A couple of relaxing days in Safranbolu (Black Sea, Turkey)

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To say that Sari’s Pension is gorgeous would be an understatement. It’s the very place I need to be right now as I head into my final few days as a digital nomad. My mind is spinning with ideas, possibilities and things to look forward to on my return home. I can’t believe I am actually wanting to head home and have a more normal life (I say ‘more’ because my life has never quite been ‘normal’). And if I had to select any place to spend these final contemplative days of this digital nomad phase of my life, I would have selected Sari’s Pension.
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It’s so peaceful and quiet here in this Ottoman era house with it’s stunning edible garden where figs, grapes, apples and other fruits grow in abundance. There’s space to think here. I have a whole granny flat apartment to myself. It’s quiet but I am still within walking distance of the village and its many food places.
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And then there’s Sari herself. She is wonderful. Sari is Indonesian so I am instantly drawn to this side of her, having Indonesian heritage myself and loving that country so much. But there’s more to it than that. Sari is energetic, kind and creates the perfect mix of social interaction and leaving guests alone. Together we talk about our lives and dreams and experiences. I am in a place where my dreams and ideas for the future are overflowing. The past twenty months since my health scare have done that to me. I can see a very cool, fulfilling and exciting professional life in my grasp. And an even more exciting personal life to go with it.

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At Sari’s house I drink tea the Turkish way.
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And enjoy my final Turkish breakfasts.

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I take short strolls into Safranbolu for a few hours every day to take in the Ottoman-style buildings, both run down and renovated.

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And I indulge in the absolutely delicious Turkish habit of eating decadent desserts. This photo is actually of a profiterole that was served drowned in a bowl of the most amazing dark chocolate mouse.

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But mostly I took time out to reflect on my journey. On the past twenty months of travel since I went to Kenya in February 2014. On the things I have learned. On the people I have met. On the way I’ve grown as a traveler from that first stressed out arrival in Seoul to the casual way I now approach arriving in a new country. I reflected on the things I have learned about the world and the way I will never be able to see it in the same way again. I have experienced the kindness of strangers and seen the desperation of refugees – two sides of the same world we live in. And I ponder the fact that I will not be able to return to the life I lived before I started Looking For 42. And this knowledge has ramifications for my future: financial, personal and professional.

Sinop to Safranbolu (Black Sea, Turkey)

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I wake in the lovely large apartment with an amazing view of the Black Sea out the windows. Even on an overcast day it is gorgeous out there. I am glad I didn’t sleep in the car somewhere on the roadside or try to set up the bivy in the rain. This is a far nicer waking experience. My plan for today is to drive to Safranbolu where I will spend a few nights before I head to the airport in Istanbul. It’s going to be a long drive but that’s okay … I have two rest days once I get to Safranbolu.

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I start my day by heading out to a nearby place on the Black Sea that is said to be like a Turkish fjord. It’s very beautiful where the rough sea water enters a small bay and swamp. I bet that it would be more amazing if it were sunny instead of drizzling. There’s a short walk and a huge flat muddy area where people can park and take in the view. I decide not to go on the walk because it is so wet and I have a long drive ahead of me.

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I decide I cannot leave Turkey without going to the northern-most point of the country. So I follow some narrow rural roads twisting my way past farmland. The shepherds have their sheep on the move everywhere in Turkey right now. They are shifting from the high summer pastures down to the warmer lowlands where they will spend the winter. Herds of cattle, sheep and goats just meander along the road as if they own the place. There’s no concern that it might inconvenience traffic because this is Turkey where little appears to occur in a hurry.

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Inceburun (the lighthouse) at the northern-most point of Turkey is wild and isolated. Apparently the same family has lived here for centuries tending to the lighthouse. I cannot imagine such an existence. Winter is coming to this part of the world and already it is cold and blustery. But oh so beautiful too.

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There’s a geocache hidden here near the lighthouse so I make my way almost as far north as I can go without getting wet from the waves and find the cache. The log is soaked through and I don’t have a replacement so I take a photograph of it to prove my coming here and then replace the cache as I found it.

