Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Istanbul – the Energetic New District

Charms to protect you from the "evil eye"
for sale all over Istanbul
We returned to Istanbul after our time in the Crimea, flying from the city of Simferopol to Istanbul on Turkish Airways.  After flying with them several times now, we like Turkish Airways a lot – comfortable seating, friendly service, and decent food even on the shortest flights.  And on this flight, Frank realized that they also give you free Turkish wine!

For our return visit to this city, we are staying north of the Golden Horn (one of the waterways that make up Istanbul) in what is known as the “New District.”  One of the advantages of staying over here is the amazing views of the Horn and the Old City across the water.  Our hotel is called Galata la Bella, and it is "bella" indeed.  The bed is super comfortable and the shower is probably the best we have ever found in a European hotel; it had a 10-inch diameter overhead waterfall-style showerhead and a powerful oversized handheld with adjustable spray formats.  Everyone treats us so nicely here too, although nothing can compare with our experience at the Sultan’s Royal Hotel.  But, in general, we must note that the Turks are masters when it comes to customer service.  Hospitality seems to be their mantra!!

Galata Tower view across the Golden Horn with
 Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque in the distance
Galata Tower

A short walk up a steep hill took us to the Galata Tower.  Built originally in 1348 (although rebuilt many times), this stone tower with a conical top is one of Istanbul’s most distinctive landmarks.  We rode the elevator up to the top (about 170 ft.) for incredible views in all directions.  For the first time, we could truly appreciate Istanbul’s exceptional strategic position, practically surrounded by water with the Marmara Sea to the south, the Bosporus on the east providing a connection between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, and the Golden Horn cutting a narrow swath through the middle of the city.  It is easy to see why this remarkable piece of land was so attractive to every invader who ever laid eyes on it.

The always busy Istiklal
shopping street in Istanbul
The biggest shopping street in Istanbul is the famous pedestrian walkway known as “Istiklal Street.”  This place is a people magnet for shopping, people-watching, eating, or just snacking on Turkish Delight; it is a zoo at all hours of the day and night, and elbow bumping with strangers is continuous.  

Red trolley on Istiklal Street in Istanbul


You need to be aware of the silent red trolley that runs up and down the center of the street - be prepared to dodge it when it unexpectedly sneaks up behind you. But these issues aside, we had a great time soaking in the vibrant bustling atmosphere and doing some shopping of our own. 

Cruisin' the Bosporus in Istanbul
No trip to Istanbul is complete without a cruise on the Bosporus.  Some of these cruises last all day, but we opted for the short 1-½ hr. version, and it was perfect for us.  The Bosporus is the main highway of Istanbul, and it was interesting to be a part of that, cruising along with Europe on one side and Asia on the other. 

Former hunting lodge of the Sultans
along the Bosporus in Istanbul
We passed former Sultan’s palaces and plenty of millionaire’s digs.  Homes along the Bosporus are prized real estate and some of the areas looked like they could have been estates along the Riviera in France.  How cool would it be to live in what looks like a resort area with all the delights of Istanbul just a ferry ride away?

ANZAC Cove at Gallipoli
Day Trip to Gallipoli
A highlight of our time in Istanbul was the day we spent in the remote village of Gallipoli.  You may recall that we first learned about the tragic WWI battle of Gallipoli when we happened to be in Sydney, Australia on ANZAC day (back in 2005), a day similar to our Veteran’s Day honoring those who served at Gallipoli as part of the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) troops. 

This was a long day with a 6:30 a.m. pick-up at our hotel.  The driver did not speak English, and it was a bit disconcerting to be whisked away like that in the dark of the morning -- especially when our driver didn’t stop to pick up anyone else.  Anne had booked this trip with a recommended company called “Backpackers Travels”, and her understanding was that the driver would take us to a central bus station where we would hop on a public bus.  As the city of Istanbul receded into the distance, it became clear that we were somehow getting a private 4-hour ride south to Gallipoli.  Anne had a fleeting thought that we were being kidnapped and would be sold into white slavery, but then she figured, “Who would want two old people like us?”

