After working hard in Israel I felt rejuvenated and ready to take on Turkey. After my Egypt experience my hackles were up and I was as prepared as I could be. However, Turkey came as a big surprise. I wasn't prepared for how westernized, modern and clean it was. I should have known better though. As has often been my experience, the countries I go to with the lowest expectations come out on top.
The day I booked my plane ticket there had been a bombing in Istanbul. It was the beginning of Ramadan and apparently these occurrences increase during this time. But I was not to be deterred. After all, the real probability of me being caught up in something like that is so slim it makes fears unfounded. And if I am, so it is my destiny. I’d rather go out with a bang anyhow than die a slow, painful death or live to the point that both my memory and dignity are gone.
Turkey is very much a 21st Century, first world country. It is beautiful, modern and it is clean. Very clean. Ok, not Germany or Denmark clean but certainly cleaner than many countries I’ve been to. Plan to leave your shoes at the door before entering a private residence in this country because Turks keep spotless homes. The landscaping in the parks, and even along the highway, is surprisingly creative, artistic and ornate. I’d love to know what their annual budget is for this. The mosques are stunning and the call to prayer is actually sung live. Plus the Turkish baths are fantastic! Turks are educated and are not Arabs, yet many still have what I call for lack of a better term, that Arab mentality. They can be a little annoying when you walk by as they try to get you to come in their shop, they like to barter, they think because you are a single woman that you are in need of a man and, they still try to rip you off just because you’re a tourist. However harassment was minimal and the lessons learned are: don't be too trusting, never accept an offer to get a beer with a stranger, get prices up front- even in restaurants- and check the price on the cash register (I found they like to round up if you just take their word for it).
Istanbul is the seventh largest city in the world by area and has a population of 14 million people. It’s many skyscrapers, modern facilities and shops rival the most modern US city. An enormous metropolis, it is divided into three parts: the Asian side which is more locals and has a lively nightlife and, the European side which is divided into two parts. I got a kick out of the realization that I could literally go back and forth between two continents, in the same city, with just a short, 20-minute ferry ride.
Sultanahmet is the area where the iconic photos of Istanbul are taken and films are made. There are many domed mosques there with their towering minarets as well as most of the tourist sights, including the grand bazaar and the spice bazaar. Both are geared toward tourists and have higher prices than elsewhere in the city. And like most bazaars, it's the same twenty things being sold in a couple hundred shops. Although I must admit, the rugs in Turkey are the most beautiful that I've seen in all my travels and they also have beautiful painted plates and mosaic lamps. There is a lot of glittery, gold jewelry and the art work is quite nice too.
Across the bridge is Beyoglu where, with one look around, you can see the obvious European influence. It has a better vibe too as there are more tourists, shops, restaurants, bars and a big pedestrian street. I was fortunate that my first full day there I got a cool bunk-mate from Australia and on the walking tour the following day we met a couple nice guys from India. With them I spent a couple fun days exploring quite a bit of the city. We went to the tower for a beautiful view of the city and toured the stunning Dolmabahce Palace. Probably one of my favorites. It’s not big and gaudy like Versailles, nor are the gardens expansive, but it goes right up to the sea and is tastefully decorated throughout with all original items.
Cappadocia was my next destination. An area famous for its fairy chimneys. It was the only other place I had on my list for this country and it is definitely a DO NOT MISS destination. I chose the $20 plane trip rather than the 18-hour bus ride. The town I was staying in is 80 km away from the airport and a couple very kind bus drivers ensured I got to the bus station that would take me to my destination. Once there I stopped in a shop to get some information on activities and guided tours in the area and to try and figure out where my hotel was. The young kid helping me offered to drive me there. Little did I know it would be on an ATV. We ended up doing quite a tour of the town and surrounding area which was fantastic. I even got to drive for a while but I preferred to be passenger so I could enjoy the view. But as most things that must be too good to be true, he had an ulterior motive. I never felt threatened, just annoyed and, with a gentle smack on the head I told him he was inappropriate. He was then very apologetic.
