To be reunited with HeeHaw and continue our circumnavigation of the Black Sea we flew back to Turkey. Exiting Ataturk Airport we had the good fortune to be accosted by a waiting tour operator who coincidentally specialized in tours of Turkey for Australasians. Astonishingly we have mutual acquaintances. His inborn sense of Turkish hospitality kicked in and he kindly drove us across Istanbul to HeeHaw. His hospitality did not over-ride his other inborn instinct, revenue gathering, but his price was so reasonable for the obvious costs he was incurring that we gave him a little more. OK, I know – I’ve gone soft. He had spent 13 years as a cook in a New York Italian restaurant (Italian??? He was embarrassed about that) and spent the 1 hour journey comparing Turkey with the US. He likes both but considers Turkish people friendlier and far better drivers. He believes their Prime Ministers promise that Turkey will have a bigger economy than the US in the near future – so long as he is re-elected. He also considers his daughters are safer in Turkey.
The main motorways out of Istanbul all operate a Road Toll. It’s an automated system that reads a sticker on the windscreen as one drives through the toll booths. As we hadn’t bothered about this detail or expense, every time we passed a toll reader, lights flashed and sirens blared. I looked suitably concerned, but no other motorists appeared interested or even surprised. For kilometers thereafter I scanned the mirror expecting to see red and blue flashing lights and envisaged a few days in a Turkish jail while Flypaper pleaded with you for bail funds. I had read that crime rates were relatively low in Turkey so was sure they were looking for offenders to throw in the surprisingly large number of prisons we have seen along our journey. Perhaps we naturally gravitate towards these places. Eventually, after consultation with a Turkish friend Flypaper decided to pay the tax. I reasoned that as our car number plate is New Zealand it doesn’t show up in their computer system so they wouldn’t find us. Flypaper however was certain that at every boarder post they held an ever growing list of our offenses and we would be the subjects of an international incident crashing through the barriers as we made a desperate bid for freedom. From that moment on the toll booth mayhem ceased – but I worried even more because of the considerable documentation she completed they now know all about us.
Our decision to drive along the northern Black Sea coast of Turkey was inspired. It’s a lovely place with many similarities to the Mediterranean coast – at 1/3 the price. From Istanbul, advertised as the 2nd largest city in the world (it may be), the road to the northern coast travels through sparsely populated agricultural and horticultural country. This is the breadbasket of the city. It’s very pretty and looks like many parts of rural Europe. The seaside village of Amasra may have hotels memorable for all the wrong reasons but the atmosphere and friendliness will linger long. Our fresh caught fish meal that evening was educational. I learnt never again to order the mixed fruits of the sea. They came in waves (pun intended) of various small sizes but all had bones and other parts I found difficult to swallow. The pile of remains on my plate was twice the size of those on our neighbours table. Flypaper made me feel better by saying if it was a recycling competition, I won. The meal was made possible and more enjoyable by a fellow customer at a nearby table. He worked for ‘Holiday Inn’ at Istanbul, spoke excellent English – and couldn’t help himself taking over all our decision making. He then marched into the kitchen and instructed them on hospitality towards westerners’ – then became our waiter and culinary instructor. By the end of the evening I was covered in breadcrumbs, fish oil and contentment.
The 5 hour / 200km drive along the coast to Sinop would make a rally driver wet himself with pleasure. HeeHaw performed well – especially over the sections being repaired or converted to 4 lane – but I would have loved to be in a Lotus Elise. Off the coast was a Russian navel ship being shadowed by the Turkish Coast Guard – we shadowed them both but so stealthily through the twisty forested roads that I’ll bet they never knew it. Fortunately it was Sunday with little other traffic on the roads – and zero Police presence. Motoring bliss.
Our destination for the night was the fabled city of Sinop. Reputed to be the oldest city on the Back Sea coast, founded around 700BC by the Amazon queen Sinova. Legend has it that Sinova attracted the eye of Zeus who, to gain favour, offered to grant her one wish. Sinova requested everlasting virginity – thus cunningly foiling Zeus’s amorous intentions. That’s despicable! I think there is a law against that in New Zealand. The philosopher Diogenes also hung out here. He lived in a large earthenware tub and preached a disregard of conventions. (A bit like the Christchurch Wizard). Our excellent hotel had the most amazing breakfast room. The top (6th) floor overlooked the harbour and Black Sea. Two sides were glass that slid open to cool our coffee with a gentle sea breeze on a fabulous Turkish summer morning. Sinop has very few modern buildings. The narrow streets, particularly through the old walled town are lined with buildings that are best described as having ‘ramshackle charm’.