Safranbolu is over six hours from the Inceburun. The highways are in good condition but the going is slow because there are frequent 50kph (31mph) and 70kph (43mph) zones to contend with and the maximum allowable speed is only 90kph (55mph). That’s not to say that the cars around me are sticking to the speed limit. They either drive well less than 50kph or well over 100kph with almost no middle ground. It’s crazy.

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I stop part way to Safranbolu for a short rest and notice that there should be a geocache hidden nearby at Boyabat Castle (spoiler – the geocache has been muggled). The castle stands atop a cliff-lined castle in the town of the same name. It was used and modified by generations of warrior kingdoms including the Byzantines and Ottomans but now lays in ruins.

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It’s almost eerie walking around here. Not for ghosts like yesterday’s historic prison but because there is a sense of neglect and plenty of rubbish everywhere.

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But, of course, the Turkish flag flies proudly on the old turret.

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And there are gorgeous views down over Boyabat village.

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The views of Boyabat might be gorgeous but the reality of driving through it are not. The streets are narrow and cobble-stoned. Turkish drivers seem to think double parking is okay if you turn on your hazard lights and there is no such thing as a no standing zone within the first few meters of a corner. At one point all the streets leaving town are blocked by double parking and at another I need to have help from a local pedestrian to maneuver the car around a corner lest I brush (crunch) against two parked cars (driving on the other side of the car really wreaks havoc with my sense of where the car is).

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But I got out of the village and arrived at Sari’s Pension in Safranbolu a few hours later. Here I was greeted by Sari and her husband who welcomed me warmly. I was shown to my private apartment (I booked it on Air BNB and paid about $AU28 a night) with separate bedroom, living area, kitchen and bathroom. It was absolutely gorgeous and set in a true Ottoman era building. I unpacked, relaxed and enjoyed the delicious hot lemon, mint and honey tea that Sari brought me.

Samsun to Sinop (Black Sea, Turkey)

I am reticent to leave Samsun. I really like this town and the Hotel Necmi. It’s relaxing and easy going. But I must head west towards Istanbul if I am to make my flight home on Friday. It’s already Sunday and this next section of road along the Black Sea could take me a while. Besides, I don’t want to rush. I decide to head to Sinop. It’s said to have some historic buildings and a castle wall. That’s good enough reason for me. It’s also the only Black Sea town within a day’s drive of me because the next towns after that are on a long slow section of reportedly twisting road that takes all day to drive. So Sinop it is.

The drive itself is slow going. It’s always slow going here in Turkey when you drive. At home, 100km (62 miles) on a highway will take you an hour, give or take 5 minutes. But here, the same distance takes over 100 minutes because your average driving speed will be less than 60kph. That’s because you can only go 90kph on the highway sections and then 70kph and 50kph through towns. That’s before you factor in the road blockages caused by the incessant way Turkish people feel the need to double park. Apparently, here, hazard lights mean you can just stop traffic. It’s crazy. At times like these I miss my bicycle because at least then I could see things and feel the air as I travel so slowly (granted, 100km on a bicycle does take me 1 – 1.5 days).

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But I do get to see the Black Sea. Today it’s not that black. Oh, by the way, that little creature is Tozzie. He’s been traveling with me since Malaysia and was a gift from a friend. He has his own Facebook page that he keeps updated. The landscape here is also much greener than down south. If I hadn’t come here, I might have thought that all of Turkey was either rocky mountains or treeless golden fields. But it’s actually also got these incredible green mountains dotted with villages rather like Austria does (but with minarets instead of churches).

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About 3 hours after I left Samsun I arrive in Sinop to navigate my way through a maze of narrow paved streets not designed for modern motor vehicles. I do a big loop and park in an otopark near the entrance to the town. Had I realised it would cost me just 4TL ($AU2) for the day I would have just parked there in the first place. D’oh.

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Sinop is an old town on a promontory jutting out into the Black Sea. It has a long history, having been occupied by the Hittites who established settlements in Turkey in the 16th-14th centuries BCE. It is surrounded by a fortress, which dates back to the 7th Century when the Ancient Greeks came here from Miletos (remember, I went there earlier in my trip – feels like a lifetime ago to me).

