Monday, November 14, 2011

We're back!

By Melissa at 7:28 PM
What!?! I know, we were supposed to be traveling for another several months, but we're back in San Francisco now. We came back to San Francisco for what was supposed to be a temporary stay to take care of a minor medical issue that was more easily dealt with in the US than China (where we were at the time), but ended up staying because, well life is just like that sometimes. Both of us are fine, happy and healthy so there's nothing to worry about. While we were here, Brian found out about a great job opportunity and it was one of those times when we realized that we just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and so we decided to stay.  

Having to do without so many things on our trip, we're really enjoying being home and most of all being able to hang out with our friends and family. We're looking forward to the little things, like having more than two pairs of shoes, cooking, relaxing on sofas that we own, being able to watch Hulu, and coming home to the same place every night. Our apartment karma is really doing its magic as we found our new and surprisingly spacious apartment in record time. I only had to go to 6 soul-crushing open houses, clutching my credit-report and sneering at the 20 other couples who also showed up an hour early, toting their giant pay-stubs from Facebook and Google while I wandered longingly through what was either the cutest apartment I knew I would never get to live in or trying not to brush up against anything in a filthy, cramped apartment with a mini-fridge standing in the corner of what was supposed to be a kitchen and 10-year old carpets that smelled of dog. Mind you all of these apartments are all priced within $200 a month of each other, but that's life in a tight rental market.    

So, we still have yet to post our pictures of Beijing, which I will do in the next post. But we also have pictures from a road trip we took to Arizona and Utah while we were trying to decide whether or not to stay, so I will also post those a few days after the Beijing post. And then sadly, I'll probably stop blogging.  I've really been enjoying writing about all of the places we visited because it allowed me to relive the most exciting parts of the trip. I'll have to wait and see what other outlets I can find for my writing urges in the future.            

We do have little moments occasionally when we miss the traveling life, especially since Brian is now back at work everyday. But we're happy to be home, settling into our new apartment and enjoying being domestic again. And of course we'll continue to travel on our normal-length vacations to all the lovely places we had yet to visit. We'll just be making our way through the list a bit more slowly now. Would we do it all again? Hell yes! And if the opportunity presents itself again, we certainly will.    

Monday, October 10, 2011

The iPhone as a Traveler's Tool

By Brian at 7:48 PM
We've been traveling for almost six months now.  Being a techie, I've had fun using my gadgets to make our travels as optimal and stress free as possible.

By far the most useful device is my iPhone 4.  It's helped us in both obvious and unforeseen ways.  These are the apps I've used the most.

The Maps app is not as useful unless you have a data plan, which we didn't have due to its prohibitive cost. Most cafes around the world provide free wifi (pronounced wee-fee in most places), but that doesn't help much when you're on the street in a new city looking for your hotel.

Luckily Maps has an undocumented feature that's incredibly helpful for data plan-less users: caching.  Maps caches the last n number of map tiles and makes them available for offline use.  Before arriving at the next city I make sure I lookup our hotel's location, bookmark the spot, and pan and zoom around the map to preload as much as I can.  The iPhone's cache is not limitless and I believe the iPhone 4's cache is larger than the iPhone 3G and 3Gs, but this trick works on all models.

As a bonus, GPS and compass both work without an internet connection, so if you've loaded the right tiles you'll have no problem getting around.

OffMaps 2 (link)
Even with the previously mentioned trick, it's good to have a backup.  OffMaps 2 utilizes the open source Open Maps and makes them available for offline use.  This app does cost money and will nickel-and-dime you for each city you download, but the developers did a nice job with the UI and added other useful features, such as public transportation overlays and store/restaurant/cafe lookup.

Instapaper (link)
I was a huge fan of Instapaper before leaving on the trip and now I'm a bigger fan.  Instapaper is a simple service and iPhone app that lets you save articles to read later.  Its killer feature is that it syncs your content for offline use, which makes long bus/train/plane trips more tolerable.

The easiest way to get articles into your Instapaper account is with the provided javascript bookmarklet.  However, if you're solely relying on your iPhone as your portable computer, a less-used alternative is to email the URL of the article you want to save to your special Instapaper email address, which can be found after you've logged in to the Instapaper website.

