Thursday, October 6, 2016

Mongolia: A Week in the Desert

The travel bug is a real sickness and one with no cure.  It is an ailment that stays with you for all of your life once you have caught it.  One symptom that you have caught this highly contagious virus is if you constantly find yourself dreaming and discussing with friends about where you want to travel next, even while on a current trip.  I am a travel bug victim and that is one of my problems.  Whenever I thought about or talked about this question, however, one country always made that list: Mongolia.  In fact, it was this exact question that prompted this trip as me and a friend both had Mongolia as a mutual match in our top 3 most desired countries to visit.  Why you might ask? Mongolia isn’t known as a tourist destination, there is no famous landmarks, or even significant historical facts.

Cliche passport photo
What attracted to me about Mongolia is from what I had seen in pictures and documentaries, and that was a country that seemed content on living a simple life and had very little modernization.  Almost 40% of Mongolia’s population is still nomadic and for such a massive country their population is only ~3 million people.  When traveling I love to witness and experience culture that is far different from my own.  My favorite countries that I have visited have been the ones whose culture is on the opposite end of the spectrum from what I am used to.  So it was this that motivated me to go to Mongolia for 6 days and live in the middle of the Gobi desert.

Day 1:
The day started a little confusing.  After getting into Ulaanbaatar (UB) very late the night before, we were supposed to get picked up at 7:30am to start our tour.  However, we got a call at 7:00am saying our driver was here, so we had no time for a shower or brushing our teeth (not a huge problem as not showering will probably be expected once we get to the desert).  We quickly grabbed our bags and went downstairs.  When we met the driver, he informed us that we still owed him $1,800 USD, which was more than double the amount we were supposed to pay for the entire tour, not to mention we had already paid a $200 deposit.  After a call to the tour organizer and a friend of the driver who acted as translator, we settled on paying $330 USD more.  This is much less than the total price we were supposed to pay ($900/$450 per person) so I was a little suspicious that we were getting scammed and that either we would have to pay again once we got to the Gobi desert or that we would not get picked up once we got there.  We confirmed through the translator that we would not have to pay again, so now the only concern was if we would get picked up in the desert.  In order to get the answer to that question we first had to take a bus packed full of Mongolians for 10 hours (was supposed to be 7-8 hours).
21st Century nomads
            This bus ride was eerily similar to the 12-hour bus ride I took in Myanmar with my cousin: long straight roads with nothingness all around; Mongolian dramas playing on the TV, which I entertained myself with by creating my own stories based on what I saw similar to a toddler “reading” a picture book; and being so cramped that I could hardly move my legs.  I had a big Mongolian dude on my left, a big Mongolian woman on my right, and other people’s luggage stuffed between my legs and the seat in front of me.  The only scenery to look at was the flat steppe with an occasional ger, which are the traditional Mongolian nomadic houses.  These surprisingly usually came with a solar panel and a car, so I guess these are 21st Century nomads.  Also, we saw many  It was awesome to see these animals in the wild, but after 10 hours the novelty wore off.
herds of different animals ranging from horses, goats, sheep, camel, and cows.
            Finally we arrived to where our tour was supposed to pick us up and I could remove myself from my cocoon that was my seat.  Outside the bus window, when we pulled up to the terminal, I noticed an elderly woman holding a sign with the name of the tour company we booked through on it and the last of my worries evaporated from my consciousness. 
From here we still had a two-hour drive through the desert on make-shift roads carved out from repeated tire passage.  There were countless crossroads and absolutely no road signs or geographical markers to orient oneself, so it was amazing that our driver knew exactly when to turn.  When asked how he was able to do this, he simply pointed to his head and said, “GPS”.

This ride was far more enjoyable as I could appreciate the solitude and beautiful emptiness that surrounded me.  It is only as I write this in my journal now that I realize we did not pass a single car in our two-hour journey.  We stopped and took some photos of the scenery, camels, and sunset along the way before finally arriving at our accommodations for the night.
We were greeted by a woman wearing traditional Mongolian clothes who served us what I presume to be goat’s milk as a welcome.  As we toured through our ger camp, the strongest emotion that surfaced was disappointment.  This was for a couple of reasons.  First, and this might sound strange, it was too nice.  Being hundreds of miles away from civilization, I didn’t expect nice accommodations.  Yes, it was definitely cool to be living  The larger problem was with the number of Koreans also staying at the camp.  Now I love Korea and the Korean people, it is why I continue to choose to live there, but I came on this trip to escape the familiar and hearing Korean being spoken all around me made achieving that goal impossible.  Nonetheless I was still happy and the experience still felt unique.
in the traditional nomadic houses, but warm
showers (heated by coal), super clean facilities, and electricity was not what I expected to find in the middle of the Gobi desert.
After unpacking we ate a really nice dinner of Mongolian dumplings in the restaurant (another thing I didn’t expect to find in the Gobi), showered and then relaxed.  For our relaxation time we did one of the things that I was most looking forward to on this trip; we inflated our air hammocks, grabbed a couple beers, and enjoyed the night's sky.  It had been years since I had last seen a sky peppered with so many stars and the environment, quietness, and comfort of the air hammock (call me Billy Mays, but y’all really need to buy you one of these things) created one of the most peaceful moments of my life. Oh, and the beer helped too.
After enjoying this moment for a while, we decided to make some friends with the Koreans.  I love meeting Koreans abroad and seeing their surprise to see a 외국인 (foreigner) speaking Korean.  We chatted for just a bit before finally heading off to bed.

Day 2:
We woke up for breakfast to learn that one of my concerns from the day before had not been resolved as I had thought.  Our guide told us that we still owed her $630 USD.  We told her we that the driver who picked us up from our hotel in UB had told us we had already paid the full amount.  Now, if you remember, I thought I had walked away from our negotiations the day before with a favorable deal, but it turns out I was not as clever as I had originally thought.  After talking to the tour instructor, we eventually settled on paying the rest of our original balance.  However, as it turned out, we were not supposed to stay in the nice accommodations the night before because we had booked the tour staying as a guest with a nomadic family.  The tour instructor tried to make me pay an extra $100 for this mistake, but there was no way I was going to let that happen.  Not only was it their fault that they took us to the wrong place, but we also didn’t even want to stay there!  He eventually saw the wisdom of my argument and agreed to not charge us.  So the good news, if you look at it in the right way, was that we got one free night in a nice place with good meals, but the rest of the trip would be spent living with nomadic family, which is exactly what we wanted!

After breakfast, we set out for the first destination on our itinerary.  Bayanzag, also known as “the flaming cliffs”, were just some cliffs in the desert.  Having seen the Grand Canyon and Cappadocia, it was not really anything special.  The area, however, is also known for the amount of dinosaur bones discovered there and our guide set off to show us one.  Again, he walked through the desert as if he knew exactly where he was going.  Mongolians must possess the same skill as Native American trackers, because he walked quite a distance before stopping right at a pile of rocks that marked the location of the bone.  They told us that the way to tell if it is a bone rather than just a rock was to touch it to your tongue.  If it sticks, then it is a bone, but if it
Showing us the bone
doesn’t then it is a rock.  This did not seem very scientific and was a little disgusting, but it worked.  I even tested it out myself.  However, I am a little skeptical about whether it was a dinosaur bone or just another animal’s bone, but let’s just say it was.  Being skeptical is no fun.
Afterwards, we went back to our camp for lunch and then set off for our next destination, Khongor Sand Dunes.  As we set off, the lady dressed in traditional Mongolian clothes that had welcomed us poured the presumptive goat’s milk on our van’s tires, which is their tradition to wish someone a safe travel.  Now off for another 4 hour drive through the desert.
Our hosts
We made a few stops for pictures along the way before finally arriving at the place we would be staying for the next two nights.  This was exactly the type of living arrangements I had drawn up in my mind all the previous months leading up to the trip: staying with a local nomadic family, with herds of animals all around us; nothing but pure nature surrounding us as far as the eye could see; and no modern conveniences (we did have a light in our ger, but it was connected to a car battery and to turn it off you just simply disconnected it).  I was excited that we would be getting the real experience of what it was like to live in the Gobi.

