Thursday, July 22, 2010

Entering the Islamic Republic of Iran (June 15)

Today is a really, really big day for us. We are about to drive our car into Iran. We are a couple of Americans on their own, in their own car, wanting to drive across Iran as tourists. It’s really difficult to describe how this feels. My emotions are so contradictory that I can’t put them into words (feeble attempts: doubting confidence that we’ll be fine; I want to come home and say "I told you Iranians treat people kindly even if they disagree with what their government does"; I really desire to visit this incredibly significant and interesting country). But I am here and I want to go forward: visiting Iran is central to our trip, both geographically, and what we want to see and experience. It is an essential part of what this trip is about.

Did I work really hard to prepare myself for visiting Iran? Yes. Am I reassured by having Iranian friends that are wonderful people, knowing that Iranian hospitality is legendary, having friends of friends that visited Iran (although not Americans) that had a wonderful experience, knowing what is said about visiting Iran by our Lonely Planet Guide book, by Rick Steves’ documentary, and other sources, and knowing that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has approved our itinerary and guide? Yes, these things are reassuring and give me confidence.

But am I also worried? Yes. The voices of some of my closest family members and friends, warning and pleading for me not to go for various reasons are crystal clear in my mind. The story of the three American hikers that appear to have mistakenly crossed into Iran from Iraq about 9 months ago and have been held by Iran ever since rests heavily on my mind. Plus the newest round of U.N. sanctions (backed by the U.S.) against Iran over Iran’s nuclear program went into effect just a couple of weeks ago! What are we doing?

Leaving Turkey

Our day begins in Dogubayazit, Turkey, in sight to Mt. Ararat, the mountain that Noah’s Ark is said to have landed on. We didn’t get a good night’s sleep because we didn’t realize (and weren’t told) that our camping spot was also a popular evening picnicking place for the town and the site of a concert tonight! Yes, at about 9:00 p.m. our tent was surrounded by singing people for most of the rest of the night. Eventually the people went home but then crows took over at 4:30 a.m., who were nearly as loud as the band was. We get up at 5:00, are on the road at 6:45, and arrive on the Turkish side of the border at 7:30 (9:00 Iranian time).

Mt. Ararat, very near the Turkey/Iran border

Things go smoothly on the Turkish side of the border except for the roving “helper” that cons us into giving him our passports, car documents, my speeding ticket and money to pay for it. We soon figure out he is not a border official at all, just some guy “helping” us that is surely going to demand some large payment for his service. About half way through the process we tell him we don’t want his help and that we thought he was an official. He complains but we hold our ground and are able to get our documents and money back. After finishing all of the formalities ourselves, Kirstin puts on her headscarf and we get into the car to drive across the border. A Turkish policeman opens the gate on the Turkish side for us and as we roll past him, just a few yards from Iran, he leans towards me and says in a low voice, “Good luck in Iran. You will need it.”

Entering Iran

A large Iranian soldier in fatigues opens the gate on the Iranian side of the border. He professionally welcomes us to Iran, shows us where to park our car and tells us that he will take us to be fingerprinted. He says it is the same for Iranians coming to the US. We say no problem and that we understand. He takes us to an office and a man dressed in dark and light blue welcomes us to Iran and gives us a candy. He asks us about our plans – things like how long we will stay, where we will exit, and if we have Carnet de Passage for our vehicle. When we tell him that we need to buy insurance to take the place of a Carnet de Passage he seems to indicate this isn’t a problem. We think he is a police officer but later he tells us that he is the tourist office. He asks us if we have a guide and we tell him our guide is on the way. At this point we call our guide, Darius, who tells us he is on a train, on his way to the border.

Then a policeman (dressed in more of a green and yellow uniform) asks us to come with him for fingerprinting. It is explained to us again that the fingerprinting is the same for Iranians that come to the US. We reply no problem and that we understand. In the policeman’s office our passports and visas are copied, we fill out a short form, wait 5-10 minutes, are fingerprinted and shown where we can wash our hands. The policeman is nice and asks what I do for a living. He doesn’t understand but later he comes back with the tourist office guy who translates for him. Back outside, I ask the soldier if I may take a photo of the Welcome to Iran sign at the border. I am surprised that he says yes because normally border areas may not be photographed. All this takes maybe 20 minutes. Now all we need is Carnet de Passage insurance for our car and for our guide to arrive. Unfortunately both of these take a much longer time.

