The Black Sea Trek Begins

Black-Sea-map
The location of the Black Sea, courtesy of xfluro.com

While first planning this trip, I envisioned a grand journey traveling around the entirely of the Black Sea on foot, through Turkey, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Romania, and Bulgaria. This was later modified to include only Turkey and Georgia, and then later only Turkey’s Black Sea coast. I chose this region as I had spent very little time here in my previous stints living and traveling in Turkey, and I wanted to see and learn more about the unique culture and history of the region. After arriving in Istanbul in early April (and meeting up with some friends there), I bought a tent, sleeping bag, and hiking poles, gathered some food and medical supplies,  and dropped off some excess luggage at my friend (and fellow Fulbrighter from Balikesir) Greg’s apartment. I chose the tiny town of Anadolu Feneri (Anatolian Lighthouse) as my starting point.

20170409_124946_34279071531_o
Starting the trek at Anadolu Feneri

On a dreary grey morning I boarded the Istanbul metro (after some minor questioning by the security guards as to what I had in my giant backpack), changed to a bus under a nondescript overpass, and eventually found myself in Anadolu Feneri. After taking in the views at the historic lighthouse (1830) I began what I imagined would be a two month adventure walking and enjoying the beauty of the northern coast. I ran into my first obstacle almost immediately, as the road I had planned to follow east toward Riva ran straight through a Turkish military base. Looking at the map, I despaired at having to detour at least seven kilometers out of the way to go around. A mile down the road, however, I spied a dirt road heading east that wasn’t on the map, and confirmed at a nearby restaurant (after being invited in for multiple glasses of çay, of course) that I could follow it past the base back to the coast road.

20170409_142438_34409929955_o
Meeting new friends on the road

Leaving me with some cookies and a warning of sheepdogs ahead (I was prepared for this after numerous aggressive dog encounters on the St. Paul Trail four years earlier), I said goodbye to my newfound friends and started out on the dirt road. I soon came to a logging camp, where the workers pointed me back to another village road, saying there were only soldiers allowed ahead. Wanting to avoid any unnecessary encounters with the Turkish army, I turned back and eventually found myself walking through a tiny village. With no GPS and the road splitting into multiple paths, I asked a couple farmworkers (who turned out to be brothers from Uzbekistan) for the road to Riva and they promptly invited to the table for a meal and, you guessed it, more çay. The Turkish family who owned the farm, along with several neighbors, joined me at the table and were rather incredulous when I told them my plan to walk all the way to the town of Sinop, 600km to the east.

20170409_160938_34279113391_o
The path ahead, complete with beehives

Full of delicious homemade Turkish food and energized by two glasses of the caffeinated black tea, I continued along dirt roads, passing bunches of beehives, to another tiny village where I was almost set upon by a pack of local dogs before some villagers called them off. An older man greeted me and started a conversation, quickly concluding that I was a spy after I told him I was American and where I had come from that day (he still gave me food and tea, thank goodness for Turkish hospitality!). I finally walked onto a paved road and then the main road to Riva, going by the Turkish national football/soccer team academy and finding a hotel for the night. I had only gone about six kilometers along the coast, much shorter than my intended 20-25 kilometers per day pace. As the sun set over the sea, I sat at a beachfront fish restaurant drinking an Efes beer among a group of leather-clad bikers, pondering the long road ahead.

20170409_194501_33568169914_o
Sunset in Riva, Turkey

From Bodrum to Balikesir

20170402_131007_34278696821_o
“How happy is the one who says, I am a Turk” – famous Atatürk quote

I arrived in Bodrum on a drizzling, overcast evening. After finding some reasonable lodgings (enjoying the $1 to 3.5 Turkish lira exchange rate following the pain of the euro in Greece) I wandered into a nearby fish restaurant for my first truly Turkish dinner in almost four years, ordering hamsi (sardines), mushrooms, fried zucchini, and spicy ezme spread, washed down with a tall glass of the Turkish national spirit: rakı an anise-flavored liquor similar to ouzo and arak. Needless to say I enjoyed my meal.

