A Travellerspoint blog

July 2012

Canakkale, Turkey

A small coastal town with a large selection of new grub!

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The bus dropped us off right at the port and we thought we’d have to take a shuttle into the center of town… after many confusing conversations with the locals we finally figured out that we were already in the center of town! Turns out that Canakkale is a very small town with a beautiful promenade along the water; we only had to walk 50m to meet up with Emre for a monster sized baked potato (kumpir)… this kumpir bar was similar to a frozen yogurt bar in that there were over 15 different toppings to select from!

We continued sampling new Turkish foods first with some traditional ice cream (dondurma) before heading out for some Efes beers and live music. The best part of the evening must have been eating a hand rolled Tuni afterwards, which kinda felt like hitting up a late night taco truck.

After a Turkish coffee making lesson, we headed to the beach. Although the water was pretty refreshing, the two beaches we went to weren’t nearly as impressive as the one we had been to on the Black Sea, so we headed off in search of a place for some lunch. Strolling through the quiet streets, we found a nice alley filled with old men having chai… we stopped in front of a café that had grapevines growing over the top and were pleasantly surprised with a kind man from the shop across the street who came over and asked if we needed any help. The restaurant owner was his friend, who didn’t speak any English, so he helped us order some kofte and taziki.

The most popular tourist site close to Canakkale is Troy, home of the Trojan Horse. Lucky for us there is a replica of the horse in Canakkale that is rumored to have been used in the movie ‘Troy,’ so we decided to stay in town and selected some ‘Trojan wine’ to go with the experience.

Now feeling a bit warrior like, Kevin and Emre took on some 16 year olds for some 3 on 3 basketball. For the next two hours, Kevin and Emre took on the heckling kids who couldn’t figure out a combination to beat the old guys… to celebrate our victory Emre took us to the best place in town for Turkish cheesecake (which by the way needs a new translation because it does not resemble American cheesecake at all)! We were very impressed with how many new local delights we sampled in such a small town… our favorite being a sweet sesame covered roll twisted into a bagel shaped pastry that were sold all over town! There were even ones filled with olives…

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 09:37 Archived in Turkey Comments (3)

Riding Buses in Turkey

This bus has WiFi?

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Traveling over land through Asia is an adventure to say the least, and has left us dreading any sort of long bus trip. Our first trip in Turkey was via bus from Istanbul to Canakkale and was to be a 6 hour ride. We were not excited, and the price was a lot higher than what we had been paying in Asia. However, we were in for a real treat when we boarded our plush air conditioned bus and found that every seat had a TV, a food tray, and a USB power outlet.

As we were smiling with disbelief, a stewardess came down the aisle serving complementary snacks and drinks as if we were on an airplane. The roads were paved (shocking!) and at times we felt like we were simply sitting at an internet cafe. During the bus ride we pounded out some serious catch-up on trip planning as we were served tea, coffee, water, and cake. When we stopped for a break the rest stop had tables with seats and stores with shelves! Even though we still had to pay for the toilet, it was actually inside with running water!

We drove along the Sea of Marmara and made for a very picturesque journey. Near the end of the journey the bus boarded a ferry to cross the Dardanelles (which connects the Sea of Marmara with the Agean Sea) and we could see cute little Canakkale nestled quaintly at the water’s edge! The bus trip was so enjoyable and productive that we couldn’t wait to ride the bus again!

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 21:25 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Istanbul, Turkey

Into the Mediterranean!

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Perhaps it’s because we were so excited to be out of the heat and crowds of India, or because it reminded us so much of San Francisco, but for whatever reason, we fell in love with Istanbul. It is surrounded by beautiful blue waters, filled with cute tea shops and green parks, littered with sky lines and cityscapes, alive with trams that meander flower lined walking streets past historical castles and bazaars. It is a wonderful city to get lost in and to absorb all of the sites, foods, and sounds of the mosques. We enjoyed fresh veggies without worry of bad water, and sampled many of the local delights with the first and most obvious being the Turkish Delights. We decided that we like the original chewy ones, that don’t contain nuts or other frills. Second, there is baklava, with all different kinds, including chocolate! We ate doners, which are similar to our beloved schwarma and last but not least there is an endless supply of yogurts, cay (chai), and Turkish coffee. All of which can be enjoyed while sitting outside in cafes with ample people watching opportunities. The people here are super friendly and hold true the legendary ‘Turkish hospitality.’ People seemed to be relaxed and spend a lot of their day sitting outside, drinking cay from tulip shaped glasses.