Lone Pine Memorial at Gallipoli
Anyway, it all worked out (Anne will give Backpackers Travels some good feedback), and our day on the battlefields was educational and very moving.  The battle of Gallipoli is credited with creating three modern nations: Turkey, Australia, and New Zealand.  Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, made a name for himself here at Gallipoli, and the battle was a defining moment leading both Australia and New Zealand to develop as independent nations, eventually leaving the British Empire.  The battle, which raged from April to December of 1915, was a failed attempt by the British and the French to take the peninsula, and open up a supply route to the Mediterranean Sea, and to their ally Russia.  The fighting was an unnecessary bloodbath, and resulted in some horrific losses: 250,000 Turkish soldiers and another 250,000 from Australia, New Zealand, Britain, and France.

Tombstone at Gallipoli
Our Turkish guide Onur shared lots of stories from actual soldier’s diaries like the fact that the embattled Turks and the ANZACs traded food and cigarettes, and even played soccer together during the ceasefires.  And that while the ANZACs were dying at ANZAC cove (the landing spot of the ANZACS), the Brits were a short 1km away at Sulva Bay having fun swimming in the ocean!  Even Onur, who of course is a Turk, said that he felt most sorry for the ANZACs, saying they had no idea what they were getting into.

Statue of Turkish soldier carrying
a wounded ANZAC
We saw several small cemeteries with statues and memorials and graves of so many young Aussies and Kiwis. The most poignant statue was one of a Turkish soldier carrying a wounded ANZAC in his arms.  This was not Turkish propaganda – the statue was commissioned by an Australian Prime Minister to commemorate an actual event.  The whole Gallipoli Memorial, which consists of 31 cemeteries, is beautifully maintained by the Turkish government – you can actually feel the respect that the Turks have for their former enemies.  A large monument displays the words Ataturk wrote to the mothers of the dead ANZACs: “you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

Special Memories of Istanbul 

Istanbul is truly a world class city and a new favorite on our list of top cities in the world.  This is a city where it just feels good being here.  To be honest, we were somewhat uncertain about visiting a Muslim country these days, especially in this part of the world; but we never felt the tiniest bit uneasy here.  And the Turkish people could not have been friendlier.  Ataturk is still strongly revered, and his belief in separation of church and state is obvious in this secular society where most women dress in western clothes (some with pretty scarves over their heads). 

Young woman in scarf
and trench coat
We only saw one woman wearing a burka during our whole visit, but we did see lots of women wearing dark trench coats and head scarves – apparently this is an acceptable new look for any pious Muslim woman in Turkey.  More than anything, the Turks seem to be happy people who are looking forward to a bright future – and why not with the second-fastest growing economy in the world (right behind China)?
Our best memories are of the people we met.  The only aggravating ones were the touts constantly trying to get us into their brother’s or cousin’s shops to buy a carpet.  Of course, their approach is a charming one, asking where we are from, drawing us into an innocuous conversation to ultimately lure us into their family’s shop.  One day, Frank had enough.  When the umpteenth salesman approached him asking, “Where are you from?”  Frank immediately answered in frustration, “I don’t care if your brother, your sister, or even your grandmother has a carpet shop, I don’t want a rug!”  The guy was taken aback momentarily, but answered, “But I have my own carpet shop!”  All three of us cracked up!  The guy was still laughing as he walked away, saying, “Have a good day, my friend.”

Our buddies (left to right)
Efes, Ersin, Frank, Anne and Emre
Some of our favorite conversations were with Ersin, the day manager at Sultan’s Royal.  Ersin really opened up to us telling us all about his life.  He even started calling Frank his “American Dad.”  Poor Ersin is at a crossroads in his young life with his girlfriend pressuring him to get married while he also has to decide whether to do his mandatory military service now or finish at the university (which will shorten his time in the military).  Yes, in Turkey, serving a few years in the military is mandatory.  

