Tropical Escape: A Week in Colombia (and I Don’t Mean the District)

When I found myself with an extra week of vacation time, I thought there would be no better use to taking a trip to a continent I had never visited, South America. And there’s arguably no better place to get a taste for Latin American and Caribbean culture and history then in Colombia’s historic but booming port of Cartagena. Once a rare destination due to many years of internal conflict related to radical political ideology and the drug trade, Colombia’s recent peace deals, rapidly developing cities, and the general growth of adventure tourism have brought many more visitors in recent years to experience Colombia’s beautiful nature and rich colonial heritage (though I’ll admit that part of my inspiration was from the TV show Narcos, which presents the rise and fall of Colombia’s most notorious claim to fame, Pablo Escobar). And most of this tourism is centered on Cartagena, easily accessible by plane or ship from North America. However, as I traveled in the rainy season, most of the other tourists were European backpackers or American week-trippers, not the crowds of cruise ship passengers that overwhelm the city during the winter months (despite the season, the rain consisted only of short afternoon showers that did not interfere with my plans).

Cartagena was founded by the Spanish in 1533 as the hub of their colonial empire in the Americas, shipping out untold tons of gold and silver mined or stolen from native peoples across the Andean region and serving as the stopping place for thousands of slaves, soldiers, fortune seekers, and other Europeans moving to these vast territories. But such a wealthy but distant city proved an irresistible attraction to pirates and other European powers seeking a foothold in the Caribbean, and was attacked multiple times, including by such famous figures as Francis Drake and John Hawkins. As a result, the Spanish colonial government developed a massive system of fortifications around the Old City and the surrounding islands and mainland dominated by the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the largest fortress complex in Spanish North America. Despite their imposing looks, this castle was relatively ineffective in actually defending the city, which still fell multiple times after its construction.

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San Felipe Castle

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San Felipe Castle

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San Felipe Castle, Cartagena

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View of Getsemani and Old Town Cartagena from San Felipe Castle

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Fort in the outer islands of Cartagena

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Wall of Old Town Cartagena with modern high-rises in the background

Inside the walls, the Old City of Cartagena’s closely packed mansions and churches are a stunning example of Spanish colonial architecture, while the nearby Getsemani neighborhood (once the lower class section of the city, now the “hip” neighborhood and site of most backpacker accommodation, including my own) includes a profusion of murals and colorful houses overflowing with flowers. Both parts of the city, despite their tourist appeal, are still living cities, and the sightseer regularly passes local residents going to and from their homes, work, and errands. With hundreds of years of mixing between African, Indian, and European residents, Cartagena’s people are remarkably diverse, if largely poor, with tourism giving many extra income but making limited large-scale impact on the lives of most residents.

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Torre Regoj, Entrance to Old Town Cartagena

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Old Town Cartagena

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Old Town Cartagena

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Old Town, Cartagena

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Simon Bolivar statue and local dancers, Old Town Cartagena

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Mural, Getsemani, Cartagena

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Mural, Getsemani, Cartagena

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Palenque woman, Old Town Cartagena

Yet Cartagena today has grown to nearly one million residents, far outstripping the old town, and resulting in a dizzying array of neighborhood types; the high-rise resort and condo towers of Bocagrande, the busy ports, the well-preserved tourist center, and the sprawling slums to the East and South, with striking contrasts between the lives of rich and poor in one of the world’s most unequal countries. But the prices are fantastic for a foreigner, especially if one eats like the locals (Colombian cuisine is mostly simple but satisfying – meat with rice and potatoes or beans, with Cartagena’s food especially drawing off the sea, and a profusion of fresh fruit and juices).

Cartagena also draws its popularity from the ease of taking day or longer trips from the city to dozens of pristine beaches, hidden ruins, or wild rainforests. As part of my trip, I took two classic trips from Cartagena. The first, just a day trip, was to the Isla Pirata (Pirate Island), part of the Islas Rosarios National Park, which preserves remarkable coral reefs and all the expected features of a tropical resort, though it has also become a ritzy vacation destination for the upper class of Colombia and around the world. For my trip, though, I appreciated having a few other groups of Americans to spend the day with.

My main additional trip was for several nights in Tayrona National Park, east of Cartagena via the city of Santa Marta. Santa Marta is the oldest city in Colombia, though it has not retained as much of its colonial buildings as Cartagena and is primarily a stopover for backpackers heading to and from Tayrona and other local natural areas.

