May 1st, 2021


Turkey For Birre Mail

   I've been writing articles for the local monthly newsletter for just over a year now, about everywhere I've traveled, the one I recently wrote about Turkey had to be broken in two, so I thought I'd put it online if someone reading the first half wants to find the second half, so here it is
   I wanted to post to my dreamwidth account since it has a less inscrutible name, but apparently things posted directly there can't be tagged after you've used 2000 tags, but imported entries come through with tags intact so I'm posting this here to show up there with tags
. ;)

   When I first stepped out of the Istanbul airport in 2009, my first time outside the Americas or Western Europe, I recall it seemed so foreign and exotic. Countless towering minarets jutted out of the city toward the sky, the ululating call to prayer echoed through the streets five times a day, swarthy carpet salesmen constantly tried to cajole us, the plumbing was a bit questionable. I ended up returning for one reason or another nearly every year through 2017 since it’s a major transit hub between “the west” and either Africa or Central Asia. I’ve literally spent more time in Istanbul than Melbourne, I came to be familiar with Turkey’s sights and culture and to see it not as scary and intimidatingly foreign but the first and last bastion of modernity before I’d step off into somewhere more remote or return therefrom.
   Turkey happens to be a place many Australians visit so I will focus a bit more on the tourism potential and aspects of it than usual.
   Istanbul/Constantinople/Byzantium is famous as the city at the crossroads between East and West, located mainly on the west side of the sea passage between the Black and Mediterranean seas known as the Bosporus, a substantial part of the city and its suburbs (Istanbul has about three times the population of Melbourne) also extends on the east side connected by bridges or reached by ferry. From the international airport on that first arrival we took a taxi across the scary unknown distance, through the still-standing-impressively legendary Land Walls of Constantinople into the city center, but on more recent trips I merely nip down an escalator to the city tram connection, buy a card like a myki card, and ride the rails right to whereever I’m trying to get to in the city.
The first area I and probably most tourists explored was the tourist heart of the city, the Sultanahmet district located on a hilltop with expansive views of the surrounding sea. This area held the capital palaces of the Eastern Roman Empire and later the Ottomans. It’s chock a block with Roman columns and architectural artifacts a millenia-and-a-half old as well as the famous Hagia Sophia basilica/cathedral/mosque -- constructed in 532 it was the largest cathedral in the world for about a thousand years. Last year current Turkish president Erdogan turned the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque so it may no longer be open to public tours. Topkapi Palace, the residence of the Ottoman Sultans, is an impressive place to tour; there’s also an extensive archeological museum; and a vast underground Roman cistern (I noted at the time: “It had giant fish in it that we're pretty sure eat tourists”). There are good restaurants here but they’re probably a spot overpriced compared to other places in Istanbul/Turkey. Here carpet salesmen pestered my traveling companions and I when we first arrived looking confused and hauling our luggage, but once we learned to look less like we’d just stumbled out of an airplane we hardly got importuned at all.
   From Sultanahmet I like to walk across the short bridge over the Golden Horn (a sort of inlet) to the Taksim district. This area is a more modern shopping district (modern being a relative term, plenty of buildings still look hundreds of years old) with the long pedestrian-only Istiklal street leading to Taksim Square. This is both a popular tourist destination but also very popular with locals which keeps prices realistically related to what a local would reasonably pay (as opposed to Sultanahmet which is a tourist bubble).
   On the third day of that first trip my friends and I flew from Istanbul less than an hour south (flight: $34) to the coastal town of Izmir (formerly Smyrna) and took the train ($2.50) another hour south to the small town of Selçuk -- we were on our way to fulfil the itinerary most first time visitors to Turkey follow. Selçuk is just next door to the remarkably well-preserved ruins of the ancient town of Ephesus, which aside from just being well enough preserved that you can actually feel like you’re walking the streets of an ancient Greek town, is also prominently mentioned in the Bible (the Ephesians and all), and is the former site of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Temple of Artemis, though nothing remains to be seen of it.
   The next day we got on a tour bus bound for Pamukkale. During the three hour journey the bus stopped at a sort of cafeteria for tourists and it, like a similar one I encountered later in Cappadocia, was some of the worst food I’d had in Turkey. If you travel to Turkey, odds are pretty good you’ll end up on a lot of package tours that feed you at places such as this and I implore you to make an effort to eat in some good restaurants and/or simply where the locals are eating. Turkish food is so much more than just kebab. Some of my favorite things are the breakfast dish menamen which consists of poached eggs in a delicious stewy mixture of tomatoes, onions and peppers; or the ravioli-in-yogurt dish manti. You will also want to try the boat-shaped Turkish pizza called pide.
   Pamukkale itself consists of natural hot springs which cascade down a series of tiered rock shelves formed of the frosting-white calcium deposits from the water. A bathing pool has been constructed at the top where one can swim in the naturally 37 degree water.
   Much later, in 2013, I was dating a Turkish ship’s-officer, when we rather had a fight so I set off alone by bus to Cappadocia in central Turkey. Cappadocia is a region of soft sandstone in which the locals have long bored their homes right into the cliff walls. The local geology has somehow created these horn-like stone towers which sometimes occur right in the small towns and are pock-marked with windows from the dwellings that have been made in them, which looks quite bizarre. My hotel room here was a “cave room” bored into the cliff-face, though the front of the hotel looked relatively normal. Cappadocia has many tourist draws such as horseback riding or ATVing through the surreal landscape, or hot air ballooning above it, but what I’d really come here to do was see one of the ancient underground cities. There’s several in the area, I arranged to go with a tour group to the largest, known as Derinkuyu. This entire underground city of winding passages and subterranean rooms once held 20,000 people. Its lowest level is 60 meters underground. Locals built these underground cities for both insulation from the heat and protection from raiders. This city may have been begun in the 7th-8th centuries BC but reached its heights (depths?) in the 8th-12th century AD. As we wound up and down narrow stairs seeing former wineries and bakeries in little underground rooms it felt like some Tolkien goblin city to me.

