Turkey travel tips: transportation, safety, food

Turkey travel tips: transportation, safety, food

Although Orhan handled most details of the trip planning, I have a few travel tips I thought I’d share. It’s a cheap and comfortable country to travel around via bus, plane, train, boat, rental car…. (I’ve tried them all). Well, maybe not rental car. Turkish drivers are crazy (but not as bad as India) and gas is expensive ($7.50 a galloon). I highly recommend traveling by land so you don’t miss seeing the countryside. Buses After a 4 hour bus ride to Cappadocia, a 12 hour bus ride to Izmir and a 13 hour bus ride to Adana, I declare myself an expert on Turkish bus travel.  Fortunately, if you have to spend the majority of your waking hours on a bus, Turkey is the best place I have found to do it.  You get treated better on a bus in Turkey than on a domestic flight in America.  On every bus, they have two or three attendants circulate the bus regularly to spritz your hands with an invigorating lemon cleanser, offer you hot or cold drinks or a snack.  All the seats have extensive leg room, reclining capabilities and a personal video/TV/music monitor with headphones.  Luxurious land travel for the bargain price of $25 USD for the thirteen hour journey.  And the epic panoramas outside your windows are priceless- towering mountains cloaked in snow, evergreen forests and minimal signs of civilization for 85% of the drive. We booked all of our bus tickets a day or two before departure and it was no problem. In Adana, we met a small shuttle at a ticket station within city center which delivered us to the main bus station on the outskirts- you may need to allot extra time for this. Domestic flights Flights within Turkey are also inexpensive and nice. I flew Onur air from Istanbul to Adana for $37 and there was a food/drink service, even though the flight was less than two hours (so much better than the budget airlines in Singapore/Europe!). Other options for domestic flights are Turkish Airlines, Atlas Jet, Anadolujet, Borajet, Sunexpress and Pegasus. Bulucak is a service you can use to compare flight times and prices for all the domestic options. Safety Did I feel safe traveling in Turkey? Definitely, but I was traveling with a Turkish man the whole time. Overall, Turkey should be about as safe as Europe or America with a chance of encountering pickpockets in big cities, especially the tourist areas. Orhan and his friends didn’t know of anyone who had been pick pocketed (very different than Lisbon and Spain where it happened all the time) so I think it’s pretty rare. With the Syria riots in the news, my family was concerned about terrorism. There were riots right before I arrived in Istanbul and right after I left but things were quiet when I was there. I saw people gathered with posters and campaigning rallies for the prime minister but everything was peaceful. I’m not going to offer any advice on how to navigate the non-zero risk of terrorism. Just be smart, alert, pay attention to your country’s warnings and if you’re lucky enough to know locals, ask them for the real story. Turkish people Turkish people are known for being friendly and hospitable, which I experienced at the Turkish cultural center in Raleigh. In Turkey, I found most people to be rather reserved to me unless Orhan initiated a conversation but they were usually warm and generous to each other. Along the way, Orhan’s friends treated us to meals, Har Khan’s family in Iskenderun even had us over for a massively delicious feast and we had tea with a shop owner that Orhan knows. Orhan is Kurdish and that ethnic group has its own language, culture and shares a special bond. One of our bus drivers was Kurdish and he bought us tea and we bought him a Turkish bagel. I was warned that Turkish people sometimes rip off tourists (which is expected most places) but I was surprised how many times they overcharged Orhan. Several times, cab drivers would increase the agreed upon price, the rental car company would add extra charges or the bus would cost more than expected. That was an unfortunate realization and I’m not sure how to avoid it. Turkish food Euphoric. I’m a vegetarian so I couldn’t have a lot of the most famous dishes but I ate fantastically throughout the trip, with meals costing about $2-$5 USD. Almost every city we went to had special dishes to try. Adana is famous for spicy, meaty dishes, often with peppers and bulgars and its kebap. I’ve got an...

Istanbul: New Rome? City of the World’s Desire? India of the West?

Istanbul: New Rome? City of the World’s Desire? India of the West?

“If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.” -Alphonse de Lamartine For the grand finale of my ten days in Turkey, Orhan and I headed to Istanbul. How could I visit Turkey without experiencing its largest city and economic, cultural and historic heart? Not only important to Turkey, Istanbul is the third largest city in the world and arguably, one of the most important historically and geographically. I can’t think of any of other city that served as capital of four empires (Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottomon), situated at a key position at the crossroads of the world. It straddles East and West, with rail networks to Europe and the Middle East, served as a stop along the historic Silk Road and oversees one of the world’s busiest waterways, supervising the only sea route between the Black Sea and Mediterranean. Overall Impressions With a host of bragging rights and situated to adopt the best practices gained from