At the border.

What is Carnet de Passage insurance?

In the past many countries required vehicles that were temporarily brought into the country to have a Carnet de Passage. This is a document that promises that the owner of the vehicle will take the vehicle back out of the country with them. The owner puts down a deposit that covers all importation fees, which the owner only get back after the vehicle is removed from the country. Today very few countries still require this, but Iran is one of these countries.

It is not possible to obtain a Carnet de Passage in the US (I guess not many Americans bring their cars to Iran, Pakistan, India, or the handful of other countries requiring a Carnet de Passage), but the Canadian Automobile Association will sell it to Americans. For our 2002 Toyota 4Runner they charge a non-refundable $550 processing fee and then Iran requires that a $31,300 deposit be made to a Canadian bank that is sent to Iran if the car does not leave Iran for any reason, even if it is stolen or breaks down and cannot be repaired. Since we could not afford this I did some more research and heard rumors that one may be able to buy insurance at the border to take the place of a Carnet de Passage. The insurance company covers the risk of the car not coming out of the country and charges a premium for this. I asked IranianVisa, our visa service and guide company, about this and they told me it costs $200 so we may be able to visit Iran after all. It all sounded a bit sketchy (who is this insurance company? why can’t I contact them?) but I couldn’t find a better alternative.

Waiting for our guide

I told IranianVisa that we would be at the border at 9:00 and they said our guide would help us with border formalities, but our guide didn’t arrive until 12:30. Almost from the time we cross the border we are hounded by “Boris and the Muscle Man” – more on them later. To try to get away from them we go inside to the waiting salon and meet some Iranians waiting to go to Turkey. It is a group of women with adorable little girls. All of them are really sweet. Kirstin gives the girls some stickers from home and shows them her travel album with pictures of our wedding, our house, our hobbies, etc. It makes communicating without the benefits of a common language possible.

When our guide Darius (pronounced “Dariush”) arrives at 12:30, I tell him we’ve been waiting for 3 ½ hours and he politely explains that he is innocent, that the agency didn’t contact him until 2 days ago and put him on the late train that he was on. (Back at home IranianVisa told me that I had to pay the full amount early because our guide had to be contracted 2 months ago). Darius turns out to be a wonderful guide and a great person and I recommend him to anyone (Darius Ghasemi,, 098-912-370-4516, lives in Tehran). Despite having to wait for so long, we are very happy to have him here with us to help us with our Carnet de Passage insurance and dealing with Boris and the Muscle Man.

Boris and the Muscle Man

Almost as soon as we crossed the border we keep getting approached by this man we nicknamed “Boris”. Little do we know we would be dealing with him for the next 6 ½ hours! Boris is a middle-aged, Russian-looking character carrying a locked briefcase with him where ever he goes. He is wearing pointed leather shoes, shiny silver slacks and light colored dress shirt. He keeps asking us about our car, where we are going and for how long, and saying we must buy insurance from him.

Boris has an associate that we name “Muscle Man”. He is wearing black jeans and a tight t-shirt with very short sleeves. He has a darker complexion than Boris, but also doesn’t look or sound Iranian either. As his nickname implies, he has lots of upper-body muscles. Boris and Muscle Man make quite the team – first Boris whispers something to us about this being our last chance to get insurance, then Muscle Man barks at us to come inside, move our car, or that their “office” is about to close. Hanging around with these two are a couple of other guys, one young fellow dressed in super-slick, mafia-style clothes, complete with a shinny reddish shirt that is half-way unbuttoned and another man, who is the quite one (maybe he’s the apprentice).

