Tag Archives: travelling

Don’t Go Near There: Travel Advisories

I got the following email today:

The travel advice for Turkey has been reviewed and reissued.

The Advice was last issued on Thursday, 29 August 2013. It contains new
information under Civil unrest/political tension (Australians in border
areas with Syria who hold concerns for their safety as a result of the
current regional tensions surrounding events in Syria should consider
departing these areas). We continue to advise you to exercise a high degree
of caution in Turkey because of the high threat of terrorist attack and to
avoid all protests and demonstrations.

For a full text of the revised advice, please refer to www.smartraveller.gov.au.

Yours sincerely
Consular Section
Australian Embassy, Ankara, Turkey

It came because back in July I laboriously entered my travel plans into the Department of Foreign Affairs Smart Traveller website, so they know I’ll be in Istanbul tomorrow night on the way back home and they must email those Australians who they know will be in the area. It is welcome, since I’ve been away from the news for a few days and missed the accelerated reaction to the nerve gas attack in Syria. Turkey is NATO’s frontline in this conflict and, without the support of the UN, the greater conflict becomes one of NATO/rebels vs Russia/Iran/Syrian government. The Syrian rebels have, until now, largely been supported by the gulf Arab countries, mainly Saudi Arabia and Qatar. But if NATO steps in, they take a backseat, and Turkey becomes the easiest enemy for Iran/Syria/Hezbollah to hit.

So DFAT‘s concerns so far fill us with a great deal of confidence. So far.

The problem starts when you actually follow the links to the website and start reading the advisories. They have 5 levels of advice for each country and, in some cases, significant parts of each country:

1. Do not travel

2. Reconsider your need to travel

3. Exercise a high degree of caution

4. Exercise normal safety precautions

5. (Nothing, it’s all good, do whatever you like, don’t bother with normal safety precautions, you’ll be fine)

Now, can we guess which countries are in the Do not travel category? Syria, obviously. Afghanistan, correct. Iraq, too (although parts of Iraqi Kurdistan get the Reconsider seal of sort of approval). Libya gets it too, more than two years after ousting Gaddafi. Two countries in central Africa, two in the Sahel region and three in east Africa get it, as well as Yemen in the Middle East. That’s it.

So, what about the safest places, those places where less than the normal safety precautions are all you need, according to DFAT? They are Andorra in the Pyrenees, the vast majority of the islands of the Caribbean (but not famously-lawless Jamaica, they get high degree of caution), lots of islands in the Pacific where nothing really happens (including, amusingly, our own penal colony, Nauru), obviously that Mecca of happiness Bhutan, a couple of sleepy central European countries. And…Bulgaria. Yes, it seems the same Bulgaria where Aussie Jock Palfreeman stood up for a couple of gypsies and a lot went wrong and he’s now in a Bulgarian prison for a very long time. Japan? I hear you ask? No, Japan requires you to exercise Normal safety precautions. Yes, that same Japan where you couldn’t get 2 screens into buying a train ticket before some kind Japanese person did it for you and then led you to your platform, missing their own train in the process. New Zealand, surely? Nope, they get Normal safety precautions too. Is it because of the earthquakes? Seems unfair.

So what about our good friends the United States of America? Where an Australian in a sleepy town was shot in the back by some bored kids? Relax, only Normal safety precautions required there. In the entire USA. Does a kevlar running vest count as normal precautions? And what about the United Kingdom? There’s parts of London you don’t want to go, so there’s got to be a travel advice for the UK. But then again, even the roughest parts of London seem safer than Bulgaria, so…now I’m confused. The UK gets Normal safety precautions too.

Now, the absurdity of these advisories comes into greater focus having just been to a country like Iran. Iran escapes the Do not travel tag and scrapes in with Reconsider your need to travel (the more lawless parts of the border areas do get Do not travel).  But I have never felt safer among people than in that country. I’m well aware of the corruption of the system and the Australian government’s inability to offer much help because of limited political ties with Iran, but the people there understand all this too, and they know what to do. There is no rapacious tourist industry and there is a culture of hospitality that the rest of the world would do well to emulate. Contrast that with Bali and parts of Indonesia where institutions are corrupt and tourists are a regular target for all kinds of crime.