Tayrona is the quintessential vision of paradise, with deserted white sand beaches at the base of mountains dense with rainforest foliage. While Tayrona also has the drawbacks of the rainforest (heat, humidity, rain, and insects), the ocean is never far away, and with lodging limited to campsites, hammocks, and a few cabins, only one road and few trails, human impact on the park is minimal despite its growing popularity. The park protects an extraordinary diversity of wildlife, though my sightings were limited to a few capuchin monkeys; a skunk; and various birds, butterflies, and the ubiquitous lizards. Tayrona contains several sites sacred to the local native people, and encompasses a small Indian village (Pueblito) and ruins of the once larger town around it, though reaching there requires a challenging uphill scramble from the campgrounds.

Tayrona was the furthest I got from Cartagena, returning to Cartagena the day I left the park to fly out, but Colombia itself is a massive country, with the culture and climate of Bogota and Medellin far different, but with a poorly developed road system, seeing much more of the country would need to be left for another trip – as it was, I felt I got a phenomenal glimpse of a fascinating country.

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The Tiny Jewel of Northern Europe: Estonia

I feel like I generally enjoy immensely the countries I visit on my travels. But rarely do I fall in love with a country. That, however, is what happened in the last stop of this vacation, Estonia.

It’s hard, even for a Eastern European history buff like myself, to say I knew much about Estonia before visiting. Sure, I could name the capital, talk a bit about the ethnic and linguistic groups in the country, and discuss its growing relevance as NATO’s frontline against Russia, but in terms of famous figures, key historical events, cultural traditions, cuisine – I would have only drawn a blank. And to be fair, Estonia is a country without much of an independent history – despite the best efforts of its national history museum (all of about three rooms). Estonia was essentially the site of battles, massacres, and other unsavory events as its territory was fought over and traded between Sweden, Germany, and Russia as each sought to control the Baltic, not existing as an independent country until briefly in 1918, and again after 1991. And its roster of celebrities is also thin (composer Arvo Pärt, anyone?). Yet despite the novelty of self-rule in Estonia, the country is truly a development success story.

Estonia is one of the most technologically advanced countries in Europe (it is the headquarters of Skype, and has free WiFi almost everywhere). Estonians we interacted with spoke better English than many more developed countries I had visited (perhaps because the Estonian language is one of the most difficult to learn in the world, English is much easier to pick up). The farms and small villages we saw are clean and prosperous – they look more like those in rural Wisconsin than in the other ex-Soviet countries I’d visited. Despite a significant Russian minority population, Estonia has had little ethnic unrest and has had a stable democratic government since independence. And public and private sector alike appear to have done much to establish a comfortable infrastructure for an emerging tourism sector, as EU membership has made the country very accessible.

Our trip had two parts, one focusing on the historic and one on the natural areas of the country. We started in the capital Tallinn, home to a strikingly well preserved medieval city center, still with its original fortifications and town square. While daytrippers from Finland, stag parties from the UK, and passengers on Baltic cruise ships have all discovered the city, leading to a profusion of tacky souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants, the old city is still very fun to explore, looking at the multitude of different faiths represented in its churches, learning about the relics of Tallinn’s status as Reval, one of the largest Hanseatic cities in the Eastern Baltic, which gave it a strong German influence and a Lutheran heritage (despite Tallinn’s numerous churches, Estonia is today one of the most irreligious countries in the world).

Tallinn Old City

Tallinn Old City walls, St. Mary’s Cathedral

Tallinn Town Hall and Main Square

Tallinn Old City walls

Tallinn Old City walls

Tallinn Old City walls, St. Olaf’s Church

Fat Margaret Tower, Tallinn Old City

Tallinn Old City east gate

Tallinn Old City fortifications

Viru Gate, Tallinn Old City

Tallinn Old City wall

Linnahall (Soviet Olympics venue turned public space) and Tallinn skyline

The second part was spent on Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island. Saaremaa’s main city, Kuressaare, also features an impressive medieval castle, where we stopped briefly. Most of our time, however, was in the small hamlet of Kihelkonna, one of the gateways to Vilsandi National Park. Tiny as it may be, Estonia boasts a wealth of biodiversity and protected areas, and has more trees per capita than anywhere else in Europe. Vilsandi consists of dozens of small islands and a long stretch of Estonia’s westernmost coast, making it a key breeding area for various bird species, and in summer a destination for biking and water sports. But in a still cool May, the park was deserted except for the birds, some local farmers, and us. Even an orchid festival in Kihelkonna was not enough to draw in the tourists – we were the only guests in our church office turned bed and breakfast, one of only a couple accommodations in the area.