Istanbul is unique in that half of the city is located on the European continent while the other half separated by the Bosphorus is on the Asian continent. While on the Europe side, we stayed in 68 Hostel on the Tophane tram stop. We were pleasantly surprised with it being located smack in the middle of a cute little neighborhood, with a market, a few veggie and fruit stands, a baklava bakery and a caged mini soccer field. We were close enough to walk to all of the historic sites, and just around the corner was a park on the hill with an awesome sunset view of the Bosphorus!

We spent some time wandering around the entirely covered Grand Bazaar, through the cavern like underground streets with blue glass “watching eye” charms peering at us from every shop. We learned that these watching eyes are supposed to fend off evil and bad spirits, and Robin is now protected with here new necklace! We had the impression that they were sold only to tourists since they were sold all over the bazaar, however, we later noticed watching eyes in every normal shop, home and on bumpers of cars and buses!

We found the best tourist site to be the least visited and hardest to find. It was the Basilica Cistern that was featured in the movie ‘From Russia with Love.’ It’s an underground water tank that used to hold 2,800,000 cu ft of water for the city and it blew our expectations away. It was like walking underground into the ‘Mines of Morea’ with spooky columns holding up a dimly lighted dome roof.

Before heading over to the Asian side, we took a cruise along the Bosphorus to the Black Sea, where we spent a few hours enjoying the view from a castle on top of a hill. We were joined by some dolphins swimming just off the bow of our boat and went under several familiar looking bridges :)

Leaving the tourist sites behind on the European side, we ventured into the suburbs to meet up with Osman and Kubra where we experienced a more practical version of Istanbul. We were greeted with an amazing spread of typical Turkish breakfasts and some good home cooking. Osman and Kubra took us on day trip up to the Black Sea near Agva where we stopped in little fishing towns and spent some time relaxing on the beach, making sand castles, flying a kite, and riding river bicycles!

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 10:53 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

World records and shwarmas!

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We thought it would be fitting to celebrate the end of our 5 months in Asia by living it up with some high class luxuries: sheets, water pressure, toilet paper, etc :) We had two free nights via hotels dot com, and treated ourselves to a 4-star hotel in Dubai. Our plane landed late in the evening so instead of wasting one of our free nights, we slept in the airport lounge using our newly acquired Asian skillset to squeeze in-between the armrests.

After a night in the lounge we definitely appreciated our 4-star bed! The hotel greeted us with complementary drinks and let us check into our room at 9am. We freshened up with a shower and then headed out to see the Gold and Spice Souks (markets). The Gold Souk turned out to be most impressive with the incredible amounts of shops and jewelry displays. Talking with the shop owners we learned about the differences between white-gold and gold-gold.

With full intentions of relaxing for a few days we took advantage of our luxurious hotel amenities by hitting the gym, dipping back and forth between the rooftop pool and the steam room, washed all of our clothes, watched a movie on our huge flat screen TV in our plush puffy pillow rich bed, and most importantly we enjoyed our complimentary breakfast buffet by sampling a spread of several different non-Asian cuisines (including Mediterranean, Arabic and American). We spent about an hour each morning sipping coffee and reading the newspaper… can you picture us sitting down for that long?

The metro is elevated through most of the downtown area, and as we gazed out at the city, we saw many incredible buildings of all shapes and sizes. This place is a structural engineer’s paradise! We felt like little kids at an aquarium as we pointed and squealed with delight at each building as if an exciting new fish would swim by the window. We also took a private monorail out to Atlantis Resort, and suddenly found ourselves in what felt like Las Vegas. We wondered around for a little, and quickly realized that we could either spend all our money in about two days here, or travel for another 6 months – we chose the latter and headed back over Palm Island (the world’s largest manmade island) to explore more of the city.

