Sunday, March 15, 2009

Turkish Delight

It was a struggle to fight our way out of Istanbul's chaotic otogar (bus station) passed the 168 ticket windows and across to the metro terminal but eventually we managed it. Soon we were recovering in a guesthouse in the central Sultanahmet district of Istanbul.

On our first morning in Istanbul we awoke to pouring rain. Therefore we decided to start our exploration at the indoor Grand Bazaar, a labyrinthine warren of commerce. After a few hours the rain had still not abated so we decided to brave the conditions. We had a wander around the famous Topkapi Palace as well as gazing at the twin mosques of Sultanahmet, the Blue mosque and the Aya Sophia mosque. Later in the day the sky actually cleared and we were able to appreciate these views even more satisfactorily.

Some quick researching uncovered the fact that springtime in Istanbul is particularly wet, with 80% chance of rain most days. Therefore we were not surprised when the rain continued on and off for the next two days. On one of those days we made the pilgrimage out to Ortakoy to try the famous Kumpir, the baked potato filled with all manner of bountiful treats. After crossing Galata bridge through the hordes of fishermen we headed across the Bhosphoros to the Asian side of Istanbul by ferry. Ironically, at least when looked through the eyes of Western perception, we found it to be cleaner, better organised, and more relaxed than the crowded European side.

From Istanbul we headed for Canakkale, on the Aegean coast. The bus fare sent us into fits of apoplexy until we boarded the bus, not only was it a 'business class' bus with a 1-2 seat configuration, there were 'in-flight' magazines, personal entertainment, and all manner of complimentary drinks and snacks.

Canakkale is situated exactly inbetween the ancient site of Troy and the Anzac battlefields of World War I. Disappointingly the most accurate description of Troy is a dug up hill with a famous history, oh and a giant wooden horse by the entrance. Despite the romanticism evoked by the Turkish tourism board literature I still agree with Dave Lister's summary of the battle of Troy:

LISTER: I dunno though. This wooden horse of Troy malarkey, I'm not buyin' that.
RIMMER: It's one of the most famous military maneuvers in history!
LISTER: I mean, the Greeks have been camped outside Troy, kerpowing, zapping, and kersplatting the Trojans for the best part of a decade, yeah?
LISTER: So all of a sudden they wake up one mornin' and the Greeks have gone. And there outside the city walls they've left this gift; this tribute to their valiant foes: a huge wooden horse, just large enough to happily contain 500 Greeks in full battle dress and still leave adequate room for toilet facilities? Are you telling me not one Trojan goes, "Hang on a minute, that's a bit of a funny prezzy. What's wrong with a couple hundred pairs of socks and some aftershave?" No, they don't -- they just wheel it in and all decide to go for an early night! People that stupid deserve to be kerpowed, zapped and kersplatted in their beds! You know what the big joke is? From this particular phase in history we derive the phrase, "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts," when it would be much more logical to derive the phrase, "Beware of Trojans, they're complete smegheads!

The Anzac beaches on the Gallipoli peninsular was an equally disappointing experience, mostly because we never actually got there. We crossed back onto the peninsular but were stuck in the port. In the end I was not so disappointed because I was already saturated with Aussie and Kiwi connections everywhere I looked - here a 'Wallabies hostel', there a 'Boomerang cafe'. It seems as though both the Turks and the antipodeans have got together to remember a treacherous and ill-fated battles by turning it into the biggest marketing exercise all along the Aegean coast.

Food was one facet of Turkey we looked forward to the most. Sometimes it seems that the only food they know is the kebab, chicken, lamb and sometimes beef, in a pitta or wrap or served on a plate. These are delicious but there are some other hidden delicacies as well such as Lahmacun, known as Turkish pizza, a baked flat bread with mince and spice toppings, or Corba, the thick, warming lentil soup. The best way to wash all of these down is with a cool Ayran, a mixture of slightly salted yoghurt and water, very refreshing!