Ersin has good reason to be worried about this military service – the concern is not Syria as you might think, but a bloody civil uprising in the east with the Kurds that has been going on for 10 years.  But speaking of Ersin’s girlfriend, her parents only allow her to see him during daylight hours – he has to have her home by 7:00 p.m. and he can’t even visit in her home after that.  We asked Ersin how he felt about this, and he said she was a good girl like his sisters (who had the same restrictions).  Ersin said, “But once we are married, she will be mine!”
Frank drinking his favorite
Turkish beer, Efes
One night, we ate dinner at the Karina Fish Restaurant on our hotel’s street where we met the restaurant owner whose name is Efes.  Coincidentally, Frank’s beer of choice in Istanbul (and now one of his all-time favorites) is called “Efes.”  Plus of course, Frank’s initials are “F.S.”  Both of these are pronounced the same.  Well, he and the restaurant owner got into quite a discussion about all this, and from that point on, every time we walked by the restaurant (day or night), the owner would call out to Frank, “Hi F.S.!”  To which Frank would respond, “Efes, how are you!”  And, of course we'd would stop for a lengthy chat.  It was great – we really felt as if this was “our street.”

Young boys on their
 "circumcision day"
We could go on and on with these human interest stories.  One day, when we visited the Blue Mosque, we saw two boys about 6-years-old all decked out in white outfits decorated with white feathers, looking like Sultan princes.  We were admiring their astounding outfits, taking photos, etc. when a man came up and said to us, “They go to hospital tonight.”  Now this was disturbing news – apparently, they were decked out for their big circumcision day.  Ouch!  We thanked the man for telling us – but then he asked us to come see his carpet shop.  Haaa!!  The ubiquitous rug dealers are never shy. 

Turkish Delight!
We haven’t talked at all about the food in Turkey, but it is fabulous.  Much like in France, the Turks take their food seriously.  Some of our favorites are: Turkish apple tea, Turkish tea (very dark and flavorful), and Turkish Delight (chewy colorful candy that is surprisingly tasty).

Fresh pomegranates!
We also loved anything made with pomegranates (so cheap, fresh & plentiful here) – the freshly squeezed juice is unbelievable, especially when mixed with orange or even other juices!  Of course, the kebaps (kebabs), the meatballs called “kofte” (not like our meatballs, but more like sausage), and fresh cooked vegetables (like eggplant) are great, and the breads and pastries are excellent.  We will have to come back just to explore more of the food goodies!

The drinking water was always a problem in all of the cities and countries we visited.  I know we’ve talked about this ad nauseum in other blogs, but we cannot stress the importance of this problem enough when travelling to underdeveloped countries. You absolutely need to buy water for drinking, brushing your teeth, and anything else where water can be ingested. Even ordering salads in restaurants can be verboten since the restaurateur probably washed his veggies in tap water. Yes, it is a nuisance but, in our estimation, the rewards of the cultural exchange make it worth the trouble. And, consider the alternative.  YOU WILL more than likely get sick if you drink their tap water!!   Nothing can spoil a vacation quicker'n a bout of Montezuma's revenge.  Fortunately, clean water is easy and cheap to obtain in bottled format.

Also, we always buy a bottle of vodka and carry that with us too.  It allows us to sterilize our drinking glasses, wash our toothbrushes, and clean any silverware we used without adding too much of the flavor of the liquor.  Thank God (and the Ruskies) for vodka!!

We'll leave you with more of the good foods of Istanbul:

All kinds of baklava!

Delicious snacks
Other yummy Turkish goodies


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Istanbul – Spirit of Sultanahmet

The Hippodrome in Istanbul at Night
When you travel as much as we do, you can size up a new place pretty quickly, and sometimes, you fall in love immediately.  On our first evening in the beautiful city of Istanbul, we walked over to the Hippodrome in the center of Sultanahmet (the Old City) to get our bearings.  The Hippodrome is a large plaza-like square with a few well-positioned historic monuments and artifacts in-and-about the open spaces. 

The Blue Mosque at night
The square was originally used for chariot races in the 4th c. when the city was known as Constantinople -- today it offers a perfect viewing spot for some of Istanbul’s top wonders.  Flanking the Hippodrome, the Blue Mosque looked like a fairytale castle, fully illuminated with the delicate spires of its six minarets piercing the darkness above us.  Flocks of seagulls soared around the minarets, dazzling-white against the night sky.  And, as we stood there, the warbling and haunting Call to Prayer resounded throughout the square.  It seemed as if the muezzin (singer) at the Blue Mosque had a call and response thing going with a mosque on the other side of the Hippodrome – the two voices answered each other back and forth, filling our ears with their eerie wailing.  It was the Muslim version of “dueling banjos” magic.