20170331_191830_34409427825_o
A meal fit for a traveler

The next morning came bright and sunny, and I hopped on a bus to the small provincial capital of Balikesir, where I had taught English at the local university for two years between 2011 and 2013. Many things had happened in Turkey since that time, something I was immediately reminded of while passing through gendarmerie security checkpoints both on the way into Izmir and into Balikesir. I had previously encountered highway checkpoints in the southeast of the country, near the borders with Syria and Iraq, but this was my first experience seeing them in the western part of Turkey. Though given the attacks in recent years, it is certainly understandable. I also happened to arrive just a couple of weeks before the referendum on changing the government to a presidential system, and campaign posters and vans blasting advertisements for one side or the other from roof-mounted loudspeakers (more for ‘yes’ than ‘no’) were everywhere.

20170402_125729_33567675234_o
Central square in downtown Balikesir, with referendum campaign posters

Finally in Balikesir, I was very happy to see that there was still a lot of life in the streets and all of my old haunts (the place where I used to buy bread, the local pide restaurant, döner stand, etc.) were all up and running. There was a discernible difference in the mood, however, with people appearing a little more withdrawn and melancholy compared to four years before. Despite this, Turkish hospitality was alive and well. It was a wonderful feeling to reunite with old friends and start speaking my rusty Turkish over innumerable glasses of çay (tea). I visited my old apartment, strolled through Atatürk Park, and played several rounds of the classic Turkish pastime of backgammon with former university colleagues (while, you guessed it, drinking tea).

20170402_143443_33599596773_o
Statue of famous local wrestler, Kurtdereli Pehlivan, in central Balikesir

I also had the opportunity to visit a couple of the university campuses where I taught: the NEF education campus in the middle of the city, the main campus about 10 kilometers outside, and the vocational campus located in Bandirma, a smaller industrial city north of Balikesir hugging the shore of the Sea of Marmara. I met a couple of my old students in Bandirma for çay; I had helped teach their first year of preparatory English before starting their major program, and now they were just about to graduate. It was great to see their progress and to learn that one student had been inspired to study abroad in Poland for a semester through the Erasmus program. From Bandirma I caught the evening ferry to Istanbul, crossing the breadth of the Sea of Marmara back to the timeless city that had first introduced me to Turkey many years ago. I would spend most of the next week there preparing for my long anticipated trek along the Black Sea coast.

20170402_182451_34368020006_o
Visiting the Balikesir University Education Faculty, where I taught students studying to become English teachers themselves

Return to Turkey

Merhaba (hello), dear friends and readers!

20170411_153340_34368445366_o
Şile, Black Sea, Turkey

After a busy few months on the road, I am back in Tahoe for a couple of weeks and finally have some time to catch up on the blog (apologies for the long delay!) The next few posts will follow my adventures through Turkey, beginning with visits to Balikesir and Istanbul and then setting out on an ambitious trek along the Black Sea coast, before switching paths to hike most of the Lycian Way on the Mediterranean. My travels then lead to Konya, Cappadocia (complete with hot air balloon), back to the Black Sea region and even to the far eastern expanses of Doğubeyazit and Mount Ararat. So stay tuned during the coming days for updates, adventures (and misadventures), meetings with colorful characters, and a whole trove of fun photos!

20170504_065957_34289716182_o
Lycian Way on the Gelidonya Peninsula

Crossing the Aegean

2017-05-22_03-44-48
Sanctuary of Apollo, Delphi

Following some vague instructions I found online, I walked to Athens’ bus station “B” and bought a return ticket to Delphi (and a quick spanakopita and yogurt for breakfast. Having just arrived from East Africa, I was amazed that the bus actually left at the scheduled time!). Located on the slopes of Mt. Parnassus a couple of hours drive from the capital, Delphi was the summer location of the famous oracle of Apollo, consulted by kings and oligarchs on all matters from war to harvests. Not realizing the site closed relatively early at 3pm, I was just able to explore the length of the ancient city, ponder life next to the temple of Apollo, and make a quick stop into the disappointingly uninformative museum before everything shut down. However, the afternoon was absolutely beautiful and I spent a few hours strolling along the road and admiring the sweeping views of the valley and sea below.

