Friday, November 05, 2010

A Month in Turkey

Adding details...

Sunday 8-29-10. The bus from Varna, Bulgaria to Istanbul, Turkey took ten hours; plus it took us another three hours by metro, tram, and commuter train to get from the otogar (bus station) to the hotel that Jonathan had booked online. This would be the first of many long bus rides that I would take in Turkey, but I did not know that at the time. For the record, I did not even want to go to Turkey at all -- it was Jonathan's pick. So, I was already pissed-off going somewhere that I never wanted to go, and a long, uncomfortable bus ride gave me plenty of time to dwell on it. The one hour stop at the border and the 20 Euro visa that we had to purchase did nothing to boost my morale. I don't know how anyone slept on the bumpy ride, but Jonathan managed to sleep the whole time. I did not sleep at all.

Monday 8-30-10. It was around 9am -- too early to check into the hotel -- so we set off to the Topkapı Palace, the residence of Ottoman sultans between 1465 and 1856. Today it is one of the most visited museums in the world. For 20 TL ($15) you can get lost in the crowd and see artifacts including the staff of Moses and the Spoonmaker's Diamond -- which some guides call the largest diamond in the world. No photos are allowed inside the palace. We then got lost in the crowd at the Grand Bazaar. This is the oldest and largest closed bazaar in the world. It has been in operation since 1461 and features 60 streets and 36,000 "stores." It's mostly souvenirs, trinkets, spices, jewelry, and knock-off name-brand clothes. Here began my fascination with the Nazar.

Tuesday 8-31-10. First we went to the Blue Mosque (aka the Sultan Ahmed Mosque) and the Sultan's tomb. We then walked around the Hippodrome of Constantinople, which today is just a park. The park does contain several stolen relics from past conquests. These include the Serpent Column (from Greece), the Obelisk of Tutmoses III (from Egypt), and the Walled Obelisk. Closer to the Grand Bazaar is another landmark called the Burnt Column. Then we took a tram and walked up a steep hill to the Galata Tower. This impressive tower is 62 meters tall and was built in 1348. This is the best place to take in a view of the Bosphorus which is the strait of water separating Europe and Asia, while connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara (which connects to the Aegean Sea) If you didn't know, only 3% of Turkey is in Europe, while the other 97% lies in Asia. Furthermore, Istanbul is the only city located on two continents. After the tower, we took a 1.5 hour boat tour of the Bosphorus. This tour does not make any stops, but from the boat, you can see places such as the Dolmabahçe Palace on the European side and the Beylerbeyi Palace on the Asian side. You can also see, from a distance, the tiny Maiden's Tower marking the entrance to the Bosphorus.

Wednesday 9-1-10. Jonathan and I decide to part ways for one week. He wants to go see a girl that we met in Kiev, Ukraine who is now vacationing with her mother down in Marmaris in southwestern Turkey on the Mediterranean coast. After the lackluster resort town of Golden Sands, Bulgaria, I'm not in the mood for the beach nor do I want to tag along while my friend attempts to hook up with this girl. So we decide to go separate ways and meet back in Istanbul in one week. After much deliberation and seriously considering an expensive organized tour, I decide to just wing it. So I pay 50 TL ($38) for a bus ticket to Nevşehir, which is the gateway to a region in central Turkey called Cappadocia. The bus ride took twelve hours.

Thursday 9-2-10. At 9am I arrive in Nevşehir. As soon as I get off the bus I am approached by a tour guide. This was serendipity that I took for granted at the time. I figured there would be tour guides hustling in other cities, but that turned out not to be the case. After some negotiating, we settled on a price of 250 TL ($188) which would include two days of touring (over 400 kilometers of travel), lunch both days, staying in a cave hotel that night, the bus to my next destination the next night, plus an arrangement with a tour guide in the next city. It turned out to be well worth the expense. The tour of Cappadocia was to become the absolute apex of the entire trip to Europe -- and here I was, in fact, in Asia. So, let the Cappadocia tour begin. First, we drive to Göreme to check into my cave hotel and pick up four other tourists. This dry region is known for its thousands of pillars and "fairy chimneys" (in the US we call them hoodoos) of sedimentary rock. For thousands of years, people have been carving into the fairly soft rock to make homes and churches. The many cave hotels in Göreme are just a continuation of this tradition. In that first day of touring, we saw nine separate destinations between 10am and 6pm. These included the panorama in Göreme, a three kilometer walk through the Rose Valley to visit stone-carved churches, a panorama and lunch in the Pigeon Valley, the carvings and panorama in Ürgüp, plus visits to the Imagination Valley (where lots of stone formations look like animals) and the Love Valley (where lots of stone formations look like dicks). We also toured Konak Seramik, a factory where they make fancy pottery to sell to tourists with money. Besides the sites, the highlight of the day was eating fresh grapes right off the vine. Despite it having not rained here since May, there are grapes, apples, and pumpkins all over the area.

