Final Days in the Middle Kingdom: Beijing

This trip and this blog ends in Beijing, a fitting culmination to such a journey as I had done over the past few weeks, and a major change from the mountains, steppes, and isolated, semi-modernized or decaying Soviet cities that encompassed most of my earlier travels. Few cities possess such a wealth of historical attractions as Beijing – yet few are also as vibrant and modern. Around every corner was a temple, palace, or other reminder of China’s 5000 years of history, yet Beijing was unmistakably a 21st century city, with the infrastructure, technology, and economy to match (recent economic troubles notwithstanding). Many sites, including the Summer Palace and the Great Wall, have been reconstructed from the original (the former was burned by European forces during the Opium Wars, the latter has decayed over thousands of years and needs refurbishment to be safe for visitors – some of the older sections have no battlements, leaving a straight drop down the mountainside), and much of the greatest artifacts of China are now found in Western collections, yet Beijing still boasts a remarkable snapshot of many eras of history. My hostel was located in the historic center of Beijing, in the midst of the hutong alleyways (though this specific one had been modernized for tourists), surrounded by the Forbidden City and a network of historic mansions, parks, and religious sites that had once served the aristocracy of Imperial China. The hostel itself was arguably the top hostel in China, and I greatly appreciated its free breakfast and piano, both of which I had missed throughout the rest of the trip (the heat and rain which unfortunately marked much of my time in Beijing were less appreciated – though I did avoid the notorious smog).

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View over the hutongs, Beijing skyline in background

Beijing was also different from the rest of my trip in that I spent much of my time traveling with my friend Sang, who had studied abroad in Beijing and knew Chinese. Having him with me really helped me get the most out of Beijing, especially since I was able to try authentic Chinese cuisine that was immeasurably better than that found at Chinese restaurants in America, and much cheaper than in the tourist restaurants – Beijing’s specialties are dumplings and Peking duck, both of which are absolutely stellar at the right places, and I have many recipes I now wish to recreate at home.

While in Beijing, I hit the most famous tourist sites – the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, and the Great Wall, as well as multiple smaller (though still crowded) attractions such as the Yonghe Buddhist temple, the Drum and Bell Towers, and the Wangfujing Food Street, checked out Sang’s university campus, and haggled for souvenirs at Panjiayuan, Beijing’s antique market. Of these, the Summer Palace was my favorite due to its architectural wonders and empty western shore, though the Great Wall also provided some amazing views and a solid hike (though it is not a place for those afraid of heights, like me). My tour took me to a section of the Great Wall that is further from Beijing than the usual access point, and due to this distance it was almost empty save for my group, unlike the closer sections which are overrun with tourists and souvenir vendors. The Forbidden City, while impressive in its scale, was less attractive due to the uniformity of its halls, as well as the crowds of tourists everywhere. But while these may have been the top excursions, all the places I visited were very interesting, and I could have easily spent multiple days more in Beijing, as there was far more I did not even try to visit. The fact that most of the other tourists in these locations were Chinese testifies to the development of China’s own middle class and their ability to travel both internally and internationally (Chinese tourists were probably the largest national group in most of the other places I had stayed as well). Interestingly though, while Beijing was the largest city I visited (save for Tokyo), China was the country where I had the least interaction with local people – the language barrier was a large factor in this, though here I also did not stay with a host family as I had in Mongolia and Kazakhstan.

The Summer Palace

The Great Wall of China

Forbidden City

Other Sites

Despite the prevalence of certain Western companies and styles in Beijing, there were still signs of the Communist Party’s monopoly of power. The only bothersome part of this was the restrictions on the Internet, but the grandiosity of Tiananmen Square (and its monuments to Mao Zedong) definitely showed a totalitarian aesthetic, and the National Museum was over half devoted to pure propaganda – both in art and history. There was also a larger police presence than what is usual in large cities (though not nearly as obvious as in Urumqi). Undoubtedly there are other restrictions that are less obvious to the casual visitor, but overall the government did not seem overly intrusive in the lives of Beijing citizens.

My trip is now over, so it is time to put this blog back into hibernation, but a new adventure will always come along, and probably not too far from now. Thanks for reading!

My Little Siberian Exile: Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude

Siberia was once Russia’s wild frontier, like the American West, and Irkutsk its center of trade, culture, and administration. Relics of this past are still a major part of the city – to an extent. Many old wooden buildings are scattered across the old part of the city, but Irkutsk has taken a different approach to its history than the options of development or preservation found in most of the rest of the world. These buildings, primarily former homes of merchants, are kept in the city, but as private real estate instead of a park. But since these homes have no running water or central heating (essential in the Siberian winter), they are unattractive as residences, and as a result most are slowly rotting away. Between this and the Soviet factories and decaying apartment blocks that ring the outer parts of the city, Irkutsk looks like an interesting cross between Tombstone, Arizona and Gary, Indiana. Irkutsk nonetheless possesses a range of attractions that represent the different periods in its history – trading outpost, frontier capital, place of exile, Civil War conflict zone, and modern metropolis, which display the complexity of Russian history – while the main streets are named after Lenin and Marx, the city nonetheless possesses prominent statues of the tsars and White Army commander Admiral Kolchak. Irkutsk is called the Paris of the East, which adequately captures its numerous cafes and historic character, but is a long way from having the same caliber of attractions – its main virtue is its proximity to Lake Baikal.

I visited Lake Baikal at Olkhon Island, the lake’s largest island located near the western shore. Once and still an extremely holy site in the shamanist traditions of the indigenous inhabitants, a ferry connection to the mainland and growing profusion of guesthouses and tour companies have made it a popular tourist destination for Russians and foreign tourists alike. Still, I came early, and despite arriving on Russia’s national holiday (Russia Day), I did not feel the island to be crowded, even in the one town and center of tourism, Khuzhir. Perhaps this was due to the fact that despite its popularity, Khuzhir has retained a very rustic character, with scattered wooden buildings, dirt roads, and farm animals wandering freely. No hotels, amusement parks, or nightclubs are to be found here, nor even stores selling anything beyond the most basic amenities – a sign of the importance in maintaining a sustainable lifestyle for the native people, or a reflection of the small amount of money from tourism that ends up going to locals? Given the rough terrain, Olkhon is best explored by foot or off-road vehicle. With my limited time, I chose the second option, and took a tour along the northern coast of the island, stopping at several scenic vistas and the tip of the island, Cape Khoboy, while enjoying a traditional meal including a soup of the famed local whitefish, omul. While Baikal is smaller in surface area than Lake Superior, it holds more water than all the Great Lakes combined, and the mountains and plunging cliffs that ring the lake make it incredibly scenic. I also explored around my guesthouse in Khuzhir, hiking in the forests that cover the uninhabited southern half of the island, and spending time at Shaman Rock, located in town. This site and many others on the island are still used for religious rituals, and poles and trees decorated with colorful ribbons are commonplace. Despite the Soviet suppression of shamanism and the conversion of most local people to Christianity or Buddhism, these practices are still an important part of local culture.

