Turkey is a Bird!
Having got that out of the way and off my chest, for ease of reading and pronunciation during the rest of this blog I will refer to the country as Turkey. I’m as lazy as anyone.
Anyway, what a fun trip! First, a brief summary:
The weather was generally very good, sunny and hot.
I met several interesting women.
I ate some great food, tasty and unique, and my stomach only rebelled enough to remind me I was in another country.
The bus trips were long and boring and the car trips were cramped.
I missed out on the balloon ride.
I visited what may now be the world’s oldest known sanctuary.
I had a couple of great Turkish baths.
As always, it was over all too soon.
So, now that your appetite has been whetted for adventure, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Arrived in Istanbul mid-afternoon of April 20, and was met at the airport, as promised, by someone from my tour agency.
We drove along the coast road in the terrible Istanbul traffic and it took nearly an hour to get to the hotel, normally a 20-minute drive. My hotel, the Yusuf Pasha Konagi, was just a few downhill streets from the Blue Mosque and two streets from a major tourist restaurant area. As is my usual wont, I checked into the hotel and headed out for a reccy. Walked around the main square between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia (a former mosque, now being converted into a museum), inhaling the air and aromas of the city.
I had a well-deserved beer at the Just Bar and then decided to wander over to the Han restaurant near the Basilica Cistern for dinner. I found a table on the rooftop terrace and ordered my meal of Kofte and Efes beer when suddenly a young Turkish woman approached my table and asked if she could join me. And I’d only been in Istanbul for a few hours. Luck of the Irish. So we had a nice dinner together and chatted all the while and even though she had to leave shortly after her meal it was definitely a nice beginning to my visit.
Up early in the morning (awakened by the call to prayer piercingly shouted over the minaret loudspeakers), I was picked up by my local tour guide after breakfast and the ten or so people in my group headed out for our walking tour of Istanbul. We did the Topkapi Palace and the Cistern and the Hippodrome and then I left the tour, having only signed on for half a day. I had made walking friends with Jody, a young Canadian woman who also happened to be staying at my hotel, and hoped I’d see her later in the day. Since the weather was turning sort of colder and rainier, I decided lunch and a Turkish bath were in order. I had a street lunch of doner kebob, which is like a tortilla wrap, then hit the Cemberlitas Bath House, which I had visited in my previous visits to Istanbul. Great place. I had my sweat and exfoliation and wash off and hot and cold soaks and I was ready once again to face the day.
I ran into Jody again back at the hotel and we decided to look for a good place for dinner. Up on that restaurant street I mentioned earlier we found the Byzantium Hotel, which has a rooftop terrace advertised as the best view in the area. So we ascended and got a window table overlooking the Sea of Marmara and had a nice, companionable dinner and chat. It’s always nicer to dine with another person than alone, which is the only part of traveling solo that I would change. But at least this night and the previous one I was fortunate enough to share my meals with two lovely ladies. My luck was turning.
My Monday tour started with a hotel pickup at 12:30 pm. My van was right on time and we drove and drove and drove waaaay east of Istanbul and finally caught our boat near the Rumeldi Fortress. There were 14 of us on this tour even though the boat had ample space for three times that many. We had lunch on board and commenced our cruise to the eastern end of the Bosphorous, right at the entrance to the Black Sea. This was another surprise, as my itinerary didn’t mention these details, just “Bosphorous cruise.” I was surprised to find out that even as far east as the entrance to the Black Sea we were still technically in Istanbul! We docked just shy of the Black Sea entrance and then climbed the Huff n’Puff hill to a vista overlooking the Black Sea and had some time to walk around.
We arrived back at the Kabatas docks near the new town of Istanbul around PM and our van was to take us back to our hotels. The Istanbul traffic was so amazingly horrible that one hour later I still had not got back, but I was then within hailing distance so I bailed out of the van and walked the rest of the way. Only took me about 15 minutes, which was less time than the van would have taken. Do NOT drive in Istanbul! You have been warned.
I had a light dinner of pizza and beer and was picked up around 10 PM and transferred to one of the local bus stations for my so-looked-forward-to overnight six-hour bus ride to Canakkale, near the site of ancient Troy, my next tour. The bus left at midnight and I tried to sleep on the bus, but wasn’t very successful. Each seat back had a small PC-type screen built into it showing TV shows and music videos. All I wanted to do was sleep, but I couldn’t figure out how to turn my screen off. I pushed buttons and smacked the screen and jostled the seat, all to no avail. I finally pulled out my .38 and shot the damned thing.
