Wednesday, April 27, 2011

We Will Remember Them

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives, you are now living in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent your 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.”
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, 1934

At 6.30am on Saturday morning Alix and I boarded the tour coach bound for Gelibolu Peninsula, the place we call ‘Gallipoli’. The trip from Istanbul to Gallipoli is around four and a half hours, and ours was one of dozens of coaches headed for Anzac Cove. It was nice to be amongst Australians again after so many months of travel, to make new friends amongst the easy familiarity of shared language and perspective.

All along the journey to Anzac Cove we would receive historical information from our guide, a Turkish bloke whose name, incidentally, was Oz. He gave speeches and played DVDs on the coach TV and we learnt about the conflict that happened here 96 years ago from both an Australian and a Turkish point of view as the landscape near which the confict took place whizzed by outside.

As we approached the peninsula, the road snaked its way along the banks of the Dardanelles, a long, narrow strait that connects the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean to the Sea of Marmara and onwards to Istanbul. In 1915 the British Navy attempted to force its way up the Dardanelles strait to attack the capital of the Ottoman Turk Empire, Istanbul.

The Dardanelles Strait, just 1.2 km wide in places

Looking out the coach window at the Dardanelles, it seemed like insanity that the British would attempt this. The strait is narrow. A strong swimmer could swim across it. A warship would have nowhere to maneouvre, it would present its broad side to every coastal gun along the hills just inland from the beaches, and the British didn't bother to send their best, or even their second best ships. They thought that when the British Navy showed up the Turks would surrender, or run away. That fat bloke with the cigars, Winston Churchill, was calling the shots. He obviously didn't know the Turks very well.

The Turks had plenty of coastal guns, shiny new Krupp 35cm howitzers recently bought from the Germans, the purchase of which was part of the reason the Turks were caught up in the war in the first place. They were rapid-firing weapons that could toss a high-explosive shell weighing 276kg up to 7 kilometres at a target. The British naval assault was broken, twice, by the Turks before the British decided to have a third go at it, but this time they would land an army of 50,000 men to support the naval assault instead of going it alone. The army would be landed on the western side of the Dardanelles, at several locations on the Gallipoli Peninsula that our tour coach was now approaching, Anzac Cove being one of them.

We arrived at the Gallipoli memorial area way too early to enter. Tour operators had been told the site would open at 2pm, but it was now closed until 6pm. Something to do with the movements of Australian dignitaries, we were informed.

To kill the time, we had a BBQ at a pre-arranged place on the banks of the Dardanelles. We ate chicken, sausages and meatballs served with salad and bread, drank beer and played cards and two-up to kill the time until we could go inside the site. I waved my beer around and waxed lyrical at a nice Aussie bloke named David about how stupid I thought the whole naval-approach-up-a-very-narrow-strait idea was. The sun was high and warm but very soon it would go down and the cold and wind would kick into high gear for the rest of a long night of waiting for the dawn.

Turkish köfte meatballs on the BBQ

Clockwise from bottom left: Alix, Mia, Simon (x2), Liz

After the BBQ, we trekked to Anzac Cove to settle in for a night on the bleachers. Wrapped up in five layers of thermals and Gore-Tex and cocooned in sleeping bags, we enjoyed the hospitality of a Turkish, Australian and NZ special event. Different historical presentations played all through the night as we drifted in and out of sleep. I half-dreamed, half-imagined what it would be like to be in this same dark, cold, windy place freezing in thin, dirty clothes, most likely wracked with dysentery, expecting to be killed very soon, then doing it over and over again every night, maybe for months.

Anzac Cove

A crowd gathered to await the dawn

Warding against the cold, Alix shrouds her head in a black pashmina and attempts to cover every centimetre of exposed skin. I told her she looked like one of those ring-wraiths in the Lord of the Rings movies

The Dawn Service came and went too quickly, my frozen mind struggled to process the information I was given. As the sun came up and we all thawed out we trekked uphill to the location of the Australian mid-morning memorial service at Lone Pine.