We dropped our bags in one of the families extra gers and headed off to climb the Khongor

Sand Dune.  These sand dunes were the size of small mountains.  As we set off to climb one we could tell it was steep and would be challenging, but I had no idea just how difficult it would be.  The steepness of the dune forced us to crawl while digging our hands into the sand for extra grip to prevent sliding.  Although I do have a very real fear of heights, this was not my biggest fear today.   With each step I took, as I got closer to the top, more and more sand ahead of me would break and slide down, moving me a little with it.  My fear that I could not shake was that at any moment the whole dune would slide down and trap us in a sand avalanche.  Yet we pressed on and eventually made it to the top completely exhausted and out of breath.  This was definitely one of the most physically challenging things that I have done in a while, but it was totally worth it as the view was remarkable.  Sitting on the narrow peak, we could see for miles on every side and there was nothing but the beautiful Gobi lands.  No buildings, highways, cars, or noise; just pure peace and natural beauty for as far as the eye could see. 

King of the Dune
We spent a while up there soaking in the view, while also taking the opportunity to get my lungs to where it felt like they were actually taking in oxygen again, before we decided to head down.  Immediately my fears resurfaced.  At first we began our decent on our butts scooting along like a dog that has got worms.  However, as I did this I could not only feel but also here strong vibrations deep beneath me that lasted a few seconds after I had come to a halt.  This only magnified my fear of a sand-alanche.  Yet my friend didn’t seem phased at all.  Watching her enjoy the moment with a childlike simplistic pleasure, I envied her.  Why is she having fun while I am here terrified?  I began to think that maybe my fears were irrational, or maybe she just doesn’t let fear
Pure terror
interfere with her pleasure.  Whatever the answer, I decided that I too would throw caution to the wind and enjoy the moment.  Instead of scooting on my butt, I stood up and began to run down the dune.  Due to the steepness and my momentum, I was able to achieve what felt like superhuman speed.  As long as I took long enough strides, I could keep up with this rapid momentum, and even if I couldn’t I would take what I am sure would have been a hilarious and painless tumble down the dune.  Nonetheless, we made it to the bottom in minutes.  I am really thankful for my friend to have shown me how to let go of fear and just have fun.  Fear, although safe and necessary at times, only prevents us from maximizing the enjoyment of the situation.

Goat Stew
Once at the bottom, we went back to the nomadic family who we were staying with and they cooked us a delicious meal of goat stew (goat, potatoes, carrots in some gravy) with rice.  As we ate outside, we watched them round up all their animals for the night.  To herd them they used both dogs and motorcycles: the perfect blend of old and new.  We capped off the day by just talking beneath the stars before finally falling asleep

*Note: upon descending down the sand dune some thirty or forty-five minutes after having climbed it, I noticed our footprints had already been erased by the wind.  It was a hallow feeling realizing that all evidence of my existence on that dune would be gone within the hour.

Day 3
            We woke up around 9am for breakfast, which can be best described as a crispy pancake or roti prata with a side of a congealed goat milk yogurt type thing.  Immediately after, we began our
Seriously, it smelled so bad.
activity for the day, which was a camel ride through the desert and to an oasis.  Although it was a new experience and the sights were still spectacular even after having been incessantly engulfed in them for the last two days, camels are the Roseanne(s) of the animal kingdom: filthy and disgusting.  I had a front row seat for getting to see them in all of their disgusting glory; at the end of our three-camel caravan I sat.  We walked so close together that we couldn’t walk directly behind each other, but instead each camels head was just to the right of the hip of the camel in front of it.  This resulted in my leg and foot being precariously close to the…uh…exit end of the digestive system of the camel in front of me, which caused me to stare in that direction much more than I would have liked to in order to prepare myself to be able to make any sudden adjustments if necessary.  I watched each of these three camels poop maybe five or six times each, burp a couple times each, fart almost repeatedly throughout the walk,
Squaring off
and one even projectile vomited all over our guide, all within just a two hour ride.  Just imagine Slime from Ghostbusters as a hairy strange shaped animal. 
         The size of the camel also made it difficult to straddle and really uncomfortable to ride for such a long time, so we requested to go back to the ger early since we were so sore.  We were supposed to ride the camels again after lunch, but we both agreed we had gotten the experience already and were too sore and grossed out to ride them again.
            For lunch we had dumplings again, except this time they were fried, and since we cancelled the only other activity we had scheduled for the day (2nd camel ride), we had the rest of the day open.  The first thing we did was took a 4-hour nap.  It felt as if we had been constantly moving and doing things since we landed in Mongolia, which is good, especially when you are trying to visit such a huge country like Mongolia on just a 6 day holiday, but it takes its toll.  Therefore, it was really nice to have this time to recharge ourselves (nearing 30, this is becoming more and more necessary as I travel) allowing us continue this pace of travel for the remainder of the trip.
            However, upon waking, we still had daylight left and decided we didn’t want to waste the entire day (not that sleeping was a waste).  Our guide had told us about a stream near where we were staying, so we asked to go see this.  It didn’t sound that exciting but at least it was
something.  When we arrived, however, we learned that what we interpreted as “stream” was actually our guide saying “spring” (communication would be a continual challenge throughout the trip).  It was a really small spring as well.  While at the spring, our guide started to sing a beautiful Mongolian song as we watched the water bubble from the ground.  She told us that this water from the spring is believed to be good your eyes if you look into it, so we tried it and thus far there is no noticeable affect.  She then took us to another spring nearby that was supposedly good for your stomach if you drink it, but something tells me that this superstition would have opposite affect, so I didn’t risk it.
Camel Noodle Soup
            Afterwards we came back to our ger and relaxed a bit by taking a short stroll through the desert before dinnertime.  For dinner, I got to add a new animal to my growing list of animals I have eaten in my travels: camel.  We were served camel noodle soup.  It was essentially a Mongolian twist on the Southern comfort food, chicken noodle soup, just substitute chicken for camel.  What is the verdict? It tastes very similar to unseasoned ground beef.  Not bad, but not really delicious either, but I am still glad I tried it.
            Things suddenly took a turn for the worse shortly after dinner as I had severe stomach pains and had to make multiple trips to the bathroom, which was really just a hole in the ground (good thing Singapore trained me to perfect my squatting technique).  Either I didn’t have the iron stomach I thought I had, or two full days of trying to avoid using “the hole in the ground” had caught up to me.  I become sincerely concerned because I could notice myself getting dehydrated, but all of our water was locked in our tour van and the driver was asleep already.  All I could think about was my days in my youth playing “Oregon Trail” and how many times my characters died of dysentery, and I knew that that was not how I wanted to go out.  Eventually I slept.

Day 4
            The stomach pains and a massive windstorm that hit us during the night combined to provide me with very little sleep.  Despite that, after immediately chugging two bottles of water, I felt a little better.  We packed up our bags, because today we were headed to our final destination: Yol Valley.
            At the beginning of the trip I loved the long rides through the desert, but at this time I really dreaded it.  It is likely because a 4-hour trip on a make-shift bumpy road is not so favorable on an upset stomach.  I found myself getting internally angry at the driver, even though I knew it was beyond his control.  It was just not a comfortable trip.
A Mongolian "town"
            Eventually we arrived to a small town.  First, let me clarify.  A “town” constitutes as anywhere that more than two buildings exist within relative proximity of each other.  Here we had lunch and we were told that we would be having dumplings.  If you’ve been counting, this would make the third time we ate dumplings in the last four days.  Partly because I love trying new and different foods, and partly because I was honestly sick of dumplings, we asked for something else.  Our only other option was goat and rice.  It wasn’t that special, but at least it was somewhat different.  With a little bit of food in my stomach I was definitely feeling better, so we set off for Yol Valley.
            When we arrived at the valley we were told that we had the option to walk the 3km or we could ride a horse for $5 each, so we chose the beasts of burden to bear or burden and walk us through the valley.  It is hard continuously coming up with synonyms for the word “beautiful”, and I know my liberal use of the word devalues it and even my own credibility, but riding through that valley it is the only word that comes to mind.  Riding a horse between two rocky cliffs on a perfectly sunny day was beautiful.  It felt like a western movie and I was the Mongolian John Wayne.  On a separate note, horses were far more enjoyable to ride than camels.  They were much more comfortable, less disgusting, and we got to slowly gallop (or fastly trot) for part of the trip, which was exciting.  
          This was the culmination of our trip in the Gobi and with an 8-hour bus ride plus a 3-hour flight back to Korea the following day, we chose to pay a little extra to stay in hotel and get a good nights sleep and a nice shower.

