Around the world in 125 days
One thing I noticed about Turkey is the number of new vacant buildings that are partly or completely finished. It was explained to us that Turkey had such a high inflation rate, that nobody wanted to leave their money in banks or hold any cash. So everybody put their money into buildings and real estate. You could tell the inflation is really bad because a beer would cost 1.3 million Turkish liras. With so many digits, we were getting dizzy and confused at the beginning. You really have to count carefully whenever you buy anything because you could easily pay 10 times more if you are not careful about the number of zeros. It took us a couple of days before we could adjust to all those zeros. Seems to me they could learn something from Mexico. Mexican government simply created a new peso by chopping off three zeros from their old peso. Other than the crazy currency, Turkish people are doing very well, cell phones and Internet cafes are everywhere. However people don't seem to be very religious or conservative. As Muslims, they are supposed to pray five times a day. Yet I didn't really see anybody doing it. But then officially speaking, Turkey is a secular country, unlike others in the Middle East. Hard to believe but ladies are not even allowed to wear head scarves into government buildings. The military here had somehow managed to keep themselves from being totally controlled by the clergy and they are the ones who ensure the country remains secular. There is a constant struggle between the religious groups and the secularists.
We spent almost 3 weeks in Turkey, starting from Istanbul, going to Gallipoli, Troy and Ephesus. We also went to Pamukkale, Konya, Cappadocia, Mount Nemrut, and Urfa, which is close to the Syrian border.
Istanbul was once called Constantinople, when it was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Subsequently it was taken over by the Islamic Ottoman Empire and renamed. The city flourished because of its strategic location of being at the border of two continents, Asia and Europe, separated by the Strait of Bosporus, the only city to be found spanning two continents.
We had actually visited Istanbul about twenty years earlier. At that time, there was so few Asians visiting the place, that while we were walking on the streets, a lot of people would take a double take at us when they saw us. Wherever we went, heads turned as if we were from another planet. I remember one guy kept calling me Bruce Lee. I guess that was the only Asian he knew. Call it globalization because this time nobody looked at us. There were a lot of young Japanese tourists plus others from all over the world visiting this amazing city.
We left Frankfurt and arrived in Istanbul around noon to join our next group, for the Middle Eastern tour, offered by a company called The Imaginative Traveler. This company offers small group adventure-type travel. So it is very different from Cosmo. The day before we met the group, we went to visit the Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is always a wonderful place to explore. We then met the group that evening. It was a very small group. Our tour leader Rochie was an Australian. Besides us, there were Carolyn and Kay, two Canadian teachers from British Columbia, Mel, from South Africa, and Ray, from New Zealand. After the meeting we went to the roof-top restaurant of our hotel and had a drink. The hotel we stayed is small but the location is excellent, near all the major attractions. In fact right from our restaurant, there is a beautiful view of the St. Sophia / Hagia Sofia.
I should mention how Rochie ended up in Turkey. He had a very interesting hobby and enjoyed a pastime that no one could ever guess. You see he loves to sleep inside tombs. Not just any tomb, but only the ancient types. Now there are only so many ancient tombs in this world that you can go to and are allowed to sleep inside too. He obviously did a lot a research and found out Turkey has a lot of ancient tombs and a few years back nobody cared whether you spent the night there or not. So Rochie had a wonderful time in Turkey. He got to like the people, and more importantly, the food. Ended up staying there for years. He even bought a house of the stone chimney type. (More about the chimney houses later.) On the trip, we really enjoyed the Turkish food too.
Next day, a local tour guide came and took us sightseeing around Istanbul. The prominent landmarks here are Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Hagia Sophia, also known as St. Sophia and Aya Sophia, was built over 1,500 years ago by the Byzantine Emperor Julian as a church and is considered an architectural master-piece. It was later converted into a mosque with four minarets added at the corners. It was nice that the Ottoman Empire had the wisdom to preserve such beautiful structure, rather than destroying it. What amazed me is how all these years they have been able to keep an ancient building like this in such good condition. The giant grand dome inside is said to be the third largest in the world. The unusual orange-reddish exterior colour certainly makes it stand out. Nowadays, it is used as a museum. Not far from St. Sophia is the impressive mosque of Sultan Ahmet, also known as the Blue Mosque due to the blue tiles used inside the mosque. The mosque was clearly built to face and outshine Hagia Sophia. It is probably the only mosque to have 6 minarets. If you want to see the grandeur of Islamic architecture, you have to go to Istanbul and visit these mosques.
