Israel, part 1: Tev Aviv, Jerusalem, Ramallah

I spent the 8th entirely in transit, on the bus, waiting for my plane, on the plane, on a train, and walking, but I arrived in Tel Aviv, via Sofia, Bulgaria on the morning of the 9th and welcomed myself to Israel by buying the first falafel I could find. It was delicious!

I spent the next few days in Tel Aviv. I met people at my hostel and learned a Belgian card game (similar to bridge) called whist, I ate sabich, drank Goldstar Israeli beer with new friends from around the world and bopped about the Carmel market, local beaches and parks. It was quite chill.



(Tel Aviv’s beaches)







(graffiti. the last one is painted at the sight of a 2001 suicide bombing.)


(streets and markets in Tel Aviv)

One of the days, I went with a new friend, Chelsea, to Ramallah, a city just across the (in some places) 8 meter high wall between the larger part of Israel and the West Bank.

To get there, we took a bus to Jerusalem, a train to the Damascus gate, bumblingly found our way to the Arab bus station (run seemingly completely separately from the bus system that whizzes around Jerusalem or between Israeli cities) that has buses that cross the checkpoint. Going into the West Bank, buses are not stopped at the checkpoint, and after what seemed like a short period of time, we were in Ramallah (I’m always impressed by how short the distances in Israel are, I guess I keep forgetting that the whole country is about the size of New Jersey).


(the line to get back into Jerusalem)




(driving into Ramallah)

We got off the bus and found ourselves in a city. I don’t know what my expectations were, but I guess that was not it. It was less well organized, clean, or nice relative to either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, but it was a city with lots of street life and people walking around.





(in Ramallah)


(more Ramallah)

We were pretty hungry, so first we found lunch – delicious kibbe and doner kabab – much much cheaper (three times less expensive) than the price of an equivalent meal in Israel. We’d not thought to bring much cash with us, and were dismayed to find that there were enormous lines for the very few (and mostly non-functional) ATMs in the city. 

Then we started to wander around the city. My friend Isadora had warned me against wearing a long skirt (my go-to conservative attire) in the West Bank as it is what Hasidic women wear, so I wore long pants. I’d tried to communicate to Chelsea that she should also dress conservatively to be respectful, but she insisted on wearing a mini-skirt and tights. She stood out like a sore thumb in the sea of women who were wearing a hijab, pants and a long trench-coat like article of clothing. 

We went into a bakery and tried to buy rugelach but were given it for free. We were told by numerous people ‘welcome to the west bank.’ People were really super friendly! I was impressed that a large percentage of the people in the city seemed to speak fluent perfect English (also true for Israel generally). At some point while we wandered, we were stopped by a guy who asked if we were the illegally-living-there western wives of Palestinian men and if he could interview us. He seemed surprised to find out that we were just simple tourists. 

After about 2 hours in Ramallah, Chelsea had had enough. I think she went into the West Bank with the preconceived notion that it was dangerous and unsafe and as a result she felt unsafe. This was really interesting to me, as we experienced the exact same things over the course of the day and we both had very different perceptions of them (I loved it and felt completely safe and welcomed; she felt the opposite).

She stopped on the street, turned to me and said, ‘You can do whatever you want, but I am going back to Jerusalem right now. Where can I find a cab back to the bus station?’

I told her I’d come back with her, and that we were just feet from the station so we should walk. I wanted to double check the directions so I asked a man on the street. He gave us the directions, invited us to tea/food/his place in Nablus, and told me he loved NYC, but hated the USA for their pro-Israeli politics. I would have happily continued the conversation, but Chelsea was clearly clearly quite frazzled, so I thanked him (shukraan) and we left (I knew then that I would be going back to the West Bank before I left Isreal because I wanted to talk to more people there).

The same checkpoint that the bus had breezed through en route to Ramallah took a long time (>1 hr) to get through to get back to Jerusalem. Chelsea and I were confused to see all of the young people got off the bus. I was told later that it is a policy: if you are under 45 and don’t have kids under 12 you have to get off the bus to go through the checkpoint. The rest of the people are allowed to stay on the bus and a sometimes neutral sometimes growling soldier or 2 or 3 will get on the bus and check everyone’s documentation. (we were allowed to stay on the bus – I guess there is another policy for ignorant tourists). It seemed unnecessary and humiliating to force most people off the bus. The young people on our bus never made it back on. I guess they caught another one after spending what I can only imagine was an even longer time going through security.

We got back to Jerusalem and stopped into a Cofizz bar (where 5 shekels or $1.25 buys you a glass of wine) to decompress and share our perspectives on the day.

We decided we’d walk back to the bus station. En route, we stopped by a market Chelsea liked. She said that she had a friend who worked there so we stopped by his shop. Turns out that he owns or at least runs a liquor store in the market. We had a drink or two with him there and he told us that it was a stupid and very dangerous decision we’d made to go to Ramallah (having never been there himself – and the situation being very different there for tourists and Israelis). Chelsea agreed and I disagreed with him. He brought another shop keeper from next door, an Arab Israeli, in to the conversations to vouch and agree with him (this was my only real conversation in Hebrew in Israel as that man did not speak any English). Him and another Arab Israeli who worked in the market both agreed that the route to Ramallah was dangerous and that we were brave/stupid. I still disagree. He invited us to hang out and drink with him and another friend of his, and we did for another few hours after his shop closed before catching a bus and a taxi back to our hostel in Tel Aviv.


(market in Jerusalem)

Istanbul take two

I spent two weeks in Istanbul. It was amazing to be in one place for so long. I caught up on somg blogging; read a friend’s thesis and gave some feedback; got to see friends I’d made earlier (Halil and Merek) and made new ones that I got to hang out with for the weeks.

I finally wandered around the touristy part of Sultanahmet – it was beautiful.

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(wandering around Sultanahmet)


(inside the Blue Mosque)

I watched more football games (Istanbul has 3 huge teams – Galatasaray, Beşiktas and Fenerbaçe). Pretty much everyone that I met in Istanbul seemed to have a strong favorite in one of those teams. I was staying in the Beşiktas neighborhood and most people that I met who lived there were crazy for Beşiktas, but there were also strong Galatasaray and Fenerbaçe fans in the neighborhood.

