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Four Days in the Former Byzantium and a Break in Ukraine

31st Jul 2012

Our journey to Turkey started off with a fairly typical web-experience in Qatar. I had logged onto the website of “the best airline in the world” to check in online and obtain our boarding passes.

Having managed this without too many problems I proceeded, as one who is around 6’6″ in height and consequently leg-room-challenged does, to try to find, at very worst, an aisle seat and, at best, a bulkhead seat. I was overjoyed to find two bulkhead seats marked as “available” and proceeded to request them.

Alas, my dreams of a technology that did “what it said on the can” were to be dashed. Upon pressing the “submit” button I was informed that my selection of seats had failed (no reason was given) and that now I could print my boarding pass, or have it emailed to me, or send it to my phone. There was no option to return to the previous task. Resigned to the vagaries of Qatari websites (I have had the displeasure of trying to deal with ridiculously dysfunctional sites at Qatar National Bank, qTel and Kahraama this week) I clicked on the button that said “print”. Of course, nothing happened, and nothing continued to happen as often as I clicked on the button. Eventually I clicked on the button which said “email” and, sure enough(!), our boarding passes pinged into my email box fairly quickly. I did wonder, “if you can’t print, why put the button there?” but clearly mine is not to question why.

There is (possibly) a huge opportunity here, creating Qatari web-sites that work, and testing them properly. I also read the next screen with some bewilderment, the instructions (paraphrased) were something like this:

  • If you have a boarding pass and baggage, take your luggage to the “baggage drop counter”.
  • If you do not have a boarding pass go to the “baggage drop counter”.
  • If you have a boarding pass and don’t have baggage go to the “baggage drop counter”

“OK”, I thought, maybe we should go to the “baggage drop counter”.

This seemed like a pretty fair bet. And we did. To be told, after we got to the front of the queue “this is the wrong queue you need to go to the check-in queues”.

Wow! Best airline in the world (Singapore Airlines, Qantas, and even Malaysian must have been out-to-lunch for the last two years – or someone’s pockets weren’t deep enough), I have a middle seat out of three with bugger-all leg room, and now we must re-queue to check in. An hour later we got to the front of the queue. No doubt this is a minor glitch in the system.

Ever hopeful, although our flight was now getting perilously close to boarding time, I asked “do you have seats with leg room please?”.

The helpful check-in lady studied the screen, punched some buttons, looked puzzled, punched some more buttons, called over a colleague, who scrabbled at the keyboard for a while, called over another colleague and eventually pulled a label out, stuck it on our bags and handed our preprinted boarding passes over. No seat change. There was no mention of my request for legroom seats no “yes”,  “no” or “sorry”. Just “you need to go immediately to gate 1 your flight is boarding”. I gave up, assuming the flight must be full, we made our way to the gate grateful that, at least, we were boarding and might escape the 45 degree heat and 80% humidity.

The flight wasn’t full, there were many empty seats, and the lady immediately to my right managed to score herself a window seat elsewhere giving Yuliya and I the opportunity to spread out across three seats. This was fortunate as Yuliya’s entertainment system was all in Arabic and the touch screen (which might have allowed her to change it back to English – had it worked) was almost completely disfunctional so she would have had a four-hour flight with no movies otherwise. It did help to have the extra room as well as the aircraft air conditioning seems to have been stuck on “heat” and the temperature throughout the flight was uncomfortably warm.

We were soon off the ground and flying west, time to settle back for a movie and we were both really pleased to find that we could watch “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”. This is a must-see film, extremely funny and beautifully executed with some of the cream of British and Indian talent.

Luckily the film put us in a good enough humor that Yuliya was able to laugh off the fact that the passenger in front of her had a broken seat. It would slam back, then forward then back again at regular intervals and the seats on this airline are the type that go back so far that they almost take the teeth out of the person behind if they are unwary. Once the seat in front is reclined, you spend a lot of time looking at the top of the head of the passenger in front. Someone told me once that air travel used to be a pleasant adventure.

Yeah right! We are flying on “the best airline in the world” nothing pleasant, I had a better adventure travelling second class on a Sri Lankan train. I counted at least 18 times that yo-yo boy tried to find a middle-position in his seat and, thankfully, Yuliya let him live.

Istanbul, Turkey

Our arrival in Turkey was a breath of fresh air, modern, clean, and significantly cooler than our new home. We were able to find our way relatively easily, using the modern, air-conditioned, train and tramway system to the central hotel where we had booked the next four nights.

Our hotel was one of the many tourist hotels that nestle amongst the small businesses manufacturing and selling bulk clothing and shoes on the hill-sides rising from the sea in this part of Istanbul. Reasonably priced at about US$60 per night, the hotel was six stories high with a roof top bar and restaurant offering views of the sea. The rooms were air-conditioned and clean and the staff warm and tremendously welcoming, greeting us with a cup of apple tea, Turkish delight, and a comfortable sofa to relax on while we got our breath back and filled in the usual hotel paperwork.