We arrived at the outlying bus station around 5:15 AM; I got off the bus in a daze, when one of the other passengers told me I had to take the shuttle into the city center, so I threw my bags onto the shuttle van and away we went. I was dropped off at the port of Canakkale around 6:00 AM and it was lonely down there. Had to find a toilet quickly, which I did, and was so pleased to note it was a squatting toilet. Just what I wanted at six o’clock in the morning with very little sleep. Anyway, my itinerary said I had to make my way to the travel agent’s office, implying it was out in the hinterlands somewhere. I had a street address and I asked a sleeping cabbie (happy to be awakened at that hour) and I asked the tourist office guy and four tired hotel reception guys and none of them knew where the travel agency was that I had to find. It was supposedly on the main street leading out of the port, but it was not at the address I had. Finally – finally – the last guy I asked pointed me to the Anzac Hostel on that main street and sure enough, the Hassle Free Travel Agency was tucked away in the back hall. How could I have missed it?
Naturally, the agency opened at 8:30, which was when my tour was to begin, so I had two early-morning hours to kill. I found an all-night diner and settled down for some toast and tea. As I was checking my schedule again, another guy walks up to me and asks, “Mr. Gary?” Turned out he was from the local travel agency and had gone out to the outlying bus station to meet me when my bus was supposed to arrive at 6 AM, but had missed me there as I was early. He came back to the port area and made many of the same rounds as I had, asking everyone if they’d seen a tired traveler staggering around the area. I was happy to see him as I could confirm my plans for the day. Whew.
The Fates picked me up at 8:30 in a van with six other intrepid travelers and away we went to the ancient site of Troy. I knew from previous reading that it would not be a major excavation site of ruins and buildings, and it wasn’t. Grass-covered walls that did show the various levels of the rebuilt Troys, some discernible walkways and gates and that was about it. I did look out over the plains where Achilles met Hector (or Brad Pitt met Eric Bana, if you will), but otherwise there really isn’t much to see. But it was exciting just being there, site of ancient Troy, even though the topless towers of Ilium had all toppled long ago.
It was only about a 90-minute tour, then several of us were whisked off to yet another bus station to catch our bus for Selcuk, with a change in Izmir. Transfer instructions were somewhat vague (“when you get to Izmir, just ask someone and they’ll help you find the shuttle to Selcuk”), but what the heck, I trusted to luck and my finely-honed traveler’s sense of Fate; I’d always made out and I always would. Naiveté, thy name is Gary.
So, another six-hour bus ride to the gigantic Izmir bus station (all main bus stations in Turkiye are gigantic) and sure enough, I just asked someone who looked like an official, directing travelers hither and yon, and he pointed me and some newly-acquired fellow traveler buddies to the Selcuk shuttle; we transferred our bags and were off again on the Road to Selcuk.
We arrived at the somewhat smaller Selcuk bus station around 9:30 PM and one of the bus company’s reps greeted us and called our hotels for a pickup. Great service! So I found my hotel about 10 PM, tired and hungry and smelling really bad. A quick shower and a light repast in the hotel’s rooftop restaurant revived me, however, and I was ready for a good night’s sleep.
Wednesday, April 24, was hot and sunny and I was waiting for my tour of Ephesus. I had been there on my first visit to Turkiye in 1993 when I was on a cruise of the Greek Islands and it was unexpectedly wonderful. It was almost as good this time around, 20 years later. Hot and sunny, the tourist crowds were spread out enough so that it wasn’t overly crowded. The library was still there and the public toilets (although you couldn’t sit on the seats anymore, a change that was most unwelcome to photographers the world over). A good tour and an even better lunch rounded out the morning. We had the afternoon off and I wandered around the main shopping and restaurant area of tiny Selcuk, having a light dinner and several beers.
Thursday our pickup was again on time at 8:30 AM, and we made our three-hour drive to Pamukkale in record time – exactly three hours. We had a brief lunch and then toured the large and ancient city of Hierapolis, which once boasted a population of more than 100,000 people. Now it’s mostly weather-beaten ruins. Included in this tour were Cleopatra’s Pool (for those who wanted to swim) and the famous Pamukkale calcium pools. We walked the ancient ruins and naturally I had to wade in the pools, which I did. The pools of Pamukkale were interesting but quite crowded with tourists all wanting to wade in them, so the experience was maybe not as good as I’d hoped for; but still worthwhile.
Our van dropped me off at yet another bus station around 4:30 PM for my 9 PM bus to Göreme. I was getting quite used to Turkish bus stations by this point, and made several friends in the area while I was making sure I was in the right place. This would be my final big bus ride, a 9 ½ hour overnight trip to Göreme in Cappadocia, and I was so looking forward to it. This time, I somehow actually slept for 6-7 hours of the trip. Not bad.