2017-05-22_03-45-32
View from the slopes of Mt. Parnassus, Delphi

The next evening I gathered my belongings in Athens and took the metro down to its historic port, Piraeus (this time thankfully without any attempted pickpocketing). I boarded the massive Blue Star Ferry to Rhodes with its hotel-esque reception desk and found my cabin. A few minutes later my roommate for the voyage arrived: a friendly, businesslike car parts salesman from Athens. We chatted for a bit (his brother lives in California) and then I went up to the top deck to watch the ship depart as the sun dipped below the horizon. The rest of the 15-hour journey was uneventful. I fell asleep to the rocking of the boat and the scratching of my roommate’s pencil as he worked well into the night.

2017-05-22_03-46-11
The sun getting low over the port of Piraeus

When I woke in the morning we were passing the island of Kos and opposite, the mountainous coastline of Turkey! It was the first time I had laid eyes on the country since completing the Fulbright program five years earlier; a wave of elation and energy swept through me the dark grey sky slowly began to lighten with the new day. I would take the ferry across the strait in a few days, but first I wanted to spend some time exploring the island of Rhodes. Once home of the Colossus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, Rhodes is the largest island and capital of the Dodecanese and contains one of the best preserved medieval towns in the Mediterranean. The Knights of St. John, crusaders who had been expelled from the Holy Land, took control of the island for two centuries before it was conquered by the Ottomans and then taken by the Italians, only becoming a part of modern Greece after the Second World War. We docked, I found a friendly hostel to stay at and began taking in the city.

2017-05-22_03-48-28
These two short towers supposedly mark the spot where stood the Colossus of Rhodes

I walked the full perimeter of the medieval city walls, venturing into a few of the dark, twisting tunnels underneath that were unexplicably left open and ungated (one thing that would never happen in the US), wandered the narrow, empty streets of the old town (it was very early in the season) and tasted some of the local dishes which suspiciously reminded me of Turkish food. There are still a number of Ottoman mosques in the city, along with some Italian-designed buildings on the waterfront and the crusader architecture of the palace and old hospital (now housing the archaeology museum). One day I took a bus down to the town of Lindos (“the Santorini of Rhodes”, according to the hostel guy, and indeed the white houses covering the slope beneath the castle reminded me of photos I have seen of that island). I planned to hit the beach after clambering around the castle and enjoying a rooftop lunch (with ouzo), but unfortunately the cold, rainy weather was not conducive to diving in so I settled for soaking my feet for a bit in the chilly Mediterranean.

2017-05-22_03-50-09
Lindos beach, town and castle, Rhodes

My timing with the ferries was off again, so instead of sailing straight to Turkey I caught a boat back to Kos (stopping by the beautiful port of Symi on the way) and bought a ticket for the evening crossing to Bodrum. This left me a few hours to check out the Kos castle and a few parts of the old town; there is a lot of history there as well and I would love to go back and truly get to know the island. Waiting for the ferry to Turkey to depart, I watched as a dark thunderhead edged its way towards the port and wondered if I would be spending yet another extra day in Greece. But we soon set off (straight into the middle of the thunderstorm), feeling both exhilirated and apprehensive as rain soaked half the vessel and lightning struck the turbulent waters around us. Thankfully we made it through, the weather calmed and we sailed smoothly next to Bodrum castle into the port. After a short wait at passport control, I was back in Turkey.

2017-05-22_03-52-02
Entering the storm, Kos Strait

Bonus photo! Rhodes old town:

2017-05-22_04-05-37

Africa to Athens

My flight out of Africa left from the Entebbe airport, just outside of Kampala on the shore of Lake Victoria (and the equator!). Thankfully there is a direct bus with the same company that Meredith and I used to travel from Nairobi to Kampala, and as I sat in the office waiting the inevitable 45 minutes for the bus to arrive, I struck up a conversation with the man sitting next to me. He was from Kenya and traveling all the way to Nairobi, but had gone to gradutate school at Berkeley! We had a fascinating conversation about the different mindsets and economic outlooks of Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya, and were later entertained (and only a little frustrated) when his seat back broke and the bus attendant proceeded to fix it with duct tape.