Day 5
            Our bus back to UB was set to depart at 8am and we had worked out with our driver to be picked up at 7:30 from our hotel and be taken to the bus station.  We went downstairs to wait for the driver at 7:30 and as the minutes passed we became more and more concerned.  Eventually at 7:40, with no sight of our driver and no certainty he was coming, we decided we couldn’t risk it.  When at 7:45 a taxi was coming by, we didn’t know if we would see another one so we decided to take it and he safely brought us to the bus station.
            The 8 hour bus was the same long bus ride as before, however at least this time it wasn’t as crowded and I got to sit with my friend.  When we arrived in UB we had roughly 7 hours until our plane left for Korea at 1am, and I had heard that in UB there was a large statue of Gengis Khan, so I asked our driver about possibly going to see that since we had so much time.  The drive told us that it is not that close and would take about two hours to get there, we could have an hour to look around, and then another two hours back.  If things went exactly according to planned, that would put us arriving to the airport two hours ahead of our flight. If things went according to planned.
            Driving to the statue, I was getting really annoyed because we kept getting stuck behind incredibly slow drivers going 30km an hour (19mph) and this is a nicely paved road we are talking about!  I kept thinking that my grandfather would fit in well in this country if these were normal driving habits.  Also, this made me worry because we were on a very tight time schedule and I doubted that those calculations factored in driving 19mph.  Luckily our driver was incredibly poor at estimating the time it would take, because even at this frustrating pace we still made it to the statue in under an hour, or more than an hour less than the time it was supposed to take. 
Full statue
              The statue was relatively new and was bigger than I expected.  It apparently even has the Guinness World Record for largest statue on horseback, which, in my opinion, shouldn’t count as a record when you have to get that specific.  I could be the record holder of the person to have the most consecutive jumps on one leg while eating cheese whiz and listening to Nickleback at the same time (easy record because nobody listens to Nickleback).  Anyways, it was a cool statue and it was interesting seeing how much of a hero he is to Mongolia, considering he was arguably the most evil man in history.  He certainly conquered one of the
Playing dress-up
Up close with the Khan
world’s largest empires in history, and certainly brought a lot of wealth and power to Mongolia, but at what cost?  It is believed that he killed more than 40 million people.  That is more than the Holocaust, Atlantic Slave Trade, and the entire WWI combined!  This just goes to prove the saying that “the difference between a hero and villain is which side of a river you call home”.  Before we left to go back to the airport, for the equivalent of $1.50 USD, we did a little Mongolian dress up, and I chose the most Genghis-like outfit I could.  The clothes were extremely heavy and bulky, which is understanding given the weather, but I am amazed they were able to move and fight in clothes like that. 

It was now time to make the dreaded trip to the airport.  Due to our driver’s giant miscalculation of the time it would take to go to the statue and back, we had time for dinner.  There was a particular Mongolian dish that my friend had heard of prior to coming on the trip, called Khorkhog, and she had asked every single restaurant we stopped at if they served it, but to no avail.  Since we had the time, and this would be our last meal in Mongolia, we asked our driver if he could take us to a restaurant where we could eat Khorkhog. Khorkhog turned out to be pieces of sheep and other vegetables cooked in a container using hot stones and water to create steam.  It looked delicious when it came to our table, but our meat was extremely fatty, so I didn’t really enjoy it.  At least we finally tried it.

All that was left was for us to fly back to Korea.  The trip was finally over and it had been just the experience I had hoped to have: days of isolation surrounded by beautiful landscapes; detachment from civilization and technology; exposure to very unique and different culture from my own; and great memories shared with a good friend.  I had a rough welcoming waiting for me back in Korea.  In order to maximize my time in Mongolia, I booked our return ticket to land early Monday morning around 4am.  With the first train from the airport not until 5:30am, me living about an hour from the airport, and having to leave for work around 7:30am, I practically went straight to work upon arriving home.  It made for a rough day, but it was totally worth it.  Mongolia now makes the 29th country I have visited, and it earned its place at/near the top of that list.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

My Return to Singapore

When I left Singapore, I made a promise with myself and with my students to continue to visit at least once a year while I live in Korea.  With full intentions on keeping that promise, I returned to my once "place of residence" country (home country sounds better) during my school's spring break.  This was the week after ICS' spring break and my good friend/ex-roommate, James, and his wife, Kara (who is also a good friend but definitely not ex-roommate) visited me in Korea during that week.  It was hard to show them around, as I was still having to teach, but I did my best to give them suggestions of things to do during the day and met them in the evenings.  At the end of the week, they and I, although not together, went back to Singapore.  Immediately upon returning I was reminded of the immense love that I had left behind in Singapore.

As I walked through the customs gate into the arrival hall of the airport, I was greeted immediately by 6 of my former students.  I couldn't believe it.  This was made even more special considering the fact that my flight arrived at 5 in the morning and since the trains were not running that early, most of them had taken the last train from the night before at 11 pm to get to the airport.  The fact that these kids (plus at least 3 others who sent me messages saying that they tried to come but were either sick or denied by their parents) would care enough about on of their teachers to make this sacrifice was very touching.  I definitely feel like I made an impact on these kids and that brings me more satisfaction than money could ever bring to me.  In that sense, teaching is one of the highest paying jobs in the world.  A special thanks to Carissa who organized the surprise.  It meant a lot!

Much of my trip was just visiting my old school, eating all the foods I had missed, getting dinner with some old friends, and spending lots of time with my students.  Luckily they had a short week at school due to parent/teacher conferences and Good Friday, so I had plenty of time to hang out with them.  One day I met a bunch of the boys, many of whom I taught all three years in Singapore, to play some soccer.  Another day I went to an "escape room" with two other students.  An escape room is basically a themed room that contains many puzzles that you have to solve in order to achieve the main objective.  In this case, we were trying to reclaim the 12 heads of the Chinese zodiac that once were a part of a fountain belonging to the Imperial Palace.  The puzzles are super high tech and challenging, which made it way more fun than I was anticipating.  At one point I was reflecting a lazar using a mirror into a certain sensor and all of a sudden a door opened.  Real Indiana Jones type stuff!

On my last day, I once again met a large group of my students for a goodbye dinner before heading back to the airport.  As I left and returned back Korea it was like biting into an apple covered in tree sap (bitter/sweet...get it?).  The bitter part clearly being having to leave my students again after having rekindled the great relationships I had with all of them.  However the sweet part, was being reminded of the opportunity for impact that my job carries and the challenge of making that same impact here in Korea.  So now, back in Korea, I am driven to once again attempt to build relationships with my students here, keep my relationships with my students in Singapore strong, and hopefully make a difference.

I love my job!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Trip to Taiwan

For Thanksgiving break I satisfied my addiction of traveling.  It was a short break so I chose a place that I felt could be adequately toured in 4-5 days.  For this trip I went to Taiwan.  From my friends who had been to Taiwan, and one of my students that lived in Taiwan, the common theme I heard between all of them was how good the food is.   I arrived in Taiwan late the first night and there was a group of Taiwanese people have a party in my hostel room.  They were friendly and were only in Taipei for a work conference, but they told me that after their work conference ended at 5pm the following day that they would love to show me around the night market and try lots of the local foods.  Perfect!  I spent most of the day researching all the best foods in Taiwan and when they came back to the hostel, I had a whole list of foods I wanted to try.  They treated this list like their own personal scavenger hunt, searching through the market for every food item on my list.  It is worth noting that I had about 20 items on my list and certainly didn't intend on trying them all in one night.  Well, so much for my intentions.  These new friends of mine were able to locate probably around 12 different items on my list and took turns purchasing all of them for me, despite my objections of course.  I got the true Anthony Bourdain treatment and was absolutely stuffed by the end of the night.  Some of the foods I tried were braised pork rice, stinky tofu (a fitting name), an iron egg (an egg soaked in soy sauce until the outside becomes black and hard), Taiwanese sausage and sticky rice bun, and many many more.

Other things I did on the trip were take a hike up a mountain to get a beautiful look at what was once the tallest building in the world (until Dubai's Burj Khalifa was finished in 2004), Taipai 101.  I also visited some natural hot springs, took a bus up into the mountains of northern Taiwan to walk around a village there, and visited the Chiang Kai Shek memorial.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Summer Vacation to Turkey and Egypt

Summer is a time where every teacher gets to make all of their friends extremely jealous with the ridiculously long, and much needed, two month leave. To non-teachers, this justifies our lousy pay. Whatever, I'll take it!

