Chuck Hillig's Travel Blog

Well, I'm going to be doing a lot of traveling over the next 6-7 months so I thought that I'd better re-activate my travel blog. The last time I posted anything here was way back in 2006 when I was traveling through SE Asia. Feel free to read my entries back then about my earlier adventures through India,Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, the Philippines and Hong Kong. This time (at least for the next six weeks), I'll be traveling through Greece and Turkey.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Heading home tomorrow....

Yesterday (Sunday) dawned bright and clear (as usual) and so I wanted to go on an all-day boat trip on the Bosphorus.  I went down to the boat docks and bought a ticket for 25 TL (about $US12.50) for a very pleasant 95-minute ride on a large passenger sightseeing boat that traveled up towards the Black Sea to the north.   Along the way, we stopped at several small towns before finally arriving at A.Kavagi, a thoroughly delightful little tourist village with many seaside restaurants specializing in fish dishes of every sort.  The boat stayed there about 2.5 hours so everyone had plenty of time for lunch and shopping.   Looking northward, we could see that the Turks were beginning to construct their third suspension bridge connecting Asia to Europe just before the land widened into the Black Sea.   On the way back, I snapped a nice picture of the sun setting just behind the Suleymaniye Mosque.   Monday will be dedicated to shopping, packing and resting up for the long flight home.  By the time I arrive back to the lake, I probably will have been up for almost 30 hours.  All in all, it's really been a fantastic trip, and I'm looking forward to the next time that I'll be a "stranger in a strange land."

Saturday, November 09, 2013

The Suleymaniye Mosque.....

On Saturday morning, I checked Google to get a list of the best tourist sites to see in Istanbul, and the Suleymaniye Mosque was on it.   This is the largest mosque in Istanbul and is one of the best-known sights in the city.   It was ordered by Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent in 1550 and completed in 1558 after only seven years under the famous Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan, a master designer who was responsible for the construction of over 300 major structures.    The center dome rises 175 feet above the main floor and has a diameter of 85 feet.  There are four minarets rising 236 feet.   I got to the mosque about 11:30 in the morning and had about 30 minutes to take pictures before they kicked everyone out for an hour for noonday prayers.  I have been really impressed by the sheer size and intricate physical design of these mosques here in Istanbul.  If you ever visit this city, these are the three buildings that you absolutely MUST visit:  the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sophia), the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (the "Blue Mosque") and the Suleymaniye Mosque.  All extremely notable.   Afterwards, I spent an hour wandering again through Grand Bazaar before making my way down to the open area between the Aya Sophia and the Blue Mosque.   I wanted to take some pictures of these two buildings in the twilight and, on one of them, I was able to align the very top of the dome on the Blue Mosque with the planet Venus.  Very cool.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

The Golden Horn....

On Wednesday, I moved to a hotel that was on the Golden Horn and only a few blocks west of the Straits of Istanbul better known as the Bosphorus.  Since this is the meeting place between Europe to the west and Asia to the east, it's the world's narrowest strait used for international navigation.   The Bosporus, about 18 miles in length, connects the Black Sea to the north with the Sea of Marmara which, in turn, is connected by the Dardanelles to the Aegean Sea and, thereby, to the Mediterranean Sea.  This part of the world has seen much dramatic history, many battles and high commerce, mostly due to its obvious strategic advantage.  All of the sites that I had seen before (the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace) are all within an easy walk from my new hotel, and I delighted to stroll around this new commercial area to savour, once again, the richness of Istanbul's mystique.    I wanted to check out the historic Basilica Cistern near the Hagia Sophia and so, after paying my 10 Lira, I descended into its depths.  The cistern had been completed in the 6th century during the reign of Emperor Justinian.  It has over 105,000 square feet in area with a capacity of almost three million cubic feet of water.  The ceiling is supported by 336 columns each about 30 feet in length.  The cistern's interiors have been used for scenes in several movies including James Bond's "From Russia With Love."   On Thursday morning, I experienced my first rainfall in almost six weeks, so I decided to check out Istanbul's famous Archeological Museum located next to Tokapi Palace.   I was VERY impressed by the in-depth displays and would strongly urge anyone coming to Istanbul to put a visit to this museum on their "must-do" list.   Incredible carvings and historical treasures dating back thousands of years. Well worth seeing for only 10 Lira.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Around Istanbul.....