I did the spectacular yet touristy hot air balloon ride because you have to. There is no better way to see the area than from the air. I spent one day on a tour bus going to the ancient underground city, walking through a beautiful canyon and enjoying the stunning overlook of Pigeon Valley and spent the next two days exploring the incredible ash mounds on my own. Part of the attraction of the area is that there are many homes, churches, tombs, even a monastery, dug into these ash mounds. By the fourth day I felt i’d seen it all but decided to wander around anyhow and realized it is the kind of place where everywhere you go the formations are different and so unique you really can't get enough. But I wanted to see more of this amazing country and decided to continue on.
Pamukkale, translated as cotton castle, is a half day of activity but definitely a must see. The calcium build up from the natural hot springs reaches up to 100 meters high and is such a special thing to enjoy. Shoes must be removed before walking on them and the wet, white surface is not only not slippery but it is gentle on your feet. The water is so clear and blue and just the right temperature. An absolutely stunning setting. The most tourists I saw in Turkey were here and it is probably because all the cruise ships do day trips here. Still, despite all the crowd, it is quite special to sit in the pools and look around at the valley below. I’ve discovered that I need to take more time-outs. When I feel exhausted from the tolls of travel I find a beautiful area to stop and meditate for 15-20 minutes and when I'm finished I have an attitude adjustment. I'm more appreciative of my situation and tourists don't annoy me so much. At the top of the springs is a museum. For less than $2 you can walk through an ancient Roman bath house and look at many well preserved reliefs and sarcophagus's among other ancient civilization relics such as pottery and jewelry. The thing that puts this small museum above others is that, with the reliefs, they tell you the entire mythological story that you are looking at. I really appreciated that.
Pillow Fight! There are so many more incredible places to visit in this country but I wanted to get back to Istanbul for the Couchsurfing pillow fight Tournament complete with rules and a referee. It was taking place in different cities all around Europe and sounded like something I had to attend. I was the only female that fought but they weren’t easy on me. It was immense fun and exhausting! We probably fought for an hour, with a few breaks in there. In the end, yours truly became Turkey’s CS Pillow Fight Champion! It was good fun all around and afterward a group of us went to dinner together at a local’s restaurant.
Bursa! One of the best things to come out of the pillow fight was an invitation by one of the attendees to come stay at his home in Bursa. Even though I'd never heard of the place before, I said “yes!” My last two days in Turkey were spent in this UNESCO site just a two hour ferry ride south of Istanbul. It was the first major city of the Ottoman Empire, established in 1335-1363. The grand mosque with its 20 domes has beautiful Arabic calligraphy throughout and the green tomb was lovely as well. The city museum was a great deal. For less than $1 I enjoyed a fun museum showing the history of they city from architecture to culture. I went to the home of my “host”, Bora, whom, at the end of two days, I now consider a friend.
In the traditional Turkish way, he lives with his family. His sister and her four month old son were visiting and his mother welcomed me with open arms. She is a great cook and filled me with her delicious traditional Turkish food. Bora had to work during the days so he gave me a map of the city and marked all the things I should see, each of which was a great suggestion. The family observes Ramadan yet in the morning, his mother would get up, prepare me breakfast of cheese, fruit and vegetables and walk me to the shared taxi or bus and speak to the driver to make sure he let me out in the right place. I mention the Ramadan because, not only do they not eat or drink anything-not even water!- from sunrise to sunset, they get up in the wee-hours of the night to eat before sunrise so they can survive this grueling demand. So people are also sleep deprived. So when “Mom” gets up early to make me breakfast or Bora stays up until very late to show me his twinkling city from the mountain or take me to a Whirling Dervish show, I recognize the hidden part of the gift. There were so many ways they showed me kindness I can't begin to list them all but it was above and beyond anything I expected.
The night before I left, terrorists attacked the main airport, leaving 45 dead and hundreds injured. A sad day indeed. And now, a country already bereft of tourists will take an even deeper financial hit. The geography of this country is spectacular and in Bursa I found such warm hospitality that it pains me to see the terrorists win. However I’d like to thank everyone that sent me messages of concern about my welfare. It means a lot to me to know you care and are thinking of me. And since writing this there was also a coup staged by the government, which is turning it from a democracy into a totalitarian state. The people I spoke with were concerned about this man and now it's quite clear that their suspicions were correct. It's quite unfortunate and I worry for the people there. And I'm sad for you because you wont be able to experience this wonderful country anytime soon. When things quiet down I hope you go to Turkey. Rent a car, drive all around this incredible country and let it surpass all your expectations.