Hawking snacks (similar to soft pretzels)
on the Hippodrome
During the day, the square is a focal point of activity here in the old city, where incoming tourists stroll to acquaint themselves with the area, hucksters try to sell their strange foods and trinkets like “kufes” (Muslim hats), and the curious (like us) listen to the frequent and melodic 70 decibel+ Islamic prayer chants from the towering minarets of the surrounding mosques. 

To back up for a moment, we flew 1-½ hrs. on Turkish Airways from Bucharest to Istanbul.  This was our first experience on Turkish Airways (voted the best European airline).  Since our flight was an hour late, we can’t say we were overly-wowed by Turkish Air, but we were pleasantly surprised by the appearance of a light lunch enroute; the crew really had to hustle to feed the whole plane on such a short flight.  The arrival process once on the ground was lengthy – first we had to buy a Turkish sticker visa for $20 (literally a supplemental sticker placed in the passport), then wait in a long line at Passport Control, and finally hunt down our bags at baggage claim.

Outside our Sultans Royal Hotel
We stayed at the Sultan’s Royal Hotel, and it was a gem.  Our room was spacious (unusual for Europe) and spotlessly clean with a big bathroom and a comfy bed.  But the best thing about this hotel was the friendly staff.  They couldn’t do enough for us, always asking, “What can we do for you today?”  Ersin, our favorite 25-year old front desk guy, always asked us where we were headed on any particular day.  Based on our response, he would then teach us a few appropriate Turkish words/phrases, making sure we were prepared to assault the city and the day in good Turkish form, speaking the language properly, providing the proper responses, and asking the most intelligent questions.  Everyone at the hotel seemed genuinely interested in making sure we were having a good time.  This was one of those rare hotel experiences where you feel as if you are staying with friends.

Entrance to Topkapi Palace in Istanbul
Topkapi Palace

Our hotel was ideally located just a short walk from all the top sights.  As youngsters, both of us had been intrigued by the 1964 movie “Topkapi,” a caper about the theft of the famous jeweled dagger held in the Topkapi Museum; so, it seemed like a good starting point, since the Topkapi Palace complex was within walking distance.  Every tourist who comes to the old city visits Topkapi, so we knew we needed to start early to avoid the hordes.  We got lucky; given that it was a Sunday in November, the crowds were not all that bad. 

Bed of the Sultan inside
the harem at Topkapi Palace
We started by touring the Harem where, to our surprise, we discovered that the Sultan’s Mother was the one in charge of “the girls.”  This powerful woman ran the harem with an iron fist, doling out women to the Sultan, usually on her terms.  The harem girls were not sex toys of the Sultan but slaves to the higher ranking women (the Sultan’s Mother and the Sultan’s four wives).  Only a few of the harem girls who were designated as “favorites” were permitted to sleep with the Sultan; and these were chosen by his mother and his wives! 

Interestingly, this society had no rule of primogeniture (where the firstborn son succeeds his father and inherits everything), so the Sultan could pick any one of his sons as his successor.  This meant that the harem was a hot spot of intrigue.  Every wife wanted her son to become Sultan, thus ensuring her position as powerful head of the harem.  Along with her unique task of sparingly divvying out the women to the Sultan, mom also owned lots of property and her own personal treasury, probably making her, in some cases, more powerful than the Sultan himself!! 

Gorgoeus tiles and windows in a courtyard
inside the harem at Topkapi Palace
It was common practice for a new Sultan to murder all of his brothers to eliminate succession battles.  However, in later years, the brothers were put under house arrest instead (called “the cage”),  rather than be murdered.   This system was actually worse because now, if the Sultan died without an appointed male heir, one of his know-nothing, “spent-my-whole-life-in-a-cage” brothers became the next Sultan.  Historians credit this practice as the primary reason for the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Famous emerald-encrusted Topkapi Dagger
The true highlight of Topkapi was the Treasury building where Anne became emotionally inebriated at the sight and size of the emeralds.  Emeralds, emeralds, everywhere – encrusted in the handle of the famous Topkapi Dagger and also just piled loosely in bowls behind glass cases.  We concluded that the need for these jewel-laden thrones, drinking cups, headpieces, weapons, and other vanities formerly owned by the sultans were a kind of “over-opulence on steroids” that could not be understood by us, or the average man.

