Turkey Unplugged – Day Ten

I spent my last day in Turkey (04 Nov 2013) in Taksim Gezi Park writing in my journal, and observing the comings and goings of the people who live in Istanbul.  I used those last few hours to sum up my experience of Turkey.  I wrote, “I noticed that the hotels in Turkey don’t have those signs telling you how much you will have to pay if you steal the towels etc.  I don’t know if it is because Turkish people wouldn’t dream of stealing, or if it is because the hotels haven’t caught on to this not so subtle way of  warning would be thieves.”

A list of hotels in Taksim, Istanbul
A list of hotels in Taksim, Istanbul
Fountain in Taksim Gezi Park
Fountain in Taksim Gezi Park

“The weather has been amazing!  I am wearing a hoodie over a T-shirt, and I am sitting in the shade; I am not cold.  Here in Istanbul, people are wearing jackets but not winter coats.  Yesterday, in the mountains, I saw people wearing full-length, down-filled coats.”

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“Most of the people in the park are men; in fact, most of the people on the street are men.  Old men sit at makeshift sidewalk cafe’s smoking, drinking coffee or çay, and talking or playing backgammon. Where are the women?  According to Edward, the Irishman in Kusadasi, the women are working.  I saw women picking cotton and women working as cashiers in both of the supermarkets I patronized, but not very many women seem to work in the hospitality industry, chambermaids notwithstanding.  The waiters and bartenders in most of the places where I ate and drank were men.  The sales people in the Grand Bazaar, in the leather shop, in the carpet shop, and in the spice market were men.”

“In spite of there being poor refugees from neighbouring countries such as Syria, no-one has begged money from me.  A lady with a cart just removed recyclables from the trash bin.”

The final entry in my journal was a list of ‘plus’ and ‘minus’ points about the Turkey Unplugged Tour.  On the plus side was Huseyin with on-hand information about absolutely everything, pre-arranged tickets and no queuing at all of the sites, and moderate to good hotels in good locations.  On the minus side was early morning wake up calls, brisk walks through most of the sites, and no time spent where ‘real’ people live.  Who should take this tour?  First timers to Turkey regardless of age, and singles, couples, and friends.  Who should not take this tour?  People who are uncomfortable with strangers and people who hate waking up in the morning.

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Turkey Unplugged – Day Nine

Amazingly, the morning after our farewell party, I was not paralytic.  Trish commented that if she had drunk as much raki as I had, she would be “laid out”.  The bus seemed empty without Claudia and Telli.  I wrote in my journal, “Sun. 3 Nov 2013 – We are on the bus for the long drive back to Istanbul.  Because we are such a small group (started with nine passengers) our bus is really just a van with 12 passenger seats, so the ride is a bit bumpy making writing difficult. I just saw an eagle. It was brown with white wing tips. :-)”

We drove for a few hours to Ankara, the capital city of Turkey.  Ankara is a modern city chosen to be the new republic’s capital due to its central location.  It had no prior allegiances which made it perfect for a new beginning.  Here rests Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first president of Turkey.  It was here at Ataturk’s mausoleum that I learned about the surname law.  Back on the bus, after watching the changing of the guard, I asked Huseyin about this law.  He explained that during the Ottoman Empire the law was sharia so people did not have surnames.  When Turkey became a republic, one of the biggest changes was to make the government secular and to insist that people have surnames.  Ataturk means ‘father of Turkey’.

I forgot to write about a story I read about Ataturk, on a plaque at ANZAC bay.  In those days, before he was the father of the republic, he was in the Turkish army; a general, I think.  He was hit by shrapnel while in Gallipoli.  He did not report the incident because he feared his troops would become disheartened.  It turned out that the shrapnel hit his pocket watch, which he was carrying in his left hand, breast pocket, over his heart.

As day nine drew to a close, we witnessed part of what modern day Istanbul experiences regularly.  The traffic leading into the city was slow as more and more people were returning after the weekend.  On the right-hand side of the road, a large group of men was racing along on foot.  Two cars behind us, a huge Turkish flag was lowered from an overhead bridge, cutting off three of the four lanes.  When we asked Huseyin what they were protesting, he told us he didn’t know.  It was the first time in nine days that he had not known the answer to a question.