Palm Island was only one of the many ‘world records’ that we saw in Dubai. It seemed like everywhere we went there was a Guinness World Record plaque hanging on the wall! For example, while we were in the largest mall in the world (Dubai Mall) we walked past the world’s largest Acrylic Panel (for the aquarium) on the way to see the tallest building in the world (Burj Khalifa) and the largest fountain show in the world boasting 25% larger volume than the Las Vegas Bellagio fountain.

It was hard to comprehend the scale of the Burj Khalifa because it’s in the middle of the desert, but luckily the queue to get on the viewing platform was lined with loads of fun facts and information about the tower. One of the exhibits allowed you to see what famous city skylines would look like If the Burj Khalifa tower was built there. Here is what the San Francisco skyline would look like:

Inside the mall, there is an aquarium, a full size ice rink, a cinema, over 12,000 stores and most importantly there are lots of big screens reminding everyone about important cultural laws such as “No kissing or overt display of affection!” Kevin would have loved to have been on the design team for that icon!

Exploring Dubai was a drastic change after being in Asia for so long and immediately after being in India for 3.5 weeks. We had the strangest reactions to simple things like sidewalks, crosswalk and different foods. One of which is now our favorite new food (and word)… “shwarma” and they are basically what we know as a ‘gyro’ but the street venders told us that they have waaaay better sauce :) Lucky for us we had a few vendors around the corner from our hotel! These guys were super friendly, and their two flavors of shwarma (spicy or non-spicy) were a pleasant addition to the ‘out of Asia celebration!’

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 13:28 Archived in United Arab Emirates Comments (1)

Best and worst men’s rooms in Asia

Oh the joys of toilets in Asia

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Don’t miss it: The Dalai Lama’s temple, McLeod Ganj, India
The best place to watch the young monks debating… the atmosphere was quiet and the monks outnumbered the tourists. It’s also set in the trees on a hillside that makes for some amazing views, of which the best (believe it or not) is looking out from the men’s open air urinal!

Skip it: Immigration building, Lao Cai, Vietnam
This would have been a cruel joke if anywhere else... this bathroom actually had urinals on the wall, which was going to be a nice change from the standard hole in the ground until the splashing sounds at my feet alerted me to the fact that there was no connecting pipe!

Now imagine the same situation, but at a Cricket match with a stadium full of men and only one place to go… Ahhh the things you take for granted :)

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 11:48 Tagged asia Comments (4)

Survival Kit, Asia

Top 5 of our most used items while traveling through Asia

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After five months of traveling through Asia we wanted to share a few tips and tricks that we discovered along the way… Here is a list of our top 5 most frequently used items in Asia:

0. The (not so dark) Crystal

Changing from antiperspirant to regular deodorant is scary, but changing from deodorant to an all-natural hippie crystal is even scarier. We normally don’t like to promote brands but we have to go ahead and say that the ‘Crystal body deodorant stick’ was the best discovery we have yet to make on this trip. It seriously works, does not melt in the hot weather, and lasts forever (it’s been 9 months now and still going strong).

1. Clothes Cleaning Kit: drain stopper, cloths line, and pegs in a stuff sack

Traveling light meant traveling with only a few clothes, and making sure to keep on top of our laundry. After a full day of sightseeing our clothes are dirty stinky and done for! Sinks don’t always have working stoppers, so we use a universal flat rubber one (thanks Mom!) almost every day. The laundry line we use to hang dry our clothes has also doubled for us as a way to hang food from critters (we did this in Bardia).