Podcaster (link)
Podcasts are another terrific and cost effective way to pass the time on long journeys.  The built-in iPod app lets you play podcasts that you've synced with iTunes, but if you don't travel with a laptop or you don't sync often you'll soon find yourself with nothing new to listen to.  Podcaster is a paid app that does many things, but most importantly it lets you sync podcasts directly through the app without the need of a computer.

Duh.  Of course you're going to use the camera to take shots of whatever awesomeness is in front of you.  But I've found the camera to also be useful as a visual notetaking tool.  Need to record the departure schedule from Fes to Chefchouen posted in the bus station? Take a picture of it.  Worried about getting lost in a city without street signs? Take shots of unmistakeable landmarks.

Geotag Photos Pro (link)
I'm a little obsessed with geotagging my photos.  Unfortunately I take most of my photos with a DSLR, which does not have a built-in GPS.  However, the iPhone does and there are plenty of apps that will record your location as you wander through the city.  Geotag Photos Pro has worked great for me and is definitely worth the money.

Turn it on at the start of your day and by the end you'll have a geo dataset that you can mash up with your photos using Aperture or other applications.  You can also load your dataset into Google Maps and see your superimposed breadcrumb trail directly on an interactive map (ie, this was how we spent one day in Madrid).  It makes for a nice digital souvenir.

Also, If you've preloaded the maps within the app (like the Maps app, GPP will cache the last n tiles) you can use your trail to backtrack if you're lost or return to a place you saw the other day and wanted to return to.

Currency (link)
This free app provides a simple and clean way to lookup the current currency conversion rates.  The XE app (link) is also good and I carry both on my phone.

Convert Units for Free (link)
Due to our assine insistance of sticking to unit measurements that none of the rest of the world uses, you'll need an easy way to convert a kg, km, or lt into lbs, mis, and ozs. This app has a crappy UI, but it gets the job done.

Skype (link) and Google Voice (link)
Skype is an indispensible service for communicating with friends and family back at home.  The iPhone app is better than the PC/Mac version due to its portability.

Before we left Melissa and I ported our cellphone #s to Google Voice. Although the Google Voice iPhone app does not include VOIP for inbound and outbound calling, it does provide a nice interface for checking voicemails and sending/receiving text messages.

Everyday (link)
Everyday is a simple app that facilitates taking a portrait of yourself everyday and turning the collection into a video slideshow.  It's more fun than essential.  Here's my Everyday video from a few months ago.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Turkey: Olimpos, Pamukkale and Selçuk

By Melissa at 9:23 AM
August 30 - September 8

After another long, but pleasant multi-bus journey from the town of Goreme in Cappadocia we arrived in Olimpos, a small town on Turkey's southern coast. Before talking about Olimpos, I just have to say that I love traveling by bus in Turkey. Most of the buses are all new Mercedes coaches with fully reclining seats, bus-attendant call buttons, personal TVs, sometimes WiFi and food and drink service. And we even got ice cream on one of the buses! Greyhound is so pathetic it just needs to curl up and die. Maybe it will take Amtrak with it.
The bus we rode to Olimpos on
From Olimpos and Fethiye, Turkey

Anyway, back to Olimpos. So what to say about Olimpos...Brian loved it, but it wasn't really my cup of tea. There is no town, just a road lined with hotels. And all the hotels follow the same formula so it only attracts one kind of visitor, i.e. the backpacker set. The hotels have what they call tree-house accommodations--basically a wooden cabin elevated four feet off the ground or slightly nicer bungalows, on-site outdoor restaurants, dinner and breakfast included in the price, and plenty of hammocks, bean bags or open cabanas on stilts. Okay, so the cabanas were awesome, but our room was just one step above camping and the beach was at least a 15-minute walk down a dusty road, dodging cars and minibuses along the way. Okay, so once you got there the beach was great. There was a lot of sand compared to most European beaches and the water was absolutely perfect. Warm, super salty and calm. However, the relaxation I gained on the beach was kind of spoiled by the hot, dusty walk back to the hotel. But as Brian likes to point out, I've been spoiled by Caribbean beaches so it's not really fair to judge other places by that standard, because nothing is going to measure up.
Olimpos beach
From Olimpos and Fethiye, Turkey
The grounds of our pension
From Olimpos and Fethiye, Turkey
Melissa chilling out after breakfast
From Olimpos and Fethiye, Turkey

On another side note, are there any Australians left in Australia? It only has a population of 21 million people, but a quarter of them seem to be living in the UK, a quarter of them seem to be traveling throughout Europe and I'm sure we'll meet the other half when we get to SE Asia. But really, who can complain since they are just about the nicest, happiest people you'll ever meet.