The last hotel on the tour, the Titanic City ranked #238 of 1,110 hotels on Trip Advisor, was the best.  Although it is not as convenient to the old city as the Kent, it is a couple of blocks away from Taksim Square which made the news a few months before I arrived in Turkey and was where I spent Day 10.

Turkey Unplugged – Day Eight

Saturday, 2 November 2013 – The couple that was on their honeymoon had left us, so now our small group was only seven people and for about half of them, Cappadocia was the reason they chose the Turkey Unplugged tour. The other-worldly landscape is seen in the early morning light from a huge basket dangling beneath an equally huge, brightly coloured, hot air balloon. The baskets are jam-packed with tourists from all over the world. The large group sharing with us was from Malaysia.    Kapadokya Kaya Balloons (our video)

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Having had a breathtaking overview of Cappadocia from the air, we spent the rest of the day visiting the ‘crown jewel’ of Turkey at subterranean and ground level.   I am not a coward but narrow staircases without handrails, leading down into tiny, rock chambers, was more than I could handle.  So I sat in the sun with a cup of coffee and waited for the rest of the group to come back up. I wrote in my journal, “This city was started by the Hittites hiding from the Barbarians.  Later, it was expanded by the early Christians hiding from the Romans, and later still, the Byzantines hiding from the Arabs.”

The so-called ‘fairy chimneys’, a natural phenomenon that is similar to the Hoodoos in the Badlands of southern Alberta, Canada,  are approximately 20 metres tall.  Into these towers, fashioned by Mother Nature, human beings have carved churches and chapels which are among the oldest in the world.

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Claudia is a teacher and she had to be back at school on Monday morning and Telli had opted to fly back to Istanbul rather than endure the long drive back, so Saturday evening was our last night together as a group, so of course, we had to party!  The On the Go brochure mildly describes this awesome evening at the Yasar Baba Restaurant as “a traditional folklore show”, but it is the most fun, dancing, drinking, and laughing, that you can pack into one evening.  One of the things that I found surprising was the number of Turks in attendance.  This party isn’t just for tourists!

Our guide, Huseyin, warned us in advance that we were not to take photographs, applaud, or catcall and whistle during the ‘Whirling Dervish’ performance which was the first act of the evening.  This is partly because it is a religious ceremony, even if it is being performed by professional dancers rather than Sufi priests, but also because it is a solemn event being conducted in dim lighting; flashes and loud noises would distract the performers.  The rest of the evening we were free to hoot and holler, take photos and videos, and even participate.

We continued the party in the lobby bar of our hotel, The Peri Towers.  To their credit, they did not try to subdue our exuberant farewell fun, and our bartender worked overtime to make sure that everyone had the best possible end of the tour event.

Turkey Unplugged – Day Seven

Friday, 1 November 2013 – En route to Cappadocia we visited Mevlana Museum in Konya.  According to Lonely Planet, “the main reason to come to Konya is to visit the Mevlâna Museum, the former lodge of the whirling dervishes”.  Followers of Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, known simply as Rumi in English, formed the Mevlevi order after his death. Devotees believe that music and dancing help them to focus on the divine.

Although the mausoleum was beautiful, the most interesting part for me were the classrooms.  Small rooms, each with one door, one window, and one fireplace, were used by one teacher and one student, at a time.

turkey-green-dome-mevlana-museum

Further along the road, we stopped in Sultanhani to see a caravanserai. Caravans would travel the Silk Road, a part of which cut through Turkey.  It was not safe to travel at night, so high-walled fortresses were built so that caravans could come inside.  Half of the caravanserai was open courtyard for summer and half was covered over for winter.  The high, vaulted ceilings in this section were black from centuries of cooking fires.  Huseyin told us that each caravanserai was a one-day ride by camel from the next.

We reached the Hotel Peri Tower (ranked #1 of 12 hotels in Nevsehir on Trip Advisor) in time for dinner.  “Peri” is the Turkish spelling of ‘fairy’ and is an apt name for this whimsical hotel which mimics the rock formations known as “fairy chimneys”.  We had an early night due to the fact that we had a pre-dawn appointment with a hot air balloon.