This summer, when the fear of possibly moving back to America and becoming stuck, much like I had before I ever left America, was looming over me, I was impulsively motivated to by a flight to a destination that has been on my list ever since I began to travel: Turkey. The following is the journal that a kept during the trip:

DISCLAIMER: This journal was written for me, so it may contain copious amounts of boring history details and such. Read at your own risk.

Day 1: After 26 hours of traveling, I finally got to my hostel and took a 5 hour nap. Upon waking up, survival instincts kicked in and I went on a search for food and water. In other words a walked 100 meters down the street to a Turkish restaurant. It is a pretty bustling street with quite a few restaurants and shops. One saddening observation was that just in the small stretch of street I walked on there were quite a few beggars out, and all of them were women, or worse in one case, two children alone.

Day 2: I was planning to meet up with a friend I made while traveling in Thailand the previous December with Kyle. She was traveling through Europe and wanted to join my travels in Turkey with a friend she had made while traveling Europe, but they would not arrive until the following day. Knowing that they would want to see the big attractions, I had to find something to do that was interesting, but not too interesting that they would want to do it also. So I Took a tour on the Bosphorus, the narrow strait connecting the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea, also separating Europe Turkey from Asia Turkey. From the boat you get to see a few sights like the Galata tower, Dolmabahçe Palace, where Ataturk, who is the founder of modern turkey and made it a secular state, died, and some old forts built by the Ottomans during their invasion of Constantinople. That night I watched the World Cup in a pub with a bunch of Europeans, which felt much more authentic.

Day 3: The next day was the day my friend Min, and her friend Erin, were to arrive mid-afternoon. After sleeping in and lazily getting ready I walked around the neighborhood a bit to explore so that I would know where some things were when my friends arrived. Min and Erin eventually arrived, much later than anticipated due to traffic, but they got there and we all went out for dinner.

Day 4:This was our only day all together in Istanbul so we planned to see all the of the top attractions, the A-list of tourist spots in Istanbul, which is rather feasible because they are all next to each other and all near out hostel. The ancient cities weren't nearly as big and spread out as the modern ones. The first stop was the Blue Mosque. This was obviously built after the Ottoman takeover in 1609. It gets its name due to the blue iznik tiles that cover the inside. The Blue Mosque has 6 minarets, which at the time was a huge controversy because the only other mosque that had 6 minarets was in Mecca. Quite an ego trip to try and build a mosque that matched the greatness of the one in Mecca, so to avoid causing an out roar from Muslims everywhere the Sultan just built another minaret at the mosque in Mecca, given it 7. Problem solved. The Blue Mosque is still used by Muslims today, but visitors can also enter so long as it's not during prayer time and that they take off their shoes. Because the entire floor of the mosque is covered in carpet, and everyone has their shoes off, it smells an awful lot like dirty feet. Fortunately, there is not all that much to see on the inside, so no need to endure the stench too long.

Up next was my personal favorite. When I first wanted to come to Turkey it was mainly to come to Istanbul. When I first wanted to come to Istanbul it was mainly to see the Hagia Sophia. Built in 537 AD by Roman emperor Justinian, it was meant to reflect the beauty of the heavens. Upon its completion, Justinian is rumored to have remarked, "Oh Solomon, I have out done you!" Essentially taking a cheap shot on the long time deceased King of Israel who built what was thought to be the greatest temple of all time, until it was destroyed that is. The beauty of the church was not particular to just Christians alone. When the Ottomans conquered the city they destroyed many of the Christian remnants, but the Hagia Sophia was too beautiful so they converted it to a mosque by adding the minarets. The red brick minaret first by Mehmet the conqueror, the skinniest one next, and finally the last two to make look more symmetrical. What made the Hagia so fascinating to me was the blend of Islamic decor mixed with a surprising number of original Christian mosaics. My favorite, in the Vestibule of Warriors, or the hall where the emperors bodyguards waited for him while he worshiped, was a mosaic of the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus in the middle and Constantine on her right, presenting to her the city of Constantinople, and Justinian on her left, presenting to her the Hagia Sophia.

Once I had had my fill of history euphoria, we went to have lunch on the terrace of this building that had a
spectacular view of the Hagia Sophia. We had plans to visit more of the nearby sites, but after our lunch we were all feeling a bit of a food coma so we went back to the hostel for a nap. Besides, I knew I would have extra days at the end of the trip to see the few small things we missed. At the hostel we met some Aussies, and Erin was also Aussie, and Australia was playing in the World Cup that night, so that meant we were all watching the World Cup together. After the game, our hostel was throwing a BBQ with some delicious Kofte (Turkish meatballs) and some sub-par chicken. Now we had a flight very early the next morning and would need to leave our hostel by 3 AM , so we could either go to sleep and get a few miserable hours of sleep OR go out and and see the nightlife and just stay up all night. We chose the latter and went to a very popular night area called Taksim Square. We were first drug into a very dodgey club that we quickly left and found a more chill bar with good American classics for us to belt at the top of lungs. We eventually had to make it back to our hostel and very sluggishly made it to our flight to Cappadocia on no sleep.

Day 5: When we checked into our rock hotel, we immediately crashed and crashed hard. We all woke up around dinner time and walked to the nearest restaurant, only to come back and crash again.

Day 6: The next morning we woke up real early ride a hot air balloon over the beautiful Cappadocia
landscape. The landscape was formed when volcanoes erupted thousands of years ago. As they erupted the contents of the volcano covered the land in inverse order that they were in the volcano, so the soft lava covered the ground and the harder basalt covered the top. Then through hundreds of thousands of years the wind has eroded the soft volcanic rocks on the bottom faster than the harder basalt on top, resulting in mushroom shaped columns throughout the area. This made my second hot air balloon ride within the year, the other being in Myanmar, and honestly it loses some of its allure the second time around. Plus, I think Bagan was more beautiful. That is not to say that this was not an enjoyable experience, it was and it was absolutely beautiful up there, it's just that it wasn't as amazing as I had remembered the balloon in Myanmar being.

Afterwards, Min and I went to tour the ruins. We got to see some churches carved into the rocks, where the early Christians worshiped, and also some of the different rock formations (one called imagination valley because the many different shapes invite visitors to use their imagination and find shapes and figures in the formations).
  At the end of the tour we were taken to our mandatory tourist trap for the tour, which was a pottery workshop. They introduced their head master of pottery, "The Einstein of pottery", who has pupils studying under him for multiple years and has two Guinness World Records, to show us how the pottery is made. It was very interesting and beautiful pottery. They showed us this wine decanter that is shaped like a big bagel. This was the form that the Hittites in the area used to make their wine in thousands of years ago because it reminded them of the sun, their main god, and they would place the wine decanter on a mountain and when the sun passed through the center they believed that was their blessing to drink the wine. If I were more of a wine person I would have bought one, but I am not so I bought a beautiful bowl instead.

Day 7: The next day we toured the underground cities that were first inhabited by the Hittites and then later the Roman Christians who were hiding from persecution. Very cool seeing how they survived down there for months at a time with air-shafts and communication shafts. Then we took a 4 km hike through a beautiful canyon. Surrounded by high rock cliff walls, a calmly rushing river and lots of plants and vegetation. Simply beautiful. After returning back to the hotel went in town and ate this beef stew called güvec that is cooked in a clay pot. It was delicious.

Day 8: Cappadocia was pretty neat but after 3 days I was glad to be leaving. The dust that is created by the eroding rock formations is everywhere and makes it hard to breathe. This was taking a toll on my throat and I was ready for some reprieve. It took a 9 hour bus ride to get it, but we got the fresh air we so desperately needed in a town called Antalya on the Mediterranean coast.

Day 9: One the first day we woke up and took bus to Duden Waterfall. We had hopes of being able to jump off the waterfall or at the very least be able to swim at the bottom of it, but we were denied on both accounts. It was real touristy but still beautiful. When we came back, we walked to Antalya harbour and saw people swimming and I was eager to join them. I watched a young man execute a perfect shallow dive
off of this wall to marginally avoid a bed of rocks. After watching him succeed a number of times and taking a little guidance from him, I too successfully dove into the beautiful water with mountains in the background. Afterwards we went and showered, had dinner and then I went back to pack. While I was watching the world cup, Min came back and said she had just spent $1600 on carpets. Shocked at how so quickly and causally someone could spend such an amount of money, I had to go check out these carpets. I was already interested in buying a carpet somewhere on this trip, and soon after entering this shop I too was swept into the buying frenzy and purchased a carpet myself in a matter of minutes. Upon completion of the sale, the carpet salesman felt it worthy to take us up to his terrace and drank wine and smoke sheesha/hookah together before finally going to sleep.