We settled our bags in our room, changed into comfortable walking shoes and set off to find some lunch and a cold beer.

Nor did we have to go far, within 100 metres or so of the hotel we found a roadside cafe serving, what we were soon to discover is the standard Turkish fare, salads, shish and donner kebabs, and pedi (like a pizza-boat). We took our seat on the pavement but were told that, in deference to those celebrating Ramadan, we would need to sit inside and upstairs to have beer. Fair enough, what a considerate approach.

The food was nothing short of spectacular. Tender lamb chops, not overcooked; accompanied by Turkish bread, and a salad of chopped tomatoes, cucumber, parsley and mild green chillis dressed only with mild olive oil and squeeze of lemon juice which we added ourselves. This salad was an accompaniment that we were quickly to become used to in Turkey.

The tomatoes here are rich, red, juicy and full of flavour, they are a part of every meal and the mixture of flavourful fresh vegetables in this part of the world assaults your sense in a wonderful way. I am coming to understand why Jamie Oliver is so excited by travelling and eating in this region and around the Mediterranean.

The Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar

After lunch we took a walk up over the hill and into the Grand Bazaar, a market that spans many city blocks and sells everything from clothing, watches, carpet, ceramics, and garden tools to gold and jewellery. One of my strongest impressions about the market and the shops in Turkey is the enormous proliferation of fake handbags, watches and clothing. The only time I have ever seen anything approaching this much contraband is in the, much more furtive, Chinese markets (which at least the Chinese government makes a pretence of trying to control).

I wonder why anyone bothers to buy the real thing when there are so many good copies on the market offering similar utility for a fraction of the price. Then again utility and fashion are not necessarily comfortable bed-fellows. This prolific intellectual property theft will be one of the barriers to Turkey joining the EU (should they really still want to), but then again it didn’t stop Italy (where the only change following EU membership is that their markets seem to be full of knockoff Gucci handbags rather than those of their French cousins).

Our stay in Turkey included visits to the Blue Mosque, a seventeenth century mosque of enormous size with magnificent vaulted ceilings and, next door, the Hagia Sophia, a 6thcentury church in which Russian Grand Princess Olga was baptised (this is a significant event in Russian history as it represents the birth of Christianity in the nation – it is well worth reading up on).

The Hagia Sophia is an astounding building, for around a thousand years, the largest cathedral in the world, it was originally decorated with stained glass windows (some of which still exist) and the ceiling was completely tiled with mosaic tiles. These were covered up with plaster when Islam became the dominant religion in Constantinople (the name for Istanbul when it was the capital of the Ottoman Empire) and have been revealed in places, for the benefit of tourists, by careful removal of the plaster which itself, has been painted and decorated more in keeping with the sensibilities of Moslem worshippers.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

We also wandered down to the spice souq where incredible prices are paid by gullible tourists (such as ourselves) for a wide variety of beautifully packaged and presented foods, spices and handcrafts. It is well worth developing your haggling skills before going to these Turkish markets. There is a happy willingness to haggle down to around 50% of the original asking price and the more far-fetched the story that you can come up with to show your inability to pay the exorbitant asking price, the more interesting the exercise becomes (12 kids, 3 wives, pestilence and famine are well understood as reasons why money is particularly tight this month).

I felt I was some way down the road to being a successful haggler when one vendor asked me where I was from because, he said, I was “too simpatico…” to be Australian.

Nearby the spice souq, you can walk down to a fish market on the other side of the water where for a few dollars you can eat a lunch of freshly cooked anchovies, trout, salmon, or a range of other fish with the ubiquitous salads and bread.

There is a curious double-deck bridge with restaurants along the lower deck on both sides at each of which there will be a hustler posted to try to bring you in to eat and drink. We managed to avoid these in favour of the more local-looking cafe’s in and around the fish market. On the top deck of the bridge, the road traffic passes over and dozens, if not hundreds of anglers enjoy the ambiance and the thrill of pulling in tiny fish on huge fishing rods which make the bridge appear to bristle, like an inverted centipede, from underneath.

One of the things that it is worth visiting Turkey for is shoes. Hand-made locally, these are cheap and plentiful and the prices were very reasonable when compared to similar quality in the UK. As well, for someone who has feet the size of swim fins, it was great to find so many shops that had a range of styles in large sizes available.

Of less interest were the carpets, there are, of course some (pure silk) of extraordinary quality and value, but in our experience and with only a few exceptions, the Istfahan carpets from Iran are far superior in general to the carpets that we saw in Turkey. However carpet salesmen in Istanbul are more common than flies at an Aussie barbecue and if someone approaches you in the street with friendly questions about where you are from, what you do and how you are enjoying your visit it is more than likely that he will soon ask if you would like to visit his brother’s carpet shop.