Halil agreed to show me some parts of Istanbul through his eyes. He toured me around the neighborhood he grew up in (I forget where exactly, but I think it was in the Balat/Fener-ish part of the city). We walked to Karaköy, a hipsterish-coffee hot spot, we met with a good and old friend of his who worked nearby, took a ferry on which we participated in a tea commercial resulting in us getting free tea, and went to Fenerbaçe’s neighborhood on the Asian side of the city – Kadıköy.


(views from ferries)

Kadıköy was also pretty interesting and hipster – full of coffee shops, bars and Northampton-eque stores. I wandered around Kadıköy by myself as well as neighboring neighborhoods, such as Ortaköy and Üsküdar where I found an enormous green market and beautiful views of the Bosphorous and the city.



(views of the Bosphorous)


(Üsküdar green market)

I even got the chance to catch a Fenerbahçe game on TV with Halil’s friends.

(Ever wonder why we call the bird we eat at Thanksgiving turkey?)

I was in the city through Halloween. Unsurprisingly, not a holiday, but the local (very active) Couchsurfing group was having a Halloween party and myself and a bunch of people from the hostel headed out to the event. The Halloween party was great! I’d gone to a couchsurfing event in the city a few nights earlier by myself and made a bunch of friends who were also there and it was really nice getting to also hang out with them again. There was an after party at a nearby bar, but I got us (the people from the hostel) lost trying to get to it, and when I got there, my Turkish friends were leaving for a place named Araf with international music and dancing (ala Mehanata). I followed them and we danced until the lights came on at 4am.

The following day, I and a few other people from the hostel went to check out some Sunday markets – a flea market and a fruit/veggie market.


(different kinds of lights at the Sunday flea market)

We wandered the city and enjoyed lunch and baklava together. When we decided to pick up some beer later in the evening, we found ourselves nearly thwarted because it was not supposed to be sold on the election day. (Most people I’d met while traveling in Turkey were pretty upset with the results of this election)

I met my friend Merek in Istanbul. We wandered the city together, worked in coffee shops, explored new corners of Taksim Square, ate many variants of a delicious dessert he’d learned about – sütlü nuriye, ate the crazy walnut preserves from Armenia that I’d forgotten I’d been lugging around for a month that had leaked sweet liquid all over my bag, tried sheep’s face (brain/eye/cheek/nose – everything) and drank with people at the hostel. Merek left after close to a week in Istanbul for Izmir where he was hoping to and succeeded in finding a luthier to work with.


(sütlü nuriye)


(sheep’s brains)


(sheep’s eye – connected to the optic nerve)

I spent another few days in the city after that exploring some new neighborhoods, hanging with Marius – a Norwegian biker who’d biked to Turkey from his home country and my friend Halil. I left Istanbul early on the morning of the 8th.


(signs around Istanbul)

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(more pictures from walking around town)

Back to Turkey: Antakya, part II

After a brief bus transfer, we found ourselves in Göreme at just before 5 am.

I had thought that we’d be getting in at 7 am (but it turned out that that 7 was the number of hours that the bus took to reach it’s destination, not the time of arrival – sometimes these things happen when you don’t speak the language and assume that you understand what it is saying/don’t think to Google translate the website …..).

So, it was still dark when we arrived.

We stood by the street corner for a few minutes trying to think about what we should do.


We’d expected that we’d be able to buy our return ticket in Göreme upon arrival, which we couldn’t because nothing was open that early. We’d heard that there were awesome hiking trails all around the town, so we started walking to the entrance to one.

We made a dog friend as we were leaving town who decided to join/guide us down the path.

It was pitch black. We wandered in the dark using my phone as both a GPS and a light. The dog actually led us in a few places where it seemed like the path diverged. Regardless, at some point, we found ourselves in someone’s apple orchard walking in circles in the dark.

We decided that it was the perfect time to find somewhere tall to watch the sunrise and deal with un-losing ourselves in the light.

Finding a ridge, we enjoyed a breakfast of biscuits and hazelnuts and chocolate and watched a stunning sunrise.




(sunrise from the ridge)

We came back to the apple orchard after the sun rose.


(these were seriously some of the best apples I’ve ever eaten)

Finding our way back to the path, we spent the whole day wandering through 14 miles of valleys named pigeon, white, love, red, and rose.
















The rock formations were other-worldly and stunning!

In the middle of the day, we found ourselves in a town with an old city constructed into the wall of a hill. The old city was uninhabited, open to the public, and we were able to wander through it. Interestingly, there were people still living in similar structures across the way!

Federica bargained for the first time ever and we caught stunning views from the top of the hill.


(new city in front, old city in rear)


(closer view of old city)


(rooms carved into the mountain face)




(view from one of the rooms)


(inside a particularly well preserved room)



(people still living in these on the other side of town – see the man shaking out his sheets?)



CIMG3146(more of the other side of town and the new city below)

There were even some stand alone houses carved into rock formations.


Finally, around 3:30 pm, we made our way back to Göreme to purchase a 4:30 pm bus ticket back to Antakya. Unfortunately for us, the bus was completely sold out and we were advised to catch a bus to the transportation hub of Kayseri where we’d probably be able to find more Antakya bound buses.

Small world it is, I met another New Yorker (a Mt. Sinai medical student) on the short bus to Kaseri.

Getting to the bus station around 6 pm, we asked all 25 some-odd companies that serviced Kayseri when the next bus to Antakya was, but there were none until 3:30 am.

Booking that one, we sat to think about what were we going to do for the next 9.5 hrs.

Luckily, we saw that there was a mall across the street. We successfully killed a few hours wandering the mall and watching the only movie they showed that was subtitled rather than being dubbed over (most visual media is dubbed over in Turkey if it was originally in another language) The movie was god-awful, but by the time it was over, we only had 4 more hours to kill. We went back to the bus station and spent the remaining time drinking tea and playing increasingly goofy card games.

At 4:30 am, the bus picked us up and we were off to Antakya.

