Bulgaria

On 1 Oct, we left Istanbul for Sofia in Bulgaria.  This was another once in a lifetime destination because normally I’d never have thought of doing the former Soviet East-European countries. Thanks to the organizers, TAC Adventurers, I had that opportunity. One obvious thing I noticed upon entering Bulgaria is the display of huge crosses along the way as if to remind everybody that they are a Christian country in contrast to the minarets of Islamic Turkey.  This is probably because they were under Ottoman rule for almost five centuries (1396-1878.)

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4th Century St George church
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Alexander Nevsky cathedral
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Met a Rotarian from Varna

Sofia is the capital city of Bulgaria.  When we arrived there it was raining and miserably cold.  However, we did manage a quick tour of the city.   There must be quite a lot to see in Sofia, but we just didn’t have the time.  But the quick exposure was enough to give me an impression that the country has much to offer in the area of tourism by way of drawing tourists visiting Istanbul to also visit Sofia, at least.

bulgaria

Next morning, at the hotel, before departure for Veliko Tarnovo, I met a Rotarian from Varna (a city on the Black Sea coast) and exchanged business cards with him.

Veliko Tarnovo has got an interesting history.  It was the capital and last stronghold of the second Bulgarian Empire that was under siege for three months and fell to the Ottoman Turks back in 1393. The Ottoman rule was ended by the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78) when Bulgaria, as it is known today, came into being but under Russian influence.  But Veliko Tarnovo did not stay as the capital; instead Sofia became the new capital.

Ah Boy almost had an accident when jack collapsed

Ah Boy almost had an accident when jack collapsed

Waiting for the group to walk up to the Tsarevet citadel

Waiting for the group to walk up to the Tsarevet citadel

View of the city below from Execution Rock

View of the city below from Execution Rock

Convicts executed by pushing them into the river below

Convicts executed by pushing them into the river below

Concerning the near accident, our mechanic Ah Boy, was attending to Convoy Leader’s car for some undercarriage problems. For some reason the jack collapsed; fortunately the Landcruiser had its wheels on thus there was enough clearance for Ah Boy to ease himself from underneath the car.

The next morning we went on a tour to the Tsarevets citadel, a remarkable fortress up the hill.  As mentioned earlier, this town endured a three month siege by the Ottoman Turks back in 1393 before it fell to the conquerors. If only they won they would have had a fine time pushing the Turkish captives off Execution Rock to their deaths in the river some 100 m below. Nasty!

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Turkey

We entered Turkey from Batumi, Georgia. There was no problem at all with Immigration & Customs, Turkey being a major tourist destination for travellers of the world, thanks to its rich history and beautiful landscape. Turkey is an Islamic country being so obvious with countless mosques with minarets — that looked like rockets on their launch pads — dotting the skyline as you drive along their splendid roads and highways. Indeed the drive along the south coast of the Black Sea to Trabzon was very pleasant.

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I had strange mixed feelings upon entering Turkey; a feeling of relief that I had survived the tough journey over mountains and deserts through several strange countries that I only had heard of in geography and history books; and a feeling of gladness that I took on this journey and it was quite unlike what those Silk Road travellers of old would have endured; a feeling of admiration for this progressive Islamic country with the impressive glorious empire of the Ottomans to boast of; and a feeling of awe and inspiration to travel to other places on this beautiful earth.

At Trabzon I had the opportunity to perform the Maghrib prayers at a mosque near the hotel. As expected only old people made up the congregation. The women also took the opportunity to buy fresh provisions for our camping at Tokat the next day. Two small incidents happened at Tokat. One was Sh Abas’ car had bearing failures and the other an inter-personal one. This time a couple of elders from the group decided not to camp; instead they went off to stay at a hotel in town. I should have joined them actually because the campsite wasn’t that well maintained since the showers and toilets didn’t work with obvious signs of vandalism. I was just too glad to leave for Ankara the next morning of 28 Sept.