We arrived in the small town of Göreme around 6:30 the following morning and as we drove into the small city center I was amazed to see hot air balloons all over the morning sky. Reminded me of Albuquerque. Upon exiting the bus, another official asked me for my hotel and then he flagged down a couple of guys in a pickup truck and asked them to take me there. It was only a couple of hundred meters from the bus station, but it was all uphill and I was happy for the ride. My hotel, the Kelebec Cave Hotel, was yet another pleasant surprise.
The entire Cappadocia area had been subjected to intense and ongoing volcanic eruptions over several million years ago and the successive weather and rains had resulted in a landscape of unearthly beauty. Hundreds, if not thousands, of house-sized cone-shaped rocks had formed, most of which consisted of layers of tufa and basaltic volcanic ash which had hardened over the millennia. The tufa is easily cut into, and ancient dwellers in the area had cut their living quarters into the living rock, making the weird structures into rock and cave homes, like the Flintstones. Or possibly the home of the Coneheads. Check the internet for pictures of this area – you’ll be amazed, as was I.
Naturally, my room wasn’t ready this early, and I had until 10:30 to wait until my next tour started. Luck me, to take an overnight bus ride and then almost immediately set out on a trek through the Cappadocian wilderness. Anyway, I was surprised and delighted when I was told my room was ready around 9 AM, so I could shower and clean up and brush my teeth. I was shown down a rock corridor into a rock-carved hotel room that reminded me suspiciously of Bilbo Baggins’ quarters; it was a cave room and different from anywhere I’d ever stayed before. I was enchanted and would love staying there for a couple of nights, but, of course, I wouldn’t want to make a Hobbit of it. (Sorry – I promised Gandalf I’d get that in).
We were picked up on time and driven to a remote spot in the wilderness where we began our hike in the Red Rose area. Another interesting place, full of cliffs and gorges and carved-into-the-rock dwellings and niches for birds that were raised by the cave-dwellers for their guano, among other things. After our hike we visited an old abandoned Greek hillside village and then the famous Pasabags Fairy Chimneys, that really do look like mushrooms heads on top of thinner stalks. It was like being on another planet.
Lunch was to be special that day. We were again driven out into the canyons and cliffsides where we descended a steep set of steps and rocks down to the valley floor and, after a short walk, found another cave dwelling, this time a private restaurant owned by the tour agency. A great meal gathered around a large table, set in the Cappadocian sunshine. Wonderful food, fun companions, great weather, pretty much a perfect setting. Rather than climb back up that formidable cliff, several of us opted to go back by jeep, which was much better, believe me.
Not yet content to let us rest, our final stop of the day by the tour agency was the underground city of Kaymakli, dug over the centuries by the local inhabitants to escape invaders such as Genghi Khan. We went down to four of the eight levels. The rooms were large enough to stand in, but the connecting passages were a tight squeeze for lots of people, including Yours Truly. Claustrophobes need not take this tour, fascinating as it was.
After all that crawling around in underground cities I deserved another visit to the hammam, so that’s what I did. Luckily the hotel had one on premises, so I treated myself to another sweat and scrub and wash. Aaaahhh, I could get used to that. I had dinner at the hotel; even though only a short walk to the center of town, it was all uphill coming back and I just didn’t feel like fighting the slope.
Saturday, April 27, started with an early breakfast on the terrace. My van came by and our small group took off for a gorge around an hour’s drive away. It was a long, deep gorge and we were to hike the entire damn thing: seven friggin’ kilometers (that’s about four-plus miles in American distances). Oh, joy. The entire hike took around 2-3 hours, with stops to admire the rock dwellings of early Christians who came here to avoid persecution. We had a really nice lunch on a tented raft in the river. I chatted with one of the other hikers, a young Turkish woman named – are you ready for this? – Halideh;. pronounced as close to “Holiday” as you can get. I love it; I met a woman named Holiday. How fun is that? After our leisurely lunch we vanned over to another monastery cut into the tufa rock hills and climbed around on that for a while. Gotta tell you, I was starting to get a touch weary of all that climbing. If I’d realized there was so much vertical climbing I’d have taken the tour with only downhill hikes. But I soldiered on like a trooper, making nearly all of the climbs.