On Monday morning, I took an all-day tour that covered some of the highlights of the city.   We first visited the very impressive Chora Museum which has an incredible collection of mosaics and paintings on the walls depicting mostly scenes of Christ, Mary and the saints.  Afterwards, we went to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque which is better known to Westerners as the "Blue Mosque" because of its thousands of blue tiles that are on its interior walls.    The building was initially commissioned by 19-year old Sultan Ahmed and completed in 1616.   It is supported by four massive stone pillars each about 17-feet in diameter, and the main hall can easily hold 10,000 worshiper at the same time.   It has six minarets and lies only a few hundred yards from the equally-famous Hagia Sophia..  We spent about an hour visiting some of the 4000 + shops in the Grand Bazaar and then headed to another Mosque noted for its blue tiles depicting different designs of tulips.  Finally, we went to the Topkapi Museum (do you remember the 1964 movie of the same name?) and saw its treasures....including an 86-caret diamond.    Unfortunately, the lighting was rather poor on the treasures as well as completely non-existent on the signs describing what you were seeing.   Mostly jewel-encrusted boxes, helmets, swords, and other extravagances used by the sultans to display their power and wealth.   The separate sword and armory section, however, was well-lit and very much worth the entire price of admission.     We were told that we could not take any pictures whatsoever...even with no flash...and, of course, no video.   Very stern looking armed guards were in all of the treasury rooms.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Istanbul....where west meets east

After a long 12.5 hour overnight bus ride up to Istanbul, we finally pulled into the main bus station and I found a cab to the hotel.   I slept for a few hours and then decided to walk a few miles towards the Grand Bazaar.  My body was still a bit sore from the bus trip so I decided to treat myself to a Turkish Bath.    I found the address of the famous Cemberlitas Hammam which had been built by a Sultan back in 1584.  What a treat!   After lying down on a very warm marble slab about 30 feet in diameter with only a towel around your waist, you are washed (actually scrubbed) by one of the many workers who make a (presumably) good living from scrubbing the half-naked bodies of  strangers all day.  At any time, there are about 40 or 50 customers in various states of their treatment all stretched out on the slab with these staff workers soaping, scrubbing and rinsing.  Then they  bring you to another room and continue with a cleansing that now includes paying special attention to your face, hair, and shoulders.   The idea, I guess, is to open your pores and to rid yourself of the dead cells.  Although they are definitely putting some muscle behind their strokes, it all feels strangely invigorating.   At the end, I took a hot shower, dried off, walked out into the cool night air and headed for the nearby Grand Bazaar.  I found an excellent restaurant, had a kebab dinner of lamb and vegetables and washed it all down with a cold Efes beer.  The next day (Sunday), I made a reservation to take an all-day city tour on Monday.  However, since the famous museum Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) was always closed on Mondays, I decided to head on down there and see it today.  This very impressive building....constructed in 537 AD...was originally an orthodox Greek Basilica.  In 1204, it was converted into a Roman Catholic cathedral.  The building later became a mosque in 1453 until it was secularized in 1935 and turned  into a museum.  It's 269 feet in length, 240 feet wide and 180 feet high.  They've preserved many of the incredible mosaics, and you can listen to an informative audio tour (in eight languages) as you wander through the areas not currently being renovated.  Afterwards, I relaxed a while in the open area between the Hagia Sophia and the equally-famous Blue Mosque which was completed in 1616...... the year, incidentally, that Shakespeare died.    As I was eating a hamburger that had been prepared at a traditional Turkish fast food stand in the square, I was captivated by the plaintive call to prayers that was piped through the loudspeakers on the six minarets.   I was approached by a 20-year old man who wanted to engage in a conversation with a westerner.   He invited me to meet his family at their nearby carpet shop, and, after I told him that I wasn't going to buy anything, he still insisted that I join hi for tea.  At his shop, I met one of his cousins and his uncle who proceeded to talke politics and philosophy with me for over an hour over Turkish tea.  They were all very kind and hospitable, and we all had a great time sharing parts of our very-different cultures.