Pamukkale and Selçuk
This part of the trip is kind of a blur for me because I was ill and at some point developed a fever, but didn't realize I had a fever because it was 91 degrees in the shade, who knows how hot with the humidity index and nothing feels normal at that point. I was just downing water and juice like it was my job and trying not to faint.

After a one-night stopover in a town midway between Olimpos and Pamukkale, and what seemed like a billion bus rides later, we joined a tour that would take us to see the amazing limestone hillside of Pamukkale and the ruins of Hieropolis before dropping us off at our hotel Selçuk. For something that I didn't even know existed before two months ago, I was very impressed by Pamukkale. Pamukkale is a hillside covered in travertine (limestone) pools that are formed when minerals from the underlying hot springs flow down the hillside and harden as the water cool. It's complicated to describe and much easier to see in pictures so check out a few of these.
Travertine terraces of Pamukkale
From Pamukkale, Turkey
More travertine terraces
From Pamukkale, Turkey
Brian on the travertine terraces
From Pamukkale, Turkey
Travertine terraces
From Pamukkale, Turkey

The ancient city of Hieropolis was built on top of the hot springs in the 2nd century BC. Similar to today, people came to bathe in the mineral-rich hot springs to cure various ailments. Some very impressive ruins in Hieropolis have been uncovered including the theater, temple of Apollo and the baths. And just over the summer they discovered the tomb of St. Phillip the Apostle. Brian got some great pictures of the ruins while I napped in the shade near one of the artificial hot spring pools made for tourists. After a great tour with a very funny tour guide, we jumped back on the bus and headed to our hotel in Selçuk. Which was where I finally took my temperature and realized I had a 100 degree fever!
Ruins in Hieropolis
From Pamukkale, Turkey
Theatre in Hieropolis
From Pamukkale, Turkey
Hot springs
From Pamukkale, Turkey

In the morning we had a very good breakfast at our hotel, perhaps the best so far in Turkey, and caught a mini-bus up to the exquisite ruins of Ephesus. My fever was gone, but I hadn't really eaten anything in the past day and a half, so I spent a lot of time in the shade downing water while Brian ran up and down the hills taking pictures. But it was very impressive and definitely worth stopping at if you are in Turkey. I won't go into a lot of detail because the pictures tell it all. Plus it basically has the same history as most of the ruins we saw in Turkey: Originally Greek, then Roman, then Byzantine, destroyed at some point by a huge earthquake and then uncovered in the 20th century. Ephesus is worth the visit because it is one of the best preserved and most excavated.
Greek Theatre
From Ephesus, Turkey
Marble Street
From Ephesus, Turkey
Brian in front of the Library of Celsus
From Ephesus, Turkey
Library of Celsus
From Ephesus, Turkey
Street of Curetes
From Ephesus, Turkey
Temple of Hadrian
From Ephesus, Turkey
Brian in the Odeon
From Ephesus, Turkey

We ended up leaving our hotel in Selçuk early as a result of the Ramzan (Ramadan in Turkey) Holidays because all of the buses going back to Istanbul were sold out for two days. So we booked the last two seats on an overnight bus where two passengers happened to cancel their tickets and crossed our fingers that it would be as nice as all of our other bus rides. Can't be worse than a red-eye flight, right? And it was better! What could have turned into a travel nightmare was a fairly pleasant 11-hour bus ride. Once we got off the bus and I calculated how long we had been on the bus, I was just in shock. After about hour eight on most long flights I've been on, my back and legs ache, I'm ready to strangle one or more of the flight attendants, several of the passengers around me, and am wriggling in my seat non-stop in a fruitless effort to find a more comfortable position. But with the help of my inflatable, travel neck pillow, I basically slept the entire journey in relative comfort. Brian slept less, but was also feeling refreshed and not at all worn out or sore.  The bus stopped about 4 or 5 times for rest stops to pick up or drop off passengers and the bus-attendant handed out water and snacks in between the stops. The company, KamilKoç, even had it's own rest stop, complete with nice bathrooms and a quick-service restaurant.

