Monday, July 30, 2012

Part V: Eastern European Vacation!

After leaving Vienna, we booked it out of Austria, through Hungary and into Romania. Hungary has some beautiful scenery, but don't concentrate on it too long because the drivers are insane, (although less insane than those in Romania, and a lot less insane than those in Turkey). For example, we managed to see two overturned semi trucks in our two days exploring Hungary.

After leaving the main highway to get to a campsite, we were immediately surprised to find an area full of vineyards. Our campsite was at the base of a range of hills covered in them. We would later find that the grapes grown in Romania are commonly imported to Italy to be sold as Italian wine!

Cornel was the first Romanian we met. He ran the campsite we stayed at for the night, and was very inviting and generous. He also followed the male Romanian tradition of never wearing a shirt, a custom we could get used to. There were also plenty of stray dogs to pet (and then wash your hands thoroughly)!

As we were setting up, another team doing the rally came into the campsite! They were supporting Save the Children, and were named Carlos, Juan and Alex (originally from Columbia, but living in Miami). They weren't officially doing the rally through the Adventurists, they've gone rogue. They emailed the Mongolian embassy and found that importing the car might not be as difficult as it seemed, and managed to get all of their visas completed without The Visa Machine. If they manage to work their way through the bureaucracy unaided we'll definitely look into this option if any of us plan a second rally.


After a night in Romania we booked it for Bulgaria. Every country has a “Vignette” or a road tax, and as we head east, they seem to get less and less official. Austria and Hungary had an official looking sticker, Romania had a stamped receipt, and Bulgaria just gave us a couple pieces of printed out paper. By the end of the trip we might be getting handed a handwritten note.

Exploring Bulgaria
We entered Bulgaria at Ruse, which happened to have an extremely nice hostel, “The English Guest House”. They had showers, clean restrooms, and were very close to a historic Soviet-era town square. At the hostel, we met a German man named Armin, and his two children, Juno and Aaron. They were taking their beat up car on one last adventure through Europe. They had dinner with us in the square, and we had a great conversation about the differences between the US and Germany, each mostly arguing the merits of the other's country as it turned out. I guess the grass is always greener on the other side of the border.


The next day was spent driving to Istanbul. Bulgaria had some great scenery, with some beautiful rivers and hills, but the scenery was overshadowed by the ninja-esque moves pulled off by the Bulgarian drivers. The scenery changed to rolling farmland as we entered Turkey, and as we went south the temperature kept rising. Turkish driving also seems to have the boldness of Romania, combined with the speed of the Nurburgring, but as we would find out later, the driving would be easy compared to the urban warzone that is Istanbul.

Stray cat inspecting our Vignette outside of Bada Bing Hostel
We entered Istanbul fairly late, but early enough that we still had enough light to see the vastness of the city. The streets were just as we expected: a vast maze of organically planned streets, suicidal pedestrians, and homicidal taxi drivers. We managed to get to our hostel unscathed, and vowed to never drive again until we were leaving Istanbul!

A man named Mustafa ran Bada Bing Hostel, a fantastic place located just between the historic district and a great place for exploring at night, in addition to an amazing rooftop bar. There were great showers, bathrooms nicer than any hostel we’d been to, and most importantly, great company.

After unpacking the car, we headed straight to the rooftop bar for a much needed beer, and quickly met some of the great people staying there. A man named Jacob had been exploring Europe for months, and was from San Francisco. A few girls from Holland named Yris, Anette, and Renatta were exploring Europe by train for a few weeks, something difficult for Americans to do without an expensive plane ticket.


Michael photographing The Blue Mosque in front of Ayasofya
Michael, Alex, Thomas and Byron on a bridge in Istanbul
The next day was spent exploring Istanbul. We took a trolly to the Blue Mosque, an enormous and ornate structure built about 500 years ago in a futile attempt to overshadow the adjacent mosque, the Ayasofya (or Hagia Sophia). The Ayasofya was built about 1500 (yes, 1500) years ago, and while not as pristine as the Blue Mosque, is more impressive due to its historical significance and the enormous scale of the structure. Afterward we explored the Grand Bazaar, an enormous shopping district, where searching through the shops for a unique trinket is complicated by the millions of items imported from China, and fighting your way through pushy shop owners to a bathroom is a battle.

After escaping the Bazaar maze, we managed to make it to a bridge linking two sides of Istanbul. Under the bridge there are some restaurants with world class fish food, which we completely ignored in favor of some cold beers. After recovering at the hostel for a bit, we headed to the Istanbul night district, which is sort of like Pearl Street but much larger and more crowded. It's a strange combination of shops that have been there for a hundred years, trendy new coffee shops, and vogue fashion stores.