Day 10: The next morning we took a four hour bus ride to the town of Kas. We only planned to go to this city because multiple Turks had told us how amazing it was, however, in hindsight, all of those Turks were over the age of 40. We arrived to our hotel, which had an amazing view of the harbor, and all took a nap. We mostly stayed inside all day but went out for Turkish ice cream and walked around the town a bit. This was basically the Turkish version of Panama City Beach, minus all the obnoxious drunk college students. Kas is a major tourist destination for Turkish tourists, not so much international ones. A lot of families go there for their summer holidays. The highlight of the night was finally getting to try baklava, which is a delicious Turkish pastry dish.

Day 11: The next day we happened to meet a Turkish guy named Ethan at our hostel in Käs who said he was driving by Fethiye the next day and wouldn't mind giving us a lift. We told him we had wanted to check out the Blue Cave in Kalkan and whimsically he said he had never done that and that he would join us and then take us the rest of the way.

The Blue Cave was amazing. We hired a private boat to take us there for about $35 each and it was a beautiful ride. When we got to the cave we were told that we had to swim in and we were bummed that we wouldn't be able to take pictures. Seizing my call to heroic action, I decided to wrap my phone in a plastic bag and swim the whole way with the phone held above water. The risk was totally worth it because it was absolutely beautiful inside. It is called the Blue Cave because when inside the dark cave the sun shines through the entrance, illuminating the beautiful blue water. Seriously it looked like we were swimming in a pool filled with the blue Mountain Blast flavored Powerade (a college dream for Brandon and I). Afterwards we swam back to the boat and headed back to Kalkan. From there we had lunch and then departed for Fethiye. Ethan dropped us off at our hostel and headed on his way. We pretty much crashed the rest of the day, waking up only to catch the sunset by the beach and eat some dinner.

Day 12: The next day we were supposed to go paragliding in the near by town of Ölüdeniz, but due to windy conditions it was canceled. This was devastating because this was one of the highlights of our trip and this was the only day we had allotted for it. After some discussion, we decided that if we gave up seeing Ephesus, we could still do paragliding the following morning and head up to Pamukkale immediately after. So we all decided that it would be worth it to skip Ephesus in order to be able to paraglide.

Day 13: The next morning we woke up, packed our bags, and were picked up by the paragliding company at 10 AM. We then had to take a bus ride up a small dirt road that hugged the cliff of the mountain until we
The Launching Point
reached the launching point at 2000 meters high. The dude driving wouldn't slow at all around the turns, which were only wide enough for one bus, and all it would have taken was for our back tires to lose a little traction on the loose dirt road to send us skidding and then tumbling to our deaths. I thought I would be most nervous once we got to the launching point, but honestly, after that bus ride, I felt lucky to be there safely. Don't get me wrong though, I was still scared about what we were about to take part in, so much so that my hands were shaking. My instructor gave me a few brief instructions about what to do to make sure take off went safely and he mainly focused on the point that we had to run and keep running until in the air. Although my legs were shaking to the point it made it hard to stand I was determined I would run like my life depended on it, because it actually did. However, as soon as our chute was in the air it started tugging us all over the place: forwards, backwards and side-to-side. Now at this point I was obviously no paragliding expert, but from the limited amount of takeoffs that I had watched prior to my own, this was not normal and I started to freak out a bit (as is evident in the video of our takeoff).

However, it was quickly rectified by the instructor. Before I even had a chance to run we were lifted in the air and my countenance immediately relaxed and I was able to enjoy the amazing view that makes Ölüdeniz a world renowned paragliding spot. It was a constant battle to fight the urge to let my subconscious drift into imagining the different things that could go wrong and what their subsequent outcomes would be, but for the most part I was successful and that allowed me to enjoy the peaceful experience despite being 2,000 meters in the air. The instructor showed off a few acrobatic maneuvers such as spinning in a spiral and rocking back and forth, which was simultaneously exciting and slightly terrifying. But I trusted that he would not do anything too risky seeing as how he was strapped to the chute with me. In the end, we all made it to the ground safely and the adrenaline was pumping so hard that I still had the shakes a bit after landing. We went back to the office, looked over the GoPro photos and videos and of course made the purchase. We immediately set off for our next destination; Pamukkale.

Still Day 13: Pamukkale was one of the gems I stumbled upon when planning for this trip that quickly became a "must see" after only seeing a few meager google images. We were a bit pressed for time because we only had this day to see the Cotton Castle (Pamukkale's other name because it was believed that the titans used it to dry their cotton) and we had already taken up a huge portion of it with the paragliding. What
we were told was a 3-3.5 hour bus ride turned into a very frustrating 4.5 hour bus ride due to the slow pace and the fact that the bus would stop to pick up any stranger on the side of the road, whether at a bus stop or not, and drop anybody off at any point they requested. Thankfully, the sun sets really late in Turkey and so even though it was already 7 PM when we finally arrived, we still had a little over an hour of sunlight. So we dropped our bags and immediately headed for the Cotton Castle. Although our bus driver, whose disposition clearly reflected that he hated his life, told us to get off at the wrong spot, thankfully a very nice English speaking man was able to point out our error and helped us to get a taxi to the right place just in time. There was still about 30 min of good sunlight to see all of the pristine white cascading pools of clear blue water that were formed by deposits of calcium carbonate in the water. After getting a few beautiful pictures we ditched our shoes and walked down into the pools which are also natural warm springs as the sun set. It was a beautiful end to a wonderful day.

Istanbul #2
Day 14: We spent most of this day just traveling to Istanbul. It took a bus from Pamukkale to Izmir and then a flight from Izmir to Istanbul.

Day 15: The next day we went to see the Basilica Cistern, which is a big underground water cistern (requiring 336 columns) from which the Roman citizens retrieved their water and also fished from (there are still fish today). After Ottoman occupation, this cistern remained a secret for many years until they discovered citizens fishing and getting water from holes in their basements.
Next we visited the Topkapi Palace which was built by Mehmed II, the conquering sultan of Constantinople, and was where he, and subsequent sultans, ruled from for over 400 years. The palace itself was not that impressive, but some of the things that they contained, if credible, are in fact incredible. Such relics and show pieces include King David's sword, Moses' staff (not sure if is the same one that turned into a snake, but I like to think so), a cooking pot of Abraham's, a turban worn by Joseph (I am assuming the one who saved the Israelites from their famine by bringing them to Egypt), and many things owned, touched, or worn by Muhammad, including pieces of his beard. To be looking at the sword that King David once wielded, or the staff that Moses used to perform his miracles in front of the Pharaoh, or even the sauce pan that father Abraham once cooked from was surreal.

Day 16: The next day we woke up early to get to the Grand Bazaar right as it opened. The Grand Bazaar is a massive labyrinth of small stalls selling different goods. The largest covered market in the world, it has over 4,000 shops. It too was built by Mehmed II, conqueror of Constantinople, in order to boost trade in Istanbul, which was the final trade post of the Silk Road and an access point to ship eastern goods all over the Mediterranean and Black Sea. It would have been really cool to see the Bazaar back then when the shops held goods that had traveled remarkable distances for the time along with local goods as well. However, today the bazaar caters more for the tourists and is a place where you can buy knockoffs of all the name brands that are so ridiculously over priced that they even leave room for their knockoffs to be overpriced. For example, my friend paid over $100 for a name brand knockoff scarf, which I was told is normally over $400! They do have a few local craft shops, or spice/tea shops, but they are by far the minority and you can get cheaper prices in the city. Soon after shopping at the Grand Bazaar, the last of my friends that I had been traveling with left, and I now had 10 more days of solo traveling.