Religion also formed an important aspect of my third stop in Russia, the city of Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Republic of Buryatia. Buryats, which are an ethnic group closely related to Mongolians, are one of the largest native Siberian groups, and while they are only a minority even in their home territory, there are large populations in Ulan-Ude and Irkutsk, and they form the main ethnic group of Olkhon Island. They are primarily Buddhist (despite the Soviet persecution of the Buddhist clergy), yet this Buddhism coexists peacefully with the Shamanist rituals they also practice. My major excursion in Ulan-Ude was to the Ivolginsky Datsan, the center of Buddhism in Russia, and a small piece of Tibet in the midst of the Russian steppe (Buryat and Mongolian Buddhism are descended from Tibetan practice, and revere the Dalai Lama, who once visited this datsan). This temple complex consisted of multiple temples and stupas more traditionally associated with East Asia, but also the log houses of old Siberia, and even in this Buddhist holy site Shamanist ribbons are visible. So, over my short time in Siberia, I prayed at a Christian cathedral, made offerings to shamanist nature spirits, and meditated in a Buddhist temple. While religion has become a greater part of Buryat life as new national identity develops in a (slightly) freer Russia, as has cuisine and drama, the Buryat language is still dying as younger generations speak only Russian (even my guide, who was studying translation at university, spoke no Buryat and knew no one who did). With the traditional languages of many of the native groups of Siberia at risk, if even this largest group seeing no reason to hold onto their language, extinction may be inevitable (to be fair, it was hard enough to communicate in Russian, it certainly made it easier for me not to need to learn Buryat).

 

In the West, Irkutsk is mostly known for three things: the territory in RISK, Lake Baikal, and the Trans-Siberian railway. While my original plan of taking the Trans-Mongolian route from Irkutsk to Beijing (the most interesting of the three main routes, no offense to Harbin and Vladivostok) was adapted because of price and timing concerns (I am currently writing this from a bus across the Mongolian border, which takes half as long and costs half as much as the train), I did take the Trans-Siberian from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude. This section was only 8 hours, was relatively comfortable, and provided some great views over Lake Baikal and the taiga, but I did not feel that experiencing that for an entire week on the train would be a worthwhile trip – the cities and sights off the train are more interesting and comfortable than those which can be viewed from it. And seeing how long it took just to get between to relatively close and developed cities makes the true massive scale of Siberia very apparent – the southern, built-up portion I spent all my time in barely deserves to be lumped in with the vast deserted stretches of the northern tundra. But it was still a great experience to try such an iconic voyage for even a small portion. Now my trip is over halfway done, but there is still a lot to see and do, especially in my next stop, Mongolia.

The Trip Begins: Tokyo and Urumqi

This blog has been dormant since I returned from Turkey, but I thought the trip I am currently undertaking was worth some explanation.

I have long been fascinated with Siberia and Central Asia, and viewed this last ever summer break (even a brief one) as the best time in my life to go through the challenge of visiting part of this region, which is either very expensive or time-consuming to explore. I chose time-consuming, and viewed it as efficient to add in some surrounding areas as well – thus 31 days following the extremely long itinerary Appleton-Chicago-Tokyo-Chengdu-Urumqi-Almaty-Novosibirsk-Irkutsk-Olkhon Island-Ulan Ude-Ulaanbaatar-Chengde-Beijing-Chicago-Appleton, with a few day trips to other sites likely thrown in for good measure. This post will cover the first two cities I actually visited, Tokyo and Urumqi, two very dissimilar cities (though in some sense an interesting content), but in neither did I spend enough time to devote an entire post to it.

I started my trip in Tokyo, which while due to extraordinarily pointless flight change rules ended up being a very costly excursion (it was originally just a layover), it was a good spot to catch my bearings and explore a little before moving on to much less developed regions of the world. I will not write too much about Tokyo, others with far more experience than me have done that already. But I can say that I was struck both by its incredible cleanliness and orderliness, as well as how empty it appeared for being the largest city on Earth. Architecturally, too Tokyo is interesting. Despite its current importance, Tokyo is a relatively new city by Japanese standards, and earthquake, fire, and American bombing have forced it to rebuild time and time again. Today, much of Tokyo looks like it was entirely built in the ‘60s and has not changed since – this is not unattractive but is fairly bland, though I must say I saw only a small portion of the city, which is very spread out.

Luckily for the tourist, Tokyo does have a variety of traditional temples, museums, and other sites interspersed throughout the central city – I visited some of the most prominent ones, the Imperial Palace, Senso-ji temple complex, and Ueno Park, all of which were quite beautiful and a welcome escape from the modern city (though these sites were far more crowded than the areas surrounding them). The imposing presence and deep cultural value of these temples show the interesting role of religion in Japanese culture – while few people are very devout, Buddhism and Shintoism have deep roots, as are other traditional practices (I walked down multiple blocks devoted purely to shrines for ancestor worship), and temples to both religions are often found in close proximity. I do think it would have been fun to spend some more time in Tokyo to go deeper into the many unique experiences one of the world’s most high-tech and creative cities can offer (I did get to visit an owl café, where a visitor gets to sit and play with dozens of owls), but still felt I hit the top parts before flying off to Urumqi (after an overnight in the Chengdu airport).

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Tokyo skyline along the Sumida River

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The skyscrapers of Tokyo’s financial district form a neat contrast with the serenity of the Imperial Palace and Gardens

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Me at the owl cafe

Urumqi is a city that is not described charitably by many guidebooks, and they are not completely wrong. It is a chaotic sprawl of modern high-rises and wide avenues, not the historic, vaguely Middle Eastern desert city I had somewhat imagined (and also somewhat hoped for). It has evidently rapidly changed in recent years, and its limited attractions are buried behind this selection of buildings and infrastructure similar to any city in the developing world. It is too far from anywhere to be worth a separate trip, and (located in the middle of the desert) uncomfortably hot at least at this time of year. Yet despite all this, Urumqi was still quite an interesting city, and one that is certainly off the tourist trail.

Urumqi is the most landlocked city in the world, located in the center of the Taklimakan desert and bounded on the South by the soaring peaks of the Tian Shan Mountains. Flying into the city made it evident how much of a challenge it is to maintain such a metropolis here, surrounded by deserts that looked from above like the surface of Mars that suddenly are turned into farmland show that even the most inhospitable parts of our planet can become centers of settlement – in this case because of the Silk Roads, and later the border conflicts and claims of various Chinese governments. Seeing Urumqi, thousands of miles from anywhere else of importance, now boasts more skyscrapers than almost any American city, and has traffic so bad that the government just decided to replace crosswalks with elaborate underpasses (this could also be due to the recklessness of pedestrians there), shows the true scale of the Chinese economic miracle. Urumqi, however, despite appearances, is not traditionally or truly a Chinese city. It is the traditional home of the Uighur people, a Muslim Turkic group that once alternated between raiding and allying with Chinese dynasties before being finally incorporated forcefully into China during the Chinese Civil War. Uighur culture is still prominent, at least in portions of the city. Their language (a variant of Turkish with Arabic script, though my knowledge of either language was no help in communicating) is found across the city, while many Uighur women still wear traditional dress, making them an obvious contrast to the modernly-attired Han Chinese migrants who now make up the majority of the city. Mosques are common, a unique sight in a Chinese city, and one that made me think of Turkey (though that could have also been the rapid development and tawdry commercialism). Urumqi has also been the site of a long-running violent separatist movement that aims for an independent Uighuristan (aka East Turkestan). While violent attacks are rare, the police checkpoints every few blocks, the metal detectors to even get on a city bus or enter a public park, and the military units stationed around the city, definitely show that the Chinese government views this threat seriously. This overreaching military presence, however, may have inspired the expression of Uighur culture that seems so out of place in the modern city, as well as religious faith. For someone with an interest in ethnography, Urumqi is a fascinating study – there are over a dozen other ethnic groups besides Chinese and Uighurs, and at least from my brief observation they seem to keep separate. Chinese is a certainly a difficult culture to adapt to, but Chinese control has brought an unprecedented geopolitical and economic clout to this once isolated region, and it is different to see an independent Uighur state maintaining this power.