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The old fortress walls still dominate the city today.

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But for all intents and purposes, this is a fishing town with an active fishing port complete with ship repairers and dry dock. Well, big area adjacent to the port where people have taken boats out of the water to work on them. Don’t picture anything fancy by the dry dock. There are also heaps of fish mongers in the main street of the town competing with patisseries for the highest number of shops. The fish are mostly small like sardines and sell for about 10TL ($A5) per kilogram.

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But none of this fascinates or draws me as much as the old prison does. Inside the inner wall of the Sinop fortress stands a dark and fearsome place. Razor wire and thick high walls protected those outside from those within.

The inner fortress was already used as a dungeon for centuries before the prison proper was built in 1887. Records show the dungeon was used as early as 1568. Back then, people were sent to the dungeon for the most heinous crimes of murder and treason but also for opposing the rulers of the day through poetry and speeches. It is said that those who were sent here never left alive. As I stand at the entry to the dungeon, I am certain that some never left even after death for there’s an eerie feeling like people are inside the room as I stand by the doorway.

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The main prison, built in 1887, conforms with the U-shaped style popular in that era. The prison was damp and cold. It is said that lighting a match was nearly impossible, particularly in the cold moist winters. Even the colouring of the exterior walls looks frightening.

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The juvenile prison was added in 1939. Walking through this place is the scariest part of the prison experience. On the upper level a window bangs open and closed in the wind. It only starts when I enter the upper level; I can’t hear it banging as I walk up the stairs and it stops when I leave. There are also footsteps quietly shuffling on this floor. But I am alone here in the cell block. I have had similar ghostly experiences in other historic prisons I have visited. Not everywhere but just in some parts of the prisons. When I walk down the stairs here the window stops until I stop to write down some thoughts part-way down the stairs. The window bangs louder up in the cells above until I move on. Perhaps it’s my imagination. Or maybe there are ghosts who haunt this place like they do the dungeon. The lower floor and the main prison are calmer. They feel somehow lighter. As though too many tourists pass through here for the ghosts to stay. Only the yard with the basketball hoop has an ominous sensation.

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Prisons fascinate me. Corrections and criminology were my first study at university and I still have an interest in them. I feel drawn to prisons and police stations. Not for the stories of the prisoners or police officers themselves but for the broader sense of how we’ve dealt with people who acted outside the laws of the day and what we can learn from that history.

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I leave Sinop and drive a little way west in search of a camping ground. It has good reviews online but the season is over and the camping is closed. I drive on to see what other place might be suitable for me to throw my bivy bag but it starts to pour with rain. So I book an apartment for a good price and head back to Sinop to check in. The apartment is huge (only because I insisted the manager of the building give me one with kitchenette like the Booking.com site said was included with the room) and I enjoy having a separate living and sleeping area. And I sit back, relax and accept that I am not a hardcore adventurer who chooses to sleep rough when there’s another option available. Especially at the price I got this place for.

A day in Samsun (Black Sea, Turkey)

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I wake in my monastic room at the absolutely delightful Hotel Necmi and start the day with a run along the Black Sea followed by a delightful breakfast served by the hotel owner. I love that pretty much every hotel in Turkey includes breakfast and that the breakfast is always good. Today I go out exploring the streets of Samsun. It’s all I want to do; just meander around taking in the atmosphere. Here’s what I see and experience.

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Men run around carrying delicate tulip tea cups with a single cube of sugar balanced on a small cover over each cup. The cups are carried on special trays with round handles. The men are quick, nimble and look like they never spill a drop. They seem to only serve men. And the men they serve sit on stools outside their shops drinking tea and smoking cigarettes.
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This is a city of contrast. Women in traditional dress brush shoulders with their modern counterparts who wear tight jeans and long hair. Modern supermarkets sell vegetables while a huge traditional market sells more local produce at a cheaper price.

