Saturday, July 24, 2004

Smugglers and Bedrock

I am currently living with 3 Australians in a cave in central Turkey, but more on that later.

After I last left you, I visited Krak des Chevaliers, the best preserved Crusader Castle in the world. It was a neat trip. Because it isn’t the United States and no one has to worry about insurance, they let you crawl all over the place. At one point I was wandering down an unlit hallway, trying to avoid drainage ditches and exposed wells, using my digital camera as a flashlight. I would take a picture of the space immediately in front of me, use it like a map to walk 10 steps, then take another picture. I was imagining a secret treasure room at the end, but it was just a wall. Oh well. The rest of the castle was nice. You could see all the way to the Mediterranean and Lebanon from the ramparts on top. There were also some nice arches, a gothic portico and the remains of a cathedral that, unsurprisingly, had been turned into a mosque. That night I headed to Aleppo.

I checked into a backpacker joint and was put in a room with three guys, an Austrian, a Korean and a Japanese. The Japanese guy was intolerably cool, like all Japanese backpackers, so I didn’t talk to him. The Korean guy and I went to have dinner. Over a place of something sheep-based and incredibly delicious, he told me about his trip. He has been backpacking for a year and a half, and has another year and a half to go before returning home. He spent the first ten years after university in the Korean military (he had some great tidbits about officers’ training school. Did you know they electro-shock your testicles to see if you’d be tough enough to handle torture if captured?), then he is going to go to China and become a millionaire on the backs of cheap Chinese programming labor. My stories seemed pretty lame in comparison, so I ate more lamb. Back in the room, the Korean guy whipped out his electronics and set up a small Bat Cave on his bed (got to stay connected right?), the Japanese guy hipply lounged with his trucker hat covering his eyes, so I decided to talk to the Austrian, or Ostrich as the Syrians insist on calling him. He was a cute kid who was really worked up about his girlfriend back in Salzberg cheating on him. He had one neat little story though. He had been out in the far east of Syria, near the Iraqi border, when a couple of guys had grabbed him. He was scared shitless and couldn’t imagine what was going on. I sat there looking at this 19-year-old white kid with a crew cut, gray tee-shirt and olive green pants, and thought, gee, I wonder. And I was right! Apparently they thought he was a lost American soldier. He told them he was Austrian, which then prompted them to think that they had a lost Australian soldier, not quite as good, but okay. Eventually the EU passport sorted it out and they let him go.

My first day in Aleppo I made the requisite visit to the citadel. ABC. Another Bloody Citadel. Then I spent hours wandering in the market. It is one of the larger souqs in the Middle East, over six miles of shops. I didn’t buy much, but the process was fun. They just sold everything, spices, silks, gold. Every once in a while a donkey would wander through, lead by an ancient old man. It was like being in 1001 Arabian Nights. I had my first anti-American experience of the trip though. I was in a shop, looking at some bric-a-brac crap, and chatting with the shopkeeper. The guy asked me where I was from, and I told him. Get out of my shop you American dog! I will not sell to American swine! I put down the inlaid box I had been looking at, and asked if he was serious. He was. Okay man, if you don’t want to sell to Yankee swine, no skin off my back, and I left. I was promptly greeted by tens of other shopkeepers that loudly assured me that that they would HAPPILY sell to Yankee swine. In fact, they had a special price for Yankee swine. I walked around pissed for a while, and hoped that a stray missile would hit his house, but then I remembered how much ignorance and hatred there was in the US about Arabs, and decided that he wasn’t any worse.

I stopped by the museum on the way back to the hotel, but it was just some more arrowheads and broken pots. That night I splurged and had dinner at one of the nicest restaurants in town (cost me $3!). Completely worth it for the first cloth tablecloths I’ve seen in months.

The next day was the hammam. A hammam is a traditional Arabic bath and the one of the oldest in the world is in Aleppo. It dates from the 14th century. So I arrive, a little nervous, but hanging tough. I was handed a sheet of fabric and told to go behind the curtain and take off all my clothes. Okay. Then I was handed a pair of high heeled wooden shoes with red leather straps. They would have perfectly matched gingham hotpants and be completely appropriate at the International Sisterhood of Tarts’ Annual Picnic. They were also two different sizes, neither of which were mine. So I clump-clumped down the beautifully decorated interior and the marble hallways to the bath. First is the steam. You sit in a room like a sauna for as long as you can handle. Man it was hot. The visibility was less than 3 feet because of the steam. Dizzyingly hot. I lasted about 10 minutes before I thought I was about to faint. Then it was time for my bath. I went into the next room and sat on the floor. A woman sat behind me and scrubbed my hair with a bar of soap. She showed all the loving care of a prison matron. Then she soaped and scrubbed me with a brillo pad. (It might not have actually been a brillo pad, but it was certainly close.) Rolls of gray dead skin came off. She was got a repulsed look on her face. What did she want, I’ve been backpacking for three months? Then she called over all the other ladies in the room. Look! Americans ARE dirty! *Sigh. Then it was a quick rinse and back to the steam. I lasted a little longer this time, but at one point I began to notice a very familiar smell that I couldn’t place. A few minutes later it came to me. Lobster cooking. I took that as my cue to go. I took a quick rinse off again, and spent some time sitting on the cool marble to keep from passing out. Back out to the lavish main room, where I got dressed and a cup of tea. Despite that fact that it sounds like torture, it was really quite relaxing when it finished. And I have never been so clean in my life.