If this post seems like it's all about buses, it's because we spent a good amount of time on buses during the second half of the trip. Turkey is a huge country and in order to get to see the top sights you either have to fly ($$$$) or be prepared for long bus rides. So now we're back to Istanbul for a couple of nights to rest up for our 13-hour journey to Beijing. We don't have much planned as we felt we needed to rest up before landing in the mega-city that is Beijing in the mega-country that is China.  So we we're just spending these last few days enjoying lovely Istanbul, doing last minute planning for our trip to China and getting our fill of delicious Turkish food.
Melissa and Brian in front of the travertine terraces of Pamukkale
From Pamukkale, Turkey

More photos of Olimpos, Pamukkale, Hieropolis, and Ephesus.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Turkey: Istanbul and Cappadocia

By Melissa at 9:46 AM
August 24 - August 30

Istanbul is one of my absolute favorite cities in the world. If you like to travel, Istanbul should be on the top of your list. The fact that the geography resembles San Francisco, another one of my favorite cities, makes it even more lovable. Like Rome, Istanbul held sentimental significance for us because it was a stop on the secret, two-week engagement trip that Brian planned for me in 2009. He knew I had been wanting to visit for a very long time and made sure to plan an entire week there. Of course he promptly came down with a very nasty case of the flu almost as soon as we arrived and didn't recover until we left. Poor Brian didn't remember much about the sites we visited during the three or so hours of the day he felt well enough to go outside and worse, he couldn't even taste the food because he was so congested! But even with the little that we did see, I was hooked.

We revisited the major sites, the Hagia Sofia, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque), the Topkapi Palace and Istiklal Caddesi and stuffed our faces with all the different kinds of Turkish food we could find. The first night we went out to dinner with one of Brian's former co-workers who was at the end of her trip in the region, which was a nice treat. Spending so much time on the road it is really nice to meet up with a familiar face. And after finally being able to really taste Turkish food, Brian now agrees with me that is is one of the best cuisines in the world. This had previously been a subject of frequent debate since we talk about food pretty much all the time.
Lindsay and Melissa on Istiklal Caddesi
From Istanbul, Turkey
Brian and Melissa in front of the Hagia Sophia
From Istanbul, Turkey
Inside the Hagia Sophia
From Istanbul, Turkey
Looking down on the floor of the Hagia Sophia
From Istanbul, Turkey
Front of the Blue Mosque
From Istanbul, Turkey
Blue Mosque Ceiling
From Istanbul, Turkey
Courtyard of the Blue Mosque
From Istanbul, Turkey
Iskender Kebab
From Istanbul, Turkey

One of the great things about this trip is that Brian and I are experiencing a lot of things for the first time over a relatively short period, making the trip very memorable. Leaving Istanbul, we took an overnight train to Ankara and it was Brian's first time on an overnight train and our first time on an overnight train together. We had a cute little two-person sleeper compartment and of course barely slept at all because it's difficult to sleep with all the movement, but it was fun. After a extremely long 8-hour transportation delay in Anakara, we finally made it to Goreme, one of the central towns in the Cappadocia region, sometime after midnight.
Our overnight train compartment
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Watching Mad Men on the overnight train to Ankara
From Cappadocia, Turkey

We chose to add Cappadocia to our list on the advice of many people and it was truly memorable. The unique landscape of Cappadocia, set in the heartland of Turkey, is really beautiful.  The cone shaped formations were formed by layers of ash deposited as the result of several volcanic eruptions from the three now dormant volcanoes that surround the region. The layers on the bottom, compressed under the weight of ash from later eruptions, became harder than those on top. Over the years, more of the upper layers were washed away by the rain and eventually created the conical rock formations you see today. The rock, called tuff, is very soft because it was formed from compressed ash, making it easy to carve caves and entire structures into the rock.