We hold our ground and refuse to talk to this suspicious group, even when Muscle Man tells us that their “office” is about to close. It’s the grown up version of “mommy tells me not to talk to strangers”, which in our case is “I won’t talk to suspicious looking, mafia-fashion wearing, briefcase-carrying, no-office insurance salesmen asking for large amounts of cash on the Iranian border that I can’t communicate with.”

When Darius arrives we are so relieved and Boris, Muscle Man and the other two are on him in a second. Turns out they speak a dialect of Turkish and Darius cannot understand what they say to each other either. Unfortunately IranianVisa hasn’t told Darius anything about Carnet de Passage insurance (even though I have been stressing this for months), but at least Darius can communicate with them in Farsi and hopefully knows how to best deal with them. Poor Darius is probably more tired than us, having been on a night train and then another train all morning.
So what’s the scoop on our Carnet de Passage insurance? Darius tells us that there is no insurance office and these are the guys we must deal with. They sell Carnet de Passage insurance and it is somehow underwritten by an insurance company in Tehran. The insurance company does not sell insurance directly to individuals so all we can do is deal with this bunch. I realize our options are to pay them whatever they ask for or turn around and head back into Turkey. Boris tells Darius that rates have gone up (even though IranianVisa said they confirmed the insurance a week ago) and the cost is now 600 Euros ($800), not $200 as IranianVisa told me (for 13 days!). I speak to Hamid at IranianVisa and he tells me there is nothing he can do, insurance isn’t his business. I ask if he can cover part of the rate increase and he promises he will check his margin and try to help (he never called me back or return my calls). This is way more than we budgeted and what we can afford. Yes, we have the money now but will we run out of funds in Siberia?

After a lot of waiting, thinking and asking Boris and Co. if they can reduce the price, Muscle Man tells me in his deep Russian-accented voice, “This is not my problem”. He speaks just a tiny bit of English but knows this phrase. After a while they do give a small break and the price is reduced from 600 Euros to $600 (or 480 Euros). I hand over the cash.

Can we go now?

After I pay the fee the forms begin. It takes roughly 90 minutes for the insurance team, now joined by an impersonal woman behind a desk to fill out all of the forms, about 2 seconds for the customs official to look them, and another 30 minutes of driving around with Muscle Man collecting seals and stamps from various offices just past the border. The insurance packet grows to several dozen pieces of paper, each with many stamps and signatures. Finally we are let go and at 3:30 Kirstin, Darius and I begin our drive into Iran!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Eastern Turkey (June 12-15)

I was sad as we left Cappadocia since this meant we had visited all of the major places I had wanted to see in Turkey. Now the remaining days would be mostly driving days with the destination being the Gurbulak/Bazargan border to Iran. Originally our plan had been to head east to Erzurum, north towards the Kackar Mountains and then east to the border via Kars and Dogubayazt, but since we had lost some days with Stani being sick, we had to skip the northern route and just head east.

There was a significant difference as we ventured further east. The roads were much worse and travel times took longer. Because established campgrounds were scarce, we weren’t sure where we would stay and what facilities would be available. The first night we started to get a little nervous about where we would sleep, but ended up finding a sign just as the sun started to set that had a picture of a fish and the word “camping” written on it. This made me think of the story in the Bible where Jesus performs the miracle of feeding 5,000 hungry people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish – this was a good reminder to me to have faith that God will take care of us. The sign led us to a fish restaurant where the owner happily pointed to a hill where we could set up our tent. I’m not entirely sure if they normally had people camp here (camping may actually mean picnicking), but it was a fine spot and we were happy to have a place to sleep. When we tried to pay him, he declined.

Sign to our "campsite"

The next morning, we took a short walk to a lake near our campsite, and on our way back, we met a herd of cows and their owner. He probably wondered what the heck we were doing here! No one was around when we were ready to leave our campsite, so we left some money folded in a piece of paper with the words tesekkur ederim (thank you) written on the outside.