Each evening on this coast I took the opportunity to swim in the Black Sea. The water in this sea is unique in that it receives more fresh water from rivers and rain than is lost through evaporation. It’s complicated but the big deal is the upper level (where I swim) is only about ½ as salty as the Red Sea and 1/3 less salty than the Pacific Ocean. This sea is not tidal and there is no fluctuation of levels resulting in it being perpetually calm. At the beach clothed female friends and family of swimmers sit in their deck chairs with their toes in the water. There is no surf and no surfers in the Black Sea … but there are sharks. I was told about these after I returned from a buoy about 100m offshore. No one else had ventured that far out. I am a bit skeptical about this danger but I have been scanning the menus to see if shark shows up there.
The drive from Sinop via Samsun and Ordu to Trabzon is mostly on a 4 lane highway – max speed 110kph - but if ones car is capable they travel a bit quicker. We galloped along pretty well and managed 110kph – average. Whereas in the poorer Caucuses the roads are made dangerous by roaming cows, here in Turkey they have prospered and progressed to tractors. The farmers drive them to town and I guess they have no other roads to use. It can be a bit disconcerting if a tractor pulls out into the fast lane for some reason when you have a closing speed difference of over 100kph.
This area is the Hazelnut capital of the world. Turkey produces 75% of the worlds hazelnuts. You may not know what hazelnuts are but you will know Nutella. Nutella is an Italian brand but each jar contains about 50 hazelnuts – so there’s a pretty good chance some of those come from northern Turkey. To see this area is mind-boggling – the only plant being grown over a thousand square kilometers seems to be Hazel. Hazelnuts are promoted as having lots of health benefits – particularly with regard to cancer and heart attack prevention. I do acknowledge that we never saw anyone having a heart attack while we were driving through Turkey – Oh, perhaps a guy on a tractor but I couldn’t be sure as he was enveloped in our tyre smoke at the time. In our house the principal consumption of hazelnuts is from the use of liquor called Frangellico. Flypaper uses it to improve fish. As a result, given it becomes mixed with Omega3, I expect to be still churning this sort of information out for some time yet.
Turkey is at yet another critical and exiting point in its history. It’s one of the worlds few countries with excellent economic growth, low unemployment and few social problems like crime. The key to their surge is incredible infrastructural activity. They are building roads, communications, tunnels, railways and ports everywhere. The cost benefit ratio of this is immense. Our country did it during the ‘50’s and ‘’60’s and it made us rich. The resulting money was used to train economist – with ideological tendencies – and bicycle clips on their trousers. The activity in Turkey reminded me of a plague of mice in a cheese factory. The result is crumbs everywhere, lots of holes and droppings all over the place. It’s a vibrant ‘happening’ place. Obviously Turkey doesn’t suffer from a ‘Resource Management Act’. A large percentage of the world’s mechanical diggers must be here and they are very busy. The other thing I noticed in contrast to our western environment. The millions of tradesmen who are building everything have sensible trousers that cover their bottoms.
Our arrival at Trabzon was a bit concerning. The car ferry we were intending to catch to Sochi (Russia) 2 days later had been cancelled. Needless to say this caused a bit of consternation and running around. After a discussion with the shipping company clerk who considered things could be worse (it could have sunk while we were aboard) we called on the Russian Consul to check if we could drive through Georgia. He said that our Visa gave us entitlement to do so but he couldn’t guarantee those ratbag (not the word he used) Georgians wouldn’t be squabbling over the land Russia has recently stolen or that the mountain passes would not be closed by snow (they were a week earlier). He also confessed the Russian boarder control may be having a collective hangover as there is little traffic and nothing more to do than research the boredom prevention qualities of Vodka. Added to that, the road goes somewhere other than where we were intending. That idea was put aside as too problematical. A telephone receptionist at the shipping company head office in Sochi did suggest that another ship may be made ready to come to our rescue sometime in the future. She obviously sympathized with our having to live among Turks and drink 67 cups of tea each day. At least, that’s what I think she said because my Russian is of limited vocabulary (one can only say ‘Hi’ and ‘Vodka’ so many times before the conversation stalls). She made a valiant effort in Ruslish but my comprehension failed with the finer points. Most Russian women I have spoken to say, “If you are rich I would like to marry you and come to live in your country”. Come to think of it – perhaps that’s why she’s sending a ship.