We didn’t do much in Ankara apart from visiting the Museum of Anatolian civilization. The museum as described by Wikipedia “is housed in an Ottoman building, has a number of exhibits of Anatolian archaeology. They start with the Paleolithic era, and continue chronologically through the Neolithic, Early Bronze, Assyrian trading colonies, Hittite, Phrygian, Urartian, Greek, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuq and Ottoman periods. There is also an extensive collection of artifacts from the excavations at Karain, Çatalhöyük, Hacılar, Canhasan, Beyce Sultan, Alacahöyük, Kültepe, Acemhöyük, Boğazköy (Gordion), Pazarlı, Altıntepe, Adilcevaz and Patnos as well as examples of several periods.” I found the Hittite exhibits fascinating indicative of how civilized they were in the period 1750-1200 BC and the later Hittite period 1200-700 BC.

Istanbul

Istanbul is a transcontinental city, straddling the Bosphorus — one of the world’s busiest waterways — in northwestern Turkey, between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. Its commercial and historical center lies in Europe, while a third of its population lives in Asia.[Wikipedia]

We arrived in Istanbul on 29 Sep feeling rather elated crossing the bridge connecting Asia and Europe across the Bosphorus. It was late afternoon and traffic was rather heavy, as expected in any big city. We promptly made our way to our hotel for a two nights stay. My nieces’s husband, Akay Viran — who is Turkish — also happened to be around in Istanbul this time, since he was bringing in his mega yacht for some maintenance (not his yacht actually, he was just the highly paid captain.) Akay took Zaki and I for dinner and to talk about our trip and his exploits.

With Akay

With Akay

Proton Wira in Istanbul

Proton Wira in Istanbul

He worked for some billionaire, the job was quite easy but he had to be on standby most of the time to be at his master’s beck and call. He travels the world and would love to do an overland trip. He tried to be with his wife and kids back in Malaysia but could hardly do so with this job; unlike his previous job as a container ship captain. On the way to dinner, I was quite intrigued to see a Proton Wira, Malaysia’s national car, parked on the pavement. Wow, Malaysian industry has made it to Turkey.

The next day we visited the five “must see” tourist sites in Istanbul namely: the blue mosque, the Ayasofia, the cistern, the Topkapi and the Grand Bazaar. Of the lot I was most impressed with the Ayasofia.

Blue mosque

Blue mosque

Ayasofia

Ayasofia

Medusa's head in the Cistern

Medusa’s head in the Cistern

Topkapi

Topkapi

The Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar

I was impressed with the Ayasofia aka Hagia Sophia because of its transformation from a church to a mosque and finally to a museum. It’s amazing that the contents inside the building especially the christian paintings and frescoes are well preserved and not destroyed when it became a mosque. Instead these paintings/frescoes were just hidden by large Islamic calligraphy; even the cross on the entrance door was ingeniously converted into an arrow. Such display of Islamic tolerance and respect for history and the arts is something that we should appreciate; otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to understand our past.

Christ on the dome

Mary with Christ on the dome

The cross became an arrow

The cross became an arrow

Islamic calligraphy hides christian paintings

Islamic calligraphy hides christian paintings

Georgia

After a good rest at Sheki we drove on to Tbilisi Georgia soon after breakfast. It was quite a pleasant drive with many stops to enjoy the scenery and for photography.

Georgia is a very Christian country (84% orthodox Christians) with the balance made up of Azeris and Armenians. It was, however, ruled by the Arabs from AD 645 and later by the Seljuk Turks in the early 12th Century.

Georgia had its Golden Age in the 12th and 13th Century.  But subsequently Georgia came under Mongol and Tamerlane attacks, severely weakening the Christian kingdom.  Thus the Persians and Ottoman Turks also had their days over Georgia.  In December 1800 Georgia was formally incorporated into the Russian Empire.  However, in 1918 it declared independence in the midst of the Russian Civil War. But in February 1921 the Red Army attacked Georgia and brought it into the USSR. Joseph Stalin, an ethnic Georgian, later became a prominent Bolshevik personality of the USSR.