   After Cappadocia I went on a five day “Blue Cruise” on a small sailboat along the Mediterranean coast. There were 12 of us passengers (half Aussies) and two crew. We spent our days going from ancient pirate cove to cute little fishing village and swimming in the perfect turquoise waters. As we were anchored off “Santa Claus Island” where the real Saint Nicholas had lived, a little boat came up to us -- aboard it, a local couple were cooking up crepes on a stove and selling them. Basking on deck after a swimming, eating a freshly cooked crepe from a little boat I felt life could hardly get better, other than the ongoing trouble with my girlfriend which I was trying not to think about.

Here ends Part I and Part II begins below:

   I had been on a fantastic 5 day “cruise” on a 12 passenger 2 crew sailboat up the “turquoise coast,” finally coming ashore in the coastal town of Fethiye, just onshore of the island of Rhodes on the Aegean coast, south-west corner of the relatively rectangular country of Turkey. Fethiye is a beautiful little seaside town that’s not on the usual quick trip to Turkey itinerary but there is much to do there. The nearby Oludeniz beach is often rated among the top beaches in the world, it doesn’t have soft sand or waves of any kind but what it does have is crystal clear turquoise waters and dramatic mountains and cliffs that surround it in a semicircle. It’s a popular paragliding location, as one can paraglide down from way up the steep mountain, riding the updrafts right on down to landing right on the beach. We had anchored in the little bay there when I was on the boat, I will observe also that the beach was very popular with Russians, who lounged about like a rookery of pale hairy elephant seals in speedos.
   Also just beside Fethiye is an abandoned Greek town, Kayaköy, preserved like a ghost town from the day in 1923 when Turkey expelled its Greek population. I had also heard about a nearby gorge worth visiting, so I took local buses (dolmishes, which is closely related to the stuffed grape-leaf dish dolma, as the word means “stuffed”) to Saklıkent Gorge, a very narrow crevice of a gorge one can trek several kilometers up, at times with water up to your chest
   That evening I was back in Fethiye taking photographs of the beautiful rock tombs carved into the cliffs behind the town, the setting sun casting them in dramatic pink rosey light, when my Turkish sea captain girlfriend, whom I’d been traveling separate from since a fight two weeks earlier, texted me to suggest we meet back up. As it happens Gallipoli was about halfway between us so we decided to meet there. At this point in the evening I didn’t have many resources at my fingertips to plan an immediate 700 kilometer trip, but a friend had recommended a tour agency in Istanbul and I now called them for help -- I almost never (actually literally never except for this one time) use travel agencies to plan trips but calling True Blue Tours in Istanbul, even late in the evening and not being an existing client, the women patiently helped me figure out what buses I needed to take to leave immediately and travel overnight by a combination of local and long distance busses, to Gallipoli, and I don’t think I ever booked anything through the agency, ie they didn’t make any money from me at all. So the least I can do is very strongly recommend you book your future Turkey trip with True Blue Tours!
   After my nine hour scramble across the country, I was with my girlfriend in Canakkale, the town across the Dardanelles strait from Gallipoli -- Gallipoli itself is a national park now and Canakkale is where the hotels are. But before we went to Gallipoli, first we visited another famous battleground -- Troy. The legendary city of Troy is very near there and the ancient walls have been excavated. As a huge fan of ancient myths and legends, to stand with my hand on the warm stone of the very walls of Troy seemed unbelievable to me.
   Finally we went across with a tour to Gallipoli. Nearly everyone on the tour except us was Australian (I was not yet an Australian at the time). The rugged landscape of Gallipoli still looks much as I imagine it did in 1915, and some trenches have even been preserved/reconstructed at the top of the cliffs. It’s truly awe-inspiring to stand there with the sparkling sea and the wind gently rustling in the lone pines and one can easily imagine everything that took place on those fabled beaches and bluffs. The tour guides are of course Turkish but as they recount stories of the war there’s no bitterness or lingering animosity, they and all Turkish people I have met truly embody the spirit of Ataturk when he declared “After having lost their lives on this land [your sons] have become our sons as well.”
   The next day my girlfriend and I went on a Turkish tour, consisting entirely of Turks with she translating for me. This tour naturally focused on more tales of Turkish heroism like an artillery man who allegedly continued to load and fire 90kg shells by himself when the rest of his gun crew was killed, and a Turkish soldier who carried a wounded ANZAC back to his own lines in the midst of the fighting, but the overall tone was still one of complete mutual respect.
   Overall, since 2009 I’ve seen Turkey under Erdogan drift a bit towards authoritarianism and away from some of Ataturk’s principles of a strictly secular state, but it’s still a safe country with a rich culture and many amazing tourist sites to visit. Many Australians are drawn by Gallipoli to visit Turkey and I strongly encourage you to make the trip, just please promise me you’ll eat more than just the food the package tours put in front of you.