Little I did in Urumqi deserves mention – a few parks (attractive but hot and crowded), the regional museum (disappointing, but had a few interesting exhibits on Uighur mummies and the cultural groups of the region), and the Erdaqiao Grand Bazaar (only useful if one likes traditional Uighur clothing and medicine). One factor that contributed to my lessened enjoyment with Urumqi was the complete isolation I felt – the city does not feel particularly exotic, but absolutely no English is spoken, and with Chinese characters I cannot even guess at a meaning enough to order a dish or understand a sign (pointing at various foods and sign language got me through, I should at least come back a better charades player), and I cannot tell the difference between someone approaching me to be helpful or to sell me something so it is difficult to interact in any way with the locals. I was also probably the only Westerner in this city of three million, something that all those who passed me certainly noticed, making it hard to pass unobtrusively. I doubt I would recommend Urumqi to anyone who is not set on visiting the region, but I still am glad I came – it is a fascinating cultural and geographic contrast, and not a terrible stopover point before a miserably long bus ride to Almaty, Kazakhstan, from where I will write next (assuming I can make it without being stopped by the border guards).

Farewell to Alanya

It’s finally time to say goodbye after four months that have at some times felt like four weeks and at others like four years. Time to bid farewell to constant queries of what I, as an American, am doing in Alanya (thank god), to köfte and all forms of eggplants (it’s about time), to cheap prices but pushy salespeople (a reasonable tradeoff), to constantly warm temperatures (alas), to traveling every other weekend (definitely a loss), and to a tight-knit community of both academic and personal growth (and that, more than anything, I will always miss). Luckily, not included in these farewells are the 14 other participants on this program, since among the many perks of going to a program specific to Georgetown is that it will only be two weeks before I see everyone else in our old and new home 5500 miles away.

 

Transitioning from a high school of 1500 and a university of 7000 to a group of 15 with whom I spent the vast majority of every day, none of whom I knew, and having heard of the collapse of group dynamics on past trip, I admittedly came in a little worried that I would have difficulty making friends, or that arguments between people would ruin the environment of the trip. Luckily, such fears were absolutely unnecessary. 15 people proved to be the perfect number, keeping classes small and discussion-focused, and enabling everyone to get to know everyone else quite well, but also being large enough for smaller groups to split off at times to better represent everyone’s interests. And this group was a fantastic collection of people, we bonded quickly and stayed close the entire time, and I am confident we will remain friends throughout college and beyond. I don’t know if the group could have been better formed, and I would have missed out without everyone’s individual presence and personality. Sure, there were differing opinions and stubborn viewpoints, but disagreements were brushed off and surprising similarities built upon. I’ll never forget the deep conversations on every topic imaginable (which is what happens when you spend every meal, every bus ride, and every walk with the same few people), the card games, study sessions, and explorations of the hidden parts of ancient ruins and modern cities. I have never felt so welcomed and accepted, so valued as a member of a social group, and for that I am immeasurably grateful. This could have been a long, difficult semester without strong bonds among the participants here, but socially it became the greatest experience of my life.

 

All of my life I have wanted to be a world traveler and now I am – and I still want to do more. I visited 9 countries for the first time, backpacked through tiny rural towns and global cultural and economic centers, clambered through magnificent castles and over the ruins of cities buried beneath the earth, hiked through rugged mountains and manicured palace gardens, and I still feel I have barely scratched the surface of what Europe has to offer, let alone the world. Every trip I took, solo or with the group, was fantastic in its own unique way, and I do not regret taking a single one. I do regret, however, that I was not able to detach myself from my need to have everything fully planned and prepared to go off the beaten path, and that I never was able to learn any language well enough to talk with local people and escape touristy areas. I now know better my limits and my interests, even if these unfortunately do not always intersect with what my resources and confidence allow me to do. For every place I visited, I found two more I wanted to explore. I may never hit every one, yet they give me something for which to dream and to strive.

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I’ll never understand Turks, with their love of Ataturk and chai, their fierce national pride but their willingness to accept environmental degradation and political corruption as corollaries to economic growth. Yet I cannot say I truly got to know the Turks, even ones molded by tourism in Alanya. We were too isolated in our little American fortress on the mountain, too stuck in our routine and route between villa, apartments, and beach by time, work, physical exhaustion, and disinterest. I definitely appreciated our amazing program director and staff, and enjoyed my time with my host family, but aggressive salesmen, incompetent service workers, lazy old men and ogling youths represented too many of the Turks I interacted with. Too few spoke English, and none of us became competent at Turkish, so holding a conversation on all but the simplest topics became impossible. All this is a shame, as while there are friendly and rude Turks like there are friendly and rude Americans, one cannot discover a culture without interacting with the local people, and I would have loved to make Turkish friends and through them discover reasons to leave the tourist traps behind and experience a better Alanya. Studying abroad in Alanya and claiming to know Turkey is like claiming to understand America after spending a few months in Miami, or even Washington, New York, or San Francisco. I may have never felt like I changed from tourist to native, but it would take a lifetime to feel like I belonged in Turkey.

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Am I changed? That’s for others to determine, for in my eyes I am the same as I have always been. Hopefully I have more confidence, more charisma, more common sense, but I will not know until I return to the world I left back in America. Regardless, I have stories, and that alone makes me a little more interesting than I was before (and perhaps, our hikes up to the apartments and soccer games have improved my physical fitness). I learned more about Turkish history and politics during a time these became globally relevant, as conflict raged on Turkey’s borders and across the Black and Mediterranean seas, Kurdish unrest threatened to erupt into open warfare, President Erdogan continued to chip away at press freedoms and rule of law, and Turkey’s geopolitical position made it a center of US political interest. And outside of class, I learned how to relax, shedding my usual hectic schedule of jobs, internships, and extracurriculars for closer connections with my friends and a greater focus on smaller things in life.

 

The Turkey I return to, for I must return someday, will be different, perhaps better, perhaps worse, but it is changing rapidly while America remains the same. Turkey has a lot to offer the world, which the world is just beginning to realize, but it has much to learn as well. For now, I bid farewell to my little home ‘twixt castle and beach, goodbye to the greatest four months of my life, yet I also return confident that this was just the beginning of my global study and global experiences, and that the years to follow will bring their own surprises and own joys. Görüşürüz Türkiye, and hello again, America.

Photo on 12-16-14 at 4.33 PMPhoto on 12-16-14 at 4.26 PM

Scandinavia Before Christmas: A Weekend in Stockholm

Let me start off by saying that hearing Christmas music and seeing decorations is a lot more fun when it comes after spending three months in a country that doesn’t celebrate Christmas than when it comes at shopping malls in the beginning of November. Stockholm, despite its irreligious reputation, definitely still has a lot of Christmas spirit, with light-up reindeer (and moose) at every major square, and lights crossing the main streets of downtown. This was my first trip west of the Iron Curtain while I’ve been abroad, and the differences were striking. I never realized how much I appreciated clean streets, working plumbing, and reliable public transportation until suffering the lack of both in Turkey, so returning to American standards of living was a welcome reprieve. This trip was also welcome as a break from two busy weeks preparing end-of-the-year work. While the cold was certainly an adjustment (in the upper 30s there, while it is still in the upper 60s in Alanya), the early sunset was even more of an adjustment. Stockholm is the furthest north I’ve ever been, and it is so close to the Arctic Circle that sunset was at 3:00 PM while I was there, cutting heavily into my available time to visit outdoor sites, meaning that my schedule during the short daylight and opening hours were very packed, and there’s still more that I wished I would have been able to see. Because of this and cloudy skies, I saw perhaps half an hour of sun during the entire weekend.