Anzac Cove beach, just after dawn service

As we walked the ground, passing cemeteries at the various staging posts that represented ground the ANZACs captured in the long 8-month campaign, I found myself frequently off-balance with emotions. I looked at the hills we were walking up and wondered how in the world the men who fought here found the motivation to continue to climb up the inclines under fire from higher ground. It looked so hopeless, so broken, an impossible idea. Looking uphill and imagining that struggle was to imagine devastation. In contrast, turning around and looking downhill, the view was spectacular, exhilirating. The graves of the dead quietly complimented the natural beauty of this barren place. My emotions turned around along with my gaze.

Looking up from the beach, towards the rocky outcrop the ANZACs, having trained in Egypt, dubbed 'The Sphinx'

A column of visitors crawls up Artillery Road to Shell Green Cemetery

One of the very large number of gravestones in several cemeteries

We arrived at Lone Pine cemetery and memorial site. The area is about as big as a tennis court, one pine tree in its centre. The original lone pine tree was destroyed in the fighting, the one that stands in the memorial site now was planted in the 1920’s.

Lone Pine Cemetery

The RAAF band and on the right, a Turkish Army honour guard

Mounting of the Catafalque Party

Laying of wreaths

Below the ground at Lone Pine are the buried bodies of around 9000 men who died fighting there over the campaign, in a system of trenches in this tiny area. The area was so confined that sometimes even bayonets could not be used and men killed each other with their bare hands in the dirt and mud. One of the men commemorated there is my great grand-uncle, Edwin Cheal. I am not a religious person, but Lone Pine Cemetery is as close as I had ever felt to being in a place that is sacred.

After Lone Pine we continued to climb up to Chunuk Bair, the main objective of the ANZAC assault and the highest point on the peninsula that Allied forces ever reached. Finally I felt there was a position in this area where, if you owned it, you might feel safe. It had commanding views down the valleys on either side, beautiful to look at. New Zealand forces captured Chunuk Bair from the Turks in a heroic assault that cost 880 New Zealander lives. They held Chunuk Bair for just two days. Many Turks died taking Chunuk Bair back from the New Zealanders, who were virtually wiped out in the Turkish counterattack.

Valley view from Chunuk Bair

Being at Gallipoli was unlike anything I had experienced, or expect to experience again. It is hard to explain how powerfully but subtly different it is to attending a memorial in Australia. At home, the celebrations seem to be about honouring our own dead. But here, you are acutely aware of being on foreign soil.

The Turkish 57th Regiment memorial service. The 57th Regiment was the only Turkish formation holding the peninsula against attack on the 25th April. It was all but obliterated in the fighting that followed.

A Turkish band unit in traditional Ottoman dress

April 25th is just another day for most Turks, it’s not a significant day for them. People in Istanbul are dimly aware of the Gallipoli Peninsula. Some Turks think Australians come here to mourn their dead relatives or to apologize to the Turkish people for their ancestors having invaded Turkey so long ago, or some other such sentiment.

Maybe there is a little of those things, but these are cooked ideas, and the truth is raw. We come to Gallipoli to remember. We remember the bravery, courage, honour and sacrifice of men who were thrust by fate into a war characterised by great futility and yet fought with honour and resolve. When we make this pilgrimage, it is impressed upon us that these virtues existed in equal measure on both sides of the battles that were fought here. The adversaries grew to honour and respect each other as well as themselves while they suffered equally in circumstances of incredible hardship.

After the war ended, these enemies chose to extend the respect they formed for each other in war to join in friendship and reconciliation, to favour peace over hate and revenge. So it is bravery, honour, duty and sacrifice itself, and the higher purpose of these virtues is love, that we remember on 25th April each year.

Lest We Forget.

Private Edwin Harold Cheal, 3rd Battalion AIF, died of wounds 30th April, 1915. Rest in peace, digger Cheal.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

How We Got to Tir Asleen

Getting from Slovenia to Turkey seemed like an easy task: we would catch a train to Belgrade, stay a few days, and then catch another train to Istanbul.

The first and second parts were very easy. The 10-hour train ride from Ljubljana to Belgrade was peaceful; we had a whole compartment to ourselves until the last hour or so, and spent the time reading and sleeping. The only excitement, if you could call it that, came when crossing into Croatia: the Slovenian border patrol questioned how we actually got to Slovenia as the last stamps in our passport were exit stamps from Egypt about 6 weeks before. We had to explain to her the arrangement that if an Australian citizen is evacuated to Germany (or possibly any EU country), they don't need to get a visa or even a stamp on entry. She looked a little puzzled but simply shrugged her shoulders, stamped out passports and went on her way.