Friday, November 01, 2013

The balloon ride over Cappadocia....

At 5 AM on Thursday morning, they picked me up from the hotel and drove me to a central meeting place where about a hundred other tourists of all ages were having coffee and waiting to be taken to the balloon field.  They assigned us each to a Pilot and, although they careful kept track of our names, etc., we didn't have to sign any kind of insurance-related waiver.    Once at the field, it was still pretty dark, but the ground crews were busily filling up the balloons with the heated air.  There are several balloon companies who are licensed to operate here, and they all use state-of-the-art equipment.  The basket is very tough plastic made to look like wicker, and we were all obliged to climb up and into matter our age or physical condition.   They were happy to help the older folks navigate the climb.  In the end, we had exactly 20 people in each of the baskets....five  of us in four separate areas with the Pilot in the center controlling the flame and the direction of the balloon.  The sides of the basket itself were about 4.5 feet high.   This was my first ride in a hot air balloon and it's a little disconcerting to feel yourself silently rising in the air and looking down at the receding ground below.   By 6:15 AM, there were approximately 50 balloons, each with 20 tourists, all ascending into the air at the same time.   You could see the higher ones pass into the sunlight as they rose higher.   Below, I was able to quickly recognize the very area that we had hiked through the day before.  The Pilot was so good that he was able to gently bring the basket to hover about 50 feet above the little town square and then to slowly turn the balloon to give everyone a great view.   Later in the hour, we rose to several thousand feet and enjoyed a magnificent view of the entire area.  There were as many balloons above us as below us.  The Pilot actually landed the basket precisely on top of the flatbed truck that had transported it to the field a few hours ago.  We all got out, and they offered us juice and champagne to celebrate our safe return.  Quite an amazing experience.  Later on that day, we visited the fairy chimneys of  Pasabag, the Goreme Open-air museum, and the town of Avanos with their master potters.  Super impressed with this entire area, and I strongly recommend to anyone visiting Turkey to be sure to make the time to see the incredible wonders of Cappadocia.  Taking the overnight bus up to Istanbul on Friday evening.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


I got a ride to the airport in Izmir from Nigel and John, two Brits that I had hooked up with in Selcuk.  They were flying back to Coventry and I was heading to the airport in Kayseri in the middle of Turkey.   Three of my friends, (Gino, Robert and Alan) had all strongly encouraged me to visit the Cappadocia area, and so I checked into one of the famous cave hotels in the town if Urgup.   Much of this area had been shaped by two volcanoes and the many inhabitants had carved their homes into the ancient lava formations.   Now, many of them have been renovated and turned into upscale hotel rooms.   The hotel where I am staying has a commanding view of this area and has about nine rooms available for the guests.   I had signed up for several tours and we were picked up at 9:30 on Wednesday morning to set off on a 3.5 mile hike through some of the most fantastic rock formations that I had ever seen.  The trail went through caves, hidden canyons and areas surrounded by sheer rock faces that jutted hundreds of feet in the air.  Many of them were carved by nature into unique shapes:  pyramids, pointed spears, mushrooms, etc.   The place looked like it could have been designed by a group of folks from Disney.  Absolutely unique and unforgettable.  After lunch, we visited one of the underground cities that had been used as a retreat for the local inhabitants whenever they had been attacked by their enemies.   The one that we explored went down about a hundred feet on seven levels.  Inside, there was room for over 5000 people.  It was a weird patchwork or tunnels, rooms, crawl spaces, and secret passages all interconnected.  It was SO easy to get disoriented in there because no two rooms were exactly alike.  Some were for storage, some were for making wine, some for sleeping, preparing food, waste products, etc.   It was an incredible maze of twisted tunnels, some so small you has to stoop over to squeeze on through.  It was certainly no place for anyone dealing with claustrophobia.  These underground cities had been added to for centuries and had been used, among others, by the early Christians to hide from their oppressors.  Really fascinating.  Tomorrow, I'm going on an early-morning balloon ride.