Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Last batch of pictures

 Don't see many street vendors selling tea in Denver.
 This is the pedestrian mall near our hotel - everything from small shops on alleyways off the main drag, to upscale shops on the main drag.  Street musicians and buskers - I think I saw one of them in Boulder.  Pick a food, any food - it's available.
 And, a trolley runs down the middle of it.  Sometimes (usually) faster to walk - the trolley can't get through the crowds.
 The views across the water are  pretty neat.  Mosques everywhere you look.
 The big blue mosque (blue tiles inside).
 Graffiti inside the mosque, carved by a Viking 600years ago.
 The prettiest of the mosques - Suleiyman the Magnificent had it built a long time ago.  Not as big as Hagia Sophia or Blue mosque, but prettier.  Interesting to have the  chandelier down very low within the gigantic open space.
 Lots of domes.
The pattern on the carpet helps the worshippers line up for prayers.

Taksim Park, where the antigovernment demonstrations were centered a few months ago.  Lots of families, trees, kids (and, as everywhere, free range cats and dogs), and playgrounds.  And, a tea vendor.  Not a whiff of teargas.

Home soon, this blog is done.

Wow, this is, like, a really, really, different country, Dude - totally.

 Everywhere in Europe we found these outdoor, coin operated espresso machines - full range - espresso, cappuccino, macchiato.  Need investors for USA franchise opportunities.
 We crossed the border from Romania - dirty, poor, backward with people who appeared grim, rarely a spontaneous smile or wave.  Arrived on the Bulgarian side of the river in an industrial port city, but rode downtown to find a clean open spaced center of town with freshly painted houses, open squares with green grass, trees, fountains, smiling people, spontaneous waves, folks willing to teach a few words of Bulgarian with great laughs at our attempt to pronounce the words.

It's like, well, a different country.
 The opera house in Ruse - featuring a performance of Aida - not sure if they have elephants for the triumphal entry.

40 years ago I took a year of high school Russian.  It's been very helpful in Bulgaria which uses the Cyrillic alphabet - same as Russian.  Many of the letters are pronounced differently, and there are many letters unlike anything in the latin alphabet - for instance the backwards looking capital R that is pronounced "ya", and a backwards "n" that is pronounced "ee".  So, being able to phonetically  sound out a sign often yields a completely recognizable work:  EKCnPEC  actually sounds out to "express".  I can't carry on any sort of a conversation, but being able to read signs is a great help.  Never thought that a high school course, unused for 40 years, would return to help me.
 We spent a week in Romania and saw many massive statues - Soviet era "uplifting" statues of workers, soldiers, women dressed as soldiers and workers.  But nary an exposed breast.  It was reassuring to come to Bulgaria and see naked women again.  This statue of a young lady being sprayed in a fountain suggests that even for a statue, cold water sprayed on your back is a chilling experienced.

 Stopped at a store to restock some cookies and Fanta.  This kid and his dad were there (kid's on a bike with training wheels) and we couldn't speak, but did a lot of smiling gestures at each other.  They took off riding and I later caught up with them and got big waves and smiles as I rode by.
 The sunflowers are past their prime here and are turning brown, but the fields go on for miles and miles.  Today's ride often went along the ridges of rolling hills and we could see the fields going off to the horizon.  Bulgarian farms seem to be highly mechanized compared to Romania - lots of large machinery, some new - but lots of an age that would have been retired in North America.  We did see some horse drawn wagons, but in Romania horse drawn seemed to be a very large portion of the work force, here the fields are larger (the terrain is not that much different - here it rolls and rolls, in Romania it was quite hilly at the foot of the mountains, but rapidly gave way to extensive flat plains that could have been mechanized, but seemed to have not been).  I'll avoid the argument of whether mechanization is really progress.
We rode over a big ridge and down into Veliko Tarnovo (many different latinized spellings) - once the capital of Bulgaria, with old fortresses and palaces.  Now a tourist city of 200,000.  Quite a beautiful place on cliffs overlooking goosenecks in the river below.


The overall impression of Bulgaria as being so different from its neighbor:  happier, friendlier, cleaner, more progressive - is quite overwhelming.  In Romania we struggled to find stuff that we could comment favorably upon.  Here, we're positively happy with our surroundings and our experiences.

(One side note:  in Romania, there were quite noticeable differences between the Northern part of the country - Transylvania, and the southern part - Wallachia.  Transylvania was friendlier, the drivers were less agressive - our 3 episodes of drivers deliberately trying to injure cyclists were in Wallachia.)

Remember, that both of these countries are smaller than many American states in both size, and population.