Day 17: Having seen most of the sites in Istanbul, I really didn't know what to do this day, so Ali, a guy working at the hostel, told me to check out Prince's Island. I hadn't heard about this place but he said it was beautiful, so I thought I'd check it out. You know, since I had absolutely nothing else to do and all. Ali told me how to get there which involved getting on the tram, something I was excited to try out and involved me borrowing the tram card of the worker at the spice shop next door, and then getting on a ferry to the island. Once I found the ferry terminal I learned the ferry had an hour until departure and they wouldn't let me leave and come back after having already entered. Then on the ferry I learned that there were 4 islands that made up Prince's Island and the ferry would stop at each, so now I had to decide which one to get off at. The first island looked alright. Lots of people and something that resembled a beach, but it wasn't amazing like Ali had described, so I decided to hold out for a different island. Besides, you never bid on the first showcase in the Price is Right. However, each island got more and more disappointing as it went. Less people and no beach. Not seeing anything too enticing, I decided I would just stay on the ferry and ride it back to where it picked me up. Big mistake! Turns out it ended its service on the Asian side of Istanbul when I was staying on the European side. I then had to find a new ferry that would take me back to the European side, but it didn't leave for another two hours. So I went for a walk with no purpose or direction in mind, just set off down this
path that hugged the coastline. It was pretty uneventful, as you could imagine, but I did see some dolphins. When I got to the ferry terminal to board what I thought I had been told was a 5:50 departure, I learned that with a Turkish accent the words "fifteen" and "fifty" sound awfully similar. So now I had to wait for the next ferry, which came at 6:15. I eventually made it back to my hostel safe and sound and in enough time to watch USA lose their World Cup match.

Day 18: Today I went to go to a Turkish bath which has been
popular here since the Roman times. It is basically a spa treatment but very very unique. First they put you in a sauna and throw menthol on the hot rocks. This causes an instant burning inside your nostrils that I can only imagine comparable to someone shoving spearmint chewing gum up both of your nasals. Next came an incredible burning sensation all over my face until I could no longer feel my face. After I had had about all that I could tolerate, and had worked up a good sweat, I was taking to another room where there was a massive marble table, which I laid on. There, copious buckets of warm water were dumped on me, and a mineral facial mask applied. Next the masseuse put on gloves with a texture that resembled sandpaper, 50 grit, and scrubbed all of my dead skin off. Since just the day prior I had achieved a nice quasi-burn, there was both lots of dead skin (you could literally see it all over my body) and lots of discomfort on my end. Once that had finished I was
lathered up with some suds and given a brief massage, which was interesting because, as aforementioned, I was on a giant marble slab covered in soap, so I was slipping and sliding all over the place like a greased up fish. It all ended with another rinsing of alternating hot and ice cold water and a little of a relaxing period. Although the experience itself was uncomfortable at times, the feeling I felt upon leaving was worth it; like floating on a cloud. Next I walked around the old city a bit to see some the lesser sites I hadn't seen, such as the Hippodrome, where chariot races used to occur, and Constantine's Column. From there it was back to the hostel to pack for my day trip to Ephesus via a night bus that evening.

Day 19: The night bus was miserable. It was a ten hour ride, which included a short ferry ride, and
was completely filled so there was not a lot of space to get comfortable. I arrived at Ephesus at about 6 AM, which was 3 hours before the tour started. At 9 AM our tour got underway and the first destination was what is believed to be the house of the Virgin Mary. Because Jesus entrusted St. John to take care of his earthly mother, and because John came to Ephesus to write his gospel, and was buried there, deductive reasoning would tell us that Mary would have to be in Ephesus too. Other evidence exists to strengthen the Ephesians claim that this was in fact where the Virgin Mary lived after Jesus' crucifixion. Upon entering the house, the sanctity of the place is definitely observable and it certainly felt as I though I was standing on sacred ground. Once you enter, there is an alter where you can say a quick prayer and then as you exit you collect a candle to light outside the house in remembrance. Very cool to be standing where the Virgin Mary once stood.

Afterwards we headed to the city center of Ephesus, which was once a rich bustling port city, so much so that it was once the capital of Roman Asia, but due to earthquakes causing the ocean to retract further away and the port silting shut it was eventually abandoned. This is precisely the reason why it is one of the most intact archaeological sites in Turkey, if not the world, because, despite all the wars in the area throughout the years, nobody saw it as a tactical advantage to destroy a ghost town. Subsequent earthquakes then caused
the city to be completely covered until it was eventually found and excavated around the in the late 19th Century. The ancient city was pretty massive so there is quite a lot to see. What made Ephesus so unique and unparalleled when compared to all the other ruins I have seen in my travels is that because it is so well preserved it still looks and feels the same as it was over a thousand years ago. Most historical cities today have modern cities built around them so it does not feel the same as it would have in it's original form, but walking through Ephesus you can get a realistic feel for how the city would have looked and been like. Getting lost in time and imagining oneself selling spices on the street side, relaxing in the Roman bath-house, or, for those with a wilder and perhaps amoral imagination, lying to ones wife about visiting the library to brush up on their studies but then sneaking off to the brothel across the street via the secret underground tunnel connecting the two beneath the street (supposedly this actually happened) is easily possible if you just take a few quiet moments to enjoy the site and get lost in your thoughts. 

The sites include: a Roman bath, the town hall amphitheater where politics were discussed, a commercial center with multiple facades of old shops, a possible hospital, a toilet area that seemed quite sanitary and
sophisticated for it's time, a memorial constructed to commemorate the Emperor Sulla's recapture of Ephesus, who had revolted, under the leadership of Mithridates, due to a growing discontent with Rome's taxes (basically saying, "let me remind you who the master is"), the remnants of what was a fountain dedicated to Trajan, the Library of Celsius (3rd largest in the ancient world), a brothel included with what could potentially be the world's first example of advertisement inscribed in the Main Street pointing to the brothel, and lastly an amphitheater. Next we had a buffet lunch before going to see our last site, which was the temple of Artemis, one of the ancient wonders of the world. Unfortunately, what used to be a magnificent temple built for the goddess of the hunt is nothing more than a few pieces of ruble scattered across a field today.

The last stop for our tour was the mandatory tourist trap that always comes with these types of tours. This one was carpet shop where this government subsidized company goes into rural villages to find girls willing to work for them and make carpets to sell. The art of carpet making in Turkey began as a dowry for Turkish girls. If a girl wanted to get married she had to provide all the carpeting and other textiles for the house before she could get married. So when a village girl started working on making carpets, everyone in the village would know that she had her eye on some boy and she would try to impress him with the most elaborate designs. Today, it is a dying art due to Turkey's modernization and many girls wanting an education and therefore not willing to spend most of one year making a carpet. Also, dowries today are more modern things like a tv, refrigerator and things like that rather than carpets. So it is becoming increasingly harder to find younger generation girls that want to or even know how to make carpets. 

It was cool to hear about how this company and the government takes care of the girls and makes sure they
are not exploited. For example, they are given full medical insurance and have the option to move to their workshop where they will be fed and housed, or to make their carpets from their home. Also, the girl that made the carpet that is sold, gets 70% of the profit. Another cool thing is that they never tell the girls what to make, they simply provide them the supplies and tools and let them create whatever inspires them. I liked this shop because of these things and I was a little disappointed that I had already bought a carpet. The worker at the shop walked us through the process of threading silk from silk worm cocoons, then showed us a girl working on a carpet and the different knotting techniques and why the Turkish double knot technique is superior, and then lastly took us into a room, gave us free drinks, and gave us his sales pitch by throwing out many beautiful carpets in front of our faces. When it came time to buy, many of the tourist in the group were making purchases, but since I had already purchased a rug, I was not really considering buying another one. Instead, I sought out the main worker, who seemed to know everything to know about rugs and their value to show him a picture of my first carpet to see if I had gotten a good deal, which he confirmed that I of course had made a good deal. Satisfied, I was now waiting for everyone else in the group to make their purchases. Particularly this Korean guy who I had made friends with was struggling with his decision, and
sought out my advice. While I left him to ponder, I curiously began browsing the rugs which of course caused a worker to come over and solicit me further. However, in this rare case I was thankful he did because he unrolled this carpet I immediately loved. What made this carpet so special to me was that it had no dye in it at all. All the different colors in the carpet came from different colored sheep's wool. I had to have this carpet! But it was hard to justify buying another carpet when I had already paid so much for one. I didn't need two different colored carpets. Plus the price of this carpet was well out of my range and although my bargaining skills was able to bring that price down, it was not low enough to where i felt comfortable buying it. So the seller asked my range and I said around $400. He told me the absolute lowest he could do was $700 but that they had similar carpets for $400ish. However these were much smaller and not nearly as beautiful, so I told him I was only interested in buying the first one but could not pay that much. Just when I was about give up on having this carpet, the main worker came in and asked that if I could carry it with me that he could give me a lower price, which was inside my comfortable range. This made the first salesman mad and he said that the price could not go lower than $700 and he meant it! He yelled at the main guy, who yelled back that he had the authority and he was taking the responsibility for this transaction. So, with that, it was a deal. I now had another carpet, and decided to do something I wanted to do all along, which was gift the first one to my parents. 