20170321_161730
Western Uganda countryside

On my final day in Kampala I visited the Baha’i House of Worship for Africa, one of the eight major Baha’i temples in the world (the others are located in Chicago, Panama City, New Delhi, Santiago, Samoa, Frankfurt, and Sydney, along with the Universal House of Justice located where the prophet Baha’u’llah was imprisoned and died in Akka). A relatively new faith, Baha’ism sprung up in the 1800’s in Iran. It’s key principles include universal peace and education, the oneness of humanity, and the single foundation of all religions. At the temple I met a young man from Iran who had studied petroluem engineering in the US and would be moving to Houston two weeks later; he was just finishing up a short period of volunteer service at the temple in Kampala. We talked about politics in Iran, Turkey and the US and I learned much about the basic organization and history of Baha’ism in Africa and worldwide. After our discussion I wandered the green grounds of the temple, a true haven of peace in the midst of Kampala’s general chaos.

20170322_155111-1
Baha’i House of Worship, Kampala

One final meal with Mike and then I was off to the airport for a 4am flight to Cairo and then Athens. I had visited Greece a few times before while living in Turkey (some of the islands are just a stone’s throw away) but this was my first time in the capital. As a warm welcome someone tried to steal my wallet while on the metro to my hotel, but luckily I noticed the hand in my pocket, gave a shout and the guy dropped the wallet and pretended that nothing had happened. From there I went straight to the Acropolis to admire the famous Parthenon and the sweeping views over the city.

2017-05-04_08-10-02
View from the Acropolis, Athens

Unbeknownst to me, the next day (March 25th) just so happened to be the national holiday celebrating the start of the Greek War of Independence against the Ottomans in 1821. As I wandered down toward Syntagma Square, I found my path blocked by a solid row of onlookers and the avenue being cleared by police on motorcycles. And before I could even think to ask what was happening, tanks started rolling down the street to the cheers of the flag-waving spectators. These were followed by armored personnel carriers, anti-aircraft missile launchers and all sorts of other military hardware, while jets and helicopters flew by overhead. As I watched groups of face-painted soldiers marching and singing in tandem, I thought back to the US military’s denial of Trump’s request for a military parade just a few weeks prior. Different cultures, indeed.

2017-05-04_08-09-10.jpg
Rolling through the streets of Athens

While in Athens I also partook in the quintessential Greek pastime of drinking coffee for hours at a sidewalk cafe. I always made sure to order ‘Greek coffee’, although even the hostel guy in Rhodes later admitted that it is actually Turkish (or Ottoman, really). My final time in Athens was spent touring the Panathinaiko Stadium (which hosted the first ‘modern’ Olympics in 1896 and is built entirely of marble) and walking the streets of the historic Plaka district. The next ferry to Rhodes didn’t leave for another day, which left me just enough time to make a pilgrimage to the oracle at Delphi…

2017-05-04_08-12-22
Panathinaiko Stadium, Athens

Rwanda and the Lake

20170317_171553
Weekly market at Lake Bunyonyi

To get to Lake Bunyonyi in the mountainous far southwest corner of Uganda via public transport, I could either take a night bus that arrived in the nearby city of Kabale at 4am (missing seeing the countryside along the way, as well as risking the danger of night busing in East Africa) or take a matatu (minibus) to Mbarara and then catch the next vehicle heading toward Kabale. I chose the latter (despite the additional safety concern of riding a matatu) and hopped on a little before 9am. After waiting for an hour for the car to fill with passengers (typical), the driver pulled around and told everyone to switch into the next matatu because of a mechanical issue. The attendants filled the new car’s tires with air and we were off, only to pull over at a gas station about 15 kilometers outside of Fort Portal with yet another mechanical issue. I was becoming increasingly frustrated, and based on my previous experience with the bus to Fort Portal I decided to catch a ride back to town, bite the bullet and pay for a car and driver to take me directly to Bunyonyi.

