Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Two weeks in Turkey

Let me start by saying, "wow" I have a lot to say. I guess I "shoulda" taken the time to write more while in Turkey, but sitting in an internet cafe when it's 110 F (90 F when there is AC) didn't really seem worth the sweat.

In Istanbul, of course we visited the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya (aka Hagia Sofia) and the Grand Bazaar. The Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya were quite impressive as far as size and architecture go, but you have to be willing to put up with the heat and the crowds for a good couple of hours. What I found most interesting about the Aya Sofya is that it's identity seems to be forever stuck somewhere between a mosque and a church. There are portions of the walls where iconic mosaics which were once plastered over are being uncovered, yet the minarets and the gigantic medallions with Arabic inscriptions reveal how much effort was put into converting the building into a mosque. Now that it's a museum I guess the point is to emphasize both identities.

The only memorable thing about our trip to the Bazaar was the small Backgammon that we bought. Within an hour of buying it, it was already giving us an easy way to chat with locals (we had to be sure that we remembered all the rules). Furthermore, we played at least once every day of the rest of our trip, and we weren't the only ones. We saw the game everywhere, especially at the popular tea cafes. For the Turks, tea and Backgammon go hand in hand, for the male Turks that is. These "gamers paradise" cafes were occupied by men and by that I mean usually just men. This wasn't so easy to recognize at first glance, but after a quick ferry ride to the Asian side of the city and away from the main tourist attractions it was quite obvious. 

It was on the Asian side of the city where I was also reminded that the calls to prayer weren't just for the hell of it, people were actually listening and going to pray. Thomas and I experienced it first hand when we happened to be visiting a mosque during prayer. I was really interested in seeing what was going on in there, but being a Westerner, I didn't really think through the fact that I would be stuck in the little room in the back for women. As it turned out, I couldn't really see that much at all, but I definitely had a good twenty minutes to have an intense self-debate about the role of women in Islam. In the end, I was frustrated, mainly because I wanted to see the beautiful architecture and because I somehow felt left out. When it was clear that more women were in the room than there was space for, I left, but not without trying to catch a glance of main area where all the men were.

Without getting too involved in the religious semantics of it all, Thomas brought up a good point after leaving the mosque that day. Simply put, he said that in a hot, busy city of nearly 13 million people going to a mosque for prayer must be a welcome escape. In other words, it's nice to take off your shoes, rinse off your hands and feet and go into a cool, quiet building where you can sit on the carpeted floor and maybe stop sweating for 30 minutes. But don't get me wrong, going to pray didn't seem to be a high priority for the majority of Turks, especially in Istanbul. I would say that Turkey is on the more liberal, Western side of Islamic nations, but then again speaking from personal experience I can only compare it to Morocco. Considering that Turkey is hopeful about getting into the EU also says something about the state of the nation.

It also says something about the state of the trains, which was shockingly good compared to what we took to get through Serbia and Bulgaria. After two days, one night in Istanbul we took the overnight train to Ankara, the capital of Turkey. I wasn't looking forward to yet another night train (the fourth in a matter of six nights), but I was thrilled to find that there were enough free seats to lay down. That was our only train experience in Turkey, but we took numerous buses which were convenient, comfortable and included tea, water and a snack for the longer rides, which was a very pleasant, unexpected surprise. Buses are far more common than trains and the huge otogar's (bus stations) are there to prove it.

As far as the capital city goes, I don't have much to say other than thanks to the worst map I've ever tried to use we walked around that city for about an hour before realizing that we were going in the wrong direction. Basically, the only streets shown on the map turned out to be more like highways, not helpful. We were trying to reach a hamam (Turkish bath) recommended by the Lonely Planet before catching a bus to Goereme. We did get there eventually, with the help of a taxi. I was fairly aggravated by that time, but getting a scrub down and a massage is a nice way to calm the nerves. A few hours later we were on our way to the famous region of Cappadocia.

Cappadocia is more or less in Central Turkey, which gives you an idea of how big Turkey actually is considering it took us a night train and another 5 hour bus ride to get there. It's famous for it's rough landscape of valleys and so-called "fairy chimneys" which look like rock formations of which many were turned into houses long ago. You can even stay in these cave like dwellings; I've never seen anything like it.

We stayed two nights in Goereme, which is clearly the tourist capital of the region. We spent some time there trying to plan our next move and catching up on sleep. Of course, we also saw the open air museum, which includes many churches that were carved into the rock formations as early as the 4th century and used as late as the 11th century. In a few of the bigger churches the Byzantine style frescoes have been restored. I think this is one place where it would have been helpful to have a guide, but also annoying to be shoved into the small spaces with a group.

By far, the more interesting thing we did in Cappadocia was go to Ihlara Valley, which is off the grid for the majority of tourists. We stayed only one night in this small village, which gave us plenty of time to hike down into the valley itself. It's a national park, so there are conveniently placed steps all the way down to the bottom of the valley, where you find a small river with trails on both sides and more churches you can hike up to see along the way. We walked about half the length of the valley, 7 km or so, and back again.