A bit of history about Topkapi before we go any further.  In 324 AD, Constantine conquered the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, and immodestly renamed it Constantinople, transforming the city into the Eastern Capitol of the Roman Empire.  In 1453, Mehmed II conquered the city and claimed it for the Ottomans.  He built Topkapi as a fitting palace for (as he described himself) “the ruler of the two seas and the two continents.”  It was positioned on a stategic high-point overlooking the intersection of the Sea of Mamara, the Golden Horn, and the Bosporus. A sultan could see enemies coming from miles away!

The incomparable Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque is only open at certain hours for non-Muslim visitors like us, but we eventually managed to get in.  The interior is impressive with lots of blue and white tile, stunning stained glass, and a light airiness resulting from some 260 windows.  It was also fascinating to watch the male worshippers in kneeling position, praying silently and touching their foreheads to the floor.  Not to be disrespectful, but Anne was somewhat distracted by the “foot smell” – reminded her of the time she and son Ben stayed overnight at the Franklin Institute with a couple hundred Boy Scouts! 

Airy opulence inside the Blue Mosque
Another interesting fact is that you can shoot pictures anywhere you want in this famous landmark.  The Muslims really don’t have a problem with that, even tho many are in the midst of prayer as you shoot.   As a former Roman Catholic, Frank, thinks it would have certainly been an “attention getter” to the priests and the congregation if hordes of non-catholic tourists poured into a Sunday Mass and started walking around the church indiscriminately taking photos anywhere they wanted. Haaaa!  The pope would probably have them beheaded!!

The incredible structure that is
Aya Sofia (St. Sophia)
Aya Sofia

Aya Sofia was our favorite of the top three sites.  This site goes under several differently spelled names, depending on which tour guide you have in front of you (Hagia Sophia, Hagia Sofia, Agia Sophia, Aya Sofia, etc). We waited in a long line to enter, but once inside, the crowds seemed to dissipate, giving lots of space to all. 

Overwelming interior of Aya Sofia
The sheer size of this worship space and the giant dome overhead are simply overwhelming.   When you see it, you understand why Aya Sofia is considered one of the greatest buildings in the world.  Aya Sofia is also special because she was once one of the most important churches in the Christian World, and even though the church was converted to a mosque, both Christian and Muslim elements remain.  Christian seraphim (angels) overlook leather wall-hangings covered with Arabic writings.  And the lacy platform where the Sultans once worshipped sits below mosaics of Jesus and Mary.  The whole effect was somewhat of a hodge-podge of "Christian meets Islam", but yet very peaceful and ecumenical.
The very colorful Grand Bazaar
Grand Bazaar and the Chora Church

The city of Istanbul has so much to offer, and we only scratched the surface.  Another place of note is the Grand Bazaar, a sprawling maze of 400 shops.  To be honest, we were disappointed in this shopping extravaganza.  Too many aggressive sales people and everything was frankly overpriced; you really have to haggle (and even then, you still probably get the short end!).  We much preferred the shops near the Hippodrome where the prices were actually lower (and no haggling required). 

All kinds of "bling" at the Grand Bazaar
Although you have to admire some of the sales spiels these guys come up with.  One vendor invited Frank into his jewelry shop saying, “Come in and buy something for your lovely angel!” (as he pointed to Anne).  Another guy wanted to sell Anne a rug, but she politely and firmly said, “No thank you, no rug for me.”  To which the vendor quickly responded (pointing at Frank), “Why not?  He’s the one who will be paying for it!”   We had to laugh at their tenacity and humor.

Old City Wall in background; 500-pound Cannonballs
 in foreground mark the former road to Rome
We also did a half-day tour to see the old city walls and the Chora Church.  First we visited a well-preserved portion of the city wall dating back to the time of Constantinople.  In the courtyard, actual cannonballs from the siege of Constantinople marked the Roman road that once extended from Aya Sofia all the way to Rome!