Georgia attained full independence from the Soviet Union on April 9, 1991.

Why is Georgia named thus?  Probably because most of its kings were named George.

Tbilisi

We drove into Tbilisi rather late on 23 Sep, on account of a mishap on the road. The Quattro girls’ car broke down with a major engine/transmission problem. It was confirmed by the workshop at Tbilisi that it was not drivable and had to be trucked to Istanbul for shipping back to Malaysia. The girls then decided not to continue with the journey ie leave the convoy at Tbilisi and make their own way back to Malaysia.

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Tbilisi is a beautiful capital city of Georgia with quite a lot of history to show considering that it was host to the Arabs, Mongols, Tamerlane, Persian, Byzantine, Seljuk and Ottoman Turks and latterly the Russians/Soviets. We had two days in Tbilisi and made full use of the opportunity.

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My Rotary friends led by President Levon Barikian came a-calling in the morning with his RC Tbilisi members. They then invited me (with Sh Abas and Zaki) to a dinner that night. It’s nice being a Rotarian; you have instant friends all over the world. The next morning we left for Gori — but didn’t stay the night — just to see the Stalin Museum.

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From Gori we drove on to Batumi, a resort city on the Black Sea coast and gateway to Turkey. We stayed at the Hotel Oasis which happened to have Georgia’s Miss World aspirants staying there and rehearsing for the contest. They were a most welcome sight; and most of us made a beeline for the swimming pool knowing full well that they would be showing off there.

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That night we were guests of the DG of Tourism, Province of Ajaria at a dinner with a cultural show thrown in. And in the morning we were off to Turkey.

Azerbaijan

We arrived Baku airport around 3:00 am and was cleared Immigration & Customs around 4:00 am.  The guys who came across the Caspian Sea by that cargo ship were there to pick us up in five cars; the rest went to the hotel by coach. At the hotel, I didn’t bother with food; just took a hot shower and off to bed.  I was up at 7:00 am, had a quick breakfast and at 8:30 am had to meet the Rotarians from the Rotary Club of Baku.

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Exchanging gifts

Exchanging club banners

We didn’t have much time for socialising since we had to make a move to the Caucasus wef 10:00 am.  But it was nice of President Bakhtiyar Akhundov of RC Baku and his Rotarian colleagues to come to see me at such an early hour in the morning.  Had it not been for the ‘ferry fiasco’ (see Turkmenistan story) we would have a much leisurely pace to socialise with RC Baku.

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From Baku we crossed the Caucasus mountains towards Tblisi in Georgia.  It was a very comfortable journey unlike our experiences in western Tibet.  The mountain roads were good and it was quite cool.  The next stop was a small town called Sheki and we had the pleasure of staying in a caravanserai.  This sturdy building has been duly renovated and fitted with modern amenities. But the look and feel was there, complete with the traditional tea room. It was very pleasant.

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Sheki aka Shaki has many other names based on its ancient history dating back some 2,700 years (according to Wikipedia.)  Now it’s a quint little town of population around 63,000 souls, mostly Muslims. It’s situated in northern Azerbaijan quite close to the Russian border.

Turkmenistan

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The next morning soon after breakfast we hastened to the Turkmenistan border for the crossing into the country.  Like Bishkek it was a waiting game and we got cleared only after some 6-hour wait.  Fortunately daylight hours remained until 8:00 pm or so.  The destination was Mary (pronounced Maa Ree.) The city was also formerly known as Merv, an oasis for travellers on the Silk Road.
Much of Turkmenistan is desert (70%) and we could feel it as we drove from Turkmenabat to Mary. The real desert, however, is to the north — the Karakum desert — the void as seen on the map.
It was a hard drive through the night; and we had an incident whereby one of the cars lost its right-rear wheel which decided to break away and roll down the slope. That was a major breakdown and after assessing the situation, Convoy Leader decided that three cars (the stricken car, the Mechanic’s car and Grandpa the Sweeper’s car) had to stay back, fix the car and camp in the wild. The rest of us drove on to Mary arriving there around 2:00 am.
Unlike Tashkent, our hotel didn’t have late dinner service. So a frantic search was made; and thanks to our Russian-speaking handler we had late dinner at an all-night cafe somewhere in town. That excitement certainly broke the boredom of Bukhara!
Next morning we had to hang around waiting for the three cars that camped in the wild to join us. They didn’t arrive until about 10:30 am. And then they have to go find a workshop so that they can make good their temporary repairs to the rear undercarriage system. That was a blessing because it meant we could have some additional snooze time (until 12:00 pm) to make up for last night. Not so for the mechanics and Grandpa though.