At 9am on the 4th day we were told to get our US$’s out and hotfoot it down to the office for tickets. At 10am the agent called to say the boat was cancelled again – indefinitely. Further discussion with our Russian Consul mate confirmed that the Russian Customs had just closed the port at Sochi to enable renovations for the Winter Olympics. He suggested that would take 6 months and it would still look like a refuse collection area. That meant Russia was off the agenda. We’ve had a little bit cut off our circumnavigation of the Black Sea. You could say the journey has been circumcised.
We drove right back across Turkey to another port, Zongudak, just in time to catch a Ukrainian vehicle ferry destined to sail home. Twice the distance, half the price. Turkish customs decided the VIN number issued by the New Zealand ‘orthorities, and recorded on the various documents, wasn’t the chassis number as stated and required. That generated an hours debate in 4 languages of which I only contributed English. Being the accused and star witness made the trial a bit difficult. Eventually they concluded that I hadn’t imported 2 cars, changed the engines and sold one. However, they failed to notice that HeeHaw is actually owned by Flypaper. Of course this is a preposterous notion – ‘wimin’ don’t own 4wd cars. None of this delay mattered as the boat set sail 4 hours late. That didn’t mater either as we didn’t, at that stage, know where in the Ukraine we were headed for. It turned out to be somewhere obscure 24 hours away and on the opposite side of the Crimea to here we would have preferred.
This was no cruse – although there were some poky machines. It was a big ship but virtually empty. Life on board is described in two words – incredibly hot. I think our basic cabin would be where they cook the bread – if we weren’t occupying it. I estimate that most of the time it was over 40 degrees with the window open. I think they only gave it to us because they had bread left over from 3 cruises previous. That night, 20 minutes out of port, we bought a large can of German beer – each. The other 20 people on board (truck drivers) bought a large bottle of Vodka – each. They bought another at breakfast next morning. Breakfast was interesting. It’s clearly written on the galley door 8am – 9am. Most people, including us, arrived a little after 9am … because during the night the ship changed to Russian time – 1 hour ahead of Turkey. When the drivers all went back to their trucks for weapons, the infuriated cook dragged the food back out of the rubbish bin and onto the servery. I also suspected he may have added bubonic plague bacteria to the food – so we ate boiled eggs. The 14 cups of black coffee used to rehydrate were excellent and, remained, as intended, slowly working through the digestive tract. I kept the door to our bathroom ajar just in case digestion ceases and the flow sped up.
During the night our ship developed a problem with an engine heat exchanger and was forced to cruise at half speed. It was never fast to begin with. That meant we were late for arrival in Ukraine and the customs / immigration were closed for the night. The 24 hour journey became 45 hours. Instead of arriving half baked we were well done. The light in our ensuite failed. By stealing a tube from another cabin I quickly deduced it was a fitting problem so informed the crew who sent the electrician to sort it out. It took him over an hour to reach the same conclusion. He changed the fitting and we enjoyed the brightest bathroom on board. This was not as good as you may imagine. Flypaper was able to examine her complexion in the mirror and declared it to be a disaster – made worse by the fact her renovation and recovery supplies were locked in the hold 3 decks below. My suggestion to simply leave the light off was not well received..
We felt very secure on board - initially. The Black Sea was, as always, mirror calm. There were no icebergs to bump into and the captain seems to know where he was headed. I constantly checked though. When he’s got it correct, going from Turkey to Ukraine the sun rises on our right and sets on our left. Second in command was the Stewardess. She was about 2.1 meters tall and weighed at least 140kg – with a smile that overcame my instinctive fear of women in powerful positions and made communication a delight. The truck drivers all lusted after her. Her name, as expected, was Natasha. I was charming to Natasha – to the extent that Flypaper was becoming concerned. However, when Natasha bought us a fan, nicked from the captain’s cabin, Flypaper accepted that sometimes sharing me with other women has advantages. There was another female on board. I think she was the captain’s wench. I doubt that anyone could tell what she looked like because she lazed around exposing meters of legs that commanded everyone’s attention. When she was around I almost forgot to check the sun position.
On the unexpected 2nd night the bar ran out of beer. While the truckies continued their vodka marathon we had to resort to VSOP Courvoisier Cognac and Sprite. That went some way to temporarily sorting out the complexion issue. Notwithstanding that excellent effect, Cognac of any quality is not a good rehydrator. However, by my 3rd glass I was beginning to understand why the truck drivers lusted after Natasha.