We got off the bus exactly 7 hrs later, right next to the school. Chatting at Federica’s, before napping some of the afternoon away so as to better stay awake during the night/wedding, Federica’s neighbors (who’d invited everyone to the wedding) contacted her to say that something with the driving had gotten messed up and that in fact, there was only going to be room for 5 people. c’est la vie.

I decided it was best to book a bus ticket to Istanbul that evening.

While Federica napped, I knocked on Sercan’s door to say goodbye. He invited me in for tea and batak and offered to hang out with me at the bus station until my bus arrived. I accepted, but told him that I needed to pack up, and I went back to Mileta’s and Federica’s. I hung out with them and packed until almost the last minute. Sercan waited with me at the bus stop for close to half an hour and while it was hard to say goodbye to everyone in Antakya, by 7:30 pm I was on an Istanbul-bound bus.


(Sercan and I took a selfie)

Back to Turkey: Antakya, part I

After breakfast the next morning, I said goodbye to Isadora and was off to my next destination: Antakya/Hatay/Antioch.

I napped on the bus, I woke up as someone was asking the bus driver to let them off the bus. I realized that we were already in Antakya and I saw that a campus of Mustafa Kemal University (the residence of my next couchsurfing host) was close by, so I jumped off the bus too. Unfortunately for me, I was at the wrong campus. My mistake.

It took a while, but with the help of a few friendly strangers, my couchsurfing host’s roommate and a local bus ride I made it to the right campus.

I met my hosts, Mileta and Federica, Erasmus students at Mustafa Kemal University (Erasmus is a European foreign exchange program) from Lithuania and Sicily, respectively. They were so great!

Mileta is super well traveled and has even been paid to travel through her writing. Both of them had just moved to Turkey for the start of the semester less than two weeks earlier and were still getting a feel for the place and the people. Mileta especially was learning Turkish super fast, I found that very impressive.

We chatted for a bit on their porch while drinking Turkish tea. Their porch faced a courtyard which had other apartments across it, and shortly one of their neighbors across the courtyard, yelled ‘Hi.’ We invited the neighbor, Sercan (Ser-jan), and his friend to join us. The 5 of us chilled first at Mileta and Federica’s place then at Sercan’s apartment. He and his friends were so overwhelmingly friendly, and he even cooked everyone in the apartment dinner!

Mileta and Federica had made plans with some other people to smoke nargile – hookah. We met up with those friends, a group of six other students with varying degrees of English and walked to their place. They fed us some more (food that one of the guy’s mother in Adana had made that was insanely good), set up the nargile –nane (mint) flavored, and made coffee and tea.

We chatted through the evening, until two of the Turkish girls said they were tired, and the boys walked us home (warning that it was dangerous to walk near but not on the campus late at night as women).

The next day after a leisurely enjoying breakfast and tea with Mileta, I left to wander the old city. It was so cool! Market places, narrow alleys, colorful houses, and künefe



(colorful alleys)




(full of cheese!)


(downtown Antakya)

I picked up some nuts from street vendors and after a few hours I headed back to the apartment.

Mileta and Federica invited me along to join them in having dinner with their neighbors across the hallway. They neighbors made delicious food that we all ate together and we enjoyed each others company, talking to the extent possible with limited English and Turkish abilities.

Afterwards, Mileta and Federica left to go to an Erasmus-student-only event and I hung out at their apartment.

I was there for only a bit when Sercan swung by with his neighbor Mustafa and invited me to join them in wandering around the neighborhood. We wandered and knocked on Sercan’s friend’s doors and said ‘hi’ to everyone on the street that he knew. Ultimately, we found a big chess set, and I challenged Sercan to a game (which he won).

The next day was a day of cards, Mileta didn’t have class, and after we woke up, she taught me a Lithuanian game, that was strikingly similar to a Russian game I’d learned earlier, (called stupid fool man according to my Russian friend’s translation, and idiot according to Mileta’s). I really think that this is my favorite card game now – it is a predominantly strategy based game, check out the rules and/or I’ll teach you them!

I’d purchased a ticket to Cappadocia for that evening so I decided to wander around campus and absorb a bit more of the place before leaving.

I got back to Mileta and Federica’s apartment to find Federica just returning from class. She invited me to join her and Mileta at a Kurdish wedding two evenings away (apparently the neighbors who’d invited them were three guys who wanted a more even gender ratio and had asked her if she knew another woman to invite). Well, that sounded awesome! I told Federica that I’d planned to go to Cappadocia though,  but that I’d come back to Antakya after. Federica thought about it for a few minutes then said that her class the next day was canceled and that she’d love to come along with me to Cappadoicia and we’d both come back for the wedding.

We had a few hours to kill before the bus left. Federica taught me a Sicilian card game called scopa, very similar to a game my grandmother taught me (and I’d always thought of as being a Jewish game – casino – in fact, casino descends from scopa and thus is Italian – and is a super popular game the world over – Steph taught me a Greek varient called bastra, but the game also goes by the names pasur, escobamulle, and probably by many other names as well). For whatever it is worth, the Sicilian version is more fun.

Sercan and Mustafa came over, seeing us playing cards on the porch. We taught them the scopa and in exchange Sercan taught us Batak (a trick-based bidding card game not dissimilar from bridge).

Another neighbor, Mehmet, came over and when we told him we were going to Cappadocia, he said that he wanted in. That would have been awesome, but unfortunately, Federica had gotten the last seat! Soon it was time to go, and we caught the 9 pm bus out and were off to Göreme a town in the Cappadocian region.


(Federica, Mehmet and I take a selfie)

Back to Turkey: Gaziantep

The next morning, I hopped on a Gaziantep-bound bus.

I’d failed to mention to my next host, Isadora, that my phone was broken and that I’d be texting her when I arrived to our prearranged meeting place. This turned out to be an error on my part as her phone was broken only in that she could not receive texts. After waiting for 45 minutes at the meeting spot, I used Google translate (offline!) to ask someone if I could borrow their phone to call my friend. Thanks Google!

Isadora found me and we went back to her place. We chilled there for a bit then met up with friends of hers from all over (Spain, Italy, Turkey, and Jordan) for dinner.