The woman sitting next to me when I was having my tea explained that hammam serves a vital roll in Syrian society. Say you are a gentleman interested in marrying a lady. She is smart and funny and you think she’ll make a great wife. The only problem is that you don’t know what she looks like. Everyone is veiled and some just have their eyes showing. So you find out when she goes to the hammam, and you send your mother to inspect the goods. If Mom approves, then everything is kosher and you can proceed with the proposal. If not, it’s back to cruising the souq.

At 12:30 pm I decided to leave Aleppo for Antakya in Turkey. The cities are only about 100 miles apart and, even with the border song and dance, the trip should only take 3 hours. Uh-huh. Since I wanted to leave in the afternoon, I had to look a little harder to find a ride. After a few hours of dithering around with dishonest taximen, and meeting two Korean backpackers in the same boat, we found a bus. It is 3 pm. The situation was a little sketchy though. There were only 8 or 10 men on the bus, not nearly enough to make the trip profitable, and a TON of cargo. Whatever, who’s arguing, get on the bus. We drive for 40 minutes, then turn off the main road onto a side road and eventually to a gas station. We spend an hour and a half there, during which the bus is parked in the back of the station and we aren’t allowed to see what the men are doing to it. Great. Smugglers. I go inside the little cafe to have grilled cheese and banana milk and spend the time contemplating whether I’d prefer Turkish or Syrian prison. Back on the road. We sail through the Syrian side of the border, and things are beginning to look up. We come over the hill to the Turkish side and oh shit. Hundreds of cars and people. Think the GWB on the Friday afternoon of Labor Day weekend. We take our spot on line and the guys jump out. It is a police check. Once a blue moon the police decide to check every bag coming through the border. This is the day. This puts everyone a little on edge to say the least. We can’t go back and we can’t ditch. Again the tourists are herded off the bus while seat cushions are removed, spare tires opened, and things generally re-arranged. We are at the border for 6 hours. And I don’t have any money. The exchange place has closed and the stored don’t take Syrian. No food. The head smuggler feels bad for me and buys me a bottle of water. Everyone is trying to get me a Turkish coffee (think espresso with the consistency of Hershey’s syrup), but that is the last thing I need. Eventually decided to take a nap in the back of the bus. Around 11:30 the head smuggler wakes me up. I go outside and stand by my bag as the border guard walks by. He tears into the other guys’ bags though, confiscating what looks like bags of granulated dark sugar. I never did figure out what it was. Then all this over, we head out again. The crew busies themselves with digging out the rest of the stash. About an hour later we are dropped of 4 km outside of the town we had set off for 9 hours before. This wasn’t going to fly. I neither calmly nor gently explained that to the gentlemen. A brother-in-law was called. A car was produced. We were driven to the bus station.

It is now 12:30 pm at a bus station in the middle of southern Turkey. I find out that the first bus is at 5:45 am. I join forces with the Koreans and find a hotel for the night. It was quite simply one of the worst places I’ve stayed anywhere in the world. Dirty was not the word for it, and the metal springs were actually coming through the mattress enough to draw blood scratching my legs during the night. 4 hours after going to bed, I am up and at it again. The bus ride was 11 hours including a 2 hour wait where I changed. The first bus was late and the second broke down. I was CRANKY when I got to Gorëme.

Having said all that, Gorëme is out of control. It is a town built into these rock formations caused by some volcanic anomaly. But it looks exactly like Bedrock in the Flintstones. Everything is carved into the rocky hillsides and everyone lives in caves. Hence my living situation. There are just under a ka-billion backpackers here though, so it is anything but peaceful. It is good though. No stress. I am on vacation from my vacation. Today I took a bus tour with some other backpackers around the local sites. They were possibly even more bizarre. Don’t worry, I took pictures because it is just beyond explanation. The first stop was this place called Pigeon Valley. It was really just a scenic overlook, but it was one hell of a scene that it overlooked. It was an entire valley of what they call “fairy chimneys,” which look roughly as the name suggest. They are tall, thin, rather phallic structures rising out of the ground. Apparently they are formed when, back in the day a couple eons ago, there were sporadic volcanic eruptions on a field of very soft rocks. Eventually the soft rock wears away, leaving only the columns of the very hard rock. So I have been told. The next stop was Derinkyu, a massive underground city. It was built to protect the population from the various marauding hordes that passed through over the centuries. At its height it could hold 100,000 and their livestock. I can’t imagine that smelled very good. Then we hit the Ilhara Valley and went hiking a bit, stopping at a frescoed church and a local restaurant. We then scurried around the Selima Monastary, the Avanos Pottery Factory (the pots and tiles were nice, if a bit out of my price range, think on par with airfare), Caravan Servais (an ancient khan dating back to the Silk Road days, where we got a dubious story about whirling dervishes and electrons and a more impressive sunset) and then the mushroom rocks (self-explanatory).

Well, that is all for now. I am back in the first world and there are people to meet for dinner and beer to drink. Hope all is well.

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