The other place we visited was the Topkapi Palace, which is also like a museum with displays of jewelery, weapons, and armor. The palace terrace has a fantastic view of the Bosporus that separates the two continents. There is also a beautiful underground cistern called Cistern Basilica. That was used to store water for the city.
Istanbul has not changed much since the last time we went there, except the Galata bridge connecting between Asia to Europe was renovated. There are no more stores or restaurants on that bridge. Again we had grilled fish sandwiches by the sea. They were cooked on a boat right on the water. A very popular and inexpensive meal. Last time, they served the sandwich in old newspapers. Now they serve them in clean wax paper. So that is a major improvement. We also took a boat trip by taking a ferry that crosses the strait of Bosporus as it made stops on both sides, toward Black Sea to the north and then back.
We always wanted to do a Turkish bath. So we asked around where would be a good place. Both the hotel manager and a policeman stationed near our hotel recommended Cemberlitas Bath, which was built in 1584 based on a plan of the legendary Turkish architect Mimar Sinan, who also designed the beautiful mosque for the greatest sultan of the Ottoman empire, Suleyman the Magnificent. The bath is just a short walk from our hotel. A bath cost about 15 dollars, which includes a massage. It has two separate areas, one for men and one for women. For men, you undressed and they gave you a towel to wrap around your waist. Then you laid on top of a round marble slab inside a hot steamy room under a high ceiling dome. The dome is made of marble with transparent inlay so that the sunlight could shine in. You laid there for a while until your skin softened and the pores opened up. Then the masseur came over and alternately poured hot and cold water on you. Then he scraped you with a sponge. You could see all your dead skin coming off. After the scraping, the masseur stretched your arms, legs and back etc. The whole thing took about 30 minutes. You felt much cleaner afterward. It was certainly a very relaxing experience. Highly recommended if you never had one before. I wonder why nobody has bothered to build one in North America.
From Istanbul, we got on a small bus and headed west toward Gallipoli. Along the way, we stopped at roadside restaurants for quick meals. Here is the interesting part. The restaurant would usually send someone out with a garden hose, mop and bucket to give us a free car wash. This was their way to thank the bus drivers for bringing business to them. It is also very popular for waiters to sprinkle rose-scented water (basically fragrant water) onto customer's hands when they enter their restaurant. I suppose the water cleanses hands and gives them a good smell.
You may or may not have heard of this place. Gallipoli is the name of a peninsula and also the name of a movie with Mel Gibson in it. The movie was based on a First World War battle between the invading allies and the Turkish defenders. The Allies consisted of British and French troops with help from Australians, New Zealanders, and Newfoundlanders. (There was no Canadian army yet at the time!) invaded Turkey in 1914. The objective was to capture Istanbul. It was an extremely bitter battle with heavy casualties on both sides. Over 40,000 Allied soldier were killed and over 90,000 wounded. The Turks suffered twice as many. We visited the battlefield and the actual trenches used during the battle.
There is also a museum displaying the items used by soldiers from both sides. The Australian and New Zealand troops were jointly known as ANZAC (Australia New Zealand Army Corp). Today, there is an Anzac Day in Australia to remember their bravery. Our group decided to take a group photo in front of a memorial stone that marked an Allied landing area, called Anzac Cove.
Unfortunately for the Allies, they were fighting against Turkish troops lead by Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, who is also known as the founding father of modern Turkey. They fought to a bitter stalemate. Mustafa Kemal not only saved his country, later on he also established the ground work to make Turkey a more democratic and secular state. (Editor's note: See Armenian Genocide.)
I couldn't help but notice that very often all you need is just one person to make a huge difference for a country and change the lives of millions of people. Of course a lot of countries just do not have such luck. Instead they have corrupt or bad leadership, like Mugabe. These countries simply fail to produce one single individual who can change their destiny. Imagine, just one person is so critical! I would definitely compare this Attaturk guy to Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Indira Gandhi of India, or Winston Churchill of UK. As a final note, there is absolutely no hard feelings between Australia and Turkey at all today. In fact they hold memorial services together every year. Apparently Mustafa Kemal felt sorry for the Allied soldiers too, especially their moms. What an amazing guy!