Isadora is from Barcelona and is an English teacher in Gaziantep (informally called Antep). All of the other people I met that night worked for the UN or related NGOs aiding the Syrian refugees in Turkey. It was quite interesting talking to them about what they were doing there as well as discovering their views on the crisis and world politics. (Turkey hosts about 2.2 million Syrian refugees, Jordan and Lebanon each have over a million.)

The Jordanian man was quite upset that Angela Merkel had been considered a strong candidate for a Nobel peace prize given the number of refugees hosted by the country (less than 400,000 refugees).

A few days later, while talking to another friend of Isadora’s, a local-hire NGO employee, I learned that there was resentment against these kinds of people, who worked at the UN and related NGOs. Resentment that ex-patriot employees got paid Western or higher grades of pay and had cushy perks, while local hires were making local salaries. He portrayed employing so many foreigners as a misallocation of resources and pointed out that locals were less expensive to hire and knew much better the local lay of the land (some discussions on hiring locals vs. expats).

After hanging out with the UN people, Isadora and I chilled and chatted at her house until late in the evening.

The next day, after breakfast, Isadora and I wandered the city together. She showed me places she’d already been.



(Armenian neighborhood, full of adorable tea places.)




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(rug shoppe)

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(newly renovated old space now used to host artist’s stands)


(glass window to view older sub-floors below)


(an underground coffee place)


(Isadora got a beautiful glass of juice there)


(parrot-y bird on the street)

As we wandered, we stumbled onto the kitchen museum.

Gaziantep is known throughout Turkey as the place with the best food. I later learned from another of Isadora’s friends that of the 700 dishes that comprise Turkish cuisine, 400 of them come from Gaziantep. And, Antep is well-known for having the best baklava.


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(oodles of different pots and pans and plates in the museum)

We saw there was there was a dish with my name şıra/şıre (ş=sh). I was endlessly excited about that!

(şıra: Grape juice is cooked with wheat starch. Peanuts or walnuts that have been hung out on a string are dipped into this mixture or a raw simit is added to the mixture and then dried in the sun are preserved in the şıre chest.)

Leaving the kitchen museum, we got some hawthorn berries and fresh figs, as well as pistachio kadayıf covered in kaymak.


(hawthorn berries are delicious!)


(this kadayıf was amazing)

After gorging ourselves on the kadayıf, we tried to make our way to the mosaic museum – the largest in the world, but got there too late to get in.

So we decided to walk back to downtown. We passed lots of interesting architecture.

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(a caravan sculpture in the middle of the road)

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(cool architectural designs)

We meandered back through an auto repair/motorcycle/bike repair area slightly remeniscent of my old Eastchester Road Bronx neighborhood (albeit more densely populated), and decided to cook dinner of fresh bread with olives and vegetarian tagine back at Isadora’s place.

At the grocery we ran into a lot of UN employees who, overhearing us talking in English, introduced themselves.

We cooked and Isadora invited her friend over for dinner. He brought wine and interesting conversations. Born and raised in Syria, he’d been living in Turkey for the last few years. Previously a fixer for journalists, he seemed acutely aware of death, but was making plans to get a master’s degree in England in the not too distant future. His perspective and life experiences were fascinating.

We got to sleep super late and so we got a late start the next day. Isadora had been talking with another friend about checking out a place nearby-ish called Rumkale, but it didn’t pan out. Instead, we decided to go and check out the local hamam – Turkish bath. En route to the bath, as well as on the way back, we saw groups of women dancing in the street with a horn and drum player. Later on that day we asked a friend of Isadora’s who grew up in Gaziantep, she said that this was part of pre-wedding celebrations.

(dancing in the street)

The bath was interesting.


(the outside of the hamam – built in 1640 and restored in 2009; photo credit)


(inside – the bath was beautiful – see the stars on the ceiling; photo credit)

It is only open to one gender at a time. Women during the day and men in the evenings. And people use these naked or nearly naked. There was lots of warm water to splash on oneself in a sauna-type environment. We signed up for the full monty, including scrub massages. A woman called each of us and scrubbed us well. I’ve never seen so many dead skin cells in my whole life. It was cool-strange and my skin felt super soft after.

After we wandered around Gaziantep again and found tea and tavla in the Armenian quarter. Isadora had plans with some friends of hers for dinner, and invited me along. We met up with Lorena, a Mexican journalist who was living in the city and walked to their friend Didem’s place.

Didem had cooked a feast of soup and dolmas and we chatted with her and her husband and family. It was great!

After dinner, she made tea and coffee and shared a grape fruit roll and puddling like thing one or both of which are called şıra/şıre. It was a fantastic evening! 


(me and my namesake dessert)


(dessert closeup)

The next day was Monday and Isadora had work. She’d told me that there was a Syrian neighborhood nearby, but that she’d not yet been there. So I decided to go check it out and report back. While, perhaps, it was inhabited by Syrians, it did not have Syrian shops or anything that struck me as distinct from any other Turkish neighborhood. I did find more şire though. 


20151019_133947 (bags and bags and bags of peppers)

20151019_13443120151019_141030(different kinds of baklava)

20151019_134433(more dessert on the street)

20151019_140424(şıre wrapped around nuts on a string)

20151019_13403320151019_13405020151019_135118(dried peppers, zucchini, eggplants and tomatoes hanging – ready to be made into dolmas)

I met Isadora after work at a fruit and veggie market and we got ingredients and had dinner together.

20151019_170806 (inside the market)


Back to Turkey: Şanlıurfa

The bus ride to Samsun was long but uneventful and I spent an evening and afternoon hanging out with Gilkey and some of his friends. Through him, I met the city’s cohort of English teachers all of whom were super nice and celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving before catching my bus to Şanlıurfa (colloquially known as Urfa).

During the night, I was woken up multiple times by my fellow bus passengers for water, for tea, for cookies, or to use the bathroom. While I appreciated the sentiment of their concern and their generosity, I was more interested in sleeping. But, it seemed like I was the only one who felt that way.


(early the next morning views of southeastern Anatolia from the bus)

I arrived in Urfa at 10 am. I’d been told that this part of the country was very conservative and was thinking to try wearing a hijab so as to better fit in / be respectful, but as the bus pulled into the bus station, I saw numerous women (3) that were non-hijabi. So, I figured that going around with my hair showing mustn’t be too disrespectful if other people were doing it.