It is not DFAT’s job to issue travel advisories for, say, Northbridge in Perth, or the northern suburbs of Melbourne, or the bus to Frankston, but one wonders what travel advisories they might give foreign tourists if they had to apply the same standards. Even if we do make too much of the crime on our streets sometimes, a lot of the world is much, much safer than our cities, and that’s impossible to see in these advisories.

But the Turkey advisory today is welcome. Even if it has got me worried that someone might bomb the Sheraton tomorrow on my first ever night in a Sheraton.

Now here are some pictures of nice people from Iran (Reconsider your need to travel) and Georgia (Exercise normal safety precautions):

Alika and his son Erekle - our hosts for lunch in Dartlo

Alika and his son Erekle – our hosts for lunch in Dartlo

The nephews of our driver from Omalo back to Kakheti. They sat quietly in the back the whole 3 hour drive

The nephews of our driver from Omalo back to Kakheti. They sat quietly in the back the whole 3 hour drive

My guide and translator Salome in the village of Sighnaghi, at the end of a long day touring Kakheti

My guide and translator Salome in the village of Sighnaghi, at the end of a long day touring Kakheti

Kamelia, Azalia & Vanusheh - Grandmother, Mother and Daughter. My beautiful extended family in Lahijan

Kamelia, Azalia & Vanusheh – Grandmother, Mother and Daughter. My beautiful extended family in Lahijan

This man selling textiles in the Rasht bazaar shouted to us "Hey! Come take a picture of me!"

This man selling textiles in the Rasht bazaar shouted to us “Hey! Come take a picture of me!”

Upon learning that I was Australian, this man threw open the doors to the normally-closed rooms of his mosque in Lahijan. Inside were a number of tombs and a memorial for a local hero of the area, Imam Hasan.

Upon learning that I was Australian, this man threw open the doors to the normally-closed rooms of his mosque in Lahijan. Inside were a number of tombs and a memorial for a local hero of the area, Imam Hasan.

This lady sold me some handicrafts on Masouleh. She's from the Talysh ethnic group of people who live in the green hilly areas on the south-west coast of the Caspian Sea.

This lady sold me some handicrafts on Masouleh. She’s from the Talysh ethnic group of people who live in the green hilly areas on the south-west coast of the Caspian Sea.

Vanusheh outside her kindergarten after school

Vanusheh outside her kindergarten after school

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İstanbul

Sunset over the old city from the Kadiköy ferry

Sunset over the old city from the Kadiköy ferry

Its ruins are Roman and look west into Europe, its palaces and mosques are Ottoman. The language, brutish and unintelligible, was carried centuries ago on horseback from the ranges and plains of central Asia, assimilating words from Persian and Arabic along the way. On the tram, the locals’ distant looks pass through you from round, full Asiatic faces the colour of cafe-au-lait. In the old city, home to an embarrassment of riches in Roman ruins, palaces and mosques, the tourist industry feels restrained and dignified – not rapacious, but ever tempted by the armies of naive cruise ship passengers passing through.

A couple at the 6th century Basilica Sistern in the old city

A couple at the 6th century Basilica Sistern in the old city

The call to prayer that rings out in stereo over the rooftops in İstanbul is noticeably different from those in Indonesia and the Arab world. İstanbul’s faith is an open and tolerant Islam softened by the miles and the need to adapt – sufi mysticism still has a visible cultural, if not religious, impact in İstanbul. But the old city is only a tiny part of a metropolis of 14 million. Immediately to the west, the suburbs around Fatih are staunchly religious, conservative and inward-looking – imagine the characters in Deliverance occupying a pocket of Manhattan. Sombre women cloaked head to toe in chador are the norm and there’s barely a smile for the visitor.

Turkish delight, fruits and spices at the Spice Market in the old city

Turkish delight, fruits and spices at the Spice Market in the old city

Unexpectedly, a short ferry ride away on the Asian side, the girls of Kadiköy stride joyous and confident in tight jeans past boutique fashion stores and restaurants with football on the telly. It’s not empty consumerism or a hipster trend, Istanbul is a fluid, maritime European city and Kadiköy has soul. The call to prayer sings out over lanes bustling with busy coffee shops and raki bars in the long, warm evening. Street bands play into the night as Kurdish waiters joke around with busking drummer girls.