 

Turkey Unplugged – Day Six

Today, Thursday the 31st of October 2013, we left behind the Aegean Sea and ventured inland to a part of Turkey where the natural formations have a surreal aspect.  We visited Pamukkale where the calcium-rich, thermal springs have created snow-white ledges. Naturally, the Romans turned this into a spa town (Hierapolis) and there are ruins of the baths and amphitheater. There is also a museum containing artifacts that were unearthed at this site.

pamukkale-bathers

You are not actually meant to bathe in the travertines, and you are forbidden from wearing footwear of any type, but lots of people were wading or even sitting in them.  I suggest wearing something light with a swimsuit underneath and sandals or rubber flip flops as there is no place to change.

hierapolis

There is also a public bath, known as the Antique Pool or Sacred Pool, that has change rooms etc. and charges an entrance fee.  There are sections of the original Roman columns in the pool.

Our tour booked us into the Hotel Lycus River which is rated 3 out of 28 hotels in the area on Trip Advisor.  It had indoor and outdoor hot pools that could be used free of charge, as well as, a Turkish bath, spa, and fish spa, all for a fee.  At the time, I didn’t know that Turkey knew about ‘doctor’ fish as I had only ever seen them in Asia, but the sign said they were Turkish fish. I love learning new things!

 

 

Turkey Unplugged – Day Five

Today we visited the ruins of Ephesus, a Roman city. Our guide, Huseyin, told us that there are more Greek ruins in Turkey than in Greece, and more Roman ruins than in Italy. It would have been easy to become a little overawed by the extent of historical sites but Huseyin kept it interesting by telling us about fun facts. For instance, he told us that the toilets were like a “social club” where people met and chatted whilst going about their ‘business’. He also told us about a tunnel which leads from the library to the brothel so that husbands could suggest that their wives do some shopping whilst they did some ‘research’. I was very impressed with the Library of Celsus.

andrea-in-turkey

After lunch, we visited a Turkish carpet shop and a school called Carpet Weavers Center. I can not find their website so I think they may have changed their name.  It was at this shop and school that I learned that it is women who make Turkish carpets and the designs are handed down from mother to daughter. We were treated to a demonstration showing how the silk thread is extracted from the cocoon and how the hand knotting is done.  Claudia even tried her hand at tying a knot.  After the demonstration, we were led into a big room where carpets were shown in rather dramatic fashion. Then the group was split up.  This was similar to the carpet co-op in Morocco but the difference was that the Turks actually told me a starting price.  I bought a very small, very beautiful silk rug.

my-turkish-carpet

After shopping, we went back to Kusadasi where we had the rest of the afternoon and evening free to explore.  I will quote directly from my journal, “I will start this the way I start so many of my journal entries – I am sitting in a bar.  I am actually on the terrace of the Akdeniz Apart Hotel in Kusadasi, Turkey.  The street in front of me is populated almost entirely by tattoo parlours and Irish pubs.  An  Irish gentleman in the lobby informed me that Kusadasi is the home of the Irish in Turkey.  I have wandered away from the tourist area in search of a coin laundry.  To locate something that prosaic, one must find where real people live and shop.  I have found it.  I have been in Turkey for five days and, except for wandering around the garment district of Istanbul my first morning, I have only been treated to the sights that tourists come to Turkey to see.  That isn’t completely true.  I went to the spice market twice where the crush of Turks shopping was as authentic as the Hari Raya market in Singapore.”  Wed 30 Oct 2013

 

 

Turkey Unplugged – Day Four

Today was an even earlier start than yesterday.  We began by going to nearby Troy.  Huseyin told us how a German archaeologist destroyed the Troy of Homer’s Iliad because he believed it would be found in the lower layers of the site but, in fact, it was much nearer to the top.  There is a replica wooden horse that you can climb inside and have your photo taken.  There is also a chariot and gladiator costumes in which you can dress for a photograph that will cost you 10 TL.  I must admit to being underwhelmed.  I bought a tiny wooden horse and we got to watch the Brad Pitt movie ‘Troy’ on the bus.

trojan-horse dress-up-at-troybrad-pitt

 

After approximately 4 hours , we arrived in Bergama where we visited the ruins of the Pergamum Acropolis.  The library of Pergamum was second only to the library in Alexandria.  Pergamum was a Greek city and, in its heyday, it was home to about 200,000 people.

Our home for the next two nights was the Grand Onder Otel (this is not a spelling error, this is the Turkish spelling) in the port city of Kusadasi on the Turkish Aegean coast . This hotel ranked 64 out of 157 on Trip Advisor and has since changed its name to the Suhan Seaport Hotel.

