When last you heard from your favorite overland travellers, we had collapsed in a Baku hostel after a marathon trip across the Caspian Sea. Lest you fear we are marooned yet again in unlikely circumstances, let us assure you that it all ended happily ever after. Eventually.
The delay crossing the Caspian, along with the trouble we had acquiring Uzbek visas, put us far behind schedule for reaching Turkey, where we had hoped to spend at least ten days before starting home. We had also been itching to spend some time in Baku, the famous Azeri oil-boom town which Tom Reiss describes thus in his wonderful book The Orientalist:
The walled caravan outpost soon became the center of the burgeoning global oil industry–supplying more than half the world's crude–and the result was a fabulous nineteenth-century city built on the profits: extravagant mansions, mosques, casinos, and theaters from the period when the city was home to the Rothschilds, the Nobels, and dozens of local Muslim "oil barons."[…] Moorish palaces still sit next to Gothic manses, and Byzantine cupolas next to bejeweled rococo pavilions. The locals styled themselves cultured Europeans and "modern Muslims," right up to the point when the Bolsheviks decided they were decadent bourgeois and swooped in to crush them.
Sadly, we had only a day-long glimpse of these wonders before we had to hop on a train for Tbilisi, capitol of the troubled Georgian republic. The train station we pulled into was the dirtiest and most ramshackle of our entire trip, a dubious distinction but by no means an easy accomplishment. The station was lost in the city's sprawling outskirts, the muddy and broken streets crammed with an endless series of ramshackle kiosks offering cheap Russian goods.
A short distance away, however, we found Tbilisi's newly thriving core, where boutiques and trendy cafes competed for space with cathedrals along charming cobblestone streets. It seemed clear to us that in Georgia, as in so many other places we visited this year, prosperity and access to the global economy were largely limited to an elite handful ensconced in the center of the capitol. We were fascinated by what little we managed to see of Georgia and longed to stick around, but for the first time in our journey we were on a schedule, with a plane to catch on the far side of Turkey. Before nightfall we had boarded a bus whose tout claimed we could reach Istanbul in a mere 24 hours.
Astonishingly, after an achy night and day spent in a pell-mell dash across Anatolia’s verdant countryside, the next evening we did in fact reach Istanbul, the final stop of the Eurasian Invasion. We were hoping that Istanbul, the ultimate gateway between East and West, would be the perfect place to pick up the threads of our own culture amid the rich tapestry of Asia. We were not disappointed.
The Blue Mosque
In the city's incomparable mosques, we found familiar Christian angelic icons soaring alongside the best of Islamic art and architecture. On the streets, flavors and fashions from across three continents mixed with an often reckless abandon. As Turkey continues to struggle to define itself as either Western or Eastern, Islamic or Secular, European or Asian, Istanbul continues in its ancient role as a cultural lodestone, attracting a dizzying deluge of ideas and influences. Yet, at its heart, the city seemed remarkably grounded in its own unique and enduring culture. We wound down our year-long journey in Istanbul's bazaars and back allies, sipping coal-black coffee and savoring baklava, and fell in love with the place.
Inside Aya Sofya, a Christian basilica for almost a millenium before it was converted to a mosque in the 15th C
One of Istanbul's countless markets, full of shopping possibilities for locals and tourists alike...
...though definitely geared more for tourists in some cases.
A boy on the day of his circumcision, dancing in the Blue Mosque
As we return home we're looking forward to new challenges and a more settled life in New Haven, Connecticut. All the same, we'll be keeping our packs by the door.