Out of the station, I was confused as to where to catch the buses to the house of my next couchsurfing host, Deniz. A collection of kindly people at different points showed me the way to the appropriate bus stops and I rapidly found myself at the entrance to his apartment complex near Harran Univerity.

After a confusing few moments in front of the gate, where the security guard asked me repeatedly who I was looking for. I thought I understood and said, my friend Deniz. But, clearly I did not convey the appropriate information. The guard smiled when he realized who it was that was my friend as Deniz approached to retrieve me from the entrance.

Deniz was a phenomenal host! He is a PhD candidate in environmental engineering finishing up his studies at Istanbul Technical University, but conducting his thesis research in Urfa (a relatively common, but convoluted practice, he said, because of the politics of making new PhD programs).

Deniz fed me some food that he and his girlfriend had cooked the night before, made me some tea, and gave me his keys and his neighbors WiFi password before saying that he had to go to lab and suggesting that we meet up at a place downtown at 4:30 pm for dinner.

I ate, drank, showered and left for the city. Wandering downtown, I realized I was still hungry when I passed a bakery and couldn’t stop eying it. The proprietor said to me: ‘come in, eat, have tea’ in English. I ended up hanging out with him and his friend for the next three hours and we had tea and pastries (burek and baklava) together. It was great!


(Cemal and I in his bakery)

I left them to find the place I was supposed to meet Deniz, his roommate Cem (pronounced Jem), and girlfriend Elif at. We met up, got dinner of a local speciality patlican (pronounced pat-li-jan) kebab, followed by pistachio coffee (or maybe it was Menengic coffee?) with some of their friends.


 (patlican kebab)

After dinner, we went to another friend (and friend’s family)’s house. Leaving their friend’s place, we went back to their place for beer and a movie.

Deniz and Cem really made me feel like another roommate.  

The next day, I took advantage of their laundry machine and lazed before heading downtown.

I wandered around and found a big market and an awesome park.






While reading a book there, I met a Kurdish Syrian-activist, who knew one of the guys I’d met the day before. We talked for 3-4 hours and observed the flow of people passing by. I really enjoyed the distinctive regional dress in Urfa (covered by another blogger).

I parted ways with the activist after a while and wandered around a bit more.



I met some Syrian refugees who wanted to take a picture with me. 


Stopping back in the bakery, I was told that there were many people in the area that were Arabic-speaking Turks as well.

I made it back in time to join Deniz, Cem and a friend of theirs for dinner (and pre-dinner Rakı). Their friend showed me how to drink rakı (with or without water).


(rakı can be drunk straight – with ice water on the side in a separate glass, or mixed with water. When mixed it goes from being clear (left) to milky (right))

Dinner was delicious as Cem is a masterful chef and we all spent the evening gabbing away.

I’d told Deniz and Cem that I’d wanted to go to Göbekli Tepe the next day. I’d realized that this 12,000 year old temple (the world’s oldest known – predating both farming and settlements) was only a 10 km walk from their house. Deniz and Cem warned me that it was a sketchy road and that maybe I should think about hitchhiking instead of walking. I told them that I didn’t like to hitchhike alone and that I was planning to walk on the opposite side of the road.

After sleeping in and lazing for far too long the next morning, I headed out. Walking down the street I realized rapidly what they’d been warning me about. The street was all but deserted.

First a man on a bike stopped and tried to ask me for directions in Turkish, but I didn’t understand. I told him such and he drove off. Then a truck driver stopped. The trucker was leering, asking if I wanted a ride, driving super slowly, and trying to persuade me to enter his vehicle. As this happened, the man on the bike, Ali, passed again, asked if I was going to Göbekli Tepe and offered me a ride.

I hesitated momentarily before deciding that going with Ali seemed like the best course of action. I got on his bike and he drove me to the ruins and explored them with me. (the ruins were impressively old but neither impressively excavated nor statured).



(larger-scale photos of the site)



(close-up photos of the site – pretty crazy and awe inspiring to see those animal carvings from 12,000 years ago)

Walking just past the dig area, there was an amazing view of the plain / middle Euphrates from the hill where the site was.





(views and Ali and I)

Ali didn’t really speak any English, but was a genius at communicating with his hands and his body language, and together we passed the day enjoyably. At some point, Ali called his friend and colleague, Mehmet, who spoke better English and the three of us hung out with another friend of theirs and drank tea at their workplace, Harran Univeristy (their campus was right next to Deniz’s apartment).

I got back to Deniz and Cem’s in time for Deniz’s birthday party prep. We all had dinner together, played games, chatted and drank late into the night.

I stuck around Urfa one more day, going downtown and walking back – finding the ingredients for Shepard’s pie along the way (I’d wanted to make the most American thing I could think of and share some food after they’d been cooking such delicious things every night). It was shockingly impossible to find fresh corn despite the fact that it was sold on almost every street corner downtown. But, finally, I found frozen corn en route back as well as some beer. Deniz, Cem, and I spent a chilled out evening together. When I told them I was planning to leave the next day they seemed surprised (despite the fact that I’d initially asked to stay only 3 days and it was already the 4th day) and told me I should stay longer, but I already had set things in motion with my next couchsurfing host, Isadora, in Gaziantep. I was sad to part ways with them the next morning.

Marshrutka madness, part 2: Artsakh

The next morning, I walked to the bus station. I arrived there slightly before Sandeep and just in time to see a marshrutka moments before Sandeep arrived by taxi from his hostel.

We got on the next marshrutka ,which had already arrived by the time Sandeep got there, but it didn’t leave for another 1.5 hours.



(scenery from the drive to Stepanakert)

Six hours and some pretty awful roads later, we arrived in Stepanakert to find the visa office closed (you need to get a visa on arrival for Artsakh in Stepanakert – Merek had told me that the foreign office here was the nicest in the world, and this indeed was true).

Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) is fascinating.


Though it technically exists within Azerbaijan, and no map I’ve seen shows it as even a disputed area, it is a de facto independent state. To my knowledge, no one but Armenia recognizes its existence, but Azerbaijan has had no political authority over the region since 1988. In Artsakh, the Armenian dram is used as the currency, the language spoken is Armenian, the flag is strikingly similar, and I believe that there are close close ties with the Armenian government.