Kirstin meets the cows

The road started out great, and it was a real treat having a smooth surface for a change. Unfortunately Stani got a speeding ticket– 106km/h in a 90km/h which we were told to pay at the border. We slowed down and soon the smooth road was just a memory and the bad roads returned. After a long day of driving, we finally reached the city of Erzurum. We found a hotel and rested a bit in the air conditioned room. We ate a bread, cheese and cucumber dinner in the room and then headed out to explore the city. The streets were full of people, shops and cafes, and there was an exciting energy all around.

Road in Eastern Turkey

From Erzurum, we pushed on to the town of Dogubayazt. This town is famous for Mt. Ararat (5137m), Turkey’s highest mountain and the supposed resting place of Noah’s Ark. For us it was also very significant because it would be our last night in Turkey before attempting to cross the border into Iran. I was full of all kinds of emotions now that we had reached this pivotal point of our tip, but to be honest, the dominant one was nervousness. On the outskirts of town, we found Lale Zar campground which is owned by two friends (one Kurd and one Dutch). From the campground you could see a beautiful castle called the Ishak Pasa Palace perched high up on a cliff. We drove there and were quickly swarmed by a mob of school kids as we exited the car. At first they were cute wanting to take photos and say hello, but they soon got annoying pulling on our arms and asking for money. We walked quickly trying to lose our new “friends”. Unfortunately the palace was closed, so we took a few quick photos and dashed back to the car with a line of school kids nipping at our heels.

Ishak Pasa Palace

Back at the campground, we met two other foreign couples, both from Austria. One of the couples had just driven from Iran, so we were eager to hear their experiences. They had nothing but good things to say about Iran which helped ease my nervousness a bit. On this trip, they had also driven their VW camper through Pakistan, India and Nepal and were now on their way back to Austria. The other couple was in a massive military looking vehicle equipped with a rooftop tent. At one point before our trip I had suggested we consider getting a rooftop tent, but seeing theirs made me glad that we didn’t pursue this option. They were heading north from Turkey into Georgia and Azerbaijan. It was nice to meet some other travelers and exchange stories.

Turkeys at our campground

Cappadocia (June 10-11)

Of all the places in Turkey which I read about before our trip, Cappadocia was the place I had been looking the most forward to visiting. I was filled with excitement as we turned the bend in the road, and I caught my first glimpse of Cappadocia’s fairy chimneys. You feel as if you’ve entered another world. Part Flintstones, part Luke Skywalker’s birthplace, part another planet. The unusual fairy chimney landscape which characterizes Cappadocia was formed from volcanic ash when erosion cleared away the lava covering the tuff (consolidated volcanic ash). The end result are pinnacle cone formations that can reach a height of 40m! Some have caps of hard stone on top, some are just pointed, but each fairy chimney is somehow different from the next.

First glimpse of Cappadocia

Fairy chimneys with hard stone tops

Cappadocia is actually a region between the town Kayseri on the east to Nevsehir on the west. Cappadocia became a refuge for Christians from the 4th-11th century, and many churches, monasteries and underground cities that can still be visited were built during this period.
We stayed in the village of Goreme in a cave room at the Kookaburra Pension. The owner was a bit strange, but his guesthouse was really special with incredible views of fairy chimneys from the roof terrace.

Our cave room

View of Goreme from our rooftop terrace

While in Goreme, we visited the Goreme Open Air Museum, a Unesco World Heritage Site. It was built during the Byzantine period as a monastic settlement for 20 monks, then as a pilgrimage site from the 17th century. There are clusters of churches, chapels and monasteries cut directly into the rock, which are really spectacular architecturally and artistically. The insides of the churches have paintings directly on the walls and ceilings, some very colorful and ornate and some very simple. Most of the paintings depict scenes from Jesus’ life such as the last supper, the nativity, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, the crucifixion and the ascension, as well as Old Testament stories like the three men (Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego) who survived being thrown into a burning furnace because of their faith in God. In addition to scenes from the Bible, other repeated paintings were of St. George slaying a dragon (the dragon symbolized paganism) and St. Basil. To help preserve the incredible paintings, photos were not allowed in most of the churches and chapels.

