Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Our Trip to Turkey

Day 1 – Getting to Istanbul

The epic journey began with a very early 06:00 taxi to take us to the airport – during the ride we passed Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, Big Ben, Parliament, and the Tower of London – all the sights of London.

Our trip to Istanbul consisted of a flight from London to Amsterdam (0.5 hour flight) and from Amsterdam to Istanbul (3.5 hours). After checking into Hotel Apricot (did you know that most of the world’s apricots come from Turkey?), we proceeded the 120 yards to the path that went between an amazing sight: the Hagia Sofia on one side and the Blue Mosque on the other. The Hagia Sofia (on the left) was built in the 5th century by Constantine (hence Constantinople, which became Istanbul; at least according to the song). It was, at that time, the world’s largest church. Interesting tidbit: during the Crusades, the Hagia Sofia was sacked – permanently separating the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox churches. After the Byzantine Empire fell, it was converted into a mosque and later, by Ataturk (the founder of modern day, secular Turkey) into a museum.

The Blue Mosque was built across from the Hagia Sofia by Sultan Ahmet I to rival it as a building. As you can see, “The Conqueror,” as he was known, has done a great job. Quite an impressive sight! Since the Blue Mosque is still active, when we entered, we had to remove our shoes and Sarah had to don a head scarf and make sure her legs and shoulders were covered. Two minutes after entering, Sarah says “This place smells like dirty socks”. Yes, indeed, when everyone takes their shoes off, it does not smell great. The biggest downside of Islam, you know, besides the suicide bombings, is having to put your face to the ground when everyone has just removed their shoes

To close the night, we grabbed dinner at a local restaurant and headed home to grab some sleep.

Day 2 – Istanbul

So apparently, Turkey is not as misogynistic as Sean thought. Everywhere we went, we kept seeing entrances labeled with “girls,” but they ended up actually saying “giris”, but the last i without a dot. Apparently, this means entrance in Turkish. To begin the day, we went into the Hagia Sofia (church/mosque/museum).

On the way to the Hagia Sofia, we were propositioned about 12 times to buy a carpet. That brought to about 8,345 times we were asked if we want to buy a carpet. First, they start with “Where you from?” Then, “What you think of Turkey so far,” then “Come to my shop and take a look, no pressure.” It reached the point where when they asked where we were from, I would answer “Texas. You know Texas, You know George W. Bush?” That seemed to slow them down for a few minutes (until we learned later that carpet salesmen like Texans because they have large homes for large carpets).

Thinking we could handle more harassing, we headed to the Grand Bazaar. And Grand is the right word: 2,600 stores, 65 streets, and 22 entrances. It is basically the Mall of America for jewelry, carpets, pottery, tacky souvenirs, etc. We did well to get out without buying anything (although Sean did eye a hookah for quite a while – apparently the Negotiations class at Wharton taught him nothing because he couldn’t get the guy to budge on the price).

After the bazaar, we headed to a Whirling Dervish show. The Whirling Dervishes are an almost defunct sect of Islam – the attraction to Westerners is that their ceremony to get close to God involved a “whirling” part, which basically means they wear long robes and spin in circles for minutes at a time. Seriously! Like the trick with the baseball bat where you spin around and try to walk – these people spin for something like 15 minutes, stop, walk around (without falling down), and then start spinning again. Plus, it looks pretty cool (picture to the right).

Following the show, we headed out to dinner - no reason to expound, but just to announce that the credit card machine at the restaurant did not work and Sean had to be escorted to an ATM machine down a dark alleyway with the cook to get some cash. While waiting for them find an ATM that worked (took three tries) Sarah memorized the 911-equivalent number in Turkey.

Day 3 - more Istanbul

Our day began with a trip to the Topkapi Palace - this was the home of the Sultans of the Musline world for over 500 years. Also, home to two small boxes supposedly containing hair and a tooth of Mohammed. In that room, there has been an Imman, or preacher, reading from the Koran for over 500 years continuously (not the same one, duh). Also, randomly, a part of the forearm of St. John the Babtist (some plunder from conquests from all over the world). The entire palace was pretty cool but nothing compared to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.

For lunch, we grabbed a "doner kebab" from a street vendor - the local specialty. For an extra snack, we decided to grab a grilled corn from a street vendor. All was good until I handed him the money and he accepted it. Then, this old, dirty, grubby street vendor grabbed different ears of corn with his entire palm and felt to see if warm. Once he found one that was warm, he handed it directly to us. If "hand-rubbed street corn" didn't make us sick, then we know we can handle anything.

Sean writing now: Following the hand-corn, we decided to go to the local Hamam, or Turkish Bath. Our book described it as “a half-naked attendant will soap you up and give you a scrubbing with an abrasive mitt, followed by a massage.” Sounds great….oh wait! In a room lying on a marble slab with 10 other men, then getting rubbed by a hairy Turkish man (as Seinfeld would say, “you ain’t sweetening the deal”). Oh, and the Turkish guy is wearing only a towel around his waist. So, while an interesting experience, it is definitely the most gay thing I have ever done.