Christmas decorations in Stockholm

Christmas decorations in Stockholm

 

Stockholm City Hall

Stockholm City Hall

Most of the sites I visited were either museums, or parts of Stockholm’s royal heritage. For the latter, I visited the Royal Palace and Drottningholm Palace, Sweden’s version of Versailles. Unfortunately, parts of the Royal Palace were closed for royal activities, while visiting Drottningholm was only possible before opening hours, adding one more to the long list of famous sites I have been to, but not inside, yet wandering the deserted grounds was still an amazing experience. Stockholm’s museums are fantastic, though at a high cost compared to the dirt-cheap museums of Eastern Europe and the free sites of DC, and I sated my love of Nordic history by traveling to the Historical Museum, Army Museum, the Nordic Museum, and the highlights of the Vasa Museum (home of an almost intact 17th century ship) and the Skansen outdoor museum, which incorporates historic buildings, a reconstructed town, and a zoo. This season is also the time for Skansen’s Christmas market, offering traditional Swedish food and handicrafts, in other words, like going back to my house. Indeed, the combination of the cold, the look of the countryside and the people, ubiquitous knowledge of English, and the omnipresent Scandinavian decorations around Wisconsin and especially my home meant that this trip almost did feel like a homecoming – if Wisconsin had anything nearly as interesting to see.

Stockholm Cathedral, with the Royal Palace to the right

Stockholm Cathedral, with the Royal Palace to the right

Drottningholm, back view

Drottningholm, back view

Statue in front of Drottningholm Palace

Statue in front of Drottningholm Palace

Drottningholm

Drottningholm

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Chinese Pavilion, Drottningholm grounds

Chinese Pavilion, Drottningholm grounds

Chinese Pavilion outbuilding

Chinese Pavilion outbuilding

Gothic Tower, Drottningholm

Gothic Tower, Drottningholm

Russian banner captured by Swedish forces in the Army Museum

Russian banner captured by Swedish forces in the Army Museum

Runestone, History Museum

Runestone, History Museum

Statue on the bridge to Djurgarden, Nordic Museum in the background

Statue on the bridge to Djurgarden, Nordic Museum in the background

Colored runestone, Skansen

Colored runestone, Skansen

Skansen Church

Skansen Church

Finnish homestead, Skansen

Finnish homestead, Skansen

Traditional sod-roofed house, Skansen

Traditional sod-roofed house, Skansen

Belfry, Skansen

Belfry, Skansen

Lynx, Skansen

Lynx, Skansen

Boar and Bison, Skansen

Boar and Bison, Skansen

Windmill, Skansen

Windmill, Skansen

Skansen town

Skansen town

Lava in lights, Skansen

Lava in lights, Skansen

Vasa

Vasa

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My last major activity of this trip was a cruise around the Stockholm Archipelago, which is massive (in 1.5 hours on a relatively fast boat, I only reached only to the town of Vaxholm, perhaps a quarter of a way to the outer ring of islands, and the boat did not escape the developed coastlines and islands to view wilder parts), and in better weather would be a fantastic place to return and kayak.

Central Stockholm from the cruise boat

Central Stockholm from the cruise boat

Kastellholmen, an island in central Stockholm

Kastellholmen, an island in central Stockholm

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The Archipelago

The Archipelago

Traditional summer house in the Archipelago

Traditional summer house in the Archipelago

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Vaxholm town and fortress

Vaxholm town and fortress

Vaxholm Fortress

Vaxholm Fortress

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Thanks to the collapse of the krona against the dollar, Stockholm’s very expensive reputation ended up being comparable to most of the US, if still much more expensive than in Turkey or the other countries I visited, which slightly assuaged my guilt over buying a ridiculous amount of souvenirs. Still, for meals I still went for cheap ethnic food (another benefit of the developed world) instead of Swedish cuisine (which admittedly is not a worldwide favorite for a reason). Stockholm was my last hurrah when it comes to traveling this semester, since it is only a week before I will end my experience here and return for Christmas in America, and only one paper, packing, and one final post here remain to be done.

When Turkey was Greece: Reflections from Western Turkey

Aspendos, Hierapolis, Aphrodisias, Ephesus, Assos. Reading the names of many of the sites we visited makes it seems like the weeklong study tour I recently returned from was in Greece, not in Turkey-and 2500 years ago, that would have been the case. While the settlements of Western Turkey are now fully Turkish, the profusion of ancient cities across Turkey’s Aegean Coast and hinterland testifies to the thousands of years of Greek settlement in this area, an era abruptly brought to an end in the wars, massacres, and population transfers of the early 20th century (though just a few miles from shore lie Greece’s Aegean Islands). Needless to say, this trip was heavily focused on history, both ancient and modern. All the previously mentioned sites are ancient ruins from the Greek or Roman ages, most boasting only a theater and perhaps the façade of a temple remaining amid the acres of stone and broken columns that were all that remained of cities that once held tens of thousands of inhabitants until time and the geography of the region-shifting coastlines and earthquakes, brought them down. Much of the history we explored was more recent, however, including the early Turkic citadel of Selcuk, the quaint Greek fishing village of Ayvalik, the cataclysmic and expansive World War I battle of Gallipoli (the Turkish perspective on a battle where they were on the opposite side of America’s allies was enlightening), and the modern city of Izmir, whose bland modernity hides the fact that half the city (then known as Smyrna) was burned – and half its population slaughtered or expelled in 1922. One of the most remarkable occurrences was on November 9th in Izmir, when at 9:10 AM, the entire city froze and turned on its sirens to remember Ataturk’s death – a man who was instrumental in the destruction of the city 80 years ago. Speaking of Ataturk, I’ve mentioned the adulation for him before, but Izmir (Turkey’s most liberal city) probably takes the cake in terms of Ataturk memorial – they have his visage carved out of a mountain overlooking the city, a la Mount Rushmore. The trip was not entirely history, though, as it did include the hot springs and travertine formations of Pamukkale, and we toured a small textile-producing village and an olive oil factory. Remarkably, given the pessimism I’ve developed regarding Turkey’s economic development, both Ayvalik and Assos retained an undeveloped, small town feel that was very relaxing compared to the hectic pace of Alanya. And, given the time of year, many of the sites we visited (save internationally renowned Ephesus and Pamukkale) were fairly empty of other tourist groups, while the weather was the first encounter with an autumn climate in Turkey. A cancelled flight resulted in an extra 14 hour ordeal traveling back to Alanya, but other than that, it was welcome to get back to a road trip style of traveling. But even with a week of traveling, there were still so many places that we came so close to, but had no time to see – it seems every five miles is another ruined ancient city. Back in Alanya, I gained another tie to Turkey when I became a legal resident – for two weeks, thanks to bureaucratic incompetency at the immigration office. It’s crazy to think that only one month remains in this adventure, but now classwork needs to finally replace traveling as my focus while everything winds down.

Aspendos Theater

Aspendos Theater

Antalya Clock Tower

Antalya Clock Tower

Hierapolis (Pamukkale) Theater

Hierapolis (Pamukkale) Theater

Landscape of Hierapolis

Landscape of Hierapolis

Hierapolis Theater

Hierapolis Theater

Pamukkale Springs

Pamukkale Springs

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Aphrodisias

Aphrodisias

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Aphrodisias Stadium

Aphrodisias Stadium

Aphrodisias Gateway

Aphrodisias Gateway

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Kusadasi Fortress

Kusadasi Fortress

Library of Celsus, Ephesus

Library of Celsus, Ephesus

Ephesus Gateway and Agora

Ephesus Gateway and Agora

Main Road, Ephesus

Main Road, Ephesus

Ephesus Theater

Ephesus Theater

Izmir Bay

Izmir Bay

Konak Square, Izmir

Konak Square, Izmir

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Taksiarchis Church, Ayvalik (Cunda Island)

Taksiarchis Church, Ayvalik (Cunda Island)