2. Pack Protection Kit: small combo padlocks, cable with combo padlock, and rain fly

We use the small combo locks for our zippers for obvious reasons, and it turns out they are also a requirement for storing luggage in India (i.e. train station cloak rooms won’t store your bags for the day if they don’t have the zippers locked). We use a cable and padlock to secure our big packs to something study in our bed room, or in luggage racks, cloak rooms and when sleeping on trains (or in train stations). We use the rain fly every time we travel to keep out pickpockets on crowded trains or lower compartments of buses.

3. Small day pack

With our main packs locked up in our bedroom, we use a top loading lightweight compactable 18L daypack with a drawstring to easily carry around our essentials. The benefit of a frameless bag without zippers or pockets is that it is fully secure on a crowded train or on a beach. We are currently using a REI Flash (thanks Beau!) and it’s a perfect fit for those mini 5L kegs!

4. Sarong

By far one of the biggest surprises on this list is the sarong (thanks Sue!). It is super lightweight and dries faster than any microfiber towel. We have used this on many occasions doubling as a beach and camping towel, picnic blanket, scarf, religious head cover, bed sheet, beach dress, and even as a seat cover on uncomfortable plastic bus/train seats.

5. Small scrubber or exfoliating pad

Another shocker to us was how important having some sort of exfoliation tool would be. When visiting temples and mosques (and most people’s homes) it is custom and usually required to remove your shoes. Asia is smoggy, dusty, humid and dirty. Just going for a walk around the block is enough to clog our pores. The best way for us to remove the gobs of sunblock and combat heat rash, ingrown hairs and acne was to literally scrub the shiat out of our pores.

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 11:46 Tagged asia Comments (0)

!ncredible, India

Inspiring or Frustrating?

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“!ncredible India” -- is the current tourist bureau slogan… and oh how true it is. We only went through a very small portion of India but we were shocked how one minute it would inspire and amaze us, but then frustrate and annoy us the next. We met travelers who said they would never go back and others that couldn’t get enough. We learned a lot about patience and tried to smile our way through, but it wasn’t always easy. For example, it was common for a rickshaw driver to pretend that he understood where we wanted to go (so he could secure our business), or how everyone working at the bus station would have a different idea of when our bus would depart. When the reality was that neither the rickshaw driver or the people at the bus station had any clue as to where we wanted to go or what time the bus departed. Then add on the fact that it’s hotter than hell and that at some point (even if you are extremely careful) the food will probably make you ill. Yet, amidst all this frustration, there are local folks who were so happy to help us or simply meet us that they gave us the most genuine handshakes and greetings. The food was a vegetarian’s paradise, and we met hardworking bicycle rickshaw drivers who would pedal us both (probably four times their own weight) around the city in the draining heat.

Being constantly accosted made India a tough place to discern the genuinely kind people from those who were trying to trick us. Because of this, we had to always be on guard and be skeptical of anyone who approached us, or offered to help. Unfortunately because of this, we may have turned down some genuine people… but fortunately good prevailed and we met and learned from some of the nicest locals about their culture, religion and we were most impressed with how they keep their families under a single roof (including grown children, and grandparents). Thank you India for pushing our boundaries and testing our limits…

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 02:52 Archived in India Comments (3)

Veggie Burgers, Nepal & India

A surprising experience

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In the USA, we tend to avoid eating veggie burgers at restaurants because they are typically frozen factory patties resold with an incredible markup. In our first week traveling in Nepal we noticed veggie burgers on the menus but never gave them a second thought. One night Robin looked for an alternative to momos and decided to order a veggie burger. We were blown away when our 50 cent veggie burger and fries arrived in front of us in Pokhara! It had clearly just been made by hand, and was sooo delicious!

In McLeod Ganj we tried both veggie burgers and tofu burgers… in Amritstar we had one with hints of curry! Each time we were pleasantly surprised. Lesson learned:
“when traveling, let go of all expectations and don’t assume that you know what something is based on the English translation”

We even saw veggie burgers at KFC and McDonalds… and since McD’s in India does not contain a single beef burger, they instead offer paneer (thick tofu like cheese) burgers, and other fun vegetarian items.