To quickly change the subject, one very interesting thing about Turkey is that it is a secular Islam country. They forbid headscarves in school, women are required to attend school, and in general, are very liberal for a Muslim country. Very interesting to note that Islam can exist alongside a Western culture - Turkey is proof. The only women in the full hijab (black outfit) were tourists from countries such as Saudia Arabia. Check out this women with the camcorder and full hijab....

The evening closed with a meal and then off to the local tea shop where we smoked a hookah and relaxed with the locals. Here is a photo of Sarah with the crack pipe – actually you are only smoking dried apple with no tobacco.

Days 4-7 – Cappadocia

On Monday morning, we took the one-hour flight to central Turkey to an area called Cappadocia. Cappadocia is unique to the world because of its amazing topography. The land is basically many layers of different volcanic ash. Because of the soft volcanic rock, the natural rock formations are very interesting (take a look at the photo on the right). Needless to say, they look a little phallic. To give you an idea of size, that's me in the bottom right hand side of the picture.

We rented a car to drive around Cappadocia - a Ford Fiesta. Yes, they stopped making the Fiesta about 12 years ago in the US, but they are top sellers here in Turkey.

Our hotel during this stay was a fantastic place in the town of Urgup called Esbelli Evi - a cave hotel. Because of the soft rock, the local people all used to live carved in rooms in local hills. This cave hotel was actually over 200 years old (luckily it was completely restored about 8 years ago but you're still staying in rooms that were there hundreds of years ago). The hotel had a top balcony area that had an amazing view of the entire countryside. Our first night there, we actually met two other groups of Americans. One was a couple from NYC who were on a vacation. The other couple lived in Philly and she was American and he was Turkish. He actually used to run the hotel we were staying at and she met him on here holiday at Esbelli Evi. We would spend the late afternoon drinking wine, eating watermelon and the local dried apricots, overlooking the valley, and enjoying the sunsets.

Also, due to the local Turkish guy we met, we had the unique opportunity to spend a traditional Turkish evening with the locals in the town. After dinner the first night, we ran into them outside the guy's friend's antique shop. We hung out with the couple, some of their friends, and a cousin or two and learned all about the art of carpet sales. Apparently these guys go to a school to learn how to sell carpets. They not only learn all about the carpets themselves, but also how to sell them to various groups of tourists. They specialize in one language in addition to Turkish, and understand things like people from NYC have tiny places, so won't buy carpets, whereas Texans have big homes and will buy big carpets. We also learned that when you show up at a place and a guy offers to give you a guided tour, if he doesn't charge, he definitely owns a carpet shop. Anyway, we sat on stools outside the shop eating pumpkin seeds and drinking beer - good times.

Our first day of sightseeing included Zelve and Goreme. Zelve was a series of 3 valleys with tons of cave houses. You could climb all over the rocks and explore the caves (or take photos of your husband while he climbed into all of the caves). The open air museum at Goreme was really cool. The area included a bunch of caves that were used as a monastery, so there were a lot of cave churches. The monks hollowed these out further, carving columns and archways into the existing cave and then painting religious symbols and pictures all over the rocks. The churches in this area dated to the 6th and 7th centuries. The earlier paintings in the churches were all in red and kind of looked like a kid had scribbled on the walls, but the later ones were really amazing. Biblical scenes were painted in full color, and many of these had survived surprisingly well given that they were 1500 years old or so (see the picture). Also, the picture to the left is Sarah in one of the old churches.

Other highlights of Cappadocia include the underground cities of Derinkuyu and Kaymakli. These were cities built beneath the ground to protect the Christians from invaders in the 5th century. Unbelievable. They consisted of 8 levels up to 160 feet below the ground. Up to 15,000 people used to live here for months at a time. They had to build sewers, air shafts, and larders to allow the people to live here for long periods of invasion.

Day 8 – Driving to Oludeniz

We decided that driving 10 hours from Cappadocia to the coast would be faster than taking a flight (which would be indirect via Istanbul). Still not sure if it was the best decision in terms of time, but we were able to see a lot of Turkey that we wouldn't have otherwise. And, we definitely wouldn't have learned all the quirks of Turkish driving. First, they really seem to like to drive in the middle of the road - across two lanes - even if the 2nd lane is oncoming traffic. There are also insanely overloaded trucks (check out the photo) going a max of 20 mph along with tractors and horse-drawn carts on the highways. Reminded us of the story from the Turkish guy's cousin who lives in Sweden now: "I was good driver in Turkey; drove there for 10 years. But then it took me 5 tries to pass driving test in Sweden."