I should stop here … as you’ve likely had enough. However our arrival into Ukraine was too interesting not to share. The chugging along at slow speed meant we endured an unexpected second night and a potential crises – Flypaper ran out of toilet paper – she was again grateful for my charm. We arrived off the obscure little port of Shadovs’k in the early hours and hove to in the channel at idle with zero prop revolutions. The Captain probably left the bridge in the command of Natasha and went for his morning ablutions. The idling boat ship was gently pushed out of the channel by the wind … and ran aground. This caused quite a bit of consternation that included two tugboats rushing out and huffing and puffing and lots of black smoke from our funnel – not to mention making the whole harbour very muddy. Pretty soon it was all under control and they took us into port early in case something else happened. When it occurred, I scurried around and shouted through the porthole to Flypaper who was in the shower. “We’re about to be shipwrecked!” She called back, “That’s OK, I'm already wet. What should I wear?” Whaaaat !!! We are in the middle of a potential life threatening situation and on the cusp of an international environmental disaster – and she wants to consider her wardrobe options. I left her to apply her waterproof makeup and scampered back to check if our rescuers needed any advice. It’s a good thing I did because by mental telepathy I guided them right to the berth without further mishap.
Finally, I was very proud to be part of a Ukrainian world record attempt. The category is … Number of personnel, forms and stamps to process a tourist in a car. Here’s a review of the process leading to what I consider is likely to be a record. I do hope we get a mention in that book the Guinness people write. After waiting 3 hours for the team to arrive at work (9am) and get emotionally prepared for their challenge to process 24 people (10am), 16 people and 2 dogs strolled up the ramp. They took over the saloon where we ate and sent all passengers to their cabins. We never saw them again. A ships boy ran up and down the stairs requesting information in Ukrainian to which we replied in English. He continued to scurry up and down asking for various documents, most of which don’t exist in New Zealand. After an hour he proudly returned our passports and instructed us to drive HeeHaw onto the dock – where we were directed to the Customs shed. 8 people waited for us and spent quite some time mentally preparing for their challenge. Eventually 6 of them approached us and said they would like to inspect our car, if we agreed. “Ok’ I said, “Let’s get into it”. One took me down the steps to the inspection pit below and shone a light all around. As to be expected, he spied a large rubber encased parcel that I had cunningly strapped up into a chassis cavity – exactly where smugglers always stash their drugs and guns. His eyes lit up in expectation of a promotion. I had always planned to say that this rubber sack contained Flypapers unmentionables - but he looked the type that would be interested in that – so I told him the truth – spare vehicle repair parts and touched a few components under the car as examples. He looked unimpressed and moved closer to the prize. Then he saw that, after 35,000kms of international travel, it was covered in Oil, tar, camel dung and mud with a recent top coat of Bulgarian fox intestines. After suitable contemplation he raised a finger to his lips in the international sign that we shouldn’t mention this to those upstairs. I concurred. Back at ground level, No 1 big hat requested a look in our largest suitcase which is buried deep in the bowels where smugglers always hide stuff. It contains little but used clothing and emergency supplies. As I unzipped it he casually asked the big question, “Do you have any drugs or guns?” I looked suitable shocked and expressed indignation at the notion. The first thing to emerge from the bag was the bulk supply of our rather meager medications. When one travels for many moths these things are prudent to have along. Most westerners’ our age have lots more but we did carry a reasonable supply of Paracetamol in case I felt moved to perform serious emergency surgery on a pedestrian who moved too slowly. I can’t stand screaming. He also had visions of a cruiser life in Head Office and asked what this was all for. I pulled out the accompanying book of suggested uses and started at A. By the time I was up to C for Cholera he had reached the conclusion we would be better outside of his shed. The next stop was an office with 2 men who interrogated me about our journey and wondered why I had bought my own woman when Ukraine had so many available beautiful ladies. I sheepishly confessed that I had little option as she had all the money and, as a game winner, she could cook. He understood perfectly and sent me to another guy whose secretary forgot to put on her underwear that morning - but wore and unbelievably low cut item of a colour that escapes my memory at the moment. Together they produced a pile of papers, photocopied and stamped them, as everyone else had done then took me to the next team who made me sit in a dungeon while they performed similar tasks. During this ordeal, Flypaper was eating fresh bread, tomatoes and cheese delivered to her by a Turkish truck driver who was quick to spot his chance. The pile of documents finally took me right up to the exit gate, where I was led into another office where 2 guys produced, copied and stamped further document then sent me back to near the start where they had a ‘bank’. The surely woman there demanded 15 something’s – I gave her 20. She returned 1 together with 2 new documents and pointed at the gate. This time a single guy with an AK47 wanted to see Flypapers passport. I had visions of the process starting all over again – but evidently they considered they had the record. 34 people (+ 2 dogs), 32 documents and 46 stamps. All accomplished in 3 hours. New Zealand Customs & Immigration have a lot to learn if they wish to solve our unemployment problem.