We all have heard of the story about Helen of Troy, who was the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. According to Greek legend, she was seduced and taken home by Paris, a Trojan prince. Menelaus went to get her back and laid siege to the city-state of Troy but could not defeat the Trojan defenders until the Greeks built the Trojan Horse. (Editor's note: Timeo Danaos, et dona ferentes...) Interestingly, Troy is not located in present-day Greece. Rather it is across the Aegean Sea on the Turkish side. Today, there is not much left of it. What we saw were just ruins. Archaeologists love this place. There are literally layers and layers of history piled on top of each other.
To keep tourists happy and give them something to do, they built a replica wooden horse. Inside, there is a stair that you can climb to the top.
On the way to Ephesus, we stopped by a hill to see the house where Jesus' mother Mary used to live. It is a small house made completely of stone with a lot of trees behind. Inside it looked a bit more like a church with an altar in the middle. Mary apparently was brought here by St. John after Jesus' crucifixion and spent her remaining days here. It always fascinates me to see something related to Biblical times, thousands of years ago. How they proved that was her house I have no idea.
Ephesus is a big Greco-Roman site similar to the one in Pompeii, Italy. The most photographed site in Ephesus is the remains of the Celcus library. In this case it is more like just the front wall, or facade, of the library that was left. The wall was full of extremely detailed carving.
There is also a very well preserved Roman theater, plus many pillars and columns everywhere. I could imagine in the old days, when there was no TV or Internet, the Romans would spend their weekends here to be entertained. I guess this is no difference from you and I going to Broadway to see a show. That would explain why whererever you find Roman ruins, you will find theatres. Again we had a local guide. But he seemed to be more interested in talking and lecturing than in actually showing us sites. Ray and I got rather impatient so we decided to go off on own to explore this huge place.
Pamukkale is really famous for only one thing. It has calcium oozing from the mountainside, so that the whole place is turned white from these deposits. Truly a geological wonder. From a distance, it looks like it is covered with snow. Pretty 'cool' sight. There are also small water ponds that you can go into for a dip. It was a very hot day so we did not stay there very long. In order to preserve the calcium surface you were supposed to take off your shoes before going about. Yet some locals seemed to ignore this rule so it was rather annoying. But it was not the first time that tourists take more care of a place than locals. Here we stayed in a very nice modern hotel with three swimming pools, one indoor, two outdoor. One of the outdoor ones is a thermal spring pool. But it was way too hot. With the air temperature at 40 degree C, somehow it did not make sense to go into a thermal pool. We only stayed in one briefly. Had to leave after we felt our skin was getting kind of 'well done'.
The hotel was full of Russians and Eastern Europeans. For dinner, we had a nice buffet. That night, there was a outdoor folk dance performance with live music. The dancers invited guests to join them as well. So Mel went in and enthusiastically participated. This was followed by belly dancing. The belly dancer was wearing high heels rather than barefoot. Pretty strange, but it was a good show and fun evening.
Konya is the home of the 'Whirling Dervish' sect which was founded by the Sufi philosopher, Mevlana, as a branch of the Sunni branch of Islam. Probably the only thing that you know about them is the dancers. When they perform, they wear white long shirts and basically just keep spinning or whirling. The pace becomes faster and faster until they are in a trance. While they spin, they also must tilt their heads to one side, with arm pointing up and one arm pointing down. Unfortunately, we did not have the chance to see them perform while in Konya.
Cappadocia has some of the most unusual landscapes on Earth. Due to natural erosion, there are many standing stones, about two or three stories high with pointed tops. Their shape looks like some giant upside down ice-cream cones stuck on the ground. For some reason, they are known as Fairy Chimneys. Because the remaining stones are fairly soft, people can cut holes into them and live inside. Other people also dug holes in the cliff surfaces and made them into living quarters. Rochie made us close our eyes as we entered the valley. Once we reached there and opened our eyes, it was such an incredible sight.