Friday 9-3-10. The second day in Cappadocia began at 9:30 am when I was picked up for the tour. We drove about 45 minutes to the Selime Castle where a monastery was carved into the stone over a thousand years ago. Then we drove to a panorama known as the "Star Wars movie place" where some scenes were filmed for the original Star Wars. Then we hiked three kilometers through the Ihlara Valley. Walking this lush stream was quite a contrast to the desert of the previous day. I saw lots of butterflies, ducks, trout, frogs, lizards, and even a river rat. The stream was surrounded by pistachio trees, walnut trees, and blackberry bushes as well. We stopped at one stone church to admire the frescoes. This is one of 700 known churches in the valley! During the Roman times, these stone churches were where Christians practiced their religion in secrecy. We made a brief stop at the volcanic crater lake called Nar Lake and then onward to the main destination of the day: The Derinkuyu Underground City. We saw about 10% of over 100 tunnels that were carved in the 8th century BC and occupied until the 5th century AD. Here some 40,000 people lived at one time -- completely underground -- along with their livestock. Everything they needed was underground including stables, cellars, churches, and schools. That concluded my two days in Cappadocia. I am glad I went on the organized tour -- there is no way I could have seen so many places on my own -- even with a car, a guide book, and a better understanding of the Turkish language. At least in Cappadocia, where the sites are so spread out, getting on an organized tour is a necessity. That night I caught a ten hour bus from Nevşehir to Denizli.

Saturday 9-4-10. In Denizli, I caught a one hour mini-bus to Pamukkale. This is a World Heritage Site known for its hot springs that form enormous travertines of calcium carbonate. The guides call them "frozen waterfalls" and "cotton castles." It is indeed impressive to look up and see an entirely white hillside. The ancient Greek city of Hieropolis was built on top of the hill in the 2nd century BC. The tour that I paid for began in the necropolis of Hieropolis, covered a lot of area and history, until we had walked to the top of the theatre. This one held a capacity of 15,000 people. I came to find out that there are more ruins of Greco-Roman era cities in Turkey than there are in either Greece or Italy. I didn't know it at the time, but Hieropolis would be the first of several that I would visit. Onward from the theatre is the "Antik Pool" in which you can swim in crystal clear water over fallen marble columns. The history of Hieropolis combined with the beauty of the travertines, makes Pamukkale quite a fantastic destination. We waded down through the warm waters of the natural terraces and had a nice buffet lunch. That evening I caught a 4.5 hour bus to Bodrum on the Aegean Sea.

Sunday 9-5-10. Arriving late in Bodrum, I asked around until I found a cheap hotel. I started my morning with a visit to the Bodrum Castle, built between 1405 and 1523. The castle today houses the artifacts of the world's largest museum of underwater archaeology. Thoroughly impressed by all the amphoras and other relic from various shipwrecks, I was off to find the Mausoleum of Hallicarnassus. In antiquity Bodrum was know as Hallicarnassus. The tomb was built around 350 BC for the king Mausolus. The finished structure was identified as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and this is also how we came to use the word mausoleum to mean any grand tomb. However, all that remains today is rubble. Huge chunks of impressive rubble, but rubble nonetheless. (All of the cool stuff was carted off to the British Museum long ago.) The third site of distinction in Bodrum was the ancient theatre, this one accommodating a capacity of 13,000. Fascinating to think that something built in 300 BC is still being used for its original purpose. I then set off to visit what was on my map as "Tiger Tower," but after hiking there I found that it was an army base complete with armed guards. Oh well. Time to catch a bus to Izmir.