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Chestnuts are cooked in handcarts on street corners, proving once again that this country is more Asia than Europe. And, as if to confirm the continental status, an old lady holds up her hand to stop traffic rather like the Korean grandmas did a year ago in that far off land. Speaking of traffic, drivers double park with hazed lights flashing as though that excuses their blocking the single lane alleyways and holding up traffic.

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I’m no longer in Tourist Turkey and firmly entrenched in the Land of Locals. “Where are you from?” the men all ask in their thick Turkish English. “Australia.” “Harry Kewel” they always say. I smile and say “yes, Harry Kewel”. I’m sure they think I know anything more than his name … But I don’t. Haha.

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Cats sit on cafe seats as if they own the place.

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The mosques make their presence known through the calls to prayer and the tall spires of their minarets.

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Old men polish shoes and boots on portable stands. Their clients seem to be from the older generation too. But it might be that the younger men are working on this blue-sky Saturday.

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And this sandwich with chicken, pickles, tomatoes and home made sauce set me back all of 3TL ($AU1.50).

It’s not all good here though. Syrian refugees sit on the side of the roads. Not as many as in Bodrum but a few with signs in Turkish asking for money. The word Syria translates easily. A man and woman sit on the footpath. Their heads hung in shame. It must be awful to lose everything through no fault of your own and to become stateless in a world where you need a state to have a future. I feel my heart open and a sense of shame fill me for having been so negative about the refugee crisis from the security of the far flung island nation on which I live. It is a human tragedy that so many people have been displaced. So many families torn apart by war. So many men, women and children now homeless. And so many souls traumatised by the experience of first war and then the quest for safety. I leave some money on the couple’s mat. It’s a large blue bill but it still feels stingy given all blessings that I have.

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I go to the shopping centre because that’s something I like to do at least once in each country. It’s not travel unless you’ve seen both traditional and modern. I buy gear for our winter trip to Europe: fleece lined trousers and winter boots.

And then I indulge in my favourite pastime: the cinemas. I watch The Walk in 3D. It’s a wonderful movie about commitment, passion and perseverance. The seats are comfortable and the quality of the cinema brilliant. Mind you, this is a brand new shopping mall so that’s probably why. Half way the film stops and advertisements start. They have a half time break in Turkey. Wonderful because I was busting for the bathroom but didn’t want to miss the movie. If you travel, go to the movies along the way. It’s actually fascinating to see how different the experience is in each country.

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The movie ends after dark. I walk the 2.5km back to my hotel, taking detours and back roads as I find myself distracted by the sights. The sound of dice and backgammon pieces competes with the call of the mosque. When I stop in a bakery to buy a treat there is a policeman standing there. He steals a small chocolate eclair pastry and hands it to me with a wink then leaves. The chocolate mousse cake that I buy is divine. Back outside the contrasting life goes on. Modern shops sell fashion brands while some street vendors sell socks from carts. How I love this place where East and West collide. It’s like being in a fantasy world where everything is possible and anything might happen.

Goreme to Samsun (Black Sea, Turkey)

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I wake again to the sight of balloons. But today the sky is blue and the colours of the balloons more vibrant. I watch as they bob higher and lower on the air. A flash of flame illuminates the balloons from within and changes their altitude or direction subtly. Some balloons fly high while others almost scrape through the Red and Rose Valleys. They are so close today and many fly straight over the camping ground. One so low that the passengers are waving and talking with us on the ground. It’s absolutely magical. The start to what will be a magical day.

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I pack the car, plot some geocaches in the Love Valley that I might like to pick up and set off towards Bogazkale where I have read there is a 4,000 year old Hitite ruin. It should be a 3 hour drive north. But then I see two hitch hikers with heavy packs thumbing for lifts on the road out of Goreme. I’ve never picked up a hitch hiker before because I’ve always been told it is dangerous. But Peter from Budapest (maybe you will remember him; he is the man behind Epic Adventures in Hungary) hitch hiked the world when he was younger and he’s a really top bloke. So I decided to take the plunge. Besides, my travels always go best when I walk through the random doors that open for me.