This concluded our tour and meant that I now had to take another miserable 10 hour bus ride back to Istanbul. A big group of Korean tourist made the trip a little more bearable, as I was able to practice some Korean with them, much to their entertainment.

Istanbul #3
Day 20: Not much to report on this day. I got back to Istanbul in the morning and was exhausted. I walked around the city a bit and at night went to a restaurant to watch the World Cup quarter finals and was sat with a nice older American couple who kept forcing me to eat their food.

Day 21: My last day I didn't really do anything except plan for my trip to Cairo the following day. Istanbul is a great city, but it only needs around 3 days to see everything. Anymore is a bit over kill.

Graffiti from the Revolution
Day 22: With all the recent violence that has occurred in Egypt in the past three or so years, this was certainly the most risky place I had traveled to at this point. Knowing that nobody hates Canadians, I reverted to a strategy I have used before to avoid someone discovering that I am a citizen from one of the most hated nations in the world, lie about being Canadian (I think this is the only circumstance where anybody would wish to be and even pretend to be Canadian. No offense). Hilariously, the most common response, around 70% of the time, when I told someone that I was Canadian was for them to excitedly shout, "Canada Dry!". Congratulations Canada. Your most notable achievement is your ginger ale. 

My first introduction to Egypt was not a warm one, well I mean that figuratively, literally it was very warm. I didn't take into consideration that the taxi driver might not know my hotel's address if written in Romanized form, but only recognize street names written in Arabic. So we spent considerable time looking for the hotel, which then resulted in me getting charged extra, which I off course tried to fight but due to the safety level of this country I gave in. This would continue to happen throughout my stay. Next, as soon as I step out of the taxi I am greeted by a man with a very large coat and at just the right angle I caught a glimpse of the assault rifle he had holstered inside that very large coat. This was no government worker, just your average citizen packing some serious heat. Maybe a mobster. Once I entered the hotel, which had gotten over 90% rating on with over 200 reviews, I felt like I was entering an abandoned crackhouse. It smelled of cat piss, there were many of the culprits lounging on the stairs. It was just overall dirty. However, the room was relatively clean, so due to the greeting I had just received I decided to just camp out in my private room for the remainder of the day. Not even the call of a hungry stomach was enough to bring me out of my room on this night. I could use the day off anyways.

Day 23: I had arranged for a personal driver to drive me around to all the sites the next day, seeing as I had only allotted one day to see everything in Cairo, but also because I was told in Cairo they don't do tours and that you can only go individually. I felt like I was constantly lied to in order to have more money extorted from me but I was really with out any other option. We first arrived at the Great Pyramids of Giza. This was my sole purpose of visiting Egypt and is about the only thing anybody thinks about when visiting Egypt.
Because of their monumental size you can see them from quite far away. To be honest, the pyramids weren't especially beautiful, they are pretty amazing, but that is not what makes seeing them so special to me. It was the novelty of getting to see what we all have learned, and in my case taught, about throughout our many years of school. Getting to see my classroom come to life was special. However the experience of the pyramids was slightly ruined by all the vultures there. No, not the scavenger bird of prey, but many Egyptian men who constantly pipe money from you. My driver warned me to avoid these types of people, but they made that very difficult and, as aforementioned, I didn't want to upset anyone in this country. Immediately after purchasing my ticket and walking through security I was approached by a man who told me to follow him. I tried to tell him that I just wanted to walk around the pyramids alone, but he insisted that I could not do this and that I had to ride a horse or camel, which intuition told me was another lie. I didn't really want to do this but I consented anyways. So then I had to pay the owner of the horse and my guide now. The guide took me to a beautiful panoramic spot to view all three of the Great Pyramids, built by Khufu, his son, and grandson, plus three lesser pyramids. This made me feel a little better about being suckered out of money for something I didn't want, because this truly was the best place for pictures and it would have been difficult to walk there. While at the scenic spot I was greeted by another man with a camel, who, completely unsolicited, forced me onto his camel and walked me around to other spots, and of course asked for money. I then inquired if I could enter the pyramids and was informed that that would cost three times the amount I had paid just to enter the site at Giza. I was feeling hosed and it really made me feel like Egypt tourism is just I giant scam. If someone asked if they could take a photo for you, they charged money. If someone told you something interesting about what you were looking at, they charged money. If someone helped give you directions on the street, first they lie to you and then try to direct you to their business so that they can, wait for it...charge you money. It was frustrating, but I fought hard to prevent that from ruining my experience. 

Next the guide took me to a shop where they make papyrus using the same technique as the ancient Egyptians. The lady showed me the raw papyrus plant, which is like a reed with a flower on top that looks like the sun. She explained that this is why the Egyptians used this plant because the flower reminds them of
Amon-ra. They cut the stock of this reed into smaller pieces and then peel off the outer layer, which they used to weave baskets. They then slice the inside into small then strips, but these contain too much water and sugar, which makes it too brittle and easily broken. So the next step is to place the pieces on a stone and to hammer it or roll it to get out all the water and sugar. Afterwards they then place the now flimsy and flexible pieces into water for 3 days. After this they lay the pieces together in intersecting rows and columns. Lastly they put the pieces under a press for three days, after which it becomes papyrus paper. I had no intentions to buy anything, yet again, but thought it was interesting learning about how this ancient form of paper was made. While browsing around, however, I found one piece of art that I found especially interesting because I actually knew about it and it is something I teach about in my class. This was a famous hieroglyphic scene of the final judgment, where Anubis weighs the persons heart on a scale opposite of the feather of truth. If the person's heart weighs more than the feather, then they lived a bad life and do not go to the afterlife, but if the heart equals or weighs less than the feather then they lived a good life and can go to paradise. So I bought it.

Lastly, my "guide" (quotations indication that he did not actually guide me or teach me anything, which is fine because I knew enough about the pyramids to be satisfied just viewing them) took me back inside where I finally got my wish to walk alone and view the sphinx before departing. The next destination was to the Pyramids of Djoser, which were actually the first pyramids in Egypt and the world, but when I arrived the only pyramid that remains there was covered in scaffolding, so I did not care to pay to enter since any pictures would be ruined by the reconstruction. Instead, we immediately headed to the next destination, the Mit Rahina Museum, which only contains one massive statue of Ramses the Great. After viewing for about 5 minutes and then nature forcing me to endure one of the most horrific public toilet experiences of my life involving a rat, I was on my way to our final destination for the day: the Egyptian Museum.

Canopic Jars
The museum was massive, and after fighting off the people asking to be your guide, you enter a massive room with the largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts in the world. They had so many mummies that they don't many of them are just stacked on top of each other. The big hitters were almost all of the mummies of the most famous pharaohs in Egyptian history. Then there were all of the Tutankhamen artifacts which deserved its own room. They had his entire tomb there, which was similar to a Russian doll toy set with four sequential tombs, each one a bit smaller in order to fit inside the former, and at least two, maybe three, sarcophagi, including the famous golden mask that decorated his mummy. The real tragedy of the museum was that they do not allow any photography whatsoever inside the museum, so I will have to rely on my memory photos and google images when I become senile to remember the pieces. I only had limited time here, due to Ramadan the museum closed early, so I kind hurried through most of the museum, but I was satisfied with the time I had there. 

Afterwards, my driver picked me up, we sat in possibly the worst traffic I have ever had to endure (over 30 minutes to go one kilometer. We eventually parked and abandoned the car to walk the rest of the way), and I showered, packed and relaxed at my hotel until it was time for me to go to the train station to catch my train to Luxor that night. Just prior to departing for Luxor, I did go on the search for food. As I said, I did not eat anything the first day when arriving in Cairo and I had unintentionally practiced the daily fasting of Ramadan (aside a very small bag of Doritos in the morning) for this day, and being that I was about to embark on a 12 hour train ride I had to find something to eat. This is an intimidating task as the restaurants
are hard to spot and it is essentially guaranteed that nobody speaks English.
However, after walking a short distance from my hotel I saw a man grilling chicken and sheesh kabobs on an open charcoal grill on the street and it smelled heavenly. Confident that in this scenario pointing would suffice for proper communication, I walked up to the nearest man I presumed to work for the "restaurant" (street corner with some plastic tables and chairs) and pointed at the chicken and some bread. This was successfully communicated and I was eventually brought possibly the best grilled chicken I have ever tasted. I don't know if this is because I hadn't eaten more than a small bag of Doritos in over 30 hours, but I like to think not. Regardless, I will be having dreams about this chicken.