Monastery in Goreme Open Air Museum

Kirstin exploring the rock cut churches

Camel in Cappadocia

Anatolia-Pamukkale (June 7-8) & Konya (June 9)

Stani wasn’t better, but we decided that it might help to get a change of scenery, so we packed up and headed east into the region of Anatolia. Our destination was the town of Pamukkale, which is famous for its unique travertine (calcium carbonate) terraces and pools as well as the ruins of the ancient Roman spa city called Hierapolis. The restorative qualities of the calcium rich waters of Pamukkale have a centuries old reputation. Maybe they could help Stani get better! Once in town, we discovered Venus Hotel which was just off the main road and thought we had arrived in heaven. The room was gorgeous, the price was very reasonable and the staff were so kind. After several days of camping and being sick, we needed a break and Venus Hotel was the perfect gift!

The next morning we headed off to explore the travertine terraces. Without question, I can say that this was the coolest “water park” I have ever been to, and it’s all natural too! The travertines were formed when warm mineral water cooled and deposited calcium as it cascaded over cliff edges. In an effort to help preserve this amazing site, only certain areas of the travertines are open, and you must take off your shoes before you begin walking on the terraces.

The travertine terraces of Pamukkale

Stani in one of the travertine pools

Kirstin and Stani in Pamukkale

Behind the travertines are the ruins of the ancient Roman spa city of Hierapolis. It was a place where people came for a miracle cure. A theatre, agora, communal latrines, a church, a Temple of Apollo and a huge necropolis (cemetery) are all still visible. The center of Hierapolis was probably the sacred pool which is now a swimming pool where you can bathe in warm water surrounded by submerged sections of ancient marble columns and statues. For various reasons, including price and hygiene, we decided not to take a dip.

The ancient spa city of Hierapolis

The next morning we continued eastward towards Konya, home of the whirling dervishes and the Mevlana Museum. On the way, we saw a Toyota dealership and decided to stop to get an oil change. Luckily there was a young guy who spoke some English, and Stani was able to communicate what we needed. Before we drove off, one of the workers presented me with a rose. I couldn’t believe it! Occasionally I would get a rose from the service manager, Mac at the Saab dealership in Ann Arbor, if they were having a special customer appreciation day, but this was such a nice surprise to get one in Turkey.

As we got closer to Konya, rain was falling steadily. Once inside the city, it was clear this was not just a passing shower. To add to the challenge, the only map we had of this city of 762,000 people was a small one in our Lonely Planet guidebook. There were signs pointing to the city’s main attraction, the Mevlana Museum, so I kept following those. Our guidebook listed a hotel near the museum which seemed like a good candidate, now we just had to find it. The further we got into the city, the heavier the storm showers fell. I had experienced monsoons when I was in India in the summer of 1999, and this rain felt very much like a monsoon. In India I was on foot, now I was driving. I’m not sure which was worse! By the time we got to the center of the city it was full blown rush hour. Cars, trucks, motorbikes, bicycles, people pushing carts piled high with vegetables, and people on foot hurrying home from work. It was chaos, and here I was trying to just get through it all. We finally found our hotel and by this time it had stopped raining, but the next challenge was to figure out how to get our car to the hotel. We spent about an hour hour driving around before we finally were able to find the hotel again and the nice man who worked there came to our car and guided us to the hotel. Exhausting!!! I think I ate a piece of bread and went to sleep.

On the streets in Konya after the rain

The next morning we walked to the Mevlana Museum, a former lodge of the whirling dervishes. The whirling dervishes are an order of Sufi Islam who are followers of Celaleddin Rumi. Rumi was a great philosopher, poet and mystic who lived from 1207-1273. Later in his life, he became known as Mevlana which means “our guide”. Tolerance is central to Mevlana’s teachings.