Dome inside the Chora Church
The Chora Church was another relic of Constantinople, but it was turned into a mosque and its magnificent mosaics were plastered over (the rules say that a mosque may not display pictures of any living things).  However, the Ottomans must have recognized their art value because they later removed the plaster, cleaned up the mosaics, and plastered them again.  As a result, the mosaics are in excellent condition. 

Remarkably well-preserved mosaics
in the Chora Church
The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, so most of the mosaics tell the story of her life – in fact, the church is often referred to as “the container of the uncontainable,” referring to Mary.  The most remarkable mosaic showed Mary’s parents hugging one another in a rare scene of physical contact.  The portrayal is natural and loving – and very human.    



Sunday, November 18, 2012

Bakhchisaray – A Story of Exile and Return

Streets of the Old CIty in Bakhchisaray
A Sad History
Bakhchisaray was once a proud Tartar town filled with mosques and tall minarets with a long history dating back to the Khans (descendants of Genghis Khan).  Actually, the Tartars are a broad mix of Moslem peoples including Central Asians, Turks, and Europeans (Greeks, Poles, even Scandinavians). 

A painting of the deportation on display in
the Khan Palace, Bakhchisaray

On May 13, 1944, every Tartar in Bakhchisaray was deported on Stalin’s orders.  The people were sent to places like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, taking with them only what they could carry.  Since the 1990’s when communism began to decline, the Tartars have been returning to Bakhchisaray, starting up new businesses, rebuilding destroyed mosques, and trying to preserve their local heritage.  However, considerable tension exists between the returning Tartars and the Russians (mostly poor and uneducated) who moved into the Tartar homes at the time of the deportation. 

Old City in Bakhchisaray with
limestone cliffs in the background
What a sad story, and unfortunately, one that occurred throughout much of Europe where forced migrations were common.  The dislocation that results and the ongoing issues it creates are impossible for us, as Americans, to comprehend.
Wandering the Old City
We roamed the rugged back streets of Bakhchisaray’s old city looking for remnants of the Tartar’s former existence – a once elegant fountain, the ruins of a mosque.  Then, we headed north to climb the limestone cliffs that form a dramatic backdrop to the town. 

Old Russian cemetery in Bakhchisaray

Along the way, we discovered an old Russian cemetery where soldiers who died during the Crimean War (1853 – 1856) are buried.  Like a Flander’s Field of the past, the place is all but forgotten, totally overgrown and derelict – perfectly creepy, and of course, we loved it. 
Hiking among the strange limestone formations
above Bakhchisaray 
Further on, we hiked up to the top of the cliff (no easy feat for us 60-something-year-olds) for incredible views of the town and jaw-dropping close-ups of weird limestone formations.

Rugged path to Chufut-Kale

On another day, we made an outing to Chufut-Kale, a cave city settled beginning in the 6th c.  The hike up here was also far from trivial; the path was steep and littered with rubble making it slow going as we stepped gingerly among the jumbled chunks of loose stone trying to avoid wrenching an ankle. 

Caves at Chufut-Kale
The limestone cliff is dotted with cave dwellings, and we were able to scramble all around, climbing inside the old caves where “shelves” were carved out of the interior walls and holes were dug into the floor for cooking, storing food, or collecting water.  This mountain is called the “Jewish Fortress” because it was once inhabited by a group called the “Karaites” (a Jewish sect).  Under the Muslim Khan rule, the Karaites could do business in the city during the day but had to return to their mountain hovels at night.  What a wearing commute that must have been! 
More pictures of the incredible Chufut-Kale (note that the dark spots are more of the ancient caves that were home to the city's early inhabitants):

Courtyard of Khan Palace
in Bakhchisaray
Khan Palace

When Catherine the Great arrived here in the Crimea, she destroyed all evidence of the Khans who had ruled before her – except for the Khan Palace that she found hopelessly romantic.  The story goes that a hardhearted Khan king fell madly in love with a new concubine.  She did not return his feelings, and in fact, she hated harem life so much that she died within a year.  The Khan was so devastated that all he did was cry.  Concerned that the crying Khan was failing to rule, the people built “The Fountain of Tears,” designed to “cry” continually so that Khan, their ruler, could get back to the business of running the region.  The Russian writer Pushkin even wrote a famous poem about the story.