The Turkish people are friendly and warm, even if you discount the fact that they recognise the value of the tourism dollar, there is a genuine bon-homme which is wonderful o experience and we will return to Turkey to explore more of this country.

Onward to Crimea

We left Turkey early in the morning and the airport was as modern and efficient to us as departing tourists as it had been when we arrived. This time we flew with “The Best Airline in Europe”, Turkish Airways, and this award, based on our experience, was well deserved. Despite having middle seats, we had a comfortable amount of leg room and the service and food in economy class for this one hour flight rivalled that of competitor airlines’ long-haul flights.

Other airlines could learn a thing-or-two from Turkish Airways and, given the choice, this will be my first pick in future.

We flew from Istanbul to Simferopol in Crimea, Ukraine, where a car (kindly organised by Yuliya’s brother in law) was waiting to take us the 80 kilometers to their dacha overlooking the Black Sea. The trip should normally take around 2 hours but we had chosen a bad day, accidents and traffic more than doubled this time and it was 5 hours later when we found ourselves being welcomed by Yuliya’s father and were able to settle down to a delicious lunch outside in the sunshine.

Little has changed since last I was here. A dry spell has meant that there is no running water and the new plumbing is not much better than decoration, but the house has new double glazed windows and has clearly benefited from permanent occupancy (Yuliya’s Dad moved in during the spring).  The rocket (rucula) is as plentiful as ever in the garden, the vines are festooned with grapes, blackberries are ripening, cherries have finished, peaches are full and juicy, and the stalls along the highways are selling their strings of sweet red onions.

The temperature is a little cooler than during our last visit, hovering in the high twenties, and the sea is a pleasant 26 degrees centigrade.

6th August 2012

Yesterday we stopped at a little village near the seaside for water and ice creams on the way back from a swim.

It is quite enchanting to see the Ukrainian and Russian holiday makers enjoying themselves here on their annual visit. In some ways so similar to Brits flocking off to seaside resorts in the south of England and Spain, they burn happily in the sun and are smiling and clearly happy as they shop at the street stalls that thrive at this time of the year selling trinkets, souvenirs, local fortified plonk, vodka, fruit, spices, cakes and vegetables and smallgoods.

Nobody speaks English as far as I can tell and any attempt at conversation is useless. This is somewhat isolating for someone with my limited Russian skills but, ce la vie. With the benefit of proximity in time I am going to try to describe some of the food here in the Ukraine which is vastly different in style to what I have experienced elsewhere. If this is not your cup of tea please feel free to skip through or stop reading. Dairy products are almost staple.

Breakfast may consist of crumbly cottage cheese that comes in a foil bag and is served in a bowl topped with sweet jam or honey. This is accompanied by cold meats, eggs, omelette or vegetables and toast, served cold. The bread is heavier and “shorter” than you might expect, rye bread is common but even the white bread is more like the cornbread that Americans are often fond of.

Sometimes we might have salmon caviar for breakfast. Lumpfish caviar is not generally eaten here and Beluga caviar from sturgeon has become prohibitively expensive since the collapse of the soviet union. I have tried all three and, to my taste the salmon caviar is superior anyway.

As well, with breakfast we might have some sliced salmon that has been “cured” with salt and sugar and is not unlike cold-smoked salmon (I think it is the same as gravadlax which we had in the north-east of England).

Accompaniments include sour-cream (Russians eat almost nothing without sour cream) and a drink of soured milk (there are several varieties – some best not discussed in my humble opinion). Later in the day salads of tomatoes (yes they are as juicy and bursting with flavour here as they are in turkey) cucumber, yellow (or green) peppers, and sometimes some rocket leaves are eaten with cold meat, cheese (fantastic variety – goats’, sheep, and cow).

Yuliya’s brother-in-law Eugene is a tremendous cook and yesterday he made us pasta for lunch with a sauce made of fresh tomatoes, finely chopped with garlic and yellow pepper and then reduced in a pan and flavoured with finely chopped basil. There is no excuse (nor need) to use tomato paste or canned tomatoes when the fresh flavours are so good.

Salads are dressed with nothing more than a dash of oil. There are a few types and one of the most popular, at least in this family, is unraffinated sunflower oil which has a delicious unique taste. There is simply no need to add vinegar to the salads and I suspect that my usually practice of doing this at home is a result of the tasteless excuse for tomatoes that we have been subjected to in Australia and the UK for so long. Meals, apart from breakfast, are always accompanied with vodka and wine and as a result are all the more joyous and satisfying.