Why is that?  Was the 20 years of Ceausescu sufficient to beat down the spirit as well as the economy of Romania to the point where it is still early in its recovery, 25 years later?  (And required a violent revolution to dump President-for-life Mr C - whereas Bulgaria was already liberalizing prior to a peaceful first democratic election in 1989, which the renamed Communists, now Socialists, won.  And, an economy that actually lost ground in the decades since the end of the Communist planned economy.) Or, is there a societal history that goes back further and runs deeper, that underlies the differences?  Although the era of bad Mr C must have some influence, I think there must be more.  Just one example:  Bulgaria fought both World Wars on the side of Germany, but seems to have been a political and economic move of necessity and never bought into the full Nazi program:  refused to participate in the German turnaround to attack Russia and abstained from that part of the war.  And most tellingly, refused to allow the Nazis access to the Bulgarian Jews and was able to protect nearly all of the Jews of Bulgaria from deportation and death.  Something goes back further than the postwar disruptions.

What we'll miss when we get home:

OK, I won't miss struggling with the language(s).
I'll miss some (not, by any means, all) of the foods.

I'll miss the "free range" cats and dogs.  They're all over.  Some are pretty mangy, but most are pleasant, friendly, looked after by shopkeepers, waiters, etc.   They are really pretty sweet - even when they hop up on the breakfast table and grab a slice of ham.

I'll miss never knowing quite how a public bathroom will be set up.  Occasionally an American style with separation of men and women.  But, often shared sinks, sometimes with separated toilet facilities, sometimes with identified M/F stalls, sometimes with the guys urinals around the corner, but not always.  Adventure in peeing.

I'll miss the mix of cultures, and the variations within a culture.  The mix of Muslim women is pretty interesting to observe here in Turkey.  The highlight today:  Jean and I had just come out of a mosque and were putting our shoes back on (Jean is very fetching and spiritual looking in a head scarf).  Out comes a 30 something woman in Hijab - black scarf ( no veil) and elegant but plain, floor length black tailored robe.  On go the running shoes, off comes the scarf, off comes the robe revealing the little hottie in a low cut miniskirted sun dress.  Quick, neat folding up, and off goes the hottie.  Nice.

Couple hours to the flight home.

See you all soon.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The far side of Europe

The last few days of riding were in rural Turkey - lots of rolling hills covered with scrub oak and some more robust forests, and interspersed with small towns - some agricultural, but many mining - gravel mining.  Not very much of great interest.  Not many folks spoke English.  Plenty of big trucks to share the road.

Finally through some forests as we went over a final ridge.  Thick forests with a bunch of picnic areas and campgrounds being heavily used by locals.  Down towards the Bosporus through a pretty valley with several kilometers of "Event Parks" - full of outdoor lawns covered with pavilions, tables, bandstands - looking to be ready for a bunch of weddings in the afternoon.  Interesting.

On our last night on the road, we stayed at a nice resort and had a chance to look on at a wedding reception going on outside:  interesting contrast as one family in the receiving line was very modern (apparent sister of one of the couple had a low cut strapless number that compared well with Pipa at the Will & Kate wedding) while the other family had women all in Hijab - Muslim conservative, though very fashionable, dress with headscarves and long gowns/suits for the women (though no veils).  Never figured out which family belonged to the bride and which to the groom.  As folks came through the receiving line there was an interesting on & off of greeting styles (as well as outright ignoring of the conservative family) between the two families.  Weird, funny, uncomfortable.  Bride & groom were dressed, and danced, like something out of an American movie (no, not My Big Fat Greek Wedding).  Nice music.

On down to the Bosporus.  Really cool.  Look across the water and there is Asia.  Look to the left and you can see where it opens into the Black Sea - somewhere up there is Russia and the Ukraine and next winter's Olympics.  There's a 7 MPH current through there, but deep underneath is a current running the other way driven by the different salt content of the Black and Mediterranean Seas.  Hard to wrap my head around that one.

Plenty of big ships, including the gigantic cruise liners, oil tankers, container ships going through and all mixed in with small fishing boats, local ferries, little family boats, and sleek high power fast boats that appeared to belong to James Bond and other folks who could buy Boulder without exceeding their credit card limit.

Then, dip a few tires into the water (nobody fell in), and load onto a boat for a trip down to Istanbul - been on my list of places to visit for a long time, and what a nice way to get there.
Spent the first 24 hours a bit away from the tourist center in a very crowded area - Ortokay - mostly used by locals.  High levels of chaos and crowding.

Then today moved to a different hotel (a boutique hotel on a Yuppie side street and returning to something resembling the cafe society of western Europe) towards the tourist center.  Spent some time in the shopping area leading up to Taksim square - the center of the unrest and demonstrations a few months ago (no sign of that now). Lots of folks speak English, so easier to navigate, and altogether very nice pedestrian mall with a trolly that stretches for well over a kilometer.  And, yes there are several McDonald's as well as other American style fast food joints.  But plenty of local shops, sights, etc.  Fish markets, silk markets, leather goods, shoe stores, lamp stores, as well as Gap, Esprit, Timberline, Birkenstock.