Whilst we were there the financial crisis hit Turkey. All of a sudden one day there were long queues outside the bank, heading all the way up the road. The next day the same queues were outside the Lottery ticket vendors. A country where the people place their trust in the Lottery over the banks! All this at the same time as the towns are full of election buses, blaring music out at towns along the campaign trail, in anticipation of the upcoming local elections.

From Canakkale we headed further south through the sprawling city of Izmir to the much nicer town of Selcuk. It felt like a resort town but slightly inland from the coast. Nearby are the Roman ruins of Ephesus (Efes), which was formerly the Eastern capital of the Roman Empire. Unlike Troy this site is very impressive, well preserved and spread over an expansive area. Between the ruins and the town lie the remains of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of The World, unfortunately not much of this remains either, but at least they are not charging an entrance fee.

In the end the higher cost of travel in Turkey was one of the reasons that we accelerated our pace and sped on. The other reasons were that we had only had two dry days since arrived and that we were already craving something to eat other than kebabs! We skipped the milky cascades of Pamukkale and the Whirling Dervishes of Konya and took a night bus straight through to Cappadocia. This region, in the central Anatolian heartland of Turkey, is otherworldly, unreal, the product of fantastic imaginations. The landscape is covered with these rock formations they call 'fairy chimneys' for obvious reasons. There are houses, shops and hotels built in caves in the sides of these geological oddities. Therefore the local marketing ploy changed from the Aus/NZ theme to a Flintstones theme, everywhere pictures of Fred Flintstone, welcoming visitors to cafes, bars, restaurants and hostels. On our first day we just wandered around, dumbstruck, vowing to take a million photos the next day. However the next morning we woke up to a snow blizzard. It hardly stopped for the next two days, although it did not stop us from trekking in, around, under and over the landscape. There are many well-worn trails heading in each and every direction from Goreme, through the kitchly named valleys (Love Valley, Rose Valley etc.) and up onto the ridges for panoramic views.

In Cappadocia we met a Japanese couple who are hitch-hiking to Bristol to meet the rest of their band for a gig in May. They were dressed like some kind of fantasy warriors from an ancient Japanese fable. They were dragging two trolleys, one for the instruments the other for their belongings, across Turkey, eastern Europe and beyond. The girl had a pad of paper with her signs already prepared, the one on the bottom said 'A7 - Kempton'. I hope they make it!

There are a couple of aspects of Turkish life that I would like to see adopted in the England. The first concerns television. Regardless of what program you might be watching on whichever channel, be it a documentary, soap opera or sit-com, the latest football scores will continually flash up in the corner of the screen, which can only be a good thing. The second aspect is that of dogs. There are dogs everywhere here, but they seem to chose their owners rather than the other way around. Each dog has a house where he lays on the porch or step, where he gets food and water, but most of them appear to have just turned up unannounced and set up home.

Everywhere in Turkey you see a juxtaposition of the old and new, of tradition versus modernity. You see wind farms overlooking olive groves, luxurious coaches overtaking a horse-and-cart and old villagers downloading ringtones for their mobile phones. Turkey faces many challenges including a rising fundamentalist problem, their attitudes to the minority Kurds, the Armenian issue, and their EU ambitions. One thing is for sure, this carousel of progress is only moving in one direction.


  1. keep going - it all looks good so far

  2. Its such great to read about your experiences on your trips. This trip with a destination Cape Town is most of the time making me smiling. Such as description of Hungarian land. :-)Or about meal in Turkey. I guess in Egypt you will find quit good stuff to eat. Spicy but tasty. At school in Westgate I had one Egyptian schoolmate - Perihane (you might remember her Monika). She always brought a lot of food so I ate my sandwich at home.
    I feel from your words you must be enjoying this trip a lot. Hopefully am right. Moni...I wrote you to be carefull in Iraq but now I am looking properly and I are not going through it so am happier. Be carefull anyway and good luck and have a good weather. :-)cuz