The hotel we stayed was a renovated one. The small lobby had no roof and was open to the sky with hanging grapevines, yet the place was also full of carpets. Since it was not a hotel to start with, each room was different. The whole place was decorated with antiques and small items. Definitely had a lot of character.
At Cappadocia, we tried hot-air ballooning. Hot-air balloons literally have a big 'overhead' according to our tour leader. This company had two pilots, the guy from Sweden and the lady from England. Apparently a commercial balloon pilot requires as much training as a commercial airline pilot. Hot-air ballooning is always done early in the morning before the atmosphere gets too hot. The reason is if the surrounding air is hot, then they have to make the air inside the balloon even hotter. This is not good for the material and it shortens the life-span of the balloon. Also the basket is made of low-tech bamboo because it is the only material that has a lot of rigidity and flexibility at the same time. It can absorb impact without breaking up.
We got up at 4AM in the morning and had some breakfast at the office before going to the launch site. Not everyone in our group went because it was rather expensive. Only Carolyn came and also Rochie. At the launch site, the lady pilot gave us instructions on what to do during take-off and landing. I was told that taking off is easy. It is the landing that may be unpredictable. The basket was divided into 3 slots. There was one small slot at one end occupied by the pilot who had all the controls above him. The controls were mainly switches to turn on and off the gas burner, plus a bunch of ropes to open and close small windows near the top of the balloon to release air. The rest of the slots were for passengers. There were 8 of us in the basket. The take-off was so smooth that I did not even realize we had left the ground. Soon we were gently drifting up toward the sky as the sun started to rise at the same time, casting its golden rays over the horizon. It was a breath-taking moment for sure.
Then we went up and up to almost 1000 feet. There were two other balloons also floating nearby. It was very peaceful and quiet, other than the burner that roared to life once in a while. The higher we went, the small things looked below. Also the sun started to come up, shining on all the weird landscape below. Everything was gold and yellow. The balloon then descended. Soon we were dropping into the valley and drifting just above fruit trees. We were actually able to pick some fruit off the top of the trees. The balloon floated over houses and startled one lady who was drying apricots on her rooftop. After about an hour or so, the pilot radioed the chase truck to figure out where to land. At that point we were fairly close to the ground. Then suddenly we landed! The basket touched the ground but the basket almost fell over and spilled everyone out of the basket, because the big balloon above still wanted to drift to one side. Luckily, the pilot was quick to release the air out and start to collapse the balloon. Every time a balloon landed, the tradition is to drink champagne. So a small table was set with champagne glasses and a cake prepared by one of the passengers who was a Turkish travel writer from Ankara. Then we drank champagne mixed with fruit juice. Drinking pure champagne early in the morning is not exactly a good idea.
Next came the fun part, which was to deflate the balloon completely and put it back to the bag. It took a team effort. By the way, I read this motto somewhere about hot air ballooning. It says "Get it hot, Get it high, and Get it up". Usually women smile when they hear this and think of something else!
After the ballooning, we went back to the hotel around 9AM and spent the rest of the day visiting all the cave dwellings in a nearby town called Kaymali. This town has an entire underground city carved out of the soft limestone rock. It required a lot of climbing and in some places, we did it in complete darkness. Needless to say we were very tired at the end of that day.
At Cappadocia, we also ran into another tour group from the same company doing the same tour as us but going in the opposite direction. This group was definitely much much smaller, compared to our group. There was only one tour member, a British lady with a young Turkish girl as her tour leader. I guess if the company had a guaranteed departure then even if just one person signed up, they would have to go. There definitely pros and cons with a small group. Small group is more flexible and you would probably get more attention but the drawback is you are limited in terms of the people that you can talk to.
Adiyaman is a small frontier town near the Syrian border. It is also a Kurdish stronghold. People there wear the baggy Kurdish pants. One feature about this type of pants is the fact that its crotch part is pretty low, making it rather awkward to ride a bicycle. I said this after watching one local trying to ride one.
Adiyaman really had only one major street with cars, donkeys, and horses fighting for room. But amazingly there were three Internet cafes in that dusty street. One even had air conditioning. But the most amazing thing was the employees refused to charge us. They said we were visitors and we were welcome to use the Internet for free. Such nice and wonderful people. While we were doing e-mail, there were two kids playing video soccer games on one side while another teenager was writing HTML and testing his web page on the other. What an amazing place. So backward yet so advanced at the same time. Carolyn also found this place. Later on, we went back to use their service again, this time, hoping someone else might be there and willing to take our money. But it was no luck. They insisted that we were to be their guests.