8th August 2012

Tonight we have been sitting together, drinking herb-flavoured vodka and sharing our past experiences  of vastly different political systems, histories and cultures. There is so much that binds us and yet so much that is different. Like strangers in a strange land we are brought together by common experience and humanity, a phenomena that I have been lucky enough to experience in other places. One thing we all agree on is that tonight, and any night, would be made even more perfect if we are accompanied by our children, parents and close family.

We have been pulled over by the police twice now.

They have been stopping all cars on some roads, ostensibly to search for concealed knives and weapons. Clearly we did not seem like a bunch of hardened criminals so that we were allowed to go on our way without incident however the police here can be difficult to deal with. If one was found to be in the wrong, speeding, drink driving, or having committed some other offence, it would be usual to be asked by the policeman how together you might solve the problem and whether you could help him out in deciding what he should do with you.

The correct answer of course is “either give me a ticket or let me go”.  Although what is really being sought is a bribe of around 50% of the ticket price, amusingly, if you were drunk and paid the fee to help solve the problem you would also be allowed to drive and escorted home by two police cars just to make sure you didn’t get into any more trouble.

The whole thing is moot for foreigners as the police speak no English at all. The last thing you should do is reach for your wallet and, I guess, just try to brazen it out instead.

We have also discovered that, apart from the dry spell, the reason that our water supply has been limited is that the mains tap had been turned off by one of the neighbours at the splitter pipe that feeds three properties.

Clearly they felt that their need for this scarce resource was greater than ours but I am yet to find out if our discovery and consequent re-enablement of the supply will mean that we can shower any more often or use the indoor toilet.

Yesterday we took a walk to the top of the ridge of mountains behind our house, climbing up past vineyards which are heavily fruiting although without irrigation the grapes are smaller than those we are used to seeing in Australia. As we climbed into the hills we found ourselves amongst meadows of wild thyme, blackberries, the occasional juniper tree and chickory flowers. I have included here some photos of the view, although these don’t altogether do it justice.

10th August 2012

We spent a day at a tartar village about 1,200 meters above sea level. Had a superb lunch of roasted meats and salads, saw two humped camels and went about 35 meters down into one of the limestone caves in the area. It seems so strange that this region has so much to offer and yet there is no concept at all of how this might be leveraged through tourism. In the time we have been here we have not come across a single English speaking person and there are no facilities at all for tourists. No toilets, no rubbish facilities, nothing.

Being able to see a world un”spoilt” by tourism has some sort of attraction but clearly there are significant disadvantages of an underdeveloped tourist industry.

At the Tartar village there was also horse riding and, apart from the various cafes and restaurants there were people selling handcrafted sheepskin boots, and a wide variety of tanned skins from foxes, to sheep, lama, deer and even wolf skin. Sad and a bit sickening to think that wild wolves are still hunted for something so trivial as their hides.

12th August 2012

Home in Qatar! We arrived back at about midnight. It was 42 degrees when we got off the plane but not uncomfortably humid.

As we were leaving Simferopol in Ukraine I got a nasty shock. We had just cleared immigration and put our hand luggage through the scanner, no different to the process anywhere else in the world except that they were checking passports after stepping through the metal detectors.

At this point they held my passport telling Yuliya “there is a problem with his luggage”.

I was bemused, naturally thinking they were talking about my hand luggage and prepared to open it and go through the contents. However at that point a guy indicated that I should leave my hand luggage where it was and follow him back out of security, and immigration.

Follow I did but I became increasingly concerned as my passport was left inside the building and not returned to me, I had no mobile phone or wallet as these were in my hand luggage which I had been told to leave behind. I didn’t even have my watch on. There was just me wearing shorts, t-short and sandals, not speaking more than two words of Ukrainian or Russian and Yuliya (my translator) not allowed to follow.

I felt that if something was seriously wrong I would be in quite deep trouble. There is no British or Australian consulate within 500 miles of Simferopol and during our entire holiday in Ukraine we met NOT ONE English speaking person.

So I followed, as the security official took me through an unmarked door into the rear of the terminal building.

We went down a short corridor and came out near the conveyor belt where luggage was being processed behind the check-in desks. The issue turned out to be simple one. We had packed two bottles of unraffinated vegetable oil in our luggage to take home (this being a commodity that is impossible to get outside Ukraine in our experience) and as they x-rayed luggage prior to loading it on the plane, the bottles had been spotted. It was a simple matter for me to indicate to the security guard that these bottles were not attached to any sort of detonation device and in-fact were quite tasty, and I was escorted back to the terminal and my quite-worried wife.

We did wonder at this point what the normally quite paranoid Qatari authorities might make of us bringing liquids into Doha but our fears proved unfounded.

Both flights home were very comfortable (Turkish Airways being consistently good and Qatar Airways making a much better impression) the food was great and the service could not have been better. This doesn’t excuse Qatar Airways appalling ground service in Doha or their ridiculously dodgy website but I think our unpleasant flight out of Qatar was probably an aberration.

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