A lot of cruise ships stop in Kusadasi and offer day trips to Ephesus which was our destination for Day Five.  In the evening we strolled the streets along the port stopping at a cafe where some of our group tried shisha, the molasses-based tobacco concoction smoked in a hookah pipe.

Turkey Unplugged – Day Three

Day Three

We had an early start so that we could get to Gallipoli by mid-day.  I had thought this would be the least interesting part of the tour for me but I was moved that these young people honoured the memories of their great grandfathers, who fought and died here.  There was a marker that indicated among the dead were Newfoundlanders.  The battle for the Dardanelles, took place in 1915 and Newfoundland did not join Canada until 1949.

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A ferry brought us across the same strait,that the ANZAC forces had attacked, to the Asian side of Turkey.

 

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We stayed the night in Canakkale in a hotel which made me think of the hotels in the Catskill Mountains of New York State,  featured in the film ‘Dirty Dancing’.  Tusan Hotel scored 11 out of 24 hotels on Trip Advisor and a few of our group were disappointed with their rooms.  We had amazing weather but it was still too cold to use the pool or the beach.  I could imagine families coming here in the summer.  The Tusan does not provide drinking water unless you count the small bottles for 2 TL (Turkish Lira) in the minibar.  I suggest you pick up a large (1 ½ litre) bottle of water in Istanbul for 1 TL and bring it with you.

Turkey Unplugged – Day Two

 Day Two

Breakfast was included at all of the hotels on the tour and was, more or less, the same at all of them.  The breakfasts were all buffet style with eggs, meat, cheese, olives, and bread.  Yes, I wrote ‘olives for breakfast’.  Although I ate olives every day when I lived in Spain, I never had them for breakfast.  I was in heaven!  After breakfast, Huseyin loaded us on our bus and we headed for Istanbul’s Old City, also known as Sultanahmet.

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History comes in layers in Turkey and Istanbul was the capital city for both the Byzantine (Christian) and later, the Ottoman (Muslim) Empires.  When I was a little girl, my father used to sing, “Istanbul was Constantinople… “.  I was amused by the strange sounding words but knew nothing of the history behind the phrase.

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The tour of the Old City covers most of Istanbul’s ‘must see’ sights but even with the help of a very knowledgeable guide to answer all of my questions (and I ask a lot of questions), one day to see the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, the Hippodrome, Topkapi Palace , and the Underground Cistern, is really just an overview.  I was looking forward to my day in Istanbul at the end of the tour.

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Turkey Unplugged – the Flight and Day One

For those of you who don’t know me, I am Andrea Brandle, a Canadian living in Singapore.  I have travelled to and lived in North and South America, Africa, Asia, and Europe but I had never been to Turkey.  Fathiah at Flight Centre Singapore made the arrangements with Turkish Airlines and On the Go Tours for my 10-day introduction to Turkey.

The Flight

My adventure began Friday evening at Changi Airport, one of my all-time favourite airports.  The daily, direct flight on Turkish Airlines from SIN to IST (Ataturk Airport, Istanbul) takes 12 hours and 10 minutes and has you arrive in the wee, small hours of the morning.  The flight was extremely pleasant, in part, because the flight attendants are friendly and helpful, the plane is comfortable and the entertainment is up-to-date with an extensive choice, but also, in part because my seat partner was a delightful, young doctor who was returning home from a conference in Jakarta.  When I asked her in a conspiratorial whisper if she was Turkish, she answered “yes” proudly and without hesitation.  I then asked her to teach me how to say thank you in Turkish.  In spite of her best efforts, I still cannot say anything except “Raki”, the ‘national’ alcohol of Turkey.  I tasted Raki for the first time on the flight and it was also my first time to taste Turkish wine.  I knew right away that I was going to enjoy my visit to Turkey.

Many of the people on my flight were not going to Istanbul as I discovered when I chatted with other passengers waiting to depart.  Skylife, the inflight magazine, claims that Turkish Airlines flies to more countries than any other airline in the world.  That would mean a lot of people are changing planes in Istanbul; so, Turkish Airlines put together TourIstanbul, “an enjoyable tour program for our passengers who are traveling internationally with layovers in Istanbul that overlap with the tour times shown below.” (9am to 3pm, 12 noon to 6pm, and 9am to 6pm) “On our complimentary TourIstanbul tours, we pick up our passengers from Ataturk Airport and take them to the city’s historic sites and finest restaurants…Don’t miss this experience if you have a layover of more than six hours in Istanbul that overlaps with the tour times.”