Cunda and Ayvalik Islands

Cunda and Ayvalik Islands

Streets of Cunda

Streets of Cunda

Abandoned island off Ayvalik

Abandoned island off Ayvalik

Main hill, Cunda Island

Main hill, Cunda Island

Temple of Athena, Assos

Temple of Athena, Assos

Assos city gates

Assos city gates

Assos Theater

Assos Theater

Trojan Horse replica, Canakkale

Trojan Horse replica, Canakkale

Battle memorial, Eceabat (Gallipolli)

Battle memorial, Eceabat (Gallipolli)

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Trenches at Gallipoli

Trenches at Gallipoli

Landscape, Gallipoli

Landscape, Gallipoli

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Nature and Culture in the Shadow of the Caucasus: Adventures in Georgia

The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray, and when traveling off the beaten path, this becomes true more often than not. Traveling to the country of Georgia this past weekend was absolutely amazing, but it certainly started off poorly. I arrived in the Tbilisi airport at 3:30 in the morning, intending to meet my rental car driver at 4 to make use of these early morning hours, but as 4:00 came and went with no sign of anyone coming to meet me, I realized that my weekend wasn’t going to go exactly as planned. I ended up taking a taxi down to my hostel, getting a few hours sleep, and checking my email to find out that a typo had resulted in me ordering the rental car for the 11th, not the 1st. Luckily, I was able to reschedule for the next day, but for the first day, I decided to explore Tbilisi, which had been my Sunday plan. Tbilisi is a city that has everything a city could need to be a tourist haven-a wealth of historic and attractive (if a bit incongruous) modern architecture, a well-preserved old town, easy access to all site, numerous dining and retail establishments, and great prices. But because of its history, out-of-the-way location, and a lack of marketing, it was deserted save for the locals (going on a rainy November day may have also played a role in this). I started off climbing to the Narikala Fortress that overlooks the town, and descending behind it into Tbilisi’s sprawling botanical garden, a remarkably attractive and peaceful expanse that I had all to myself, where I got lost in the maze of trees, creeks, and winding paths. After returning for an early lunch of the Georgian specialty khinkali (remarkably cheap and messy dumplings offered with a variety of fillings), I traveled out to the Georgian National Museum, which contains an eclectic but well laid-out collection of artifacts from Georgia’s complex history. The museum was highlighted by the section on Georgia’s Soviet history, containing pictures of hundreds of Georgians from all walks of life, their captions concluding with the sobering phrase “Shot in [year],” as well other mementos of this tragic chapter of Georgia’s past. Next was the main cathedrals of the city, the Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) Cathedral which was built only 10 years ago and towers over the rest of the city (though is relatively bare inside), and the much more ancient Sioni and Metekhi churches on opposite sides of the Mtkvari River, dating to the 13th century. All of these churches were filled with pilgrims, wedding parties, clergy, and individual worshipers, testifying to the continuing importance of Christianity in Georgia, in contrast to the great churches of Western Europe, which accept more tourists than worshipers. Lastly, I ascended to the lower slopes of Mtatsminda Mountain on the west of the city, where I could view the lighted monuments of the city.

Freedom Square, Tbilisi

Freedom Square, Tbilisi

Mt. Mtatsminda

Mt. Mtatsminda

Mother of Georgia Statue

Mother of Georgia Statue

Tbilisi Botanical Gardens

Tbilisi Botanical Gardens

Waterfall, Tbilisi Botanical Gardens

Waterfall, Tbilisi Botanical Gardens

Narikala Fortress

Narikala Fortress

Boxcar in which Bolshevik opponents were executed, Georgian National Museum

Boxcar in which Bolshevik opponents were executed, Georgian National Museum

Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) Cathedral

Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) Cathedral

Peace Bridge, Narikala Fortress, and Lower Tbilisi

Peace Bridge, Narikala Fortress, and Lower Tbilisi

Sioni Church

Sioni Church

Narikala Fortress from East Bank of the Mtkvari

Narikala Fortress from East Bank of the Mtkvari

King Vakhtang Gorgasali Statue

King Vakhtang Gorgasali Statue

Tbilisi Tower and Peace Bridge

Tbilisi Tower and Peace Bridge

Tsminda Sameba Cathedral at night

Tsminda Sameba Cathedral at night

The second day was significantly more complex, but luckily my rental car came according to plan. In order to get everywhere I wanted during daylight hours, another early morning was in order, so at 6:00 AM I got in the car and headed out to Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, along a highway that passed within a few miles of the border of South Ossetia (though the bureaucratic nightmare of getting into the region made me uninterested in trying to enter). While most of the day it poured, some miracle made it so that the rain stopped for the two hours I was hiking in the park, among the largest in Europe, preserving large virgin forests, the slopes of the Lesser Caucasus, and large wildlife populations, and (unique for Georgia) with a well-developed network of trails and shelters. My hike was unfortunately not nearly enough to experience much of the park (which may not have even been open when I arrived), and like my other natural excursions, the wildlife stayed hidden, but it was nonetheless a worthwhile experience, and I hope to return for a longer trip in the future.

Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park

Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park

The next site was the ancient cave city of Uplistsikhe, which was reached by traveling through Stalin’s birthplace of Gori. This site, while still interesting and easy to explore, was a disappointment after the much more impressive cave formations of Cappadocia.

Gori Fortress

Gori Fortress

Uplistsikhe

Uplistsikhe

Church and caves, Uplistsikhe

Church and caves, Uplistsikhe

Lastly, I traveled to the town of Mtskheta, the spiritual center of the Georgian Orthodox Church and a site so holy that my taxi driver crossed himself just driving past on the highway. By now, the rain had ceased its cooperation, and my malfunctioning camera battery forced a citywide search for electricity (and food, which I had not had since 5:30 AM). While the rain and camera problems were unfortunate, the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral was spectacular and spiritually moving, while the Jvari Monastery perched on a mountain across the river provided fantastic views of the town and the mountains behind it. Driving across the Georgian countryside was an eye-opening experience, as while I have definitely traveled in less well-off regions of Europe, rural Georgia looks like it has not improved since the Soviets arrived; with piles of trash, boarded up homes, and any type of feral animal imaginable, it looked like my imagination of rural India or Latin America, not like a “westernized” country in Europe.

Jvari Monastery, Mtskheta

Jvari Monastery, Mtskheta

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Mtskheta

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Mtskheta

Interior, Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

Interior, Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (maybe a miracle picture, since my camera was raised from the dead in the cathedral)

Me at the Jvari Monastery

Me at the Jvari Monastery

Jvari Monastery

Jvari Monastery

Mtskheta Overview

Mtskheta Overview

Georgia is a beautiful country with a rich culture and history, and certainly a relevant location for studying international relations. Tbilisi is a model for development that countries like Turkey should take an example from, but going around the country shows that Georgia still has far more in common with its enemy Russia than the European Union it has been trying so hard to join. Still, I can say that traveling to Georgia was the perfect weekend trip from Turkey, and it was possibly the best spur-of-the-moment large-scale decision I have ever made, since I had a fantastic time despite the difficulties in communication and weather. I got back to Alanya with no difficulty, but relaxation will have to wait, since this weekend is the start of our weeklong study tour across the historical sites of Western Turkey.