The next day we had an interesting "layover" in Aksaray while waiting for an overnight bus to the coast; I also like to refer to it as the day I pretended to be German. Aksaray is one of those cities that everyone skips. In other words, we didn't see any other tourists walking around the city; maybe that is why we got more attention from locals that day than any other day of our trip. First, we were invited to someone's house when we told him we were looking for an internet cafe. With time to kill, we accepted the offer (with no intention of actually using his internet). He asked where we were from, directing the question to Thomas, obviously Germany was the reply and I left it at that. Our new friend followed by saying that he likes German people, but not Israelis and not Americans. So it was good to keep my mouth shut after all. He also later showed us a photograph of his nephew stepping on an American and Israeli flag; he had quite a lot to say about various political situations in the Middle East. I was almost relieved that his words and eye contact were almost exclusively directed at Thomas. Meanwhile, I was entertained by his two daughters; the younger one showed me her dolls and the older one went straight for the nail polish after closely observing my painted toenails. Then, suddenly our Turkish friend got a phone call and tried to explain in broken English that he was coming back. After 15 minutes of waiting for that to happen, we tried to explain with hand signals and the Turkish word for bus station that we had to leave. As we made our way back to the bus station, we stopped in a grocery store where an old man looked at us and said "Deutsch?", which was followed by a short conversation in German. Then, while finally at the bus station a woman came and sat beside me asking again "Deutsch?". By that time I wanted to laugh, but I just said "ja" instead. I found the Turkish people to be friendly and helpful wherever we were, but Aksaray was really something else and I'm glad we had the whole afternoon there just to enjoy the people if nothing else.

After the overnight from Aksaray to Antalya, we took another bus to Patara and spent a couple of days enjoying one of the nicest beaches in Turkey along with some impressive Lycian ruins. I think it was there that I realized just how hot it is in Turkey, especially when I decided to see the amphitheater on my way to the beach. The ruins are closer to the beach than the town, which makes for a prettier, building-free beach but a 30 minute walk through death valley conditions to get there. It was easily 100 F by 8 a.m. and above 110 F in the afternoon, and not a cloud in sight. Luckily, our room in Patara had air conditioning. We found a lovely place to stay there, I say lovely mostly because the couple who owns the place offered me dinner on the first night, half of a fish fillet not just any kebab.

I'm happy to say that our last four nights of the trip were spent on a yacht. We really wanted to do a boat trip, especially after seeing that the coast was mostly lined by rocky land and not sandy beaches. Our plan was to leave Patara, go to Fethiye, the next big harbor city up the coast, and find a boat going even further up the coast toward Izmir, where we would catch our flight home. That didn't work out but we did find a place on a boat leaving the next day, just going in the opposite direction. We couldn't resist the opportunity, and I'm so glad we didn't.

It was such a great way to end the trip. We didn't have to worry about where we were headed, what bus we needed to catch, where would stay, etc. We just enjoyed cruising along, swimming, eating good food and of course some partying with the other people on the boat and the crew. The people that we met on board were all around our age and all native English speakers; we all had a great time together to say the least. The captain of the boat, a real character, made it perfectly clear that he was happy to have a fun group after two weeks with Italian families.

The boat trip ended on Sunday around noon, and we had to make the long journey to Izmir by the next morning. In short, we took a bus back to Fethiye, waited, overnight bus to Izmir, bus to airport, waited, plane to Munich, waited, train to Immenstadt. I was pretty out of it for most of that journey and by out of it I mean hungover and exhausted, but it's all worth it in the end and I have plenty of time to rest before I go back to work for two weeks this Sunday.

P.S.--I just realized that I wrote this whole thing and barely mentioned the food or the word "Baklava". Let me just say that if nothing of Turkey sounds interesting to you as far as sight-seeing goes, you should still considering going there just to enjoy the amazing cuisine they have to offer.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Train to Turkey

It seems to be a while ago that I left Germany, but I will try to give you more or less the breakdown of where I have been the last few weeks. The first stop was Slovenia to visit some friends (Hari and Bea) and their baby. They have spent the last four months living in the mountains in a small house, while Hari completed an internship. For three days we enjoyed some relaxing back to nature time, played with Zacarias and did a bit of hiking. It was a good to slow down before the long journey to Turkey.

On Friday (the 6th?) we took a night train from Ljubljana to Belgrade, Serbia. We arrived there quite early and we were able to manage booking the night train to Sofia, which meant we had the day to spend in Belgrade. The first priority was park napping of course, but then we found the energy to walk around the city and along the Danube river. Then, it was back on a night train to Sofia, but this time we had a sleeper car, which seemed to be an advantage at the time.

Come to find out the next day it was not as great as it seemed considering my camera and some cash was stolen from our locked 'room'. Then again the 'passport police' as they refer to themselves can open any door they want, and the window was open, which would not be a problem if the train was always moving. So, there was my wake up call. Hello! Normally I have a close eye on my things, but after a sleepless night I guess I was more concerned with sleeping.

Moving on, we had to stay a night in Sofia because the overnight train to Turkey was already full for that day. So, we grabbed a map from tourist information, found a place to stay and had fun trying to figure out the cryillic street signs. It also must be said that we spent at least an hour probably more trying to find a movie theater. There were some listed on the map, but clearly the map was outdated. We also had trouble finding a place open for dinner. There were surprisingly few restaurants there and it was Sunday and some just had signs saying closed for holidays (at least I think). But not to worry, we found a mall, with a McDonalds for Thomas and a Subway for me, and Inception playing in English with Bulgarian subtitles.

One more night train to ─░stanbul, save the longest for last. We had the sleeper car again but it was divided into girls and guys cabins, three bunk beds per cabin. I expected more local people to be on the train but it was just tourists, which just means more time spent at the border crossing.

So, last Tuesday we arrived in ─░stanbul...and that is where I leave it for now...more later.