20170318_075319-1
Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda

It was a beautiful drive, passing through the lowlands of Queen Elizabeth National Park (unintended safari #2!) and making a brief stop to take a photo at the equator. A dirt road led us up from Kabale to the shores of Lake Bunyonyi, a large freshwater lake at about the same altitude as Lake Tahoe (6,300 feet, it felt like home!) and filled with almost 30 hilly islands of various sizes, many of them inhabited and terraced for farming. As the weather was looking questionable I took a motorboat out to Itambira Island hoping to find lodging in one of their open-air geodomes, but had to settle for a bunk in a dorm room by the water. I immediately jumped into the lake, its cool waters feeling incredibly refreshing after sweating my way through most of East Africa. At night I enjoyed a clear view of the stars and wished I had time to stay longer and just relax, after all of the adventures with getting to the place. I did have the chance to hike around the island the next morning before paddling back to the mainland in a dugout canoe.

20170318_113916
Canoe: the only way to travel

From the shore I arranged a boda-boda to take me to the Rwandan border, about 25 kilometers away. Rwanda was not in my original plan but since I was able to obtain an East Africa Tourist Visa, I figured I should take advantage of the opportunity and spend a few days in the capital, Kigali. With its downtown built at the crest of one of the city’s many hills, Kigali resembled Kampala in some respects. However in others it differed wildly, one distinction being the requirement that boda drivers give their passengers helmets to use while riding (an offer I was more than happy to take advantage of). Traffic was a little less chaotic, and the city also seemed a little less lively. But people were friendly, and though I don’t speak French or the national language, Kinyarwanda, I felt welcome.

20170319_152118
View of downtown Kigali, Rwanda, from the Genocide Memorial

I visited the “first house built in Uganda”, that of German explorer Richard Kandt, which now houses the small Museum of Natural History. Here I learned that the true source of the Nile River is in Rwanda (sorry Uganda) and other interesting facts about the country’s geology and biodiversity. Out back was a large shed that housed a collection of live snakes, including my favorite as a kid, the black mamba! (unfortunately photos were not allowed inside).

20170320_130202
The first house in Kigali, circa late 1800’s

I spent my first full day visiting a couple of memorial sites from the 1994 genocide. With the city seemingly empty on a Sunday morning, I first visited the bullet hole-ridden building at Camp Kigali where 10 Belgian peacekeepers were killed in a (successful) attempt to have Belgium withdraw its contingent at the start of the massacres. The guide had survived the genocide as a teenager and showed me a bullet wound in his leg and machete scar on his stomach. This really reinforced the fact that this is not ancient history (I visited the Killing Fields in Cambodia while traveling around Asia in 2009, which happened over 35 years previously and long before I was born. Rwanda was only 23 years ago; I was 7 years old).

20170319_112006
Building where the Belgian soldiers were killed in 1994

At the Genocide Memorial itself, I watched an introductory video containing powerful testimonies of survivors; powerful not so much in the listing of how many of their family members were killed, but in that the killers were friends and neighbors, people they had grown up with (one woman said, “It is difficult to trust anyone anymore.” Another survivor: “It changes you. You can never go back”). I had a visceral reaction when reading about the atrocities that happened in homes, in churches where people tried to take shelter, on the streets. A room lined with photos of victims (placed there by family members) was haunting, but even more haunting was a room full of skulls and femurs of some of the victims. Outside were a large number of concrete mass graves – I thought there were only two levels, but kept finding more of them (gave a sense of the depressing scale of the tragedy, 250,000 people buried at the memorial alone). Walking through the gardens and greenery provided a much needed respite and space to reflect on what happened, what is happening in the world now and perspective on my own life.

20170319_124613
Entrance to the Genocide Memorial, Kigali

I found in interesting that, according to the museum, Hutu and Tutsi (during the genocide, members of the Hutu majority, especially the Interahamwe militia with the support of the interim government, targeted the Tutsi minority) were originally economic distinctions across all of the 18 tribes in Rwanda. It was only during the colonial period that these identities were made more concrete, being included on citizens’ identity cards and used to control the population by the colonial government. There is much more that I can say about this experience and my reflections, but I will leave it here for now. Rwanda has come a long way since that dark time and I would love to return one day to visit the countryside, the volcanoes, and meet more of the wonderful people.