Castles, Churches, and Unrecognized States: Two Days in Cyprus

This last weekend, my travels continued as my group took a whirlwind field trip to Cyprus. While we spent less than 36 hours in the country, the small size of the island made it possible to reach almost all of the major sites of Northern Cyprus. Cyprus, of course, has been a divided island since a coup d’état in Greece sparked a Turkish invasion, and thanks to our study of Turkish, we spent almost the entirety of our trip in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which comprises around one-third of the island. We started our trip in Nicosia (the world’s last divided capital), where, after a debriefing on the current situation and historical background at the EU’s mission in Northern Cyprus, we were able to cross the Green Line, which divides Turkish Northern Cyprus and Greek Southern Cyprus. Despite the historical animosity between the communities, and military bases on either side of the checkpoint, it was no problem going between the two sides. While the Greek and Turkish Cypriots are genetically identical, and the Greek Cypriots were playing backgammon and smoking nargile, just like Turks, but there was nonetheless a noticeable difference between the two sides. Turkish Nicosia (Lefkosa) contained numerous markets selling alcohol and cigarettes at cheaper prices along disorganized, dirty streets, while Greek Nicosia contained high-end department stores and international chains banned from operating in Turkish Cyprus by international embargoes and legal complexities in what resembled a European city far more than the Turkish side did. We had only an hour on the Greek side of Cyprus, but it may have been the highlight of the trip, since Greek Nicosia offers pianos placed on street corners for public use, which gave me the ability to play again for the first time since arriving in Turkey, and I had definitely missed being musical.

 

Green Line, Nicosia

Green Line, Nicosia

Mosque, Turkish Nicosia

Mosque, Turkish Nicosia

From Nicosia we moved up to the city of Kyrenia (Girne) on the northern coast, where we explored the fascinating castle of St. Hilarion, perched on a towering peak south of town, where we were able to scramble around on the ruins and mountainside (a brief rainstorm notwithstanding). This castle, which was the inspiration for the castle in Snow White, had been damaged by age and the 1974 war, but still was an awe-inspiring fortification with great views over the Kyrenia area. We also visited the charming harbor of Kyrenia, where we watched a storm over Alanya across the Mediterranean, and the waterside castle, which was of a later construction and much different design.

 

Kyrenia Castle at night

Kyrenia Castle at night

St. Hilarion Castle

St. Hilarion Castle

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Landscape of Northern Cyprus

Landscape of Northern Cyprus

Uppermost tower, St. Hilarion Castle

Uppermost tower, St. Hilarion Castle

Top of St. Hilarion Castle

Top of St. Hilarion Castle

Kyrenia Castle Entrance Gate

Kyrenia Castle Entrance Gate

Kyrenia Shipwreck, inside Kyrenia Castle

Kyrenia Shipwreck, inside Kyrenia Castle

Interior Courtyard, Kyrenia Castle

Interior Courtyard, Kyrenia Castle

Kyrenia Castle ocean walls

Kyrenia Castle ocean walls

Lastly, we visited another ancient fortified town at Famagusta (Gazimagusa), Northern Cyprus’ biggest port and an ancient Venetian base, which has much thicker walls surrounding much of the old town, evidently built to protect against cannons instead of medieval weaponry. This city is perhaps the greatest example of Cyprus’ multicultural nature and turbulent history, with much of the coastal resort area still kept off limits as a Turkish military base, now that tourism has shifted to the south, which is part of the EU, and massive Gothic cathedrals that were converted to mosques in the interior, a fascinating juxtaposition of the ornate Christian architecture and austere Islamic styles.

 

Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque (formerly St. Nicholas' Cathedral), Famagusta

Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque (formerly St. Nicholas’ Cathedral), Famagusta

Interior of Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque

Interior of Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque

Next weekend’s travel will also feature a mountainous, multicultural, neighbor of Turkey with its own issues with unrecognized states-Georgia, so that will be the next post.

Plains back to Mountains: Fall Break Part 2-Croatia and Montenegro

The second half of my trip commenced in Zagreb, Croatia, another city where delayed transportation gave me just a few hours to explore the city. In this case, however, I found that I needed no more time to experience most of Zagreb. Zagreb has a few nice museums (though with most signs in Croatian), a pleasant old town, and is not nearly as crowded as more famous sites. Still, its attractions are fairly close together, and it has few monumental pieces of architecture, unique historic sites, or specialized museums to distinguish it from the spectacular attractions of other European cities. Zagreb is comfortable and clean, but it is a good place to visit for a day, perhaps, not a destination city given all the more interesting sites in the region.

King Tomislav Statue, Zagreb

King Tomislav Statue, Zagreb

Mimara Museum, Zagreb

Mimara Museum, Zagreb

St. Mark's Church, Zagreb

St. Mark’s Church, Zagreb

Zagreb Cathedral

Zagreb Cathedral

Ban Josip Jelačić Statue, Zagreb

Ban Josip Jelačić Statue, Zagreb

 

Like from Budapest, I left early in the morning from Zagreb, this time to visit Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes National Park, a World Heritage Site globally famed for its fascinating landscape of caves, waterfalls, and pristine lakes. When I arrived and entered the park, which has an immediate view over the large waterfall and lower lakes, I felt like all the trials of the earlier few days of travelling were worth it for this. Plitvice’s waterfalls were absolutely spectacular, and I have never seen such clear water as in the lakes to the side of the boardwalk. The temperature was fantastic, though heavy rains before arrival had washed out some of the trails and forced me to walk through water in other parts (but made the falls even more impressive). Having nearly the whole day to wander at my own pace through the park was a pleasant change from the hectic last few days (though Google Maps’ mislabeling of my homestay for the night forced me to waste around an hour doubling back to a different park entrance), and the park operated a network of trams and ferries that easily connected the different areas of the park. Unfortunately, as the day went on, the park got more and more crowded, until trails were slowed to a complete standstill by the crush of tourists on them, and the entrance line for tickets contained several hundred people. It became impossible to even get on the ferry or get a good view of several falls because of these crowds, which I later realized came because it was Croatian Independence Day, which while not explicitly “Visit Plitvice Lakes Day” seemed to be taken that way by the thousands of Croatian families taking daytrips to the park. It likely would have been crowded in any case, as over a million visitors come each year for good reason, and the weather was great for a visit to the park, but I had hoped that the park would be much emptier on a fall Wednesday. Luckily, staying the night meant that I could remain in the park after all the others had left, and I finally managed to find a solitary trail at around 5:00 PM, from where I watched the sunset over the uppermost lake and listened to the sounds of nature (unfortunately but unsurprisingly, I was unable to catch a glimpse of any of the park’s wildlife). The atmosphere felt so much like being back in Wisconsin that I began feeling homesick. I also came back for an hour early the next morning, again before the crowds arrived, so that by the time I left, I had walked on nearly every trail in the park (there is very little backcountry access, unfortunately, which contributes to the crowding). The next day was spent entirely on a bus, a 12 hour ordeal that was mitigated to an extent by the fantastic views over the Adriatic as the bus veered around switchbacks on a road bounded by towering peaks on one side and small fishing/resort villages along the coast on the other, and I got brief stops in major destinations along the Dalmatian coast in Zadar and Split. Thanks to a curious border quirk, this bus ride traveled though Bosnia for a few miles as well, though waiting impatiently for the bus driver to get back from the bar for half an hour there was not a pleasant recollection of the country. Finally, I arrived in my destination, Dubrovnik.

Large waterfall, Plitvice Lakes

Large waterfall, Plitvice Lakes

Valley, Plitvice Lakes

Valley, Plitvice Lakes

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Looking over the park

Looking over the park

The lake from above

The lake from above

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Sick of waterfalls yet?

Sick of waterfalls yet?