I stop and ask the two women where they want to go. “Mahmet” they say. It’s a town at a crossroads about half an hour from Goreme. As they talk they tell me they actually want to go to Samsun but this is about 400km (250 miles) away and is not on a direct route from Goreme. I invite the to come with me to Bogazkale, which is closer to Samsun. They agree and off we go.

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My new friends are from the Ukraine and Russia. They have been traveling together all over Asia and are now hitch hiking Asia Minor. As we drive I learn about life in Ukraine and Russia. I learn about their simple yet complex style of travel; taking lifts with randoms, staying with Couch Surfing hosts and sleeping wherever opportunity allows. These girls are the real deal. They are the Crazy Russians who I so admire and always tell everyone about. To be honest, the young Russians I have met and heard about on my adventures probably inspire me more than almost any other nationality of traveler. I have seen them all over the world with their “throw caution to the wind” approach to extreme budget travel (I have now learned the reason is because salaries in Ukraine and Russia are low. Unlike Australians for whom almost every country is cheap, to these young Ukrainians and Russians almost every country is expensive). I feel honoured to be part of their adventure, even in such a small way.

We reach Bogazkale and it quickly becomes apparent that this is not a great place. The Hitite ruins look like nothing and the town itself is tiny. We all realise that the hitch hikers will not be able to take a lift from here easily and it’s not really a place that I need to see. So I suggest that we continue together to Samsun; their desired destination on the Black Sea.

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But on one condition; we stop for lunch. So that’s how we come to be sitting in a field near a water spring enjoying the sunshine eating bread, salami, fruit, honey and cake. It’s probably going to be one of my most cherished memories from Turkey. Just feeling the sun on my skin, eating food that we have conjured from our packs, watching the girls waving at trucks to make them beep their horns or wave, and feeling small in such a vast landscape.

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It takes all day to drive to Samsun. By the time we reach the Black Sea’s hills the sky has grown grey, the wind started to howl and the temperatures plummet. We stop for coffee at a petrol station and I realise we still have an hour to drive. It’s already after 5:30pm and we left Goreme around 9:30am. I book a small hotel in the city centre and my new friends mark the address of their Couch Surfing host on Google Maps so we can navigate there.

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I drop the hitch hikers off at their host and drive the 12km back into Samsun city centre to find my hotel. It is literally in the middle of the city and I can tell already that I will love this town. It is to Turkey what Daegu was to South Korea, Lumangjan to my first trip to Indonesia, Chiang Mai to Thailand, Ipoh to Malaysia, Mito to Japan and Szeged to Hungary. It’s the city where I feel relaxed and comfortable and at ease. A place to just take in the atmosphere of the country. I can’t put my finger on what I like about it. But I feel instantly content here.

I check into my hotel, drop my gear, leave the key to my car with the owner so that he can move it between the daytime and night time parking arrangements they have with the local parking yards and set off to see what I can find. I start with plate of chicken at a local kebab shop (kebab in Turkey is not what it is in Australia). The owner shakes my hand and welcomes me to his shop (this is a thing here in Turkey; first shake hands then get to business). Another guest speaks a few words of English so asks where I am from and gets excited “Harry Kewel”. At first I have no idea what he means and then I remember there is a soccer player in Australia by that name so I smile and grin and nod. This place feels so great. It’s so local and low key. I stopped here because it’s right next door to the hotel and I am hungry. I pay 7TL ($AU3.50) for my plate of chicken kebab and a can of Pepsi. This would easily have cost twice that in the more touristed areas near the Mediterranean and Cappadocia.

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Wandering around the streets of Samsun I am struck by the true East meets West that is taking place here. Modern brand shops sit side-by-side with street vendors selling everything from cooked chestnuts and corn to fresh fruit. It’s so pretty.

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I indulge in Turkish-style ice cream and an apple. And enjoy a good two or three hours exploring the city centre. I feel a deep sense of gratitude to the hitch hikers for bringing me to this place. It’s funny what happens when you open yourself to opportunities, even if they are the very things other people say you shouldn’t do.