The Mevlana Museum

The whirling dervishes’ worship ceremony is a ritual dance representing union with God. The dervishes wear a long white robe with a full skirt covered with a black cloak and a conical felt hat. The white robe symbolizes their shrouds, the black their worldly tombs and the hats their tombstones. Their ceremony begins with the leader saying a prayer for Mevlana and reciting a verse from the Quran. The dervishes then walk in a circle around the room three times and drop their black cloaks to symbolize their release from worldly attachments. One by one they then spin out onto the floor with their arms folded at their chests. This symbolizes leaving earthly life and being reborn in a mystical union with God. They then move their arms holding their right arm up to receive the blessing of heaven and their left arm down to symbolize the blessings coming to earth. This dance is repeated over and over again. Finally the leader chants passages from the Quran which seals the mystical union with God. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see the ceremony live, only on a video they had on display at the museum. At the museum we also visited the mausoleum with Mevlana’s tomb and several rooms exhibiting Qurans, prayer rugs and other Islamic artifacts.

The Mevlana Museum

Before leaving Konya, we stocked up on some groceries at a nearby supermarket and Stani managed to find a barber to get his hair cut. Between the scissors, razor, lighter, lotions and cologne, it was probably one of the most thorough haircuts he’s ever had.

A visit to the Turkish barber

Sick in Turkey (June 5-18)

Unfortunately I got really sick in Turkey. At about noon on June 5th we arrive in Selcuk, Turkey and set up our tent at Garden Motel and Camping. Other than the foul smelling bathrooms it’s a nice place. We are right next to Ayasuluk Hill, where John is believed to have written the Gospel of John and also just a few kilometers from the Temple of Artemis and the very impressive ruin of Ephesus, an important Greek and Roman city. This is the city to whose residents Paul wrote a letter (book of Ephesians), complaining that they were worshiping and selling idols of Artemis and calling for unity withing the church.

As we walk toward Ephesus I start to develop flu symptoms including pretty severe aches and pains. I have to sit down many times on the way there and while walking around the ruins. Pretty soon I cannot walk more than 100m without resting, and even this is painful. How can it be that I can run 50 km or ride 100 miles but now I can’t walk more than 100 meters? After visiting Ephesus we take a taxi back to the campground and I lie down to rest. I have a fever, headache, and even more severe aches and pains. My joints hurt, my back hurts, everything hurts that evening and during the night.


In the morning of June 6th, hopeful that things would improve, I am disappointed that my aches and pains are overwhelmed by even more severe stomach cramps. How can a stomach hurt so much? All day long I don’t eat or drink anything at all, have really bad stomach cramps, diarrhea, and I throw up several times after taking cipro (an antibiotic that is good at treating stomach infections). I stay in the tent all day, just getting up to visit that foul smelling bathroom about every hour. My severe stomach cramps continue all night and I am unable to sleep. The cramps last for 20 seconds, then 20 seconds rest, over and over again. I am really, really suffering.

A ruin of a Roman public latrine – where I might be right now if I lived 1500 years ago.

The next day, June 7th, my flu continues but after 36 hours of lying in the tent and using that foul smelling bathroom I cannot stand it anymore. Kirstin drives us to Pamukkale, our next destination about 200 km away, where we check into Hotel Venus. I have a bed, a clean bathroom and a wonderful room. It’s one of the nicest places of our trip. I continue to have the severe stomach cramps, although now in a more comfortable place. It’s been over 48 hours since I ate or drank anything. I try to drink a tablespoon of water, but even this brings even more severe stomach cramps. The night is another painful one.

Hotel Venus in Pamukkale.

The next morning (June 8th), now almost 3 days after my flu began, I could eat a little breakfast and have small sips of water or soda. My stomach cramps appear only about once per hour and are less severe. I have bad neck pains but am able to treat these with Advil. So I decide to walk to the Travertines and Hierapolis (both are amazing), but end up over-doing it and suffer for the rest of the day.

Starting on June 9th I am able to drink and eat small amounts of mild food and am able to act like a traveler again (rather than a torture subject). But for the rest of the week I continue to have diarrhea and then the entire next week I have a weak stomach, intermittent diarrhea, neck aches and flu symptoms. Ug! It wouldn’t be until the day we would go hiking in the Alamut Valley in Iran, 2 weeks after I got sick, that I would be well again.