Sunset at Plitvice Lakes

Sunset at Plitvice Lakes

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Sunset on the Dalmatian Coast

Sunset on the Dalmatian Coast

 

Dubrovnik is possibly the greatest combination of historical monuments, a preserved old city, and natural beauty in the Balkans, and it has justifiably become world-famous for those. Even late in the tourist season, it was packed with tourists and overpriced, but these did not outweigh the tremendous beauty of the city. I started my day walking along the city walls, an unforgettable experience, and I visited a few museums in the old town. I was lucky enough to get a cheap hostel in the old town, which made it easy to use it as a base between excursions, so I changed and went out for 3 hours kayaking around the city. I traveled to the nearby island of Lokrum (reachable by ferry, though that’s not nearly as fun), home to a ruined monastery and fort, botanical gardens, and several rock “beaches”, an enjoyable natural transition from the architectural charms of the town, and returning I got great views of the outside of the fortifications, an imposing sight little changed from when these walls welcomed Genoese traders and fought against Turkish pirates. To get a view from a different angle, I climbed up the mountain behind town, a series of switchbacks arranged as Stations of the Cross, to where another fort (not in nearly as good condition) provided an overlook on the city, as well as a museum on the Croatian War of Independence (Homeland War) in Dubrovnik. This museum, and another on war photography in town, were sobering reminders of how much Dubrovnik suffered in the Yugoslav Wars just 20 years ago, and while the city has been completely repaired, it is strange to consider that my Croatian hostel owner and Montenegrin taxi driver were likely fighting on opposite sides of the lines along the same route I travelled. Anyone over 30 was certainly transformed by the war, and judging from the propaganda in the war museum and more subtly in locations around town, they are unlikely to forget. For the first and only time this trip, I stayed two nights in the same place, allowing me to wander amid the tight streets of town and share travel stories with the other residents of my hostel, and stop in the grocery store to make my own meals. The next morning I headed out to the bus station (not conveniently located near the old town) to travel to my last destination, Kotor, in Montenegro.

Church, Dubrovnik

Church, Dubrovnik

Lovrijenac (St. Lawrence) Fortress, Dubrovnik

Lovrijenac (St. Lawrence) Fortress, Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik West Harbor

Dubrovnik West Harbor

Lokrum Island

Lokrum Island

Northern Wall of Dubrovnik

Northern Wall of Dubrovnik

Rooftops of Dubrovnik

Rooftops of Dubrovnik

Pile Gate

Pile Gate

Fortifications viewed from Lovrijenac

Fortifications viewed from Lovrijenac

Castle and Island

Castle and Island

Old Monastery, Lokrum

Old Monastery, Lokrum

Path from Fort Royal, Lokrum

Path from Fort Royal, Lokrum

Seaward Fortifications

Seaward Fortifications

Stradun, Dubrovnik's main street

Stradun, Dubrovnik’s main street

Dubrovnik from above

Dubrovnik from above

Dalmatian Islands

Dalmatian Islands

 

Montenegro is a tiny (and new) country with tremendous natural beauty, and Kotor is foremost among its many charming coastal towns. Located at the end of a long fjord, surrounded by mountains, and like Dubrovnik maintaining the thick walls and thin alleyways of an ancient port, Kotor was a key Venetian trading center before becoming a tourist destination. Kotor was extremely small, as it took only 5 or 10 minutes to get from one end to the other, and the great Maritime Museum and the few churches in town, while interesting, did not take long to explore. However, Kotor’s fortifications extended to the crest of the mountain behind town, which were open to the public. These fortifications provided the location for a fascinating ramble in the nooks and crannies of the crumbling walls that despite their significant length and apparent sophistication were unsuccessful in preventing conquest by the Ottomans and British, as well as great views over the fjord and the old town of Kotor, from where I practiced photography. While it only took me a few hours to experience everything Kotor had to offer, the amenities and excursions offered by the hostel I stayed at made me wish I could spend another day in Montenegro. Unfortunately, however, classes started back on Monday, so the next day it was time to head back to Alanya, first over another slow but beautiful road that snaked among the mountains through the towns of Budva (like Kotor, another coastal destination with an old town) and Cetinje (Montenegro’s old capital in the mountains, home to numerous palaces and museums) until reaching the capital of Podgorica, probably the ugliest location in Montenegro but the only one with flights to Turkey, despite having only a tiny airport. Flying out over the mountains and lakes of Albania made me very interested in returning to hike in the region, escaping the messy development along the coast and around Podgorica. Flying back was uneventful, and Sunday night I returned to Alanya, ten days after heading out. As much as I enjoyed traveling, I was extremely glad to be back, looking forward to filling meals, days without the stress of catching another bus and finding another hostel, conversation with friends, and less physical exertion.

Kotor Bay

Kotor Bay

Kotor Outer Walls

Kotor Outer Walls

St. Tryphon's Cathedral, Kotor

St. Tryphon’s Cathedral, Kotor

Main Gate, Kotor

Main Gate, Kotor

Kotor Bay, old church along the walls

Kotor Bay, old church along the walls

Kotor from the fortifications

Kotor from the fortifications

Kotor's walls

Kotor’s walls

Top of Kotor Fortress

Top of Kotor Fortress

Montenegrin Sunset

Montenegrin Sunset

Old church in the mountains behind Kotor

Old church in the mountains behind Kotor

Fortress, Montenegro

Fortress, Montenegro

Mountains of Montenegro

Mountains of Montenegro

Lake Skadar from the plane, Montenegro/Albania

Lake Skadar from the plane, Montenegro/Albania

 

This was my first long-distance solo travel, and the most difficult thing I’ve had to arrange in my life. Very few things went exactly according to plan, and I spent far more time in buses and train stations than I would have hoped, yet I am still completely convinced that I made the right choice of destinations. There are hundreds or thousands of destinations in Europe I still wish to visit, but this trip helped me realize how I would prefer to travel, some locations I have little interest in visiting (Split, Hungary outside of Budapest), and others I very much want to visit or return to (Lake Skadar, Sighisoara, Istria). Despite language barriers and time and financial constraints, I still got a good introduction, at least, to all of the places I visited, and a taste of numerous different cultures and histories (and yes, I wish the Northern European culture of efficiency and timeliness would take root in this region, but I can’t be too optimistic). While each trip is a different challenge, I have certainly increased my confidence that I’m able to plan and execute something this complex, despite unexpected problems, and I’ll be better prepared for the next trip. I’ve probably put down here only 10% of my experiences and my memories, but hopefully the pictures will be enough to give a more complete image of all the places I visited. And someday, I’ll return to the Balkans, searching out for what I missed this time, but for now, I’ll just relax in Alanya – until we travel again, this time to Cyprus in two weeks.

 

 

 

From Mountains to Plains: Fall Break Part 1-Romania and Hungary

6 trains, 4 flights, 4 bus rides, 4 taxis, 4 trams, 2 shuttle vans, 2 subway rides, 1 ferry, and a lot of my own feet. That’s what it took to get me around Southeastern Europe over the last week and a half. In 10 days, I visited Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro (all for the first time) before returning to Turkey, hiking up rugged but beautiful mountains, clambering over ancient fortifications, examining the works in museums of all types, and talking with locals and other travellers from around the world. Despite my months of preparation, I was usually hungry and poorly rested, I usually felt like a tourist with my inability to communicate and overreliance on the map, and I spent far too much of my time staring at one rundown rural town after another from the windows of some form of transportation. Still, almost all of the dozen cities, villages, and parks I visited lived up to or exceeded my expectations, and while busy, I definitely do not regret the itinerary I chose, because I discovered so many fascinating parts of Europe. Because of the enormous scale of my experiences over that time, this post will cover just the first half in Romania and Hungary, while Croatia and Montenegro will come later this week in a subsequent posting.

 

The choice of Bucharest as a starting point for a European travel is undoubtedly unorthodox (I still have never visited France, Germany, Spain, or Italy), but as someone who hates the crowds of “touristy” sites and loves nature and exotic places, Romania, home of some of the most unspoiled mountains and forests in Europe, cheap, culturally rich, and rarely visited by foreigners was a perfect choice (my abortive attempt to learn Romanian after 8th grade, while of only limited use while in the country, undoubtedly influenced my selection as well). A delayed flight cut into my already limited time in Bucharest, forcing me to limit my activities to a nighttime walking tour of the central city, meeting up with my friends Sam and Dylan, who came in slightly after me, and an early morning visit to the amazing Village Museum, a collection of transported and reconstructed homes, churches, and workshops from rural villages across the country, preserving a life that was terribly disrupted by communism and modernization. Despite the prevailing opinion of Bucharest as a collection of ugly Communist structures, downtown Bucharest at least is remarkably pleasant, offering large parks, wide boulevards, numerous museums, and well-preserved historical buildings, most of which I was unable to visit, since the next day it was off to my next destination.