In Belgrade, we spent a very relaxing week in a very small hostel which was basically a 2 bedroom apartment. We made good use of the kitchen and I even baked Jace's favourite chicken pie, which we shared with our lovely Icelander flatmates, Kristin and Emil.

Statue of a buff worker in Belgrade

Kalemegdan Fortress and Park. For centuries the population of the city of Belgrade was concentrated within its walls

A mosaic of the Virgin Mary outside St Petka Chapel

Looking out to where the Sava and Danube rivers meet

The final stage of our journey sounded simple. We checked departure times of the train to Istanbul and discovered it left every day at 7.15am. When we asked the lady at the International Ticket Office when it would arrive in Istanbul, she responded, "7.15." "In the evening?" "Yes." Too easy. A 12-hour train ride: no problem.

The morning of our departure, April 1 - our one year travel anniversary -, the train was an hour late. We checked with the ticket office, the information office and the conductor to make sure we were waiting on the right platform and getting on the train to Istanbul. We boarded on the second carriage of the 4-carriage-long train and settled into a compartment. Our tickets were checked and no one bothered us again for nearly 6 hours until a new ticket inspector asked for our tickets.

I plug in for the long ride

"You are wrong train. This train no Istanbul." WHAT?!

Through his broken English and a lot of hand signals, he explained that the train had split in two one station back. One half was heading to Sofia and Istanbul and the other half, the one which we were on, was heading to Romania. He bustled us off the train at the next station and we jumped on a waiting train heading back to Niš, from whence we could go to Istanbul.

Once in Niš, we discovered that the next train to Istanbul would not be leaving till the following day. Of course. We spent an uninteresting night in Niš, which is the third largest city in Serbia but is basically an industrial town with nothing else going on.

On April 2, we got to the station early and triple-checked which part of the train we needed to be on to get to Istanbul. Again we had our own compartment, but while we read, we were keenly alert as to where we were and what the train was doing until we reached Sofia.

A few moments after the train stopped in Sofia, a man with a grey vest and a red lanyard with a card hanging off it popped his head in the door and asked, "Istanbul?" We nodded and he motioned to us to go with him, saying, "Come, come."

As daylight faded from the sky, we followed him off the train, down and up stairs, onto a different platform, while he motioned to us to follow quicker. He showed us onto an empty waiting train where another man in a grey vest and red lanyard pointed to some seats, started writing on a pad that looked to be tickets, and said, "Reservation seats. 35 Euro."

Jace and I looked at each other and back at him. "We have tickets. No reservation needed," I said, showing him our tickets.

"You must have reservation. Special seats. 35 Euro."

"No, I don't think so." We set our bags on the racks while he continued to push us.

"See here," he insisted, pointing to the card covered in Cyrillic around his neck, "You buy reservation from me."

"No," Jace said firmly and we turned our backs to the man, who finally gave up and disappeared.

The first man, the one who had shown us to the train, was still hanging around.

"Euro?" he quietly asked.

"Ne Euro. Ne money. Ne cash." It was true, we had precious little cash on us.

"Coca Cola? Fanta? Chocolate?" he pleaded, trying a different tact.

"Ne," I responded shaking my head a little sadly but firmly. He gave up.

"I might've actually given him a Euro if he hadn't led us straight into a scam," Jace told me as a real ticket conductor walked passed us in a green uniform.

Of course, when he checked our tickets, he didn't ask for the "special reservation" tickets or more money. He did tell us, however, that we would have to transfer onto a bus at Svilengrad and assured us he would let us know when we got there.

It was after 7pm when we left Sofia, and as the hours passed, it became clear that we would be lucky if we reached Istanbul by 2am.

In Svilengrad, we must've waited an hour for the bus to take us across the border, and with the time zone change, it was 4am before we were boarding another train to take us the final stage of our journey.

We finally rolled into Istanbul's Sirkeci station around 10.30am, about 50 hours after starting our journey from Belgrade. We had made it to our Tir Asleen.

