Travels in Turkey

Wow. What an experience!

It’s the last night of our whirlwind whizz around this amazing country. Filled with fairy chimneys, underground cities, summer fruits, and cats. Every street corner and ruin has a little furry feline curled up, resting from the midday sun. It’s been an incredible, exhausting, wild ride.

Our arrival into Istanbul was chaotic. My husband’s luggage was lost and despite me saying pack spare clothes in the carry-on, he didn’t bother. So our first task was to rush out and find a change of clothes. The suitcase turned up later that evening, I refrained from saying, I told you so, and that was the last major stress for 11 days.

We were on tour again, but this time there were eight of us, plus our delightful guide and driver. A small group with an enormous bus – five seats per person. It was terribly comfortable. I made myself a lovely little nest then sent my husband to the front so I could spend time alone every day.

Endless fields of tall, ripe sunflowers lined the roads to our first stop – Gallipoli. Blue skies, green grass and sandstone memorials line the shores of Anzac Cove on the banks of the Dardanelle strait. I waded into the water to see the coast of Gallipoli, just as thousands of young men did in 1915. As the local Turkish man sunbathing on the pebbles said, Too many lives lost for nothing.

Every grave, every memorial, every country’s losses, highlight the futility of war. Politicians playing out prejudice and greed with no thought for human life and suffering. Soldiers eat together at night, kill each other in the morning. Nothing sums it up better than the words attributed to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours … You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

From Gallipoli, we boarded the ferry to Canakkale – a vibrant Turkish town where  streets are lined with fruit vendors, tourists and the ever-present cats. The next day we visited the ancient ruins of Troy – all nine cities. Not in different locales – but on top of each other. When an earthquake demolished buildings, the industrious Trojans started again. A small town of mudbrick homes eventually becoming a major Roman city filled with marble, granite, clever plumbing, and of course – an amphitheater. No trip to Troy is complete without a Trojan Horse. The original long gone – destroyed from the inside out no doubt – but a replica remains to climb in. I finished the tour of Troy with a kitsch dress up and photo opportunity in a chariot.

Then it was off to Pergamon – another ancient city. (When I say ancient – I mean really old. Ruins throughout the Ottoman empire were built 2-6 thousand years BC. That’s a very long time ago…) I learned more history in the space of 11 days than I did in six years of high school. The city of Pergamon built the first dedicated medical center in the world – looking after physical, psychological and spiritual welfare. A series of tunnels were the “incubators”, where patients would sleep and have their dreams analyzed so physicians could decide on appropriate treatment. I have no idea what their success rate was, but it was a fascinating city and sanctuary, replete with a pond full of coy turtles, disappearing beneath the greenery and shyly returning when nobody was looking.

After Pergamon the itinerary is a blur of ruins, museums, and luxury hotels running down the west coast of Turkey, with views to the islands of Greece and Turkey. Our hotel in Kusadasi was resplendent on the shores of the Aegean Sea and I took the opportunity to wash the dust and the sweat away with cool salty water. In the evening we caught up with an old friend for dinner. As we wandered the busy waterfront streets, we met a Syrian family – mum, dad and two tiny children asleep in their laps. My heart just broke. We stopped and gave them what we could, trying to communicate with a huge language barrier. We held hands and patted the sleeping children’s heads and looked at the pain and sorrow in the eyes of the parents. Just four of four million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Ordinary people and families caught up in political wars masquerading as religious righteousness. There are no winners but there is a lot of loss. We said goodbye to the family and I can only but hope our small donation made a small difference.

No trip to Turkey is complete without Ephesus. Wow. We may have seen a lot of old rocks and carved statues in the space of a few weeks, but Ephesus is a jewel. Exquisite carvings, beautiful marble, intricate mosaics and a 24,000 seat amphitheater. They just don’t make things like they used to. Ephesus is incredible.

We then meandered along the Meander Valley, with fields of olives and pomegranates and beautiful stone fruit, too juicy to eat politely. Wet wipes and groans of pleasure obligatory. While ancient ruins still lined the valleys, it was time for geographical marvels. First Pamukkale. Terraces of limestone and thermal pools, creating white cliffs amid green hills and the remains of Hierapolis. The unfortunate effects of climate change have reduced water flow so significantly, UNESCO now diverts water to just a small section of the cliffs, and thousands of tourists are gathered around a few small pools. The city ruins and empty pools were largely devoid of tourists so we enjoyed exploring the quiet spots, and found a couple of small pools to enjoy on our own. Pamukkale really is a geographical marvel – I hope the water one day returns to its full quota and the aquamarine pools are once again filled with the calcium rich waters.

From Pamukkale to Cappadocia – the jewel of Turkey. In my humble opinion. It really is like another planet – fairy chimneys, a city of hidden rock-cave-chapels built by persecuted Christians, underground cities, caravanserai. Everyone living in rock houses. Hotels carved into the hillside. A moonscape of violent volcanic eruptions dotted with apricot orchards and old ladies selling handmade lace tablecloths. Rich with the history of ancient Greece and Rome, Pagans, Christians and Moslems – all fighting to be right. I dreamed of doing the balloon tour over the Cappadocia valley, but alas, the cost was exorbitant and I’d already purchased a very expensive pink leather jacket on the way.

An evening of performances from the incredibly spiritual whirling dervish experience, to the high festivities of Turkish folk dancing, belly dancing and the local drink, Raki – my new favourite beverage. Like liquid licorice. Delish.

Cappadocia to Ankara then back to our starting point – Istanbul. But this time we got to explore. The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, the Grand Bazaar, Topkapi Palace. It’s all a blur of incredible antiquity. Memories to last a lifetime – although historic facts seem to escape me almost instantaneously.

Our final night in Turkey was spent cruising the Bosporus in a big boat just for our tour group, before stepping off at a pier to a luxurious riverside restaurant for our farewell dinner. Our little group of aussies, americans, south african and our fearless Turkish host, bonded like old friends meeting again.

I love Turkey – what a wonderful country. Incredible history. Amazing geography. Stunning waters. A devoutly muslim country with an incredibly progressive society. An eclectic mix of modern west and conservative arab worlds. Like Jordan, the people are beautiful and friendly, but like Jordan, a few men in rural areas stare at women in a most unpleasant manner. When the bus driver from another company ogled me during our lunch break, licking his lips and quietly photographing me, I knew we’d left the safety of Istanbul behind and arrived in a place where any part of flesh a woman displays is considered eye-candy and uncivil men leer at the female form like pieces of meat for sale. First I was stunned. Then I was angry. It’s a very small number of men that behave appallingly, but it’s creepy and undignified and not something women experience to the same extent in western countries. With the incongruous mix of modern and conservative women in Turkey, I hope these disrespectful men are soon put in their place.

Turkey is astonishingly clean, abundant with produce and beautiful food, full of history, luxurious escapes and beautiful people. Touring is frantic and fun and a very inconvenient way to get washing done. I’m so glad to have finally been, and now I’m ready for a quiet week by the banks of Sarajevo’s Miljacka river.

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