What a lot of pain! Just something I guess I had to go through, I guess. Thankfully I’m better now and can continue our trip with gumption.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Aeagan Coast-Ayvalik, Selcuk and Ephesus

Ayvalik (June 4):

After leaving Istanbul, we pretty much just drove all day. In the evening, we arrived in the coastal town of Ayvalik and found a campground just as the sun was starting to set. Two men walked up to us, and we asked if we could stay here. They spoke no English but a little German, the shorter rounder guy who I nicknamed “Jabba the Hut” because of his voice, helped us find a spot. The place was not all that great and there was no running water in the bathrooms, but the view of the Aeagan Sea was a nice treat. We ate dinner and went to bed after a long day.

View of Aegean Sea from our campsite

In the morning, we put on our swimsuits and took a bath in the Aegean Sea – a pretty cool way to start the day – then we packed up and headed south towards Selcuk. Along the way, Stani was excited to find a gas station with a car wash, so we filled up with fuel and the nice attendant helped wash the car. He even added new soap to the brush for us. After a good five minutes of scrubbing and washing, the car looked much better. We were happy, but the attendant motioned to Stani that he needed to scrub more. I laughed inside at the thought of someone telling Stani he needed to clean better!

The 4Runner’s second bath of the trip

Selcuk and Ephesus (June 5-6):

We arrived in the early afternoon in Selcuk, a town where the disciple John along with Mary, the mother of Jesus, settled at the end of her life. In the northwest part of the city there’s a hill called Ayasulak Hill. It was here that John wrote his Gospel (the fourth book in the New Testament of the Bible) around AD 95. His tomb is said to be just below the hill. To mark this significant place, Emperor Justinian built a magnificent church called the Basilica of St. John in the 6th century. The church is now just ruins, but it’s pretty humbling to walk among the marble knowing the significance of this place in Christianity.

View of the citadel surrounding Ayasulak Hill

The tomb of St. John

We found our campground, Garden Motel and Camping, a nice place with a large grassy lot surrounded by many plum and olive trees. From our spot we could look right up at Ayasulak Hill. As we got situated, one of the campground workers brought is a plate of fresh apricots and plums from their orchard to welcome us.

Stani with the welcome fruit at our campsite

After setting up our tent, we began the 3km walk from Selcuk to Ephesus on a nice path shaded by mulberry trees. On the way, we stopped at the ruins of the Temple of Artemis, dedicated to the ancient Anatolian fertility goddess. This temple in its day was the largest in the world (even bigger than the Parthenon in Athens) and therefore earned the status as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Today however it’s a little hard to get too excited since only 1 column of the original 127 is still standing.

Temple of Artemis

Afterward we continued walking on the same path and soon arrived in Ephesus, the best preserved classical city in the eastern Mediterranean. Roman Ephesus was the capital of Asia Minor and it grew into quite an impressive city. Marble streets, pillars, statues, a library and the impressive Great Theater capable of holding 25,000 people are all still visible. The Apostle Paul lived in Ephesus for a short time and started a church here around AD 60. Christianity flourished in Ephesus, but there were many of the merchants and others in power who weren’t happy about the change in religion since a lot of money was made in the selling of idols of the Goddess Artemis. As a result, Paul was driven out of Ephesus. He (or someone using the name of Paul) later wrote a letter to the Ephesians, which is the 10th book in the New Testament of the Bible, encouraging the Christians to be unified and to accept believers who have different backgrounds. What an amazing experience to get to stand in such a historic place! Unfortunately it began to rain, and Stani was not feeling well, so we took a taxi back to our campground.

The Great Theater of Ephesus

The next two days, Stani was really sick with what we think was the flu. Not a fun thing while staying in a tent! I stayed close to the tent and left briefly to eat and visit The Basilica of St. John. While hanging out at the campground, I was so happy to meet and spend some time chatting with a retired British couple, Gilroy and Shelia who were travelling around Turkey in their RV. They were so kind making me tea and sharing their cookies while we exchanged travel stories.

Sorry for the delay

We apologize for the long delay since our last post, but our blog site was blocked while we were in Iran, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. We'll do our best to get caught up!