Since we arrived very late at night, we took it easy the following day, wandering around the open air museum containing rock-cut churches and lounging at an internet cafe. Our second day was by far the best and most memorable part of our time in Cappadocia and one of the most memorable days of our entire trip so far.
Goreme Open Air Museum
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Outside the Dark Church in the Goreme Open Air Museum
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Brian and Melissa at a dinner table in one of the caves in the Goreme Open Air Museum
From Cappadocia, Turkey

A mini-bus from Sultan Balloons picked us and 10 others up at 4:45am and drove us out to an open field a few towns over where three HUGE hot air balloons were being prepped to take us on our journey. I have no idea why, but when I saw how big the balloons were, I got more nervous. It should have made me feel better that the part of the balloon that was going to keep us afloat was more than ample, but it was 5:00am and I was not thinking clearly. But this was supposed to be an amazing experience so I put my apprehensions aside and climbed into the basket with Brian, the 10 other tourists, the pilot and assumed a white-knuckled position on one side of the basket.

Now, in addition to the fact that I don't particularly like heights, flying or otherwise being suspended up in the air, the time leading up to take-off was nerve wracking for so many reasons. First of all there are four big tanks of propane sitting in the central compartment of the basket to power the burners. Second, the four burners are only a few feet above the center of the basket and when they are turned on by the pilot generate what can only be described as a gigantic flame thrower right up into the opening of the thin nylon balloon that is keeping you up. And finally, the pilots can't actually control the direction of the craft, they can only control height, so they change direction by using the wind currents at different altitudes. Did I mention that between 40 and 70 other balloons from other companies also take off in the same valley every day, creating a massive traffic jam of aircraft incapable of steering themselves? What the hell was I doing?!

But, despite all of the alarm bells going off in my head, once we ascended up into the air, the experience was just magical. There's nothing between you and the surrounding scenery like there is on an airplane and aside from when the pilot needs to turn on the burners adjust the altitude of the balloon, being able to appreciate the landscape in complete silence is really not something to be missed. And despite there being a lot of balloons in the sky, there is really a lot of room in between each balloon. When we went up the winds were very light and there was no turbulence, so it didn't even really feel like we were moving. Also, our pilot was amazing. He navigated us down and around the valley and other balloons seemingly effortlessly, even dropping us into the valley within a few feet of the floor so we could get up close and personal with the rock formations and then back out before landing without so much as a bump in a nearby field.
Taking off
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Looking down on our launch site
From Cappadocia, Turkey
From Cappadocia, Turkey
More balloons!
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Sunrise over Cappadocia
From Cappadocia, Turkey
In a valley
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Fairy Chimneys
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Our deflating balloon
From Cappadocia, Turkey
After our flight
From Cappadocia, Turkey

We got back to our hotel around 7:30am so were able to rest a bit, eat breakfast and join a tour that headed out at 9:30am to the southern part of the Cappadocia region where we saw the Derinkuyu Underground City and the Selime Monastery. We saw many other great things on the tour, but those were the highlights of the trip and were well worth the fee we paid to the tour company. The underground city was built in the 8th century B.C. and later expanded and used by Christians as a refuge from attackers. It is a really impressive structure with seven floors, ventilation shafts, wells and separate areas for cooking, food storage, sleeping, worship and even meetings. It was able to provide refuge to about 20,000 people whom sometimes had to spend months living underground.
Panorama of Goreme
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Brian in Goreme
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Melissa in the Derinkuyu underground city
From Cappadocia, Turkey

Meeting room in Derinkuyu underground city
From Cappadocia, Turkey

The Selime Monastery complex, is in my opinion one of the most impressive rock-cut structures that we saw and much better than the churches in the open air museum. We learned that there are many sites in Turkey that are significant to Christianity because early Christians, who often had to hide their then newly created religion from ruling powers, found the soft tuff rock of Cappadocia provided an ideal hiding place for them.
Selime Monastery and our tour guide, Sardar
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Cave cathedral in the Selime Monastery
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Outside Selime Monastery
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Selime Monastery
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Brian in Selime Monastery
From Cappadocia, Turkey

Next we're heading southwest to the coastal town of Olimpos, for a few days of R&R.

Brian and Melissa in the hot air balloon over Cappadocia
From Cappadocia, Turkey

More pictures of Istanbul and Cappadocia.