Catching up on lost sleep

Catching up on lost sleep

Bye bye Mary

Bye bye Mary

Ashgabat
The drive to Ashgabat some 370 km west was less than five hours. So after lunch we gladly said goodbye to Mary in the hope of a better time at Ashgabat, the capital city of Turkmenistan.

All set to go

All set to go

Arriving Ashgabat

Arriving Ashgabat

The President was omnipresent

The President was omnipresent

Open air market place

Open air market place

Ashgabat is a beautiful city especially when it’s lighted up at night. Fuel is cheap hence lighting costs for the city would be quite affordable. However, we didn’t have much time to tour the city except for visiting their Sunday market (aptly known as the “Thieves Market”) where you could get anything you want by just asking the numerous vendors there. If it’s not there they’ll get it for you in a short while. And sure enough, when we got to our cars to depart Ashgabat, our Toyota emblem was missing. Somebody must have wanted one!

Turkmenbashi
Our next destination was the port city of Turkmenbashi (which means Leader of the Turkmen, a reference to the President) located on the Caspian Sea coast. According to our itinerary, we were to board a ferry and sail to Baku, Azerbaijan from here. Anyway, back to that later.
The drive to Turkmenbashi was tedious; not that their roads were not good, but because there were too many security road blocks. In fact it was at every entry and exit to a town or village along the way.

Drought condition

Drought condition

Fuel is cheap

Fuel is cheap

Caspian Sea in sight

Caspian Sea in sight

Checking in

Checking in

We arrived at 9:30 pm at the Serdar Oteli, a rather nice hotel by the sea, but rather low on occupancy. We almost had the place to ourselves. Wow, it’s already 18 Sep and we were more than half way to London. And the day after we were to sail across the Caspian Sea.
The next day was a free day and we took time off to visit the city for some shopping. Nothing much to shop really except to buy some local fruits and delicacies. We also learned that there were Malaysians — Petronas Carigali people — in Turkmenbashi. That was nice; and they were ever so pleased to meet up with fellow countrymen. The next day they even came to send us off at the port.

Nicely lined up for boarding

Nicely lined up for boarding

Hanging around

Hanging around

So we hung around and around until almost noon when we were told that there was no such thing as a ferry to Baku. The ship that came from Baku was a cargo ship and it could take only just the cars; no passengers, not even drivers. All hell broke loose and some people lost their cool. The blame game started and profanities came off from the most unexpected quarters. Finally five drivers were allowed to board to look after the cars. (It was later learned that these poor guys suffered a most unpleasant night aboard the cargo ship.) The rest of us had to hightail it back to Ashgabat and take a flight to Baku. And we must be at the airport before 7:30 pm because the counters would close at that time.
The excitement had just begun. And Convoy Leader and his management team got one big problem-solving headache to deal with.

The bus...

The bus…

...or the pirate taxis?

…or the pirate taxis?