Merek had also labeled a guesthouse on my map in town, and we set off to find it. Find it we did, and it was perfect! We dropped our bags and wandered around town looking for dinner. We got our hands on the zhingyalov hats recommended by Merek , decided that wasn’t enough and also picked up some kebab and hung out in the guesthouse’s courtyard planning out our next days visit to Shushi – the former regional capital before a 1920 massacre  led to mass destruction of the city and the capital being moved to Stepanakert. Shushi was rebuilt in the 1960s and 1970s becoming a USSR resort town. When war broke out between the Azeris and Armenians in 1988, the town was used as a stronghold to shell the capital, Stepanakert. Captured by the Armenians in 1992, Shushi was looted, burned and left in ruins.

The next morning we got our visas and some snacks (nuts and persimmons), took a local bus to Shushi and started to walk around. Merek had labeled a number of things on my map, old mosques that had been partially destroyed, and a sick hiking trail (the Janapar trail) that is really part of a 16 day hike back into Armenia with really fantastical nature.

As we walked to the trail head in Shushi, we saw lots of buildings where the front facade looked alright, but that were totally destroyed behind and full of rubble and garbage.












(Shushi – buildings in ruins)

Finding the section of the Janapar trail that passed by Shushi, we saw cows. We followed them off the trail briefly before realizing that it was very well marked with bright blue blazes.





(scenery by the start of the trail)

There was a great auditorium of rocks surrounding a gorge and some small waterfalls. Sandeep and I hung out and watched the water fall and were awed by the trees changing colors and the magnitude of it all.


Finding even better blazes and we followed the path to an area where people clearly used to live, but seemed to be no longer inhabited, or perhaps inhabited only by hikers on the trail.



(man-made structures)






(along the trail)

There we continued to follow the path and found a stream. Sandeep has been sticking his feet in streams all over the world, and seemed to have enjoyed this one near Shushi.


There we ran into a Bulgarian man who’d stayed at Sandeep’s hostel in Yerevan and the three of us made our way together to a nearby waterfall.




It was phenomenal!

The Bulgarian man turned back to go the way we’d all come, and we continued, planning to make a loop through the next town over. Soon we ran into three hikers (a German couple and their Polish friend) collecting hazelnuts that had fallen from the trees growing by the next rest area.


(hikers foraging in the background, Sandeep in the foreground – the hikers showed us how to identify good hazelnuts and eat them)


(hazelnuts, in shell, picked up off the ground)


(bit into the shell using your molars to free the nut)


(free hazelnut! ready to eat!)

They were planning to walk the Janapar trail for another nine days, and we enjoyably walked together to the next village.

Parting ways with the hikers in the village, Sandeep and I went to look for the way back to Shushi. We climbed a hill (turns out we’d been walking all downhill for quite a while) and hung out at the top for a bit eating our persimmons and nuts before finding someone to hitchhike back to Shushi with (Sandeep used his Russian). We took the bus back to Steppanakurt, wandered more around town, got pork döner for dinner (a strange concept). Then we headed back to the hostel and hung out there, ready for another early morning leaving Artsakh.

Sandeep thought that the first bus might leave at 6 am so we woke up at 5 something and got to the bus station by 5:45 am. Unfortunately for us, we were told that the bus did not indeed leave until 8 am. It was cold in the station and nothing was open, I would have killed for a greasy spoon all-night diner at that moment.

There was a coffee shop in the bus station that opened at 6:30 / 7 am and we sat there drinking Turkish coffee (small and concentrated) until 7:30 am, before finding our bus. It was a good thing that we went looking for the bus at 7:30, because it left at 7:40.

En route back to Yerevan, we passed a point on the road that was the shortest distance from the Turkish border and we could see Mount Ararat (the mountain that Noah supposedly landed his ark on) (this snow capped, dormant volcano is hugely important to the Armenians – a national symbol, considered holy, and according to modern borders in Turkey) and many many border posts between the countries.

The bus driver was playing the Armenian radio – it was pretty good (I’d been looking for good radio stations all throughout the car trip in Georgia to no avail. Georgian radio seemed to primarily consist of shitty american songs, but the Armenian radio station the driver played had more traditional (and in Armenian) music. As did the VH1/MTV-esque channel Sandeep had found on TV our last night in Stepanakert.)

I’d decided that I wanted to rush out of Armenia and Georgia so as to leave myself enough time to really explore other parts of Turkey. (I seem to tend to do this, I always want to leave enough time to do other things later, so I rush through what I am doing now, and get places with oodles of time to spare, a, I’m increasingly thinking, incorrect prioritization schema.)

I arrived at the bus station in Yerevan with 15 minutes to spare before the next marshrutka to Tbilisi, where I caught a bus to Batumi followed by another bus to Samsun where my friend Gilkey lived and I was planning to stay for a night en route to Şanlıurfa.


(leaving Yerevan – so many pink buildings!)


(Passing Lake Sevan – one of the largest freshwater high-altitude lakes in Eurasia; mist off the water on a rainy, foggy day)

Marshrutka madness, part 1: Into and around Yerevan

The marshrutka to Yerevan got in around 4pm. This was my first interaction with the marshrutka system. You go to a place at a time, wait until a bus fills up completely – however long that takes (hours) then you leave. This did not turn out to be my favorite mode of transportation.



(pretty nice landscapes heading south from Tbilisi to Yerevan)

I still had a few more daylight hours after arriving so I wandered nearby the hostel.






Not knowing anyone in town, and the hostel relatively empty, I decided to check out and see what was going on. My luck! There was a couchsurfing meet up later that day!

The meetup was something like 15 people, half local, half tourists from different places: Ukraine, USA, Kosavo/Switzerland, India/America, and more. We got to know each other over beers in the basement of a coffee shop. It was great and I met so many nice people! 

When the crowd started to peter out later in the evening, a number of us decided to check out some local bars for one last beer together before parting ways.