Kuressaare Castle

Kuressaare Castle

Kuressaare Castle (including more recent outer walls)

Bay, Vilsandi National Park

Marshland, Vilsandi National Park

Lighthouse, Vilsandi National Park

Marit at Papissaare harbor, Vilsandi National Park

Abandoned building, Kihelkonna

Kihelkonna church

I left Estonia wishing I had had another day or more to explore the country. But all vacations must come to an end, leaving only ideas for the next trip. And when that next trip happens, I’ll write about it here.

P.S. Special thank-you to Marit for putting up with my trip planning, poor navigation skills, and general impatience for these two weeks.

 

Bouncing around the Baltic: Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg

This was my second time traveling to Stockholm, the first time I’ve already written about here. As a result, I will not go into detail about it in this post, other than to say it was just as pleasant the second time around, and the city looks and feels much different in May compared to December. With the amount of people out in cafes or parks, it seemed like the city (and the others we visited) was finally experiencing its first breath of summer, perfect timing for our arrival.

My next Scandinavian capital, Helsinki, was a new experience – but not totally. Helsinki certainly bears more than a passing similarity to Stockholm due to its own network of islands and bays and the many centuries of Swedish rule that shaped it (of course, the language is completely different, and completely incomprehensible without study). However, it is almost all on a smaller scale, as Finland did not exist as a country until after WWI, and Helsinki was only a minor military and administrative center before that time. There are certainly some impressive monuments such as the Helsinki Cathedral (Lutheran) and Uspenski Cathedral (Russian Orthodox), if not the wealth of historic grandeur found in central Stockholm or other European capitals.

Uspenski Cathedral and Helsinki shoreline

Helsinki Harbor panorama

Helsinki Cathedral

Uspenski Cathedral

Church in the Rock

However, Helsinki’s most impressive collection of history is found a short ferry ride from downtown on the island fortifications of Suomenlinna. Founded in the 18th century as a Swedish naval base, and passing into Russian and Finnish hands, this “Gibraltar of the North” had an undistinguished military career but was at one time the second largest population center in Finland, and there are numerous relics from both its military and civilian uses, making a popular day trip and where Marit and I spent most of our limited time in Helsinki.

Suomenlinna panorama

Suomenlinna

Suomenlinna Fortifications

Main Gate, Suomenlinna

Residential building, Suomenlinna

King’s Gate, Suomenlinna

Marit and I at Suomenlinna

Island outside Helsinki

After Helsinki came St. Petersburg, a fitting choice since this city and Stockholm played so much of a role in determining the history of Helsinki, caught in the middle. Russia is certainly a very different culture than Scandinavia, though this came as no surprise given my travels in Russia last year –despite St. Petersburg’s historic connection with the West and developments befitting a modern metropolis, is not too different than Irkutsk or Ulan-Ude (though pricier and much more crowded with foreign visitors). Either way, St. Petersburg is a stunning city, and the wealth of spectacular churches and palaces make it easy to forget that this city was founded from nothing in 1703, making it one of the youngest European cities. Despite the current media focus on Russo-American interactions, being American did not elicit any particular interest (though depictions of Trump were to be found among the usual tourist kitsch). However, there did seem to be an unusually high military presence – perhaps the result of the tragic terror attacks on the St. Petersburg subway earlier this year.

Neva River, Sunset

While in the city, we visited the artistically splendid Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood, the imposing Kazan and St. Isaac’s Cathedrals, the Hermitage (which was far more impressive for its palace design than its art collection), among other sites; went to the opera at the famed Mariinsky Theatre (true, it was the Magic Flute at the modern Concert Hall, not Boris Godunov at the historic hall, but last-minute spendthrifts can’t be picky) and spent plenty of time strolling past the canals and gardens of the central city. We also took advantage of the cultural diversity of the city, home to many migrants from other parts of the Soviet Union, in dining on Georgian, Uzbek, and Ukrainian cuisine in addition to standard Russian fare.

Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood

Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood

Interior, Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood

Interior, Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood

Kazan Cathedral

St. Isaac’s Cathedral

Peter and Paul Fortress

Peter and Paul Fortress

Peter and Paul Church

Gravesite of the Romanov family, Peter and Paul Church

Cruiser Aurora

St. Petersburg canals, daytime

St. Petersburg Canals at night

Inside, Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall

Faberge Egg, Faberge Museum

Peter the Great statue

Admiralty Building

Spires of St. Isaac’s and Admiralty Building

Hermitage Museum and Palace Square

Palace Square

Interior, Hermitage

Interior, Hermitage

Corridor, Hermitage

Palace Interior, Hermitage

However, my favorite part of St. Petersburg was taking a trip out to the suburbs to visit Peter the Great’s seaside retreat at Peterhof. As befits an old imperial capital, St. Petersburg is surrounded with multiple tsars’ summer retreats, and while Peterhof was the only one we had the time to visit, it was the perfect choice for a beautiful spring day. Peterhof is famed for its gardens, which provide a striking view but also have plenty of space to get lost from the crowds in a quiet natural spot or to discover a hidden pond or fountain. The top draw at Peterhof is its fountains, which are undeniably gorgeous and likely unparalleled in Russia.

