Thursday, December 30, 2010

Things To Do In Turkey Whilst Waiting For Your Visa

It looks like when the guy at the Iranian consulate in Istanbul told me that the visa application process would be easier if my family initiated proceedings in Tehran, he was being economical with the truth. It would be easier for him, meaning less paperwork, but far more complicated, more time-consuming, and more fraught with uncertainty for me. I learnt this from a Dutch-Iranian couple who were also waiting for a visa at the Ankara embassy, and who had already applied, and been rejected, a couple of times already, who were in pretty much the same boat as me. As I waited for the visa juggernaut to come to town, to retain my sanity, and to relieve Can from me squatting his laptop, I've taken a couple of trips from Ankara (having already seen all there is to see in the city itself).

The tomb complex of Rumi in Konya.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Two Sides Of Angora

Despite my best efforts I've been held up by the Evil Visa Fairy whilst here in Ankara. My biggest problem is that the application process is not at all transparent and every person seems to give you very different information and expectations. If it were just a question of filling in a form, paying a fee and waiting a set length of time I would be happy: I would know exactly what is expected, when it will be resolved and so could plan accordingly. Not so here. In Istanbul I was told that someone from my family would have to get me an invitation number from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran. And I had the bad luck to need this during Ashura when government offices were closed for a week. But finally, after several visits, my uncle was able to secure an invitation number for me. According to the Istanbul consulate this would be all I need to be issued my visa. So, full of hope (one would think that I'd have learnt by now not to be hopeful with visas until I get the thing physically stuck into my passport), I made my way to the embassy in Ankara (as I had moved on from Istanbul by now). The people at the consular section didn't seem to be aware of this way of applying for visas, but I'm too far gone along this path and so am waiting for them to receive some sort of acknowledgement from Tehran. Every day I wander over to the embassy to see if the situation has improved. I'm reminded of having to wait in Bamako a couple of years back for my Mauritanian visa.

Desperately looking for my visa (statue of Turkish soldier in Ankara).

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Orient Unexpress

Before I continue I would like to mention a little nugget of information that I learnt on Athos but forgot to put in my last post, and which also shows how the monasteries are no longer content with the spiritual but also stray well into the temporal realm. Among the Athonite community it is an open secret that Ratko Mladić, the Serbian general indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in the Hague, is spending time at the Hilandari monastery disguised as a hermit. So, if anyone from the ICC is reading this, you know where to find him...

Anyway, back to the main narrative. From Athos my plan was to head east towards Istanbul and Asia. A rather straightforward task when you look at the map, but when I got off the ferry in Ouranopolis, fresh from my monastic sortie, the only buses were going back to Thessaloniki - definitely not the way I wanted to go and in grave violation of my First Law. Instead a brief consultation of a map in a nearby souvenir shop (being careful not to arouse the suspicion of the owner) showed that the bus was heading north (in the right direction) for 40km to the town of Stagira, before taking a right turn west (the wrong direction) towards Thessaloniki. (If the locations mentioned here are not familiar to you then you can consult the following map.) My course of action was obvious: get off at Stagira and keep heading north until I hit the main highway heading east. Unfortunately the map wasnt particularly detailed and failed to show the roads very well, or, for that matter, contour lines that would have informed me that Stagira was up in the mountains rather than at sea level where I needed to be. There followed a few kilometres trudge to a junction to where I wanted to go and an hour's wait as the traffic along the mountain road was sparse to say the least. I was anticipating a night in the Greek countryside but luckily I was finally picked up by a friendly couple who took me a good dozen kilometres past where they were actually headed to get me back to the coast and the main road at the town of Olympiadas, for which I was immensely grateful. And although it was only 6pm the last bus had already left and it was dark, so my hitching efforts were more out of lack of anything better to do than expectations of catching a ride. By 8pm I decided to call it a day and went in search of a spot to sleep. Since the day had been pleasant with blue skies shelter didnt seem to be an important priority and so I plumped for a large log in some abandoned wasteland against which to set up a very crude lean-to. A rather short-sighted choice as I was awoken at 4am by the ever-increasing pitter-patter of rain which made me flee to the safety of a large culvert whilst trying to keep my stuff only partially wet. The rain, interspersed by a few snow flurries, was to last for the next 6 days.

The massive, Byzantine-era walls of Constantinople might be 1500 years old, but they have withstood the test of time remarkably well.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


East of Thessaloniki lies the peninsula of Halkidiki with its three distinctive "fingers". It is a popular spot for Thessalonians to retreat to in Summer to enjoy the many fine beaches and clear waters of the first two "fingers". The easternmost one, known as Mount Athos after the towering peak at the southernmost tip, is devoid of such heavy tourist development. It could be because the coast there is more rugged and there are fewer beaches, but is more likely because the place is owned by a score of Orthodox monasteries access to lay people is strictly controlled.

Map showing the location of Mount Athos in Greece

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Ima Vreme

Bitola used to be the administrative centre of the Ottoman vilayet (region) of manastir (their name for the town) making it one of the most important towns in the Balkans, however today it is a sleepy backwater with a bustling market. The only indications of its former importance lie in the two large mosques in the centre and the fact that there are three foreign consulates in town, all sharing an uninspiring little building on the main street. The Turks cater to the small community there, the British won't leave before the French, and the French will be damned if they're going to be outlasted by the Brits.

The small building, in the sleepy backwater that is Bitola, which houses 3 consulates. A hilarious legacy of pre-WWI politics.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Low Season

Nobody would ever mistake Macedonia for a top, international, tourist destination. It's only tourist draw of any note is the town of Ohrid and its eponymous lake. The town was once the capital of the Bulgarian empire under Tsar Samuil (although, in true Balkan fashion, official Macedonian texts are highly nationalistic and make no reference to Bulgaria and call him the emperor of Macedonia) and there are many old churches dotted around, some dating back as far as the 4th or 5th centuries. Unfortunately the town, which has tons of potential, on the shores of an azure lake, with windy, cobbled streets hugging hilly contours, but the historic centre has been (perhaps irrevocably) blighted by concrete and the lack of building regulations (or at least their enforcement). Most houses in the old town have been rebuilt extensively in neo-concrete style, and the few that have the original wooden structure are on the verge of collapse with no-one seeming to care.

Winter on lake Ohrid isn't necessarily pleasant, but the moody weather has its own charm. I loved watching the waves crash onto the walkways along the shore.