The only things we had to do now were to find somewhere to live permanently and to get jobs. But first: sleep!

Friday, April 22, 2011

The 5 songs that have followed us around the world

Ok, so this one is a bit of an "in joke" for us. The world is now interconnected in ways that defy the imagination, and pop music is no exception. For some reason when you are travelling you might assume that crossing a border from one country to another, especially if the language, race and religion of the people there change too, would have some serious effect on the music you overhear on the road.

Not always true! It doesn't matter whether you're in a nightclub in Lima, in the Amazon jungle, or getting caught up in a revolution in Egypt, people are listening to the same songs.

Here is a list of the top pop songs we have heard in just about every country we have been to.

1. We No Speak Americano - Yolanda Be Cool & DCup

2. I Gotta Feeling - Black Eyed Peas

3. When Love Takes Over - David Guetta featuring Kelly Rowland

4. I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho) - Pitbull

5. Waka Waka (This Time For Africa) - Shakira


Apart from our unfortunate run-in at the youth hostel in Ljubljana, Slovenia turned out to be a very cool place.

Slovenes pride themselves on being right in the middle of Europe, part of the EU, very cosmopolitan, and multilingual - many speak Slovene, Italian, German and English as a minimum. They have a long history - early human settlement dates back over 250,000 years - although Slovenia as we know it today is very young; it declared independence in 1991.

Ljubljana is an awesome city, with funky street art everywhere, cool cafés and nice buildings, all presided over by a medieval castle. It just oozes Parisian artsy café culture, with a side of Eastern European grit.

The ever-busy Prešeren Square, with Ljubljana Castle above

Hot chocolate and cherry chocolate cake at one of Ljubljana's many cafés

Statues by Jakov Brdar adorn the Butchers' Bridge

Monster heads on the bridge

Totally heavy metal mannequin

Inspired, I bought some "fierce" boots

The rebuilt courtyard of Ljubljana Castle

View from Ljubljana Castle

We visited the karst cave system at Postojna, a limestone cave not unlike the Jenolan caves back home (although as the most visited show cave in Europe, it is much more touristed - 500,000+ visitors per year!). We saw the cave's mascot, the small and illusive Proteus anguinus, similar to a salamander, along with a host of other endemic cave-dwellers, mainly insects, at the cool Proteus Vivarium near the cave entrance.

This formation is thousands of years old

"Ribbon" formations

Wide walkways protect the caves. With so many visitors every year, you can't let them wander!

An aquarium within the cave holds a few Proteus anguinus for people to see

Proteus anguinus, commonly known as the olm or proteus, is completely blind and lives its whole life within the karst caves

Deciding it was time to treat ourselves, we went to the picturesque town of Bled for some R&R. We spent an afternoon at the amazing Živa Wellness Centre, first getting a massage and then relaxing in the series of saunas. The dry laconium with heated tile seats at a pleasant 40°C (ambient temperature) was a favourite, but we also enjoyed the very humid, pleasantly scented caldarium and hamamm saunas (about 42°C), the bio sauna (50°C, 50% humidity) and the scalding Finnish sauna (90°C - whew!), as well as the various warm and cold pools, showers and lounge areas.

Fully revitalised, we spent some time sampling the local cuisine, walking around the lake, climbing up to the castle and rowing (well, Jace rowed) to the island in the middle of Lake Bled.

Tasty Bled Cake

Even the beetles are funky in Slovenia

Our first couple of days in Bled were very misty

Bled Island, shrouded in mist

Bled Castle and St Martin's Church

Inside St Martin's Church

Modern portrayal of hell in St Martin's - very heavy metal

Dinosaur head made from machine parts - more heavy metal

Another Brdar statue

View from Bled Castle

Rebuilt courtyard of the castle

Looking over the town of Lesce, near Bled, to the mountains

Jace rowing. Our penzion is the yellow building on the left

Heave! Our goal: Bled Island and the Church of the Assumption

Jace about to pull the "wishing bell" on Bled Island

The remains of the frescos that once adorned the Church of the Assumption

Bled Castle, as seen from the island

We definitely felt the love, Slovenia!