Monday 9-6-10. Last night I arrived in Izmir just in time to catch the bus to Selçuk; this was five more hours of travel time. Selçuk is the modern day city just three kilometers from the ruins of Ephesus: the second largest city in the world circa 1 BC (Rome was the largest). Today it is one of Turkey's top tourist destinations. First stop for me was the Ephesus Museum. Standout artifacts include many statues of gods and emperors and two magnificent depictions of the "goddess of the hunt" Artemis. Ephesus was indeed a place where Artemis was worshiped by a cult following, where she was depicted in a more Egyptian style -- legs together, arms outstretched, with dozens of accessory breasts. But the real highlight of the Ephesus Museum was a little figurine artifact, only about 8 inches tall of the Greek fertility god Priapus, also attributed to the Egyptian god Bes. You may know that Priapus was the ugly, impotent god with the huge, always hard dick. In fact, priapism is a condition where you get some kind of painful permanent erection. Anyway, all around Ephesus, and even other parts of Turkey, this little figurine is celebrated by the cult of souvenirs -- little guys made of plastic, plaster, or stone, all sporting big hard dicks. I developed a minor obsession with the character and bought several Priapus souvenirs myself. Onward to the Ephesus site itself, I join the crowd of tourists marveling at the Library of Celsus and the largest ancient theatre in Turkey (this one holding 25,000 people). Finally, outside of the crowded ruin-site of Ephesus, I locate the Temple of Artemis. Completed in 550 BC, this is another one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In fact, of the seven wonders, two are in present-day Turkey, and I visited the ruins of each. The ruins here are even less impressive than the rubble of Halicarnassus. Of the original 127 columns, only one remains -- and it's just a bunch of unmatching pieces stacked together. At any rate, the temple was destroyed back in 356 BC by one Herostratus who was determined to be famous at any cost. This is why when someone proudly commits an atrocious act for notoriety, he is said to have "herostratic fame." Done with Ephesus, I was off on another seven hour bus ride to Çanakkale.

Tuesday 9-7-10. To conclude the only week I intended to travel solo -- and the only week I intended to travel Turkey -- I was going to wrap it up in Truva, the modern name for the ancient city of Troy. To get to Troy, I had to take a cheap dolmuş (shared taxi) 30 km from the port city of Çanakkale. Troy is another World Heritage Site, as nine different ancient civilizations have been unearthed at the archeology location. To the casual visitor, they all look pretty much the same -- piles of rubble. So it is no wonder that someone built a huge wooden model of the Trojan Horse to entice tourists. It's pretty cool, you can even climb inside. (By the way, the time of the Trojan War would have taken place during the civilization known as Troy VII.) After I wrapped up my visit, I had to wait a couple hours for the dolmuş to return. I ended up reading an entire book on Heinrich Schliemann the original archaeological excavator of Troy. Back in Çanakkale, I sought and found the other Trojan Horse model -- this one is the actual prop from the 2004 film called Troy (yes, the one with Brad Pitt). Spent the night in Çanakkale, with a 4.5 hour bus ride ready for morning.

Wednesday 9-8-10. From Çanakkale, the bus boards a ferry over the Dardanelles onto the Gallipoli peninsula. It was a rare daytime bus trip, and I was working on a speech for the upcoming Morten Hake Summit in Norway. I had just received confirmation as a presenter. Jonathan and I were communicating through email. He had returned to Istanbul and checked into a hostel in the Taksim district. He did not tell me the name of the hostel. So, when I got back, I went to the only area I knew --where we had stayed prior -- in the Sultanahmet district. As soon as I got back, I was reminded of the main reasons I hated Istanbul: the crowds. And they were worse than ever considering it was now a major holiday. The Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan, was at its end and it was now time for the three-day celebration called Eid ul-Fitr. Any large-scale holiday can also be called a bayram, which amounts to a huge public party which closes many businesses and seems to have everyone in the streets. I wandered around and admired the fireworks and how they lit up the mosques. As secular as Turkey seems to the visitor, it is important to remember that the population is 99% registered Muslim.

Thursday 9-9-10. I went to the Taksim district, which seemed like the largest group of people I have ever seen in one place. It was not an organized event either -- like a concert -- it was just a dense mob of people walking the streets. Made no sense to me. I ended up briefly going to the Hagia Sophia. From 360 until 1453, this building was a church. From 1453 until 1934 it was a mosque. Since then it has become one of the most visited museums in the world. I skipped out and ended up at the less crowded Istanbul Archaeology Museum. Now this I should have had a great appreciation for after touring the country a bit. Yet I was rather disappointed because most of the artifacts are things taken from other places, like Egypt or the Orient. I walked back to the hostel and still could not coordinate with Jonathan. I had this speech that I needed to work on ASAP. So, I made a decision: I was going to get the hell out of Istanbul and go back to Pamukkale. There I could get some writing done. No crazy holiday crowds. And for the price of a cramped, smelly hostel in Istanbul, I knew I could get a private room with wifi down in Pamukkale. I emailed Jonathan my plan and was off to the otogar again. Paid my 50 TL ($38) and settled into another ten hour bus ride.