20170320_122040
Kigali cityscape, Rwanda

Rwenzori Rains

20170316_085132
Rain falling in the Rwenzori Mountains, Uganda

It has been over two months since I flew out of San Francisco and began this journey across three continents. It is also past the halfway point of my trip, and as I start my trek in Turkey I recall fondly (mostly, with the exception of a couple unfortunate bus/matatu rides) the weeks I spent traveling around East Africa. It was my first time anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, and though I am now in a very different part of the world, I know one day I will return.

20170314_115820
The largest banana tree I have ever seen, growing wild near Fort Portal

Since my arrival in Uganda I had been looking forward to seeing and doing some hiking in the Rwenzori Mountains, the highest mountain range in Africa and home to the continent’s third highest mountain (Mt. Stanley, at 5,109 meters). Without the time or funds to launch a full summit expedition, I opted for a three-day trek among the cultivated lower slopes, walking through a number of villages and culminating in an ascent of 3,000 meter Karangura Peak in the north of the park.

 

20170315_133700

I set out on the first day with a guide and guide-in-training, walking on a dirt road directly out of the town of Fort Portal toward the countryside. We passed several schools along the way (basically just a single room with chairs and a chalkboard) as well as fields full of banana trees and cassava plants. Climbing to the top of a small hill, we were rewarded with sweeping views of the Rwenzori foothills and valley below dotted with crater lakes (a legacy of the region’s volcanic past). We also visited the famous Amabere Caves, one of the “Seven Wonders of Uganda” according to the guide, with its refreshing waterfall and stalactites that local Toro legend says are the breasts of an ancient princess (they drip a whitish liquid of hydro-calcium carbonate).

20170314_115436
The famous stalactites of Amabere Cave

We stayed the night at an eco-camp consisting of local style bandas where I enjoyed some of the local food and drink (lots of peanut, or “groundnut/g-nut”, sauce and rolex, a fried egg rolled up inside a chapati, along with a variety of herbal teas). The next day my guides led us on a merry stroll around the terraced foothills of the mountains, stopping by villagers smashing river rocks into small stones to sell for use in road-building as well as the house of a local fortune teller. Reading how five short sticks fall into a bowl of water, he foretold my safe return to the US at the end of this trip. I also asked him if I would ever return to Uganda, and he read that I would indeed come back one more time (there is still so much to see in the country!). At the end of the day we entered a tiny village just as the rain started to fall (it was the very beginning of the rainy season) and took shelter in a teahouse, drinking milk tea with bread and watching the drops of water quench the dry earth.

 

20170315_121506
Traversing the Rwenzori foothills

The major distributor of bottled water in Uganda is called Rwenzori, and I soon found out why as we began the peak attempt in a raging downpour the following morning. Despite a waterproof jacket and boots, I was completely soaked within 20 minutes and was about ready to call it off when we took a break at the ranger station. However we pressed on, two rangers with automatic rifles accompanying our struggle up the steep, muddy hillsides. The head ranger explained that as the park is located along the Congo border rebels from the DRC sometimes enter the park, though it was more of a problem six years ago. Luckily we didn’t meet any rebels but we did encounter a number of people who were in the park without a permit (either passing through or collecting plants), who the rangers proceeded to punish either by slapping them pretty hard in the face, forcing them to walk back up the mountain with us, or both.

 

20170316_103613-1
It was extremely wet

After endeavoring up the steep path in the rain for hours, the skies finally cleared and we reached the peak of Karangura. Collapsing onto benches to ravenously devour our lunch of chapati, hard-boiled eggs, and (you guessed it) peanuts, I admired the gorgeous view of green mountains falling away into the mist in the distance. We slipped and slid our way down a different (but no less steep) path, spotting some of the giant lobelia plants that are endemic to the high mountains of East Africa. I celebrated our successful summit back in Fort Portal with pizza and beer, and promptly fell asleep exhausted and ready to relax at my next destination, Lake Bunyonyi.

 

20170316_121542
View from Karangura summit