In the morning I breakfasted and then packed up and awaited my pickup for the next phase of my adventure: a three-day tour into the wilds of eastern Anatolia. As always, I expected another small group tour with a van; boy, was I surprised again. Two guys showed up around 9:30 and loaded my suitcase into….a small four-seater car! No van! As I stood there wondering if this was just a transfer vehicle to something larger and more comfortable, a woman came up and introduced herself as Marina. I thought she was the tour guide. I was heartily confused.
We all got in the car, the driver and Turkish guy in front and Marina and me in back. As we started chatting, I came to realize that Marina was another traveler, like me, and that she and I were to be the tour for the next three days. The other two guys were Saffet, the driver, wrinkled and 50-ish with a lovely beak nose, and Ur, our actual tour guide. Oh, OK, I see now. That first day we were to drive from Göreme all the way to the Mt. Nemrut area. That meant eight-plus hours in the small, cramped back seat of a small car. I had thought our comfort would be paramount to the travel agency, but guessed wrong again.
Anyway, off we went. Marina was a Project Manager from Milan, Italian-thin and blonde and energetic, with 2-3 cameras hanging off her. She had our driver stop at select points just to take photos. This was her vacation and by the Great Horned Toad she was going to make the most of it. And she surely did, taking notes on all of Ur’s descriptions of our sights and taking photos of everything and just having a great time talking to the local people and getting involved in her adventure. She was also a world traveler and enjoyed every minute of her journeys. We got along famously.
We stopped along the way for lunch and to taste some of the world-famous Anatolian ice cream, and you know what? It was astonishing! It’s thick and creamy and made with goat’s milk and may just be the best ice cream I have ever had. Ben and Jerry’s isn’t even in the ball park. Our travel plan called for us to get to the hotel that evening and then get up at 3:30 the following morning to drive to Mt. Nemrut and hike up its side to view the giant heads up there. We would have to hike up the mountain in the dark. I was not looking forward to that.
During our drive, however, Ur suggested we might want to drive straight through to Mt. Nemrut that afternoon, stopping at the sights we were to see tomorrow and arriving at Mt. Nemrut in time to hike up and watch the sun set instead of watching it rise on the morrow. Oooo, yeah, that sounded really good to me, not being a morning person. So that’s what we did, adding another two-plus hours in the cramped car. Our slight plan change didn’t deter our driver, Saffet ‘The Mad Turk’ Orczan, in the slightest and he kept the pedal to the metal all the way. There were times I wasn’t sure if we’d make it around another mountain curve on those dirt roads.
We stopped at an old Roman bridge, then drove along a really nasty dirt road up to the jump-off point for the 300-meter hike to the top of Mt. Nemrut. The jumping off point was 1800 meters above sea level – that’s 5,400 feet, for my American readers.
I gave it my best shot. I donned long pants and a long-sleeved shirt (it was much cooler at that elevation) and started up the rocky path to the summit. I made it about 100 meters or so and that was it for me. Gasping and panting and huffing and puffing, I could go no farther. I slunk down the trail with my head hung low, but at least able to breathe again. Ur and Marina danced up the side of that damn mountain as if it was an easy downhill slide. I hated them both. At least Ur took some pictures for me of the giant heads I didn’t get to see. Ah, well, win some, lose some.
We arrived at our hotel in Adiyaman around 9:30 at night, just in time for a late dinner (!). Along the way I was thankful we’d done Mt. Nemrut in the evening, as I knew I wouldn’t have been able to make the trek in the dark hours of the early morning by flashlight; as it turned out, I wouldn’t have made it at all.
The next day was my best day of the entire trip. Poor Marina had gotten some bad bug from somewhere and had been up all night, running back and forth to the bathroom. Having done my time in Jaipur with Delhi Belly, I empathized. She was generally okay that day, but didn’t eat anything too rich and took it pretty easy – at least for her.
Our first short stop was at the Ataturk Dam. It was okay, nice dam, but the most interesting thing about it, to me anyway, was that it dammed up the waters of the Euphrates River, birthplace of mankind just a short distance away in Syria in the fertile crescent. The ancient wonder of this area really was overwhelming.
Our second stop was Gobleki Tepe, which was truly and amazingly fascinating. It’s on a hill out in the middle of nowhere (literally!). The excavators were working diligently, and we were told they had only been excavating this site since the mid-1990s. What they had found was what archaeologists were now claiming was an 11,500-year-old temple, with T-shaped columns which had carving of animals on them, all of which were done, of course, with flint tools. The detail and cleanliness of lines in the carvings were astonishing. It was truly awe-inspiring to stand there and look at what our distant ancestors had wrought so long ago. One of the highlights of this trip.
