Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A bit of everything in Turkey

Turkey is one of those places that I had heard too many great things about before going. This made me think: 1) my expectations are so high that they could never possibly be met, and 2) everyone else has already been there, so maybe I shouldn't go. Well, I was wrong. Turkey is one of the most varied, beautiful, and romantic countries I've ever visited, and well worth a visit, even if it's rather on the "beaten path."

I crossed the border over land from Bulgaria (an adventure in its own right, watching customs officials battle locals over the dozens of eggs and fur coats they wanted to carry in to Turkey at midnight), and I had a day to wander the markets of Istanbul. I was disappointed by the Grand Bazaar, which looked more like a shopping mall than like an Arab market, though interestingly it's been that way for centuries, not just built for tourists. I did manage to catch a glimpse of the endangered Van cat, with one blue eye and one green eye, and some other stray cats lounging around in the market, and I sampled some of the local food, which was delicious (even for vegetarians there are wonderful mezes, cheese, bread, and olives, though I got a bit tired of the same few dishes over and over for two weeks).

I met up with D. that evening and we went on to Safranbolu, where we stayed at a beautiful, old caravanserai (where the camel caravans would stay in the old days). Safranbolu is a well-preserved Ottoman town, but the highlight of our visit was our side trip to Yoruk Koyu, where one of the old Ottoman houses has been turned into a museum of Ottoman life with perhaps the wackiest tour guide I have ever seen. This old woman spoke not a word of English, but through a few words I had learned of Turkish and a LOT of charades, she still managed to give us a tour of the house. As we went on, she got progressively more and more forward, at the top ordering us to sit down and put on the hats that were in the room and take pictures looking serious. Whenever D. would start to smile she would hit him, pretty hard, on the head, to the point that I couldn't stop laughing, which put a damper on the serious faces.

We headed south to Cappadocia, which is famous for its weird landscape full of huge natural stone towers, known as "fairy chimneys." Unusually, for almost 2000 years people have been making their homes in these chimneys, so we were able to see huge monasteries, churches, castles, homes, kitchens, banks and more carved into the rock, some with incredibly well-preserved frescoes from hundreds of years ago. It was definitely like nothing we'd ever seen before. I cashed in on an old IOU and we took a hot air balloon ride over Cappadocia, which was just gorgeous - we had perfect weather, fields full of blooming poppies, and lots of other beautiful balloons to admire. To top it all off, we stayed in a gorgeous cave suite, after being upgraded for free because the season has been quite slow. Lucky us!

We did a beautiful hike through the Ihlara Valley, visiting small rock churches and having a snack break at a pillow-covered table in the middle of a river, and then we headed down towards the Mediterranean coast, stopping along the way at the Mevlana Museum in Konya. Konya is the home of Sufism (the order of the whirling dervishes), and the Mevlana Museum is the mausoleum of the movement's founder. Unfortunately we were not able to see the dervishes this time around, though we tried hard.

We stopped briefly at Chimaera, where natural gasses escaping from the earth ignite spontaneously, producing a hillside covered in flames, and at Myra, an ancient Lycian city with fantastic cliffside rock tombs, a well-preserved amphitheater, and scantily-clad cruise boat tourists pretending to get some culture. Then on to Kas, a refreshingly un-tour-bussed town on the coast, where we took a lovely boat trip to visit the castle at Ucagiz and the sunken city ruins at Kekova and swam in the crystal clear (but freezing) Mediterranean waters. We could have stayed here a week, but sadly time did not allow...

After a brief stop in Fetiyhe, we headed up to Pamukkale, a huge hillside covered in calcium carbonate formations that used to be really amazing before they built too many hotels in the 80s and 90s. They are desperately trying to fix them back up now (after bulldozing the hotels), but with little water left, they don't bear much resemblance to the postcard photos. The next-door ruins of ancient Hieropolis, however, are quite impressive, and not far away are the ruins of Afrodisias, which were probably the next most impressive after Ephesus.

Of course Ephesus is the most famous of the ruins in Turkey, and for good reason. Only a small portion of the original city has been uncovered, but it is probably the most well-preserved ancient city I have ever seen, including some two-story houses with intact mosaics and frescoes. It was well worth fighting the crowds to see this amazing site. We made a stop also at Pergamon (you might know it from the museum in Berlin, which has stolen a bunch of the artifacts), where the Asclepion is located. The Asclepion (named for Asclepios, the Greek god of medicine) is one of the world's earliest and greatest medical centers. Although the diagnoses were based on dream analysis and the treatments were rudimentary at best, some of the advances in medical science made here thousands of years ago remained the basis of western medicine until the 16th century!

Not much was left of the ruins of Troy, but they were still interesting to see because, well, it's Troy. We also visited the Gallipoli battlefields, which were depressing and probably best appreciated if you are Australian or kiwi, so we cheered up gazing at the blooming fields of poppies along the coast on the way back to Istanbul.

With three days in Istanbul, we were able to see the extraordinary (and huge) Topkapi Palace, complete with a harem for 300 women, the Aya Sofia, a feat of architectural engineering in its time, and the Blue Mosque, built by a 14-year-old sultan to one-up the Aya Sofia. We wandered around a few of the neighborhoods, took a boat on the Bosphorus, and visited an enormous underground cistern that provided water to the city for many years. But for the most part, the best part about Istanbul is wandering around and soaking up the culture - eating the amazing food (baklava from Karakoy Gulluoglu is out of this world), wandering through the markets, watching the world go by from a cafe. It quickly became one of my favorite big cities in the world (I don't usually like big cities much).

So all in all, Turkey was quite different from what I expected. We only visited the western half, and I imagine the eastern half is quite different, but what we saw was surprisingly European. Things seemed quite well-developed, the hassle factor was low, and infrastructure was good. We were amazed at the range of activities, from adventure sports to sunbathing, ancient ruins, natural wonders, markets, and food -- there was really no danger of getting bored. Turkish people were incredibly friendly and hospitable, and we found it an easy and very romantic place to travel. The flip side of this is that in certain areas there are a lot of tourists, particularly on the coasts where the cruise ships come in, and it's expensive on a par with Eastern Europe. A great place to go with a partner or on a mid-range (or higher) budget, but a place I got the impression would be more difficult as a backpacker. On the other hand, what I read of the east sounded like it was perfect backpacking territory. Hopefully I'll be back soon to find out!

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