It’s different again on the handful of islands to the city’s south, a popular getaway. There the asiatic faces fall away, replaced by mediterranean features and weathered, dark chocolate skin. The syllables sound Greek, orthodox Christian monasteries top the hills and the day moves at a languid pace, as in Crete, Sicily and Lipari. And it’s in the view from the Princes Islands, these sleepy refuges from the hectic city, that the scale of İstanbul is most apparent. The city is built up in almost a 180 degree vista – it’s buildings as far as the eye can see into Europe to the left and into Asia to the right. Pockets of high rise pop up randomly along the coasts and you know that somewhere, behind the hills, up the Bosphorus, there’s more.

View of just part of Asian side of the city from the island of Büyükada

View of just part of Asian side of the city from the island of Büyükada

And the Bosphorus flows quietly, comfortable in the knowledge that it’s the reason İstanbul exists. Its silent waters are all that separates Southern Europe from Asia, and all that unites the Black Sea with the Mediterranean. They hold hostage the warm water ports of 6 nations – Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania and Bulgaria. Geography rarely gets the credit it deserves for shaping history, but in Istanbul it’s inescapable. The container ships that loom over your passenger ferry, and the dozens moored off the European shore, need these waters and they echo ancient trade routes that have enriched these shores for millennia, and still continue to do so.

A container ship on the Bosphorus with the new city in the background

A container ship on the Bosphorus with the new city in the background

İstanbul is the capital of an ancient power and the cultural heart of a nation aspiring to the EU. It’s a romantic cruise on an ancient waterway and a Russian container hulk headed for Brazil. It’s fiercely secular and devoutly religious. It’s a whirling dervish and an installation at the İstanbul Modern. And İstanbul is no open air museum – it’s a city very much of the present, protecting the treasures of its past.

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Baths

The washing facilities at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul's Old City

The washing facilities at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul’s Old City

Why didn’t anyone tell me about Turkish baths?

The first step is to completely undress, put all of your clothes and valuables into a locker and don only what looks like a sarong and a pair of plastic slippers. Then the attendant shows you into the bath room and walks away, closing the door behind him. The air is dense and humid and the room is clad completely in white marble. There’s a hexagonal slab in the centre about the height of a man’s knee and several metres in diameter. Around the walls of the room there are a series of knee-high sinks, complete with hot and cold taps and ample space either side for a person to sit. If you’re lucky, you’re totally alone. The only sound ringing through the heavy space is a drip somewhere in the system. Your first job is to sit against the wall and drench yourself with the pail that sits in each sink. The sarong stays on – it’s meant to get wet. They leave you for a little longer than you need, necessitating some quiet meditation. Just as you start to wonder if they’ve forgotten about you, a man with a big moustache walks in clad in a smile and a similar sarong, carrying a heavy mit. He orders you to lie face down on the marble slab. Then he begins to rub your exposed skin with his mit. It’s like a giant cat’s tongue, and the dead grey skin falls away with each scrub. You turn over and he scrubs your chest and stomach. You’re not sure whether to close your eyes or leave them open staring at him as he goes about his work.

Then stage 2 begins. He places at your feet a bucket of warm water and in his other hand he holds a bag with a weight in the bottom. He dunks the bag in the bucket and it emerges enormous like a fabric balloon. He dangles it over you and squeezes it from the top with his other hand. A cloud of milk white suds billows from the bag and lands on your body, condensing as a thick film of soap. He does this several times, after each time rubbing the soap in and massaging your muscles. He goes between your fingers, between your toes, and then you turn over and he soaps and pushes the knots out of your back in the same way.
Finally, he orders you back to the seat next to the sink, and there he washes your hair, throws your neck around and douses you with waves of hot, then warm, then steadily cooler water. With the last rinse he leaves you, the echo of the drips still ringing through the empty room.