Just kidding. That bus could never make it to Ashgabat within five hours. So we settled for the pirate taxis of Hondas and Toyotas; they were more flexible and the taxi men promised that they’d deliver all of us (30 pax I think, with 3 guys cramped at the back) by 7:00 pm at Ashgabat. Well, they did. They knew when to speed and when to slow down for the security checks; only one car had a minor mishap but no injuries. Yes, the counters did close at 7:30 pm but our flight by Lufthansa was scheduled for well after midnight for the 2 hr flight to Baku. More tempers and curses, but I just played the “glad game.” I was glad that we were to get to Baku after all with no serious mishaps to cause more problems. I was also glad that I could now boast of another “stan” to add to my brag list — “Gostan” (go astern or backtrack in colloquial Malay.)

Kyrgyzstan

On 8 Sep 2005 after breakfast we assembled for the morning briefing by Convoy Leader. Soon after we left the hotel and drove north to the border. To our delight we had no problems with Immigration and Customs on both sides. And I was really looking forward to this experience of travelling in a former Soviet republic. For one thing they still speak Russian, so our Russian-speaking handler that met us at the Immigration was very much needed.

Our stop for the night was a camp site at Tash Rabat on the way to Naryn.  We were to stay in yurt tents, a legacy of Genghis Khan, I think.  Well it was a nice experience to feel like a nomadic Mongol.

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The yurt camp was in a valley that facilitated a fertile grazing ground for sheep. Zaki made friends with the shepherd and was allowed to mount his horse and trotted around. Nearby was a caravanserai, a roadside inn for weary travellers/traders and their caravans of the Old Silk Road to bed down for the night. It even had a few cells obviously to accommodate rowdy quarrelsome drunks and thus maintain the peace. Wow, I was really re-learning a lot of history!

Lots of sheep

Lots of sheep

Zaki riding

Zaki riding

Yurt Camp

Yurt Camp

Caravanserai

Caravanserai

The next day we drove on northward to the next yurt camp site by the shores of the Issykul lake. Along the way, I can’t help but notice that dying must have been quite an expensive business in Kyrgyzstan; considering that their cemeteries had very elaborate structures with varying degrees of opulence to reflect a person’s wealth or station in life. This is a bit surprising because Islam discourage such extravagance (Kyrgyzstan is a Muslim-majority country.)

Kyrgyzstan is mountainous

Kyrgyzstan is mountainous

Kyrgyz cemetery

Kyrgyz cemetery

Issykul lake (fresh water)

Issykul lake (fresh water)

Dining in a yurt tent

Dining in a yurt tent

Some of the women participants must have had enough of the hardships of the trip. Two yurt camps in a row so soon after the rugged living during the 2,400 km trip from Tingri to Kashgar, must have broken their adventure spirit. So, as soon as we checked into the 3-star Dostuk hotel in Bishkek, they decided to break ranks and went to stay at the 5-star Hyatt hotel. This upset the Convoy Leader (and rightly so) and the women got a dressing down. What these women didn’t realise was that should something happen to them in this foreign country, it was the Convoy Leader that would have to sort things out; not to mention the delays and hassle it would have caused.
We had two days in Bishkek. We spent it sightseeing and shopping. I bought some change in clothing because they were irresistibly  cheap. The city appeared modern, very much “Soviet-styled” with boxy low rise buildings along wide boulevards. Monuments were everywhere; an interesting one being Stalin’s statue which was turned round to face south. At night we had dinner at a good restaurant with superb entertainment dedicated to us. And the girls were beautiful.

Stalin's looking south now

Stalin’s looking south now

Lovely musicians

Lovely musicians

We left Bishkek for Tashkent, Uzbekistan on 12 Sep. We left early so that we could be ahead of the queue at Immigration. Unfortunately other people had the same idea. We were told that it was going to be a long day; and indeed it was. We had to cross into Kazakhstan to get to Uzbekistan because the Soviets took the easy way out by building the highway through Kazakhstan to avoid the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. So we had to go through Immigration/Customs formalities four times before we were in Uzbekistan. All in all we spent the whole day loitering at the Kyrgyz/Kazakh Immigration; cars cleared only around 6:00 pm. So it was a night drive to Uzbek Immigration which took eight hours on the good highway. We got to the hotel in Tashkent at 2:00 am on 13 Sep.