Off the tourist mall, the shops tend to run in groups - 12 scuba shops, 30 lighting stores (lots more LED's here than in the US), 40 hardware stores, etc.

Tomorrow on to the history, museums, mosques, etc.


Friday, August 23, 2013

More on Traveler's Diarrhea

As I was getting sick last night, I very cautiously farted a few times (It takes a brave man to fart in Asia - and we're almost there.)  This morning, several horses were found dead in the street, and the dogs had all left town.  

More on the call to prayer:  The call is done live, over a microphone.  YouTube is full of videos and audio of the Azan.  When we were in Cairo a few years ago, we got to hear the call done by an apparently very famous muezzin who did the Azan/call to prayer, for our group, live and in person without amplification - quite beautiful.  It's very formal:  "Allahu Akbar" - God is Great -  repeated 4 times, and on with various prescribed phrases repeated - takes 3-4 minutes.  Can be done to a variety of different melodies.  There is even an "American Idol" sort of competition for best Azan - done in Instanbul.  Volume seems to be an important part of the whole thing, not a good thing if your hotel is right next to the minaret as ours is.  I'm not looking forward to 5:30 AM.

Turkey was part of the Roman Empire - eventually Istanbul, then called Constantinople, became the capital as Rome itself went to the dogs.  Then, the Turks invaded from Central Asia and brought in the new language and customs - in the 11th century.  It was then the seat of the Ottoman Empire, and controlled much of the Middle East, northern Africa, southeastern Europe - until it was on the losing side in World War 1.

In the 20's Kemal Mustafa - later called Kemal Mustafa Ataturk - became the father of the secular republic of Turkey.  Although it's still a primarily Muslim country, it is politically still secular - for instance, women can't wear Hijab (head scarves and such) in the Universities and in government buildings - apparently generates quite a bit of controversy.  On the other hand, it's very hard to find alcohol - lots of conservative spillover, especially with the current party in power which is pretty conservative.

The last border to cross

4 or 5 days ago we stayed at a hotel where the water to the whole town was out, because of a broken water line.  it was fixed in a few hours, but when the water came back on it was pretty awful.  I thought that it might be a bad idea to drink it, but there wasn't much else available.

I was right.  A number of us - me included - have been sicker than dogs in the last 24 hours.  Nepal quality sick - headache, muscle aches, fever, and the GI's - not sure which end of my body to point at the toilet.

Pretty grim, but getting better.

Yesterday crossed into Turkey - now the letters are familiar latin style letters, but the words are completely different - no relationship to the other European Languages.  So, no idea whatsoever about what a sign is about, let alone what it says.  And, a bit challenging to find anyone who speaks any English.

Yesterday was a tough ride - fast with tailwinds in the morning, but desperately hard riding into cross headwinds all afternoon.  I think the hardest day of riding this trip.

Turkey's per capita income is 1/3 that of the US, but is 50% higher than that of Romania and Bulgaria - it's noticeably more prosperous once we cross the border.  Rural agricultural area with new roads (either to help open up EU markets, or for military defense purposes - lots of military installations along the way).

Every little town has a mosque and a minaret, and larger towns have many, many mosques and minarets.

The call to prayer is no longer done by the guy who climbs up in the minaret - it's all done remotely over loudspeakers that seem to function at about 150 decibels.  After being sick all night, then finally getting to sleep, the 5 am prayer call from the mosque across the street made me jump about 10 feet. I'm not sure if the calls are pre-recorded, or are each individualized, but they are funny in that at the end of the call, you can hear the "click" of a telephone hanging up.  It'd make a good ring tone, or better yet, a ringtone for my iPad alarm clock - I'm pretty sure that I'd always wake up before it went off so that I could turn it off before the ring.

I'm going to see if I can get up and walk a little without fainting.

Later, folks.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Southern Bulgaria

We rode through the Balkan Mountains - not very high, but pretty, down into a valley where we dropped into much more humid surroundings - getting close enough to the Black Sea that it's definitely a more maritime atmosphere.

Pretty rolling countryside.  Much less prosperous than what we saw to the north - though still with the large fields and mechanized agriculture.  However, around the small towns were smaller farms with plenty of horse-drawn work going on.

Talked to a British ex-pat who lives in the area - says that 7 years ago the area was largely forested and pastureland.  With Bulgaria joining the EU, money has come in to improve roads and therefore access to markets, and more importantly, crops can be sold throughout the rest of Europe - so crops like corn and sunflower have become much more profitable and the whole agriculture has changed.

The last 2 nights we've stayed at hotels where no one spoke any English - Google Translator came in quite handy.

A few really run down villages on today's ride - not seen in Bulgaria to the north of the mountains.  One drunk guy stood in the road and tried to tackle a rider just behind me.  Anil, our rider, demonstrated his Rugby skills and left the drunk (who demonstrated the weakness of an arm tackle) spinning about in the road.  Good on 'ya, Anil.