Day One

A representative of On the Go Tours met me at the airport and brought me to the Kent Hotel.  We chatted on the way to the hotel about the weather and he filled me in on some basic information about Turkey in general (98% Muslim but very “westernized”), and Istanbul (unofficially, 20 million people live in Turkey’s largest city).   The Kent Hotel, which Tripadvisor ranked 267 out of 869 hotels,  is located in Istanbul’s garment district which is only a couple of tram stops away from the ‘old city’.   With several hours before check-in, I left my luggage, donned my hoodie and went out to explore.  The city was just waking up.

City waking

The streets in this part of Istanbul are generally narrow and cobbled.  Ordu Street, along which the tram runs, is an exception, as it is very wide.  The side streets off Ordu, which run north (uphill) and south, to the Marmara Sea, are very steep.  A young fellow with a handcart stacked high with cargo that appeared to weigh three times as much as he did, came careening down the hill with his feet barely touching the ground.  I feared for his safety and wondered how on Earth he would be able to stop.  He managed to turn on to an East-West running street and his momentum gradually slowed.  He had obviously done this before.

steep cobbled street

I saw lots and lots and lots of cats.  https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152154417655860.1073741831.567485859&type=1

I wandered for hours and finally, I decided to stop for lunch at a welcoming dining room in Hotel Momento.  It turned out that it was only 10:30 a.m.!  I chose to have breakfast instead, even though I had already had breakfast on the plane, and to buy a watch as soon as I found a cheap one.  I pulled out my Lonely Planet and made a plan to go to a Turkish bath.  On my way to one of the hamams recommended in the guidebook, I found my own and I was feeling pretty, proud of myself.  Gedikpasa Bath was built by the architect Gedik Ahmet Pasa in 1475 and it is the real deal.

MY turkish bath

After sitting in the sauna for a while, I stretched out on a hot marble platform and was scrubbed with a loofah by an attractive, young lady wearing a black lace bra and a red G-string with ‘sexy’ in rhinestones on the front.  In the steamy environment of the hamam, this was suitable work clothing.  Another of the ladies who worked there was wearing a string bikini and she made me look small!  When the scrub was finished, I was rinsed off and back to the hot marble for a soap massage.  Finally, my hair was shampooed and then I went for a swim in a cool pool.  As I lay floating, staring up at the ancient ceiling, I had one of those surreal moments that I am prone to.  I thought to myself, “OMG, I am in a Turkish bath in Istanbul!”  I dried off, got dressed and headed back to the Kent to check in.

On the Go Tours offers to match up single travellers with a roommate of the same gender in order to save them from paying the single supplement.  Claudia, my roommate, had checked in about five minutes before I arrived back at the hotel.  She told me that she planned to visit the Grand Bazaar as it is closed on Sunday and would not be included on our tour of Istanbul’s Old City.  I was glad she had found this out.  Off we went together to what the brochure describes as a shopper’s paradise.  The guide books suggest allowing a minimum of three hours to explore this sprawling labyrinth of shops and stalls.  I bought a watch and earrings. Claudia bought scarves and we had doner in a pita style wrap for lunch.

Lunch in the Grand Bazaar

The itinerary, given to me by the airport representative, indicated that we were to meet our guide at 8 p.m. in the lobby of the Kent Hotel.  In fact, we met in a meeting room off the restaurant, one floor above the lobby.  Teli, part of our small group, arrived late and a bit peeved because he had been waiting down in the lobby.  Our group was an interesting mix.  Our guide, Huseyin Salikoglu is Turkish, a former university lecturer, and, my guess, is in his forties.  The passengers were comprised of an older couple, Trish and Russell, from New Zealand; newlyweds on their honeymoon, Marina and Daniel, from Australia; and a couple of paramedics, Laura and Steven, also from Australia.  In addition to the three couples, there was Claudia, who was travelling without her partner and Teli, who is divorced.  When I asked Teli if his name was like Telly Savalas (a 70’s television star) he explained about his background.  His family are Greeks with roots in Turkey.  This was sort of a pilgrimage for him.