Days 9, 10 and 11 - The British Beach Town

After many twisting and turning, climbing and descending roads (who knew Turkey was so mountainous?) around giant lakes and through tiny towns, dodging overloaded trucks, people and goats in the road, we arrived in the town of Fethiye, the largest town near the small beach town, Oludeniz, where we were staying. We decided we were glad we weren’t staying in Fethiye, as there were way too many people on scooters driving even more terribly than the rest of Turkey’s drivers, and too many people in bathing suits and not covered up. We arrived in what we thought was Oludeniz and were a bit scared because there were Union Jack flags everywhere, ads for English breakfasts and prices quoted in £. But, then we realized that this wasn’t Oludeniz, but a town that is a frequent stop on Brit package tours called Hisaronu (nicknamed Hiroshima cuz the Brits are destroying it). One more up and down over a mountain, and we finally made it to Oludeniz. As we walked into our hotel, Sarah remarked that it reminded her of all those hotels featured in the Brit package holiday brochures for Greece, right as we walked past two groups of Brits on holiday...

Well, you can see where this is going...we were staying in a hotel that is now part of Thomas Cook package holidays from the UK. (Quick, someone write to Frommer’s and warn them not to recommend the place anymore.) And, Oludeniz is also a Brit beach town, with prices quoted in £, English breakfasts, beans on toast, tuna and sweetcorn pizzas (really, who eats that on a pizza??), and footie/SkySports on the telly in the Irish pubs.

Our first morning, we woke up to an English breakfast at our hotel and then headed out to the beach. Our first stop was the Blue Lagoon, which is featured on all the tourist brochures for Turkey. We got there, spread our towels on the rocks (we weren’t sure how long we’d stay, so we didn’t splurge for the $8 rental of lounge chairs) and immediately decided (1) that the water wasn’t nearly as blue as we thought it would be based on the pictures and (2) that Mediterranean beaches have nothing on the Caribbean, Mexico or even Florida. However, when you swam out away from the beach and looked back, the water was much more turquoise and really quite beautiful. Sean noted that it was “also not Ibiza” meaning that there were very few ‘pretty’ people on the beach, and “pretty people in Speedos are bad enough. But overweight Turkish/British men – not so much.”

Around lunchtime we headed to the local beach (i.e. no Brits), which was great, until we ordered our lunch without seeing printed prices on a menu and paid 40 YTL for it (normally, lunches have been running us 10-15 YTL). At least the lady let us sit in her lounge chairs “for free” for the afternoon. In the evening we saw the deserted Greek village of Karmylassos, which was abandoned in the 1920s when Turkey was formed and Greeks were ‘repatriated’ to Greece. “A haunting reminder” according to Frommer’s. Sarah was most amused by the sheep roaming around (she didn’t think she’d ever been that close to sheep without a fence separating them). One was the renegade of the bunch and broke away from the group to explore inside all the shells of houses; he kept bleating at us – reminded us of “to-maa-co…”

Dinner was at a restaurant called Cin Bal where you could sit on a platform on cushions surrounding the garden and grill your meat yourself. Seeing as how we grill all the time in our flat in London, we opted out of the DIY route. Seriously, though, we were too taken in by the lamb tandir, which smelled/tasted great, and so had that with mezes and then baklava with ice cream for dessert. Baklava is just one of those desserts that is so sickly sweet that ice cream actually cuts the sweetness some – brilliant.

On our last day before heading home, we took a boat cruise around the coast. We were on a boat with about 40 people – us, a Turkish family of 4, and the rest were Brits. The best among them was a group of about 7 18-21 year olds who were all hung-over. One guy noted that he’d had 13 vodka/OJs and 2 shots the night before and they all seemed to agree that was accurate. One girl was on her mobile back to her friend in the UK and said she’d spent over £800 already, mostly on alcohol, because of her 12 nights on holiday here so far, she’d only been “off the drink” for one night. Another group also was discussing how they’d stayed up late the night before to catch the live eviction from the UK Big Brother house. However, it was a nice cruise. We laid on sun beds on the top deck and went to 5 different locations to swim, including a cold water spring (which the captain told us was a hot water spring so we’d all get in and freeze - see picture) and a cave you could swim in to. Our last dinner in Turkey was at the White Dolphin restaurant. You picked out your fish, they weighed it, cooked it up and brought it to your table. Sarah’s swordfish kebabs and the mezes (icli kofte – meatballs coated with cous-cous) and local wine were excellent. Sean wasn’t so impressed by his grouper but still thought it was nice. We did some last minute souvenir shopping before an early bedtime – our flight out of the area was from Dalaman at 9:00, and it was a 1 hour drive from our hotel. We had a 4 hour layover in Istanbul, most of which we spent at the Starbucks in the airport (they had comfy chairs and it’s not too expensive in YTL especially compared to £). We flew to Amsterdam and then home.


At 3:29 PM , Blogger Wyatt Shaw said...

Sean - don't be shy - where are the pictures from your Turkish man bath..

At 10:12 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw those negotiating skills in action when the redneck we were trying to rent a boat from wouldn't blink at his offer much less put the sandwich down.

At 12:45 PM , Anonymous Samer said...

Nice pictures. The trip sounds like a blast!

At 7:01 AM , Anonymous Andy Morris said...

Great stuff. I can't wait for the next installment. No visit to Ephesus?


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