We drove next to the village of Harran, which was composed of beehive mud brick houses. It was supposed to be where Abraham had lived lo those many years ago. Judging by the present state of the dwellings, one of them might actually still have been his place. We had tea with the owners and relaxed in the midday heat; another surprising place for which I was unprepared.
Okay, off to Sanliurfa and our hotel. It was in the middle of town so we could walk to our restaurant for lunch. Ur talked me into a Liver Kabob – hey! Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it. Not bad. Picture chunks of fried liver on a large thick tortilla, slathered with whatever interesting toppings are served with it, then folded up like a burrito. Yummy. Unfortunately, we were now in a very heavily Muslim area and the restaurants don’t serve beer! What’s a liver Kabob without beer, I ask you? Disappointed! I had to make do with a Coke. BTW, this area of Turkiye is famous for its kabobs. Apparently they have 739 different kinds of kabobs. I was ready to try them all, but ran out of time.
We walked around the downtown area after lunch, checking out the bazaar and nearby mosque and park. There was a small lake and the Pool of Abraham (he was very big in this area). The pool is filled with carp. Apparently Abraham was slingshotted by the evil king into what was then a raging fire covering a large plot of ground; when he landed the fire turned into water and the burning sticks turned into carp. At least that’s how the story goes; you may form your own conclusions.
I finally got my beer at the hotel before we walked a short distance for our dinner on a rooftop terrace overlooking the park. I had Lamb Pide that night, continuing to get my fill of great Turkish food.
April 30 and we were on the final leg of our three-day tour. We only had enough time to visit the Gaziantep Mosaic Museum, which really was another excellent choice. Mosaics from the excavated city of Zeugma, near Gaziantep, parts of which were flooded when a new dam was constructed, are shown here in a wonderfully professional setting. The highlight of the exhibit, The Gypsy Girl, was also displayed in a separate darkened room, nicely done. Well worth a visit.
So, then I was dropped at the Gaziantep airport for my flight back to Istanbul. I said my goodbyes to driver Saffet and Guide Ur and, of course, to my traveling companion Marina. The flight was easy and I was again picked up at Istanbul by the reps from the wonderful Turkish Heritage Travel Agency and driven back to my original hotel. Another light dinner along Akbiyik Street and to bed.
May 1, my last day in Turkey. Since this is Worker’s Day in much of the world, with Turkiye being no exception, I wanted to head up to Taksim Square to see what was going on. Unfortunately, the public transport was down for much of the day so I was unable to get there. I did see on the news that night that there was a “major demonstration” in Taksim Square, with riot police and protestors and fire hoses and all sorts of great riot control paraphernalia. Of course, we over in the Old Town area had no idea anything like that was going on, as it was tourist business as usual. Gotta love the MSM.
I did make my pilgrimage to the Grand Bazaar, which I was pleased to find open. The vendors and hawkers weren’t nearly as aggressive as in previous visits, and I was only hassled a couple of times to buy things for which I had absolutely no use or need. I virtuously passed on all attempts to sell me things like a Paul and Shark warm-up jacket (I’m sure it was an original, as the price was only around $25 US) and a “genuine gold Rolex watch.” It seems like the more counterfeit the items, the harder they try and sell them. I was unimpressed.
Outside the Bazaar, however, I did find one of those great Turkish ice cream stands, so I indulged myself with yet another cone. Damn near orgasmic. Once again, I chose the Byzantium Hotel’s rooftop terrace overlooking the Sea of Marmara for dinner. I splurged this time and went for the Mixed Seafood plate, some nice house wine and finished off with baklava. I had a 5:45 AM pickup call for the airport, so I ended the perfect trip with an early bedtime.
I was early to the airport, with no traffic on the roads. I checked my bag (early again – love Turkish Airlines!) and cleared passport control. Breakfast was in order before my flight, after which, yep, you guessed it, I found yet another last-ditch Turkish ice cream stand, and happily licked and crunched my way to ice cream bliss at 7:30 in the morning in the Istanbul airport. People stared at me, as I was undoubtedly smiling inanely throughout my ice cream orgy, but I didn’t care; they didn’t know what they were missing.
The flight back to Budapest was quick and easy and then I was back in the Metro and walking up my street and into my flat and home again. One of my best trips. I saw parts of that ancient land I’d never seen before – and, in fact, never even knew existed. It seems the older I get and the more I read, the more I realize how little I know about our world. Gotta start reading more – I’m only spending around four hours a day reading now.
Next trip? Who knows? Watch this space for more exciting adventures from your favorite world traveler. I’ll Trip till I Drip. Hey, it rhymes. All for now. Be good, be fruitful, watch your back, keep your powder dry and come visit me sometime.