In the harem at Khan Palace, Bakhchisaray

The palace is quite lovely, incorporating all the necessities of sultan life: fountains, a mosque, a graveyard, and a harem.  With artifacts and recreated rooms, the museum gave us an idea of what life was like back in the time of the Khans.

The Soviet Communist Mentality
Paul, the owner of our hotel, spent an evening with us explaining the history of Bakhchisaray and painting a vivid picture of the bureaucracy and bizarre non-work ethic of Soviet Communism.  He explained that people make a big deal about “going to work,” but what they do there is of no importance.  For example, Paul and his wife needed a specific document when they returned to live in Bakhchisaray.  They visited the town administration to obtain the form and were told to go to a certain room.  In that room, two women were filing their fingernails.  The women told them they were in the wrong place, that they knew nothing about this form, and that they needed to go to another room.  But Paul’s wife refused to leave and eventually one of the women turned to the other and said, “Remember that CD we got?  I wonder if the form they want is on it.”  After much rummaging around the women found the CD and guess what?  The required form was on the CD!  Everyone was ecstatic – at least until one of the women said, “Come back in a month and we will have the form ready for you.”  Can you even imagine????
Anne, Frank, and our guide, Sergei
Other Quirks of Life in the Crimea
In Yalta, our guide Sergei had a small camera attached to the front windshield of his car.  He explained that he was videoing his driving – in case the police tried to charge him with something he didn’t do!  Police corruption in the Crimea is so common that, according to Sergei, about 20% of people video their driving everywhere they go.
Buying groceries can be an odd experience too.  In one of the larger grocery stores in Yalta, nothing was self-service, and we had to get into different queues within the same store to request different types of items.  For example, we waited in one line for cheese, told the clerk what we wanted, and paid her for it.  Then, we waited in another queue for bread and butter, told that clerk what we wanted, and paid her for that purchase.  So inefficient!  We figured it must be a throwback to the communist days when people had to stand in lines for each type of product.  The other struggle was trying to communicate with these non-English speaking clerks when requesting the food.  Fortunately, Frank has some Russian speaking skills which really came in handy, and we were fine for most elementary communications with the Ruskies.  Traveling on your own in this country with no Russian skills at all (or no ability to read Cyrillic characters) would be almost impossible.
Locals dancing out on the square in front of
Lenin's statue in Yalta
Another subtle difficulty arises here in that the people of the Crimea speak both Russian and Ukrainian – using both (or either) at the same time.  While similar, the Russian and the Ukrainian languages have word and nuance differences that are not shared; simply put, the people of the region use a mix of words from both languages, making the Crimea a difficult place to hear pure Russian or pure Ukrainian.  Yes, the people there will totally understand you if you speak in either language; but as Frank found out, you may not always understand their response, since it will often be a mix of Russian and Ukrainian words.  These common words are not always the same in both languages, making it almost impossible for a novice to sort out the responses without years of practice in hearing and using each language.
Here is one unusual food highlight that we need to note.  In the Crimea, we were introduced to a delightful Tartar dish called “Lagman” soup.  While the name does not connote an exciting experience, Lagman soup was some of the heartiest, most thrilling stuff we’ve had (maybe ever!!).  It is not an eloquently presented dish, but more like one of those “depression” dishes from the 1930’s days in America, where everything but the kitchen sink is included.  The soup consists of a dense portion of meat, potatoes, carrots, and other veggies (?) plus fabulous handmade noodles in a delectable broth.  Maybe it is just us who are “in the dark” about this soup; has anyone out there ever heard of it?  If you have, we would like to hear your comments.  Frank plans to Google the recipe and corner the market in America on Lagman soup.  It is a delicious, filling repast for those cold days during our Pennsylvania winters; one bowl is a meal!! 
Sergei told us that most Crimean men die by the age of 58, usually as a result of alcoholism.  A favorite sport is “Literball” (drinking liters of vodka).  People also say (cynically) that this situation is good for the pension system because most men die before age 63 when they can collect!
Overall, the atmosphere is somewhat depressing -- so many people look defeated.  When we say we are from America, many of them get this sad, wistful look like we come from a paradise they can’t ever imagine.  Paul believes the biggest problem is that people here don’t want a better life.  He said, “The people have forgotten how to dream.”