The reason for staying at Adiyaman was to see the tumulus on the summit of Mount Nemrut with all the massive statues and stone heads, the most spectacular sight in South Eastern Turkey. But I got to admit that I did not know about this place until I came here. The stone heads are known as Commagene stone heads. Nowadays they are just sitting on ground, after breaking off from the statues, most likely due to earthquake, I suppose.
For those who are not into archaeology, a tumulus is an artificial mound, especially over a grave. The tumulus on the summit of Mt. Nemrut measures 50 meters high and covers an area 150 meters in diameter. The bus took us near to the top of the mountain and we had to climb the rest of the way. Again it was a very hot day, about 40 C, and there was no air-conditioning on the bus. The air coming into the vehicle was like something from a hot furnace or an oven. It was almost unbearably hot. We found a place that with some running water. So Estrella, as usual, wet a towel which brought along for this purpose, and wrapped around her neck to keep cool. We hiked up to the top and found our group were the only visitors. The stone figures on the mountaintop were quite impressive and the view was spectacular. The local claimed that one of the heads looked exactly like Elvis Presley. Hard tell which one though. There was even a small store there. We went in to look around a bit. Kay bought a nice carpet from them.
At Adiyaman, we stayed at the town's only decent hotel, which probably was just a one-star hotel and had no air-conditioning. There was only a tiny fan in the middle of the lobby so everyone was trying to stay in front of it. Just imagine 15 people trying to stay in front of a small fan! It was a bit comical to say the least.
Worse, the water would stop occasionally in some rooms. At night, it was so hot that we stripped in our room, and ended up being like Adam and Eve. But we still couldn't sleep. It was definitely the hottest night in this trip. Then we decided to try the trick we used in Morocco: We soaked a bath towel completely and laid it on top of the mattress. Then we rested on top of the towel. The evaporation of the water did work as we were able to sleep eventually. Next morning, we complained to Rochie. He told us that the owner really felt bad about this. He felt so bad that he was having ulcer and could not sleep at night. Now we started to feel more sorry for him then he felt for us. That night we went out for dinner at a very nice outdoor restaurant overlooking a giant reservoir. Actually we went there two nights in a row, probably because it was the only decent place in town. The hotel owner was sitting at the table behind us and we dared not to make a single complaint in case we might trigger his ulcer again. It was a rather bizarre situation.
On our way toward Syria, we came across the Euphrates River. We stopped and waded into the river to cool off a bit. There were some local tourists too. Some of them even went in for a swim. Euphrates River, along with the Tigris, are two very important rivers because in the old days, they provided the water that allowed the development of the ancient Mesopotamia, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and later civilizations. The river is 2,700 km long and originated from Turkey but flows into Syria and then Iraq. The river is rather shallow and used more for water supply rather than navigation. To be able to stand in a river that started all this ancient civilization, I said to myself 'Wow'.
Gaziantep was pretty much the last stop we had in Turkey before heading into Syria. One place we stopped had a pond with a lot of carp swimming in it. While resting by the pond, I managed to ask the question I always wanted to ask since arriving in Turkey. I asked Rochie why the big bird in North America and this great country have the same name. He said, believe it or not, the country came first and Turks are unhappy that someone would reuse their country's name for an animal. Guess what, they do not call the bird 'turkey' there at all. According to him, the bird's name for some reason often associated with various country names, depending who you talk to. In Brazil, it is called 'Peru', in Turkey, they call it "Hindi" as like India. In Arabic, it is called 'Ethiopia'. Later, one story I read said, before the discovery of America, there was a bird in Turkey called Culluk that looked like turkey but was smaller. They were shipped to England and was associated with the country Turkey. When the new-comers arrived in America, they mistook turkey as Culluk and gave it the name Turkey.
Ray left us from here as he only signed up for the Turkish portion. Rochie took Mel, Carolyn, Kay and us to the border. We would be crossing the Syrian border without Rochie. Another tour leader would meet us on the other side.
© Dave Cheng 2000