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 02:29 Archived in Nepal Tagged india Comments (2)

Attari, India

An inflated border closing ceremony

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We didn’t go into Pakistan, but we got close enough to look over the border wall and peer into a Pakistani stadium. Why would there be a stadium directly on the border you ask? Well obviously because there is a massive and ridiculously flamboyant display of border guards on both sides competing to see who could kick their legs higher than the other while walking over to drop their country’s flag and close the border gate for the day. Whew! What started as a little fun between border guards has now transformed into what is deemed as a very exciting show – we imagine it would be similar to what you’d see if the British built a half circle cement bleacher grandstand around the changing of the guards ceremony in front of Buckingham Palace. There were crowds and crowds of Indian tourists all pushing and shoving each other to get a closer view of the 10 foot tall MC leading the crowd in patriotic chants.

Lucky for us someone has determined that it was better to secure a spot for the few foreigners that show up to the ceremony than serve them medical treatment after being trampled by the rowdy Indians. Thus the creation of what is called the VIP gallery!

We have to admit that we were more impressed with the crowd’s antics than the actual ceremony. We felt like we were at a sporting event with the chanting cheers and raising flags. To get the party started they played loud Hindi jams that enticed the women (including Robin) to run to the front for some dancing.

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 02:23 Archived in India Comments (0)

Amritsar, India

The Golden Temple

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It was dark when we carefully walked through the quiet streets of Mcleod Ganj. Packs of wild dogs rule the streets here and at 3:00am we were the only ones up to catch the local bus out of town. We stood in the dark for a good 30 minutes fending off barks and rattling in the bushes (think: White Fang fire scene) and wondering if a bus was really going to come. Shortly after 4am we were on the bus and relived that we weren’t going to miss our connection… a few minutes later and we pulled over for both the driver and fare collector to get out and slowly brush their teeth and shower alongside the road… this left us all alone in the dark wondering once again if we were going to make that connection.

With only a few minutes to spare, we boarded our bus to Amritsar and began our windy decent from the mountains. Amritsar was not on our original itinerary, but after talking to some folks in Nepal who had already traveled in India, we determined that the Golden Temple and the border crossing would be interesting sites to see, plus, Amritsar has an airport that provided us an easy escape route from India to Dubai.

We heard about the Golden Temple’s free accommodation and were looking forward to sleeping on the floor next to 100s of pilgrims. Unfortunately, this was not exactly the case. We were ushered into a small secluded place for foreigners that wasn’t too different from a hostel, only here there were no assigned beds so you constantly had to reclaim your space (we ended up moving into a hotel and using this as a home base for leaving our shoes and filling up water). The good news is that the accommodation is literally 30 seconds from the entrance into the temple and most importantly the dining hall.

The Golden Temple is a mecca for the Sikh religion. It offers free accommodation and food for pilgrim and travelers alike. The hospitality here is amazing and inspiring! Based on our rough calculations, the kitchen serves about 2,000 people every 20-30 minutes and for being fully volunteer supported it’s surprisingly well organized. Although the food is simple and very similar in each meal, it is a quick, hot, nutritious meal and the chia (milk tea) is amazing. Everyone sits in rows so that volunteers come down the aisles splashing ladles of dal, curry, rice onto your stainless steel plate. Then someone comes along and places toasted warm chapatis into your open plalms.

What is really impressive, is watching how the food is made on such a grand scale (in the order of 100s of gallons at a time), and how the dishes are hand washed in a very organized assembly line that creates endless sounds of banging dishes.
<video dish washing>

As we were wondering around the temple, we met Rajan and Jess, who offered to give us a tour of the ground. We ended up hanging out for about 4-hours and had a great time. We learned about the five Sikh symbols (uncut hair, comb, bangle, knife, underwear) and what the temple and religion means to the local Sikhs. We also explored several places that were not on the beaten path, including going underground to see the roots of a sacred tree, and visiting a nearby temple that was almost completely empty. We heard stories of how the Sikhs are the kindest and friendliest people are grateful to have experience it firsthand!

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 06:48 Archived in India Comments (1)

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