The man returns through the humidity holding out a dry towel and dry sarong. You drape the towel over your shoulders, replace the sarong, and follow him out of the room. The bath door closes with a thud and you’re back in reality. You return to your locker, dry yourself, dress yourself and replace the slippers with your shoes.

Outsourcing your own hygiene. It’s brilliant. I did this twice in my first 3 days here, and both times out of necessity – the first was after a 10 hour flight while my Sultanahmet hotel room was unavailable and the second simply to avoid showering in the horrid facilities of the Cihangir apartment I was renting. The first bathhouse was 500 years old and eye-wateringly expensive, while the second was from the 80s and unfeasibly cheap.

(there are no photos of the baths. Mainly because I was worried about the humidity doing things to my lenses. But also because it’s an odd thing to request)

A kid stood still for me in front of the Aya Sofya (Hagia Sofia)

A kid stood still for me in front of the Aya Sofya (Hagia Sofia)

Crowds entering the Blue Mosque for taraweeh prayers

Crowds entering the Blue Mosque for taraweeh prayers

 

Ramadan sweets for sale on the Hippodrome in Istanbul's old city

Ramadan sweets for sale on the Hippodrome in Istanbul’s old city

 

The old city as seen from the Kadikoy Ferry on the Bosphorus. L-R The Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya

The old city as seen from the Kadikoy Ferry on the Bosphorus. L-R The Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya

 

The interior of the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque), complete with Australian cruise ship tourists' heads at the bottom of your picture

The interior of the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque), complete with Australian cruise ship tourists’ heads at the bottom of your picture

 

Cheese scrolls for breakfast made by an Armenian woman: a real rarity (not the cheese scrolls)

Cheese scrolls for breakfast made by an Armenian woman: a real rarity (not the cheese scrolls)

 

The streets of Kadikoy, from where I am posting this (sounds of street gypsy band and dancing not included)

The streets of Kadikoy, from where I am posting this (sounds of street gypsy band and dancing not included)

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A Long Day In Istanbul

Blue Mosque

Looks like Pinky brought her best cut-off denim for the church and mosque visits

The journey here reminded me of the hilarious characters that pop up on the road. After half a day wandering Kuala Lumpur I felt like I’d well and truly left Australia. Until boarding for the flight to Istanbul: there were so many Turkish-Australians, it felt like half of western Sydney had crammed themselves into the departure lounge. Orderly, sedate KL had been interrupted suddenly by a wave of Mediterranean behaviour – whole families clad in tracksuits and mullets rushed to board the plane like cattle scattered by buckshot. Enormous robed women wedged themselves into the bulkhead rows and promptly began snoring. It was, however, very convivial, everyone chatting to each other, switching effortlessly between Turkish and fluent Bogan. They even clapped after the successful landing, something I thought was completely foreign to Australia.

In the line for Passport Control I encountered my first Ugly American for a while. The male half of a couple in front of me was doing his best Woody Allen impression, muttering about the nature of the change he might get from his visa fee long before there was actually anything to complain about. The whole lengthy process of waiting in line was punctuated by his miserable muted fury. His silent wife (or carer, maybe?) did nothing to calm him down, but never agreed with him either. At one point a lone woman nervously clutching a Turkmenistan passport had to move past him in the line. He saw her coming, stood in her way and whined “Say ‘excuse me’ and I might let you past”. She got past him so he turned on his poor wife/carer/escort “All they gotta say is ‘excuse me’…”, failing to grasp the significance of travel to foreign countries where people speak foreign languages.

Crossing the courtyard of the Blue Mosque I overheard a fat South African man shout at his Turkish guide “Too mini peepul hya!” as he was presumably told that the crowd of people at prayers meant he had to use a different entrance. Hoping to enter the mosque, with less people around clearly, he was wearing shorts and a t-shirt with a stylised middle finger salute on the back. Very considerate.

Finally there’s the quirky breakfast attendant at the hotel who keeps dropping Gallipoli jokes on me. I didn’t know there were Gallipoli jokes. Apparently I should tell my ‘president’ that we should attack from the east next time, we might have more chance of winning? That’s not even a joke, it’s just geopolitically creepy.

There will be more about Istanbul soon.

Rob

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