Peterhof (south side)

Peterhof Fountains

Peterhof Main Canal

Peterhof (north side)

Peterhof (north side)

Fountain, Peterhof

Fountain, Peterhof

Neptune Fountain, Peterhof

Peterhof Shoreline

Peterhof Church

After 3½ days in St. Petersburg, we headed out on an overnight bus to the last country on this vacation, Estonia. Why does that tiny state deserve a separate post when some of the most spectacular cities of Northern Europe are lumped together here? You’ll have to read the next post to find out.

Living on the Edge (of the Continent): Iceland

I am currently traveling with my sister Marit, and as I have tended to do when traveling, reopened this blog to share pictures and memories. This vacation is two weeks in Iceland, Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, and Estonia – admittedly as not as off the beaten path (or as cheap) as some of my last trips, but no less spectacular as destinations. The first stop was only a five-hour flight away from DC: Iceland.

 

Iceland was originally just a stopover on the way to continental Europe, now a popular occurrence due to the special layover options offered by Icelandair and WOW Air for no extra cost, but even in the two short days I was there I was taken aback by the country’s natural beauty and it may easily end up being the favorite destination of my trip. Due to its geologically active location, Iceland has always had an extraordinary landscape of glaciers, fjords, and geysers, but its remoteness made it off-the-beaten path as a tourist destination until recent years, when tourism has exploded (we were told by a guide that 2 million tourists are expected to visit Iceland this year, six times the total native population). Still, we arrived before the busy season, and while the top destinations had some crowds, much of Reykjavik and the countryside were still unspoiled (admittedly, the timing also meant windy, cold, and intermittently rainy weather for most of the trip).

 

Our home base was Reykjavik, the capital and center of Icelandic life (2/3 of the population lives within the Reykjavik region, even though this is only 200,000 people). Reykjavik is a quite pleasant city, with little traffic and pollution and great vistas across the bay, though despite the growing role of tourism in Iceland’s economy it is still a working city with a large fishing port. However, as a city that only came into being around a century ago and one traditionally removed from the cultural and economic flows of Western Europe and the Americas, it has few monuments or historical sites, and its unadorned architecture is unexciting (though there are certainly exceptions, such as the unique modern Hallgrimskyrka Cathedral).

Hallgrimskyrka, Reykjavik

Leif Erikson statue, Reykjavik

Reykjavik Cityscape

But Iceland’s attractions lie primarily outside of the city. In two days, we did not have time to do the Ring Road or other excursions to the wilder parts of the country, however many fantastic features are found within an hour of Reykjavik. Most of our first day was spent on the Golden Circle tour, a classic, if crowded, day trip to the best of Southwest Iceland. This route includes the Geysir thermal basin (though the eponymous geyser – where the word “geyser” comes from – is dead, and the actual eruptions were by its sister geyser Strokkur), the Gullfoss waterfall, and Thingvellir National Park, site of the geological boundary between North America and Eurasia (an obvious system of crevasses and raised plateaus) and the Althing assembly, the first democratic system in Northern Europe.

Icelandic countryside

Church and Glacier

Geysers and Glaciers

Geysir thermal basin

Strokkur Geyser

Hot spring, Geysir

Gullfoss lower falls and canyon

Gullfoss

Mountains near Gullfoss

Thingvellir background

Fault line, Thingvellir

Althing site, Thingvellir

Fault line, Thingvellir

Thingvellir

The second day brought us first to the islet of Videy, just a 15-minute ferry ride from Reykjavik. Though quite small, Videy includes an abandoned village, seabird nesting colonies, and modern art installations, all framed by phenomenal views of Reykjavik and the surrounding mountains. That evening’s trip was to the Blue Lagoon, a world-famous hot spring said (like most other hot springs) to have healing properties and another representation of Iceland’s continuing geothermal activity (luckily, we did not experience a volcanic eruption, which is a danger in Iceland).

Rainbow over Reykjavik harbor

Videy

Viðeyjarstofa House and Church

Videy terrain

Modern art, Videy

Videy terrain and backdrop

Reykjanes landscape

Blue Lagoon

Sunset over Snæfellsjökull

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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