It’s been a bit, but I’m finally somewhere that I can use my iPad to update. Our hostel in Bucharest was having internet problems, so I only got the chance to send out a couple emergency emails, but I didn’t mind terribly; we got in late and left early, so there wasn’t the most time in the world for it.
When we left El Dorado, we found ourselves on what must be the greatest road in the world. The Transfagarasan was not only a great drive, but as scenic a route as I can imagine. It starts low just outside Sibiu, and it gradually begins to wind its way up into the Carpathian Mountains. Without much warning, it begins to rise through massive rock outcroppings, across gorgeous valleys, and between towering trees. Right before you get to the switchbacks, there is a beautiful valley where we stopped several times to take pictures, and Michael and Chase took the opportunity to jump into the stream fed from a spring higher up. Eventually, though, we made it onto the definitive section of road that curves back and forth, snaking up the steep mountainside like no other path in the world. Out the windows of the car, you can see the traditional footpaths still used by the local shepherds.
On the other side of the mountains is a man-made reservoir between two of the other mountains that extends probably 30 kilometers. Unfortunately, past that, the landscape resumes its gradual descent into the monotony that stuck with us through Bulgaria.
That night we stayed in Bucharest, which I thought would be the definition of poverty, and indeed, we stayed in a bit of a run down neighborhood. We pushed past our fears though and ventured out into the night. As it turns out, there is enough of a language barrier that it was hard to see anything, and, again, we got in late, so we only walked over to the Parliament building before returning to the hostel. Our hostess did, however, make us bracelets in the colors of the Romanian flag.
What had been the most impoverished area I’ve ever seen was made to look nearly affluent once we entered Bulgaria. Other than a couple of select cities, the countryside was nothing but abandoned structures and farmland (which looked a little like a drought had been through). This was along the major E route we were on; once we got lost in the southern part, we really did see the extent of how bad it can be for a former Soviet country. Abandoned factories turned to abandoned farms and houses. In one village (where we finally got directions back onto our route), easily two thirds of the structures stood empty and neglected.
After the ordeal of getting lost in Bulgaria, seeing the Turkish border was a welcome experience. Our only problem was that none of us had any currency, and the exchanges wouldn’t take cards. Luckily, I remembered the cash I’d picked up at the PX in Belgium and we were back on track. Hopefully, the Turkish border was a learning experience, as it will likely be the easiest one we have to cross (except maybe Georgia). Even after the cash situation, we couldn’t find anywhere to purchase our insurance for driving in Turkey. After asking nearly anyone who’d stop to listen to us and not finding any English speakers, we decided to just plow through the border and let the guards tell us what to do. As it turns out, that was the right answer, and a very friendly few border guards gave us instructions without getting too frustrated with us.
We made it through with only a few minor glitches. We didn’t remember to go through customs, so we had to turn around and take care of that, which cost us a half hour, but we’d planned to get into Istanbul late anyway. This was a good plan, as we didn’t reach the city until 11 last night; even then, it was after one when we found our hostel. Embarrassingly enough, on our road trip, we eventually had to park the car and split the team up so that the car was guarded and we could venture out on foot to find the place. In this city more than 1000 years old, there are so many one way streets that wind back and forth to nowhere that it’s next to impossible to navigate without an excellent map; ours was not excellent. We did finally find the place and get the car parked reasonably closely (and pretty cheaply at 20 TL for two days of parking) before we collapsed.
Today, I am ashamed to say, we slept until after noon because our windows are darkened and we didn’t know about it. Once we were all out of bed, however, we made good use of our limited time here and walked the couple miles to the Sultanhamet district where we walked through the spice bazar and trade streets before seeing the Aya Sofia and Blue Mosque. Unfortunately, the Aya Sofia, once a church then a mosque and now a museum, was closed today, and, since we were all in shorts, we couldn’t enter the worship area of the Blue Mosque. It wasn’t the end of the world, as both are staggeringly beautiful buildings, and we spent a great deal of time wandering the square between the two appreciating the views. In total, we probably walked around 6 miles up and down hills, and I drank 3 liters of water in five hours; I still suspect it wasn’t enough and I’ll need to make up for it while we’re driving tomorrow.
A few tips I can share about traveling in foreign parts of the world are: always buy a map at or around the 1:25000 scale because anything else, especially in large cities, will leave out too many details, and in the older cities (i.e. most of the rest of the world), there are tons of tiny streets with no clear markings so the picture helps; also, learn at least a little bit of the language. It hasn’t been practical for us to pick up more than “thank you” and “excuse me” since we’re never in one language region for more than a few days, but if we had known any of the languages of the areas we’ve been, it would have been incomparably easier and more rewarding; given the scale of our task, though, I think we’re doing just fine.
I know I was optimistic about having pictures up tonight, and I did get them copied onto a disc, but for some reason, the internet or Alyx’s computer (my bet’s on the internet though) was having problems getting them to upload to my Dropbox, so I don’t have any to share. Maybe in Tblisi there will be another chance to try.
Our next few days will be on the road, and, for the first time on the trip, we’ll get to do some wild camping. The plus side is that we won’t have to pay, but the down side is that we won’t have luxuries such as showers, toilets, or internet. I think we’ll make it, and it’s all part of the spirit of the rally anyway.