By the evening’s end, I had plans for the next day to meet my new local friend Artur to hitchhike to some attractions nearby, dinner plans with another new local friend Vahe, and a tentative idea to go to a region recognized by Armenia as its own country by not by anyone else, Artsakh, with an Indian-American tourist Sandeep, two days hence.

The next morning, I met Artur by where the meetup had been. We took a bus to the outskirts of the city, where we met some Dutch sisters going to the same town, Garni, just outside of Yerevan.


Garni has an old Roman temple that is well preserved.

The Dutch sisters were planning to take the bus there, so got off at the bus station. We, on the other hand, took the bus to its last stop, and started hitchhiking.

I would stick my thumb out, and Artur would do all the talking (in Armenian).

Immediately, we were picked up by two guys. The driver offered to Artur to show me around, Artur translated, and asked how is she supposed to know to trust you, and he said, I’m a normal guy with an American family. It was a nice offer, but one which I politely declined (for many reasons, including the language barrier). He let us off before turning away from the road to Garni. Sticking my thumb out again, we were immediately picked up by a family: father driving and mother with child on lap in back. They drove us the rest of the way to Garni. Thanks!

En route into the temple, there were women selling preserves. I saw the walnut preserve that Merek had been talking about incessantly , so i picked it up. (I didn’t end up eating it until I met up with Merek again in Istanbul, over a month later, but when we shared the jar I learned that it was indeed delicious, and immediately regretted not buying more/trying it earlier).

Getting into Garni, Artur and I wandered around the Roman ruins, which were impressively preserved.


Wandering around the grounds, we ran into the Dutch women that we’d met on the bus. They asked us what we were up to next and Artur mentioned that there was an awesome walk not to be missed down into the gorge, something called the ‘symphony of stones.’


The four of us walked down from the ruins towards the geological formation. Some of the walk down passed through people’s fields (with wild blackberries, cultivated fruit trees, tons of puddles and spiky plants).

After 10-15 minutes of walking, we hit a gate. Artur asked the person who was guarding the land behind the gate if we could pass through. Apparently, he guard was there to make sure that no one contaminated the water supply that ran through the owned-by-the-government land.

The guard let us pass through the land, gave us some of the most delicious apples that were growing on the land and a few fresh walnuts, and showed us an outlook over the water supply that ran through the gorge between the symphony of stones! It was truly impressive and shat geghets’ik (very beautiful)! We enjoyed the apples together before parting ways with him to go deeper into the gorge.

IMG_0098.JPG IMG_0099.JPG

(view the guard showed us)


(Artur and I)


(the guard and I)

We kept going down into the gorge and found ourselves beneath the symphony of stones.



So cool! It was a huge formation.





We hung out there for a bit, before taking another route up, through the town of Garni to the bus station.



(There were water fountains everywhere as we went up with some of the most tasty water I’ve ever had.)

Artur had been there a million times before and knew all of the cool things. He pointed out a a tiny church in the town with roosters, old gravestones, slabs of stone that had carvings, and fresh walnuts lying on the ground from nearby trees.




(intricately carved stone)




In fact, there were lots of villagers collecting walnuts from their trees. I really enjoyed seeing that (having previously not known what a walnut tree even looked like)!


We found the bus stop and decided to check out another Artur-recommended place: Geghard monastery a medieval monastery and UNESCO world heritage site. The Dutch sisters joined us and we took the bus to the last point before we’d need to hitchhike or take a taxi to the monastery. With four of us, we decided to take a taxi, which cost something like $8 and included the round trip and the driver waiting for us for at least 30 minutes. Nuts!




(close up)


(monks caves in here)


(wall details)


(between buildings at the monastery)

There I found and bought gata, the crazy bread that Merek had also recommended, it was delicious!



(inside the bread)

The monastery was cool, carved in stone into the mountain, the acoustics were impressive and the monks caves nearby were also extensive.

We wandered to a point that overlooked the monastery and caught a great view of the whole area before deciding to catch our taxi back to the bus to Yerevan proper.

I spent the evening chatting with some other people that I’d met at the meetup group the night before, had some of the best warm meat-stuffed grape leaves ever, served with yogurt, and made plans to meet Sandeep by Yerevan’s bus station the next day to catch a marshrutka to Stepanakert, the capital and largest city of the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh/independent country of Artsakh.


Georgia on my mind, part 3: Tbilisi

The hostel I stayed at in Tbilisi is one of my favorites ever: Home #12. It was effectively just an apartment full of cool people, and I hung out at the hostel most of the time I was there.

The first night I got there, I found out that Georgian persimmons are the best and met another American – a Texan who’d gone to Tufts and had just come from Armenia: Merek. We quickly became friends and the next morning decided to go together to find places to buy/sell used clothing – I needed warm stuff and he had dressy clothing he’d needed for work in Armenia that he didn’t want to backpack with his the rest of his trip.

Merek knew of an awesome flea market and whole street of thrift stores, and en route between the two I bought a coat, he sold a shirt, I found someone to fix my pants (I’d really messed them up coming down the mountain), and we ate some weird fruit (jujubes) that I hated and he liked together. 


(pants: before + zoomed in)

(pants: after magic Georgian woman’s fix)

We got back and had some beer while chatting with other people who were sharing the room with us.

I got a lot of Armenia recommendations from Merek: food (eat unguyz murapapreserved walnuts, zhingyalov hats – bread filled with a million green herbs, and gata – sweet dense bread), language, locations to visit, hikes to go on, nature to see, advise on hitchhiking and finding accommodations there, even a joke about the Georgian and Armenian alphabets.


(unguyz murapa)


(zhingyalov hats)



The joke:

Georgians were very jealous about the beautiful Armenian alphabet so they came to Mesrop Mashtots (creator of Armenian alphabet) and said
– Please Mr. Mesrop Mashtots, create a beautiful alphabet for us too.
Mesrop stopped eating his spaghetti, took the plate and threw all the pasta behind him.
– Here you go, this will be your alphabet.


(script in Georgian)


(Armenian alphabet in Armenian)

The next morning, Merek, I and some of the other people in our room went to the flea market and another larger market together. I parted ways with the group to find other places to fix more of my clothing and more warm things. I wandered around, retrieved my fixed clothing, and chilled, it was a pretty relaxed day.