Friday 9-10-10. I took a coach-bus to Denizli, then a mini-bus to Pamukkale, arriving at 7:30am. Found a hotel for 15 TL ($11). I was also just in time to catch the once-daily ride to Aphrodisias. This was not an organized tour like I did in Hieropolis, I simply met a guy who drove a van 1.5 hours out there, gave you three hours for sightseeing, and then drove you the 1.5 hours back. Only $15 to see the ruins of a city that had been the cult following of the goddess of love, beauty, and sexuality? I couldn't let that opportunity pass. It was a beautiful day, and it was down in Aphrodisias that I really fell in love with the Greco-Roman sites. This was my fifth site after Hieropolis, Ephesus, Halicarnassus and Troy (though Troy wasn't much to look at), and I began noticing how the specific remains made each site unique. For example, in Aphrodisias, the temple (of Aphrodite) was the focal point of the town and much of it was still intact. Aphrodisias had a small theatre (7,000 capacity) but an enormous stadium (30,000 capacity). I was realizing that every ruin site was incredibly unique. Plus the museum was top notch, with many spectacular statues and reliefs. Great place, great day. I went back to Pamukkale to get some writing done and I learned something else that I did not find out on my first visit: The hot springs and travertines are open 24 hours! At night they light up the whole white hillside and you can go bask in the 35 °C (95 °F) water any time, day or night. How sexy is that?

Saturday 9-11-10. Today I had a relaxing day -- did some writing, ate a gözleme, and tried ayran (a disgusting yogurt-based beverage that tastes like buttermilk). I watched some teenagers sneak up the steep hillside of Pamukkale to the hot springs and pools at the top. I know there is a lot of security up there acting as lifeguards, blowing their whistles when anyone gets close to the edge. (Which is often because it makes for the best pictures.) Anyway, I've decided to just brazenly walk up where there is no path. Here I am in a red t-shirt and black shorts hiking up a bright white hill. I get to the top -- half-expecting some authority figure to be waiting for me -- but the coast is clear. Score! Just saved $15 right there. Took some nice pictures of the beautiful sunset. The best part about today is that I got so much writing done on this speech, I feel that I can continue traveling (seeing more and more sites) and still arrive in Norway prepared. No problem. Where should I go next?

Sunday 9-12-10. I decided to go to Fethiye on the Mediterranean Sea, and I caught the bus at 9am. This was a scenic, mountainous five-hour ride. Got to Fethiye and started walking; ended up at a small museum. Checked out the artifacts from several nearby archaeological sites and got a map. I'm off to the "blue lagoon" --a place billed as the nicest beach in Turkey -- aka Ölüdeniz. Whoa. This place is full of people from the UK. I would later read that 600,000 Britons come to this beach every year, but at the time of my arrival I had no idea. Apparently I had landed smack-dab in the middle of the Turkish Riviera. Everything here is in English, the food is quite expensive (compared to other places in Turkey) but good, and paragliding is certainly popular. I'll tell you what's not expensive -- the "excursions." I had no idea about these because I don't spend a lot of time in resort towns. Basically they are organized trips that turn out to be really cheap because they take so many vacationers out at once. I knew I only had one day -- the next day -- so I picked the Dalyan tour. It sounded like the most bang-for-your-buck. In retrospect, I should have stopped right here -- instead of going further east -- and taken advantage of all the cheap excursions. I could have toured Tlos, Patara, and Myra (home of Saint Nicholas) with ease and delight because of these organized excursions. I could also have gone on a jeep "safari," rafting, or paragliding for super cheap. Plus it was only one of about three places in Turkey that I discovered had any nightlife. Of course, eveyone thinks I'm from England -- but who cares.

spell check failed. :(

9-13-10 Dalyan tour, bus to Antalya
9-14-10 Antalya museum, Aspendos, bus to Konya
9-15-10 Mevlana Tomb and Museum, Konya Musuem, bus to Silifke
9-16-10 Cennet-Cehennen, Kizkalesi, Korykos Castle, Mersin, bus to Malatya
9-17-10 bus to Adiyaman, Mt. Nemrut tour
9-18-10 bus to Diyarbakir
9-19-10 Diyarbakir Castle, bus to Van
9-20-10 Van Lake, Van Castle
9-21-10 bus to Dogubeyazit, Mt. Ararat, Isak Pasa Sarayi
9-22-10 eleven hour bus ride to Trabzon
9-23-10 Ayasofya of Trabzon, Sumela Monestary fail, bus to Samsun
9-24-10 bus to Yozgat, Hattusa fail, bus to Ankara, Antolian Civilizations Museum, eleven hours to Didim
9-25-10 Didim, Temple of Apollo, Miletus, Priene, bus to Kusadasi
9-26-10 Kusadasi Castle, Ephesus, Izmir, Bergama
9-27-10 Bergama Akropol
9-28-10 bus to Istanbul, Miniaturk, Maiden's Tower, Rumeli Fortress fail
9-29-10 Rumeli Fortress, flight to Stockholm