Stavropolos Church, Bucharest

Stavropolos Church, Bucharest

Museum of Romanian History

Museum of Romanian History

Romanian Parliament Building (2nd largest office building in the world)

Romanian Parliament Building (2nd largest office building in the world)

Herastrau Park, Bucharest

Herastrau Park, Bucharest

Lake, Herastrau Park, and Danube Delta house, Village Museum

Lake, Herastrau Park, and Danube Delta house, Village Museum

Village Museum

Village Museum

Church, Village Museum

Church, Village Museum

Village Museum

Village Museum

 

Dylan and I headed north to Transylvania, flat fields transitioning into steep gorges and distant mountains as we headed up to the Piatra Craiului National Park for some hiking in the Carpathian Mountains, travelling through the rural town of Zarneşti as we backpacked to the park boundary. Problems hit early on, as the visitor center, where we expected to find maps and water refills, was closed, and the first part of our journey had us travelling on the same path as a marathon that was also taking place. But once we turned off toward the mountain cabin we were intending to stay at that the going got really rough. Piatra Craiului is famous for its massive limestone ridge, the largest in Europe, and to get our destination we had to, in essence, climb over it through a gorge that had about a constant 60 degree slope along a trail made up of lose gravel and piled boulders for multiple miles. Having neither backpacked nor done such intense climbing, I was not at all in physical condition for such a hike, yet I managed to pull myself up the hill, with the solitude of the path, the great feeling of the fall weather, and the views across the region the reward for my exertion. Exhausted from the hike in, we spent the evening in the cabin playing cards with other Romanian hikers and eating the home-cooked meals offered there. I’ve missed camping, so odd as it sounds, I enjoyed having to use an outhouse and bundle up in my jacket for the night as I watched the sunset over more distant peaks. We took the same trail back down, which while not as physically demanding was even more treacherous, as I fell multiple times during the descent. Finally, we made it back into town and took the train back to the town of Raşnov, where Dylan and I split up, him back to Bucharest and Bulgaria, and me to explore the nearby castles of Raşnov and Bran.

Piatra Craiului Massif

Piatra Craiului Massif

Piatra Craiului Mountains

Piatra Craiului Mountains

Evening, Piatra Craiului

Evening, Piatra Craiului

Cabana Curmatura, PIatra Craiului

Cabana Curmatura, PIatra Craiului

Evening, Piatra Craiului

Evening, Piatra Craiului

View from the top of the trail, Piatra Craiului

View from the top of the trail, Piatra Craiului

Looking down the trail

Looking down the trail

 

Unfortunately, Raşnov Castle must have been closed for repairs, something I was uncertain of until reaching the crest of the hill it was built on. To compound the disappointment, the bus station, from which I intended to travel to Bran, was far from both the castle and train station, and after exhausting my limited Romanian trying to find it for over an hour, I found out buses did not run there on Sundays. Thus, I traveled back to Braşov, the main city of the region, assuming Bran Castle would be inaccessible this voyage. So you can imagine my surprise when the cabbie at the Braşov train station asked if I wanted to be driven to Bran. I responded honestly before thinking, and was soon off – in a cab that charged me a base fee of 20 euros and then 3.3 euros per kilometer. Luckily, it did not take me long to realize the scam, and managed to get the driver to turn off the meter and charge me a flat fee for the return, which I later managed to bargain down as well. I had to pay what amounts to about $80, but that beat the over $300 that I would have had to pay if I had not noticed, and I did get to see the castle (famous as Dracula’s castle, though he likely spent only a week there, it was small and overcrowded, hardly worth even a legitimate taxi fare), and get back to Braşov in time to explore the old city, which was interesting enough to almost make up for the tribulations of the preceding hours, an old Saxon fortified town with a massive Black Church, medieval storefronts, and a large central square nestled between the mountains. From Braşov I took an overnight train to Budapest, and since Eastern Europe does not have fast trains, and Hungary had decided to take this week to repair the line I would be travelling on, this was to be an 18-hour ordeal. Still, being able to sleep (or try to sleep) the majority of the ride made it more bearable, though being woken at 4:00 in the morning for passport checks at the border was unpleasant.

Rasnov Castle

Rasnov Castle

Courtyard, Bran Castle

Courtyard, Bran Castle

Bran Castle

Bran Castle

Brasov Main Square

Brasov Main Square

Church, Brasov

Church, Brasov

View over Brasov from the White Tower (Black Church prominent)

View over Brasov from the White Tower (Black Church prominent)

 

Save for the train rides, my experience in Hungary was just of Budapest, which given what I saw of the rest of the country was perfectly fine with me. Like with Bucharest, I did not have enough time in Budapest even before the train rescheduling, so being limited to around 7 hours in town forced me to walk fast and waste no time visiting the key sites, the Parliament Building, St. Stephen’s Basilica, Castle Hill, and the monuments in the main city park. Because almost all museums were closed on Monday (one of several things I should have figured out beforehand), I did not have an excess of choices to pick between, luckily, and I managed to get everywhere I wanted (and have a nice dinner in a fancy restaurant where I was the only patron) before heading to bed so that I would be able to wake up at 4:45 AM for my train out to Zagreb. Budapest is a fascinating city, cosmopolitan and full of monuments historic and cultural significance despite the ravages of WWII, communism, and recession. Some of the monuments I was disappointed by (Fishermen’s Bastion), others were surprisingly interesting (Vajdahunyad Castle). Still, in my light-speed highlight tour, I certainly did not get a full picture of what Budapest has to offer. Hungarians had the best knowledge of English of anywhere I visited, luckily, since their language looks terrifying, and I don’t fault the Croats for rebelling against having to learn it. Traveling out of Hungary allowed me glimpses of Lake Balaton, Hungary’s resort area, but ended up in another delayed nightmare as we transitioned from the train to three buses, waited for an hour at the border post as a group of Indians had problems with their visas, yet like with my other delayed transportation I did make it to Zagreb on the day I had planned, if not the hour. But Zagreb and beyond (which, while not less busy, were still much more relaxing) merit another post, since this is long enough already.

Sunrise on the plains of Hungary

Sunrise on the plains of Hungary

Interior, Budapest Parliament

Interior, Budapest Parliament

Main Hall, Budapest Parliament

Main Hall, Budapest Parliament

Old House of Lords, Budapest Parliament

Old House of Lords, Budapest Parliament

Castle Hill, Budapest

Castle Hill, Budapest

Budapest Parliament

Budapest Parliament

St. Stephen's Basilica

St. Stephen’s Basilica

Inside, St. Stephen's

Inside, St. Stephen’s

Royal Palace, Budapest

Royal Palace, Budapest

Fishermen's Bastion, Budapest

Fishermen’s Bastion, Budapest

Parliament from Castle Hill

Parliament from Castle Hill

Matthias Church, Castle Hill

Matthias Church, Castle Hill

Chain Bridge and St. Stephen's

Chain Bridge and St. Stephen’s

Chain Bridge in the evening

Chain Bridge in the evening

Heroes' Square, Budapest

Heroes’ Square, Budapest

Vajdahunyad Castle, Budapest City Park

Vajdahunyad Castle, Budapest City Park

Gate to Vajdahunyad Castle

Gate to Vajdahunyad Castle

Interior, Vajdahunyad Castle

Interior, Vajdahunyad Castle