The following day we had to say goodbye to Joyce, who needed to leave our trip before we encountered and countries requiring visas. She took a shuttle to the airport, and we fought our way out of Istanbul and into Eastern Turkey.

The temperature seemed to keep rising as we left Istanbul; the folks in the Perodua were able to see the tire marks of the Getz imprinted into the asphalt, due to the melting tar. As we approached the coast, the temperature mercifully dropped, and we finally got to our campsite for the night in Sinop. We weren’t able to find any English-speakers to explain the rules to the campsite to us, but we did find a man who spoke German. Surprisingly, Thomas’ rudimentary German skills have proven somewhat useful in Turkey. Our campsite was totally free, although we had to deal with some cows suspiciously surrounding the campsite.


Turns out the cows were mostly talk, leaving just a bit of poop on the corner of Michael and Thomas' tent. After a quick cleaning, we were off to the local black sand beach, where we did some diving into the black sea from a concrete pier, and threw a Frisbee around in the water until we were thoroughly sunburnt. It was, perhaps, the best morning we’ve had on the entire trip.
Michael looking annoyed before cleaning up cow poop

After procrastinating for as long as we could, we left for another seafront city called Ordu. It's difficult to find campsites in Turkish, and what we thought was a campsite was actually a recreational facility. Luckily there was an employee setting up for a family picnic. He called the owner of the facility, and we were given permission to camp on the site!

The family that gave us great food and a better story
As we were setting up our tents for the evening, a group of friends and family showed up for a picnic and invited us to join them. Turkey is mostly Muslim, and we’re currently in the month of Ramadan in the Islamic calendar, which involves fasting between sunrise and sunset (we’ve been hearing calls to prayer over the city megaphones 5 times a day since we got to Turkey). This group had come for an evening feast after fasting all day, so they brought an incredible amount of food and shared it all with us. One of the women was from Germany and spoke some English (NAME). We’ve been completely blown away by the hospitality people have shown us on this trip, and this night was one of the best. We had stuffed peppers, pasta salad, bread, melon, fanta, and tea. They were using an amazing contraption to brew their tea which is shaped like a large jug and can only be described as a tea furnace. Hot embers are loaded into the bottom of the jug-thing, and heat the water and tea which sit above. The whole thing has a chimney on top which constantly emits large quantities of smoke and fire. The tea was absolutely delicious, although some of us still have burned tongues. After the first round of food, we had corn cooked on the hot embers left from the campfire. We had a great time eating, talking, laughing, and dancing. We even learned some Turkish! Now we can all say “Thank you”, count to ten, and ask for a beer, so we should be more or less functional for the rest of our stay in Turkey.


We left Ordu in the morning and headed out to Trabzon. When we arrived, we found that driving in Trabzon is about as difficult as in Istanbul. Not because of the crazy drivers, but because of the crazy roads. The city is a maze of one-way roads and hills steep enough the stall our cars. After determining that our google map of Trabzon was taking us the wrong way down several one-way roads, we finally pulled over to ask for directions to our hotel. The first guy we found spoke English and offered to lead us directly to our hotel with his car! This turned out to be a life-saver, as we realized we would never have found it on our own. One more point for Turkish hospitality!

Our hotel was called the Nurotel. After checking in, we went out to the city square and had another delicious meal of rice, lamb kebab, chicken, eggplant, veggies, and rice pudding. We had to look around for awhile before finding a restaurant which was open before sundown (Ramadan). We spent the rest of the evening doing laundry in the sink and watching TV shows downloaded by Byron. It was a good way to relax and recharge.


We woke up, had breakfast, and took a walk to the docks to figure out ferry tickets to Sochi. We found the ticket office without trouble. There was a man standing outside who immediately saw that we were tourists and came out to us asking if we were going to Sochi. Taking care of ferry tickets in the morning proved to be a good idea since the process ended up being fairly complicated, mostly because they didn’t accept credit cards. We spent about an hour walking around town trying to find a working ATM. Our plan was for one person to withdraw cash and cover everyone, but we found that none of us could withdraw a large amount of cash, so we all ended up withdrawing smaller amounts and paying together.

On the way back from the ticket office we passed a hotel with a Mongol Rally car outside. We’re not alone! Their team name appears to be “Genghis Khan’s East India Company”. We left a note for them in the lobby of their hotel, hoping to hang out with them later.

We retired once again to the hotel to catch up on more laundry and blogging, and also to finish the last of our produce and meat foods before heading across the Russian border. Our Lonely Planet guide to Russia turns out to be fairly unhelpful when it comes to food restrictions at the border, so we figured better safe than sorry.

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