Sat 7 May 2011 - Sat 18 Jun 2011
After waving goodbye to Toby's parents in the window of their Istanbul-bound bus in Goreme, Turkey, we boarded a different bus. This one was en route to Kahta; further East, and less often visited. Here is a recount of our brief detour from Turkey's tourist trail.
Two weeks prior, we had met with Toby's parents in Istanbul. We loved this ancient but modern city, straddling Asia and Europe, with architectural icons representing different eras of reign. Aya Sofia and The Blue Mosque were highlights, naturally, and one can get quite a kink in one’s neck from admiring these massive buildings. Next, we had a quick stop in Cannakale, where a disappointingly short and expensive tour to the disappointingly bare ruins of Troy unexpectedly became an inside joke (“Yeah, but at least it’s not Troy.”) Next, the party town of Kusadasi was our base for exploring Ephesus, some of the best ruins we’ve seen. Pammukale was a cozy, picturesque town at the base of ruins and natural travertine pools. Last, we spent an extended stay in Goreme, where a hot-air balloon ride, Green Tour and rental car allowed us to take in the out-of-this-world scenery from every angle possible.
On our overnight bus to Kahta, we waited for a while at the bus station in Kayseri with a handful of other tourists. On the television sets in the tea shop, Fenerbahce’s recent cup win was glaring into the attentive eyes of men. Outside by the bus platforms, groups of young men hoisted friends into the air with rounds of cheers. At first we thought the two activities were related, but a friendly local told us that the groups were seeing off a friend before he joined the army. Entire families joined in this joyous occasion, oblivious to the ungodly hour.
The next morning in Kahta, our shabby budget hotel hooked us up with a late afternoon tour to Mount Nemrut. First we needed to eat. We went into a restaurant, where the friendly English-speaking waiter explained the dishes and gave us the local treatment: free Ayran, free tea, free bread, free salad, and low price. We returned several times while in Kahta, as we couldn’t believe it was possible to eat like this.
With Drew, our Aussie travel-mate, and Dimitri, our driver/guide, we drove into the barren landscape outside of Kahta and saw a Roman bridge, abandoned castle, cave dwelling, and finally, the famous Mount Nemrut, where the massive heads of ancient statues provided the backdrop to sunset. We were dismayed to find that “package holiday makers” were on the mountain in droves.
On three separate occasions that day, people had recommended we visit the South-Eastern town of Sanliurfa, or Urfa for short. We got on the local dolmus and a short drive later we were there. Sitting in the park by the birthplace of Prophet Abraham, we watched the Turkish locals and Turkish tourists as they fed the sacred carp swimming in shallow pools. I noticed that the most conservative women were wearing chodors in either black or white, but most women wore a colourful satin headscarf and a perfectly tailored beige trench-coat. Men wore dark colours like black and grey, and almost always finished their outfit with a pair of pointy leather shoes, recently polished by the neighbourhood shoeshine. They didn’t pull out umbrellas when it started to rain, knowing that it wouldn’t last long and wouldn’t be heavy. I followed suit and sure enough the drops on my clothes quickly dried. While Toby explored a lookout point, I sat by myself on a bench. Three women sat to my right and my left, and had a conversation around me in Turkish. No, I was not occupying the only bench in the area; something else, perhaps the desire to be my temporary escort, was motivating them.
Exploring the bazaar, we pondered how age-old traditions still fit in a modern life, as the city of Urfa was quite large and developed. We watched as craftsmen created pieces of art out of metal, wood and sides of meat.
Our hotel owner personally drove us and a photographer from Poland to the village and ruins of Haraan, a mere 10 km from the border with Syria. On this day trip we also saw beehive houses, ancient castles, an ancient quarry, the oldest temple in the world (9000 years old) and some spectacular desert landscape. While the ruins were impressive, and the landscape surreal, once again I was moved the most by the local people. Beautiful women with tattooed faces let us watch as they herded and milked their goats. Men waved and offered us tea. Children, curious and bold, followed us around a site. As a result, I have no memories of the historic details, but vivid recollection of the girls' piercing light eyes. A handful of girls tried to teach me some Kurdish and I reciprocated with English words. They studied my earrings and my shoes. In a symbol of hospitality, they plucked berries from a tree and gave them to me in handfuls. Eager to be a gracious guest, and sensitive to children's feelings of pride, I gobbled the berries without hesitation.
Hours later, while waiting for our food to arrive at a local restaurant in Urfa, my stomach turned in a way that was not quite right. I ran to the toilet and made it just in time. Our dinner was taken "to go", and the next 24 hours were spent in bed. It was a price to pay for kindness, and I don't regret it at all.
The one regret, however, is that since I was ill in Urfa, my eagerness to travel further East, away from the comforts of the tourist trail, diminished. Instead, we stopped at the hidden gem of Amasya. If the "touristy-ness" of a place can be measured in souvenir stalls, then this place was a "two" It was well worth the time to climb to the Lycian tombs to get an amazing view of the city. Here, a friendly local helped us to see the real Amasya; he used his connections to show us a Koranic school, music school, and other sites along the way.
Once back on the tourist trail, we enjoyed each of the cities we visited as we made our way South-West along the Mediterranean - from Safranbolu in the North to Konya in the centre, then Antalya, Olympos, Kas, and Fethiye along the coast. But I am also thankful for the short time we spent in the East.