I was planning to leave the following day to head to Yerevan, but by the time I got all my stuff together, it seemed there was not a marshrutka out of Tbilisi.

Merek was also sticking around for one more day, so we wandered the city together attempting to find him a thermos.

En route we found a church on a hill and a wine festival!

(view from the church above the city)

(wine at the wine festival! It turns out it was national Georgian wine day and that they not only celebrated the newly declared holiday in Kakheti – the wine producing region of the country, but also in Tbilisi!)

The wine festival was full of great music and dancing and most importantly, free wine (and cheese)!

We hung out at the festival for quite a while enjoying the wine and music.

On the way out, we ran into a guy selling honey and couldn’t help ourselves but buy some. (We ultimately bought 2 kilos of honey from this man because I accidentally broke the first kilo and replaced it).

When we got back to the hostel, we made dinner, chatted with other guests, and attempted to separate the kilo of honey into 2 halves.

I found it quite amusing when we realized that we’d met the same person, Merek at Home #12 5 weeks earlier and me at my hostel in Kashgar. Merek didn’t have facebook, and I don’t remember how we even got talking about this mutual friend, but seriously, what are the odds that we’d both have met and befriended this person, not to mention that he’d come up in conversation? Very cool.

The next morning, I left bright and early to catch my bus to Yerevan.


Georgia on my mind, part 2

Our mark for the day was the city of Kutaisi (Georgia’s 2nd largest city: pop. ~200,000). The drive there from Ushguli was pretty though the roads were rough. We had two options, backtracking through Mestia, or going straight through the Caucasus mountains via Lentekhi there. While the Lentekhi route was less kilometers, it would have taken significantly longer because it would have been all unpaved and through the mountains and we’d heard that it was a much much worse road than even the 40 km to Mestia.

Screenshot 2016-01-06 at 12.01.16

(google maps doesn’t even identify that road from Ushguli to Lentekhi)

As Steven was quite concerned about Betsy even getting back to Mestia after which the roads would be good again, we headed through there.

Doing the drive in the daylight, we were able to pet some cows en route.

Steven poked fun at Ryan’s rabies concern, which made the ride to Kutasi kind of trying. We did have some fun, though and stopped at another Svaneti tower.

According to

”’Every household in Svaneti is a true fortress. Villages in these rugged landscape are often too scattered to be encircled with a protective wall. Each individual house thus had to be separately fortified.

The tower homes of Svaneti were at the same time familial living quarters, fortified fortresses of defense, and personal treasuries. They offered protection to their owners and to their livestock, and also served as shelters for the most valuable possessions of every family, as well as copies of holy scriptures and religious icons and relics. Most of the towers date back to the period between 9th and 12th century.

The turbulent history of the region ensured that these fortifications remained in use long after similar defenses become redundant elsewhere in Europe. In recent times families have slowly begun moving out into more comfortable living spaces.”’

The tower was the subject of a lot of tourism, and listening around I realized that more than half of those tourists were Israeli!

We finally made it into Kutaisi. Ryan had already been there once and recommended an inexpensive (~$4) hostel, that was a $0.15 bus ride to downtown.

(downtown Kutaisi)

Because we got there in the late afternoon, there was little time. Ryan decided to find a clinic right away. Steven and I went to explore and Ryan said he’d meet up with us after the clinic.

We saw a church and a cathedral and pet more cows.




(outside details – impressive)


Having not heard from Ryan all afternoon/evening, we went back to the hostel. Arriving at the same time as him. We called it an early night.

Our plan for the next day was to wake up and head towards Stepantsminda.

Screenshot 2016-01-06 at 10.30.19

(This was our total trajectory – dashed lines on this map are disputed areas, of which there are many in the region – the one in the middle of this map is South Ossetia)

We ate breakfast together before hitting the road, driving a few hours east towards Gori (and finding some amazing sweet bread on the side of the road and a French hitchhiker, en route).

(the road to Gori)Steven had a rule about picking up hitchhikers: ie. he always did. Usually they were locals going short distances and they didn’t speak English, but nevertheless, it was exciting and fun to try to communicate).

We couldn’t help but stop in Gori: Stalin’s hometown. We’d heard that they love Stalin there! There is a huge tributary museum dedicated to everything Stalin with even oodles of partially smoked cigars of his. Across from the museum was a grocery with a huge Stalin photo on it (right next to an escort place) and we got lunch snacks and hung out by the grocery chatting.

(grocery store in Gori)

(next door)

At Mtskheta (how do you pronounce this? I still don’t know), we dropped off the French hitchhiker and Ryan so that they could find their way to Tbilisi, while Steven and I continued north to Stepantsminda.

We saw oodles of sheep, and drove up up up into the mountains.

(views from the road)

(passing an an intricate mural)

(rolling into Stepantsminda)

We found a guesthouse that was highly reviewed on wikitravel, but they were full and we decided to sleep in Betsy. I took the middle of the car while he took the trunk.

The big tourist todo in Stepantsminda is a church on top of a hill that faces a huge glacier. We drove a small part of the way there from the hostel that we’d considered and decided to get out and hike the rest of the way.


(hiking up to the church)


(the church)

(panoramic photo from the top)

It was a cloudy day and we couldn’t see the mountain: Kazbegi behind the clouds, which was a shame. It started to rain so we headed down. I got fed up with the rain, and we hitched a ride back down to Betsy with a Georgian family that was in town for the day from Tbilisi.

We took Betsy into town and found dinner, wifi and a place to park it and sleep (inside and outside of a hotel).

(hotel parking spot for the night and Betsy)

The next morning, we hung out with the 1.5 year old daughter of the hotel owner/worker, wandered the town, and drove the remaining 5 miles to the Russian border. There was some very substantial mining going on during that 5 mile drive.

After glancing at the border crossing and knowing that we were lacking Russian visas, we turned around and started driving to Tbilisi. Steven saw a tower that looked different from the Svaneti towers, and we stopped in a random town whose name I do not know.

(non-Svaneti tower)


(wandering about town)

There were cows, a cute cat, and caves there.

We stopped one more time at a road side attraction called Ananuri before entering sprawling Tbilisi. Steven dropped me off at my hostel and went to find friends of his in the city.