From here it was onward to the train station for my half day train ride to Luxor. It was interesting to experience, and fairly comfortable up in 1st class. I slept pretty much the entire ride, although this was not good sleep due to constantly waking up and changing positions to get comfortable again.

Day 24: This city became the capital of Ancient Egypt during the New Kingdom, under the name of Thebes, due to their military successes. It is the city where many of the late great pharaohs ruled from, such as Ramses II (the great), Tutankhamen, and Queen Hatshepsut. Following their observations of the sun, which appeared to be born each day in the East and die in the West, the Egyptians in Luxor built all the temples and houses on the eastern bank of the Nile, and all the tombs on the Western bank. The Egyptians also developed their ideas about the afterlife by observing the sun. Everyday they saw it rise to life and fall to death only to be risen to life again. They believed this would also happen to them. After they died, their spirit would leave their body, but then eventually come back to join the body, which meant the bodies needed to be preserved. So they would wrap the bodies and place them deep in the sand, which would draw out all their moisture and preserve the body. However, they worried that this was too easy for their bodies to be destroyed by wild animals who could smell the dead body. To solve this they began adding stones on top of their tomb. This eventually grew until the very first step pyramids or Djoser were built in Saqqara and eventually the practice continued until the great pyramids of Giza were built.
In Luxor, kings quit building pyramids because they were expensive and they attracted grave robbers, which the exact thing kings were trying to avoid by building the pyramids. So in Luxor they dug their tombs in the ground where it was much more difficult to find them. But they believed they needed the pyramid shape still at their tomb because the pyramid acted as a catalyst of the soul into the after life, so they chose a valley that has a mountain with a pyramid shape. This is the Valley of the Kings. The 3D map of the the valley of the
Valley of the Kings
Kings looked similar to an underground ant colony with all of the different network of tunnels. These tombs were so secretive that sometimes the tombs would run into each other, because the diggers didn't know where the old tombs were, and they would have to change their course of direction. I one case, Ramses VI built his tomb directly on top of King Tut's, possibly because he didn't know, or possibly because he thought the boy king who only ruled for 6 years so insignificant that he just didn't care. Ironically, this is precisely what made King Tut one of the most famous pharaohs because Ramses VI tomb hid Tut's tomb from grave robbers until it was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922, which was the only fully intact pharaoh tomb. The real shame of the Valley of the Kings was first, that you had to pay extra to see King Tut's tomb, again Egyptian Tourism board trying to pipe all the money they can get from you, and second, that you can't take any pictures. Not even of the valley! Inside the tombs I can somewhat understand, although if you enforce a no flash policy then it should be permissible. But you mean to tell me that I can't photograph this natural pile of sediment that is outdoors? Yep, unless you want to pay a 1,000 Egyptian pound fine ($140 USD). I of course did not let this idle threat stop me. I got my pictures, but having to do it so discretely really dampened the quality of the photos I could take. I am no cowboy, I cannot fire from the hip with great accuracy. 

Next we went to Queen Hatshepsut's temple. Queen Hatshepsut is an interesting character. She was wife and step-brother to the pharaoh Thutmose II.  When he died after a very short reign,
Hatshepsut's step-son, Thutmose III, was supposed to rule but he was too young, so she ruled as a co-regent. However, somewhere along the way, possibly through intimidation, she claimed to be pharaoh outright. Only, there was a problem and a quite noticeable and unavoidable one at that. She was a woman, and the Egyptians would not listen to a woman pharaoh. Being crafty, she found ways around this. First, she made herself out to be a man, possibly the first cross-dresser in history, although I highly doubt that. She dressed like a man, talked like a man, and even wore a fake beard and mustache like a man. She took her "manhood" so seriously that she even constructed the largest obelisk at Luxor temple. Obelisks are a phallic symbol of a man's power, so she was essentially claiming to be bigger in the trousers than any of the other male Pharaohs. To further her claim she made up stories about being visited by the gods or even possible being conceived by
the gods. Lastly, she appeased the people by building a massive public temple, one she claimed to be unique in that it was three stories while all other temples were one story. Some speculate that she actually stole this idea from a nearby temple that she had destroyed and copied. Hatshepsut also allowed nobles to build tombs nearby this temple in order to get their approval. It was this temple that we were now viewing. Nothing too spectacular about it aesthetically, aside from the fact that it is three stories, but learning about the history of it and Hatshepsut was interesting. There was even the stump of a tree that Hatshepsut had brought back from the land of Punt, which was near modern day Somalia. Making this stump over 3,000 years old. 

The next destination we did not go inside but just looked at, which was a temple named for the great ancient Egyptian architect Habo and built by Ramses III. It depicts a scene of Ramses III defeating his enemies and offering them to the gods. This concluded my first tour in Luxor and I was taken to a hotel where I paid a little more than $8 USD for a room to nap in until my next tour started about two hours later.

For this next tour we visited two sites: Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple. These, during ancient times were connected by a three kilometer road, and were the sites of a great celebration every year when the Nile flooded. The Egyptians depended on the Nile's flood to irrigate their fields and to replenish nutrients to the soil. Every year they would sacrifice one beautiful young girl to the Hapi, the god of the Nile, in order to please him so that he would make it flood. This was a great honor and privilege for the girl as she thought she would be going to paradise as the wife of the god of the Nile. Once the Nile did flood, the pharaoh would float to Karnak temple where a great celebration would occur; full of sacrifices, dancers and even acrobats, and would continue at Luxor temple. Karnak temple is also the biggest remaining ancient temple in Egypt. I was very appreciative of my good guide who was able to show me many of the hieroglyphics and stories adorning the walls of the temple and explain their meanings to me. Such as a scene depicting Ramses the Great asking Amun-Ra to write his name on a leaf of the royal tree, necessary to become pharaoh, and then his crowning.

Finally, we toured Luxor temple, which was in really good condition, built primarily by Ramses the Great and Amenhotep III. There were some additions added to it throughout the years, such as a mosque that was literally built on top of the walls of the temple because at that time it had been covered by sand. Also a church was added by the Greeks, which still had some frescoes left behind on the walls. Lastly, Alexander the Great added a section himself with hieroglyphics illustrating him becoming a god, which ( here I got to teach my guide something new) was arguably his main motivation in conquering Egypt. The idea that they viewed their kings as gods was presumably too enticing for Alexander's ego.

After a quick tour of Luxor temple it was straight to the train station to embark on another 11 hour train ride, full of inadequate sleep. 

Day 25: On my last day, I mostly stayed in my hotel room to catch up on sleep. I did walk to the Nile river during the day and of course returned to eat the greatest chicken I had ever eaten at night after sunset.

Some general observations of Cairo/Egypt that surprised me were:
1. That it was incredibly dirty and poor. I was not expecting an African Singapore or Dubai, but for being a city, Cairo was more dirty and poor looking than much of Mumbai and most of the third world countries I have visited in Southeast Asia. Part of the reason for the filth is that people simply do not care. When I was at the pyramids, I finished my bottle of water and asked my "guide" what to do with it and he said I could just throw it down on the sand because the wind would blow it away.
2. Being a strictly Muslim country, it was remarkable how few women you saw out on the streets. Under sharia law, women have far fewer rights than men, including social rules about who they can be with in public. This results in fewer women being visible on the streets.

3. The traffic and crazy driving of the Egyptians. I've seen crazy driving all over the world, but Egypt might just take the prize as craziest. They constantly use their horns and speed into any space available for their car and anybody who causes them to have to slow down even slightly, including pedestrians crossing the street, get honked and yelled at. Which brings me to my last observation.

4. The Egyptians come across as very hostile people. This may in part be due to the fact that they were currently fasting during their holy month of Ramadan, and we all know that hunger can make any saint turn into Bobby Knight.  Regardless, I saw multiple fights and shouting matches everywhere I went in Egypt. 

With my trip concluded, all that was left for me was a 42 hour odyssey back to the US, of which 25 of those hours were for layovers. Still worth it.