in just the foundation to support the Temple of Trajan there.

And then we had to wait a few hours overnight before seeing another fabulous set of ruins in Ephesus, a bit further south. This Roman city has a bunch of public buildings in pretty good condition, which reminded me much more of Jerash in Jordan than Pompeii in Italy. It also, like Troy, used to be on the coast, but a couple thousand years of silt now leave it quite far inland. The third Ancient Wonder of the World was visited here, too. All that remains of the stunning Temple of Artemis at Ephesus is a single column, capped with a stork nest and flanked by a gaggle of honking geese.

We're getting there; one more post should do it.

"Sing, goddess, of Achilles ruinous anger
Which brought ten thousand pains to the Achaeans,
And cast the souls of many stalwart heroes
To Hades, and their bodies to the dogs
And birds of prey."

~Homer, “The Illiad”

Backtracking: Egypt Part 2

We got back to civilization at the neat-o Siwa Oasis, which I will remember most fondly (seriously, it makes me laugh every time I hear it) for the sound of its many donkeys braying in protest at being made to pull their little carts around town. The town is surrounded by orchards of date palms, and has lots of ruins of its old fortress-like district called the Shali.

We then headed north to the Mediterranean coast and made a brief stop to pay our respects at the Commonwealth graveyard for soldiers killed in World War 2 at El Alamein.

Alexandria was the final stop after that long day of driving, and the view from my hotel room included the Qait Bey. It was a first for me to be able to see the site of one of the seven ancient wonders of the world (Pharos Lighthouse) from my bed.

The last stop in Egypt was back in Egypt, and a day trip to the far edge of town included the oldest stone monument in the world (step pyramid at Saqqara) and the Dahshur area where pyramid building techniques were refined, with a few mistakes along the way. That included the Bent Pyramid, which shows how the builders had to reduce the angle of the pyramid’s slope to prevent it from collapsing. Whoops!

That wraps up Egypt, but hang in there for more from the road.

“Fare on then, for nought are ye laden with sorrow;
The love of this land do ye bear with you still.”

~William Morris, “The Roots of the Mountains”

Backtracking: Egypt Part 1

So, here we go finishing off the trip’s itinerary with plenty of photos:

From Aswan, a day and night were spent on a felucca (local sailboat) on the Nile, camping on an island overnight. It was a nice, relaxed day between hectic ruin-visiting stops and a chance to catch our breath before heading west into the vast distances of the desert.

Luxor and its magnificent temples of Karnak were the next stop, and we were there over Christmas. We visited the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Hatshepsut, which is pictured below. No cameras are allowed in the VOTK, but that pyramidal peak up above the temple is what looms over the entrances to the tombs on the other side of the ridge. Hatshepsut’s temple had some pretty good examples of intact colors on some of the carvings, which were beautiful.

From Luxor, we drove out into the Western Desert, which is part of the greater Sahara (you might have heard of it). Our first touristy stop was a semi-deserted village called Al-Qasr, which was mostly built from mud bricks. All the doorways were really low, and there were random low beams between buildings across the walkways, so one either made like the Ministry of Silly Walks or brained themselves if attention was not paid to the head room.

It was then out into the deeper desert for a few days, including a cold night camping amongst the fanciful ventifacts of the White Desert. Heading west from Bawiti, we went through a very empty expanse of desert, where the asphalt often was missing or abandoned, so we could drive at 120 kmh over loose sand and dust and rock. That involved about 10 hours of driving, with only a few stops at bleak military checkpoints along the way.

More to follow shortly.

“Iced drinks are deadly...The ice is usually full of microbes, all the more spiteful for their temporary imprisonment.”

~”The Happy Traveller”, Rev. Frank Tatchell, 1923

Sunday, January 16, 2011

There's No Place Like...

Yes, home, at long last. I'll fill you in soon on the fun stuff from during the hiatus since I last wrote. For the time being, I'm still trying to kick some jet lag and posterior soreness from riding the bus to Kansas from NYC.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

(in) Turkey (and time for) dinner

A quick flight from Cairo to Istanbul landed us in Turkey before noon. We public transported ourselves down to Sultanahmet Square, found our (kickin') lodgings, and visited the Blue Mosque and Basilica Cistern (go watch "From Russia With Love" if you don't know what I'm talking about). It's cold and overcast, but still a lot of fun and vastly different from Cairo/Egypt. What a difference a day makes... Anyhow, we need to get some dinner and get some sleep, since our tour out west to Gallipoli, Troy, Pergamum, and Ephesus kicks off at 6:30 tomorrow morning. We'll have two more days to explore Istanbul when we get back, before flying to the Big Apple.

"Now, to find some kebab..."
~Ethan, "Common Phrases That Run Through My Mind"

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Back to the urban jungle from the desert

After a couple nights in Alexandria, we’re back in this little burg of Cairo on the Nile. Three more nights here, and we’re off to Istanbul. Doner kebab, here I come!

From Luxor we set off to the oases of the Western Desert. We stayed in Dakhla before camping a very cold night in the White Desert, and continued on the next day to Bawiti through the Black Desert. It was then a long drive over a not-always-quite-there road/desert sands to the lovely oasis of Siwa, with its tombs and temples at the far western limit of ancient Egyptian influence. The 4x4 safari vehicles we were in were pretty old, and the drivers didn’t seem to have issue flinging us about (without seat belts) driving at U.S. highway speeds on pitching sand and gravel. It was nice to arrive intact, though thoroughly permeated with dust. On the long drive from Siwa to Alex, we stopped and saw the Commonwealth cemetery for soldiers killed in and around the battle of El Alamein in World War 2.

Alexandria was a reintroduction to a much more frenetic, urban environment before the whole enchilada of such in Cairo. New Year’s was pretty tame in Alex, since the locals follow a different calendar than us westerners. Somehow I managed to be out of the U.S. for the entire calendar year of 2010, which I really only missed achieving by a few hours back in 2008.

Photos will follow as I get the opportunity.

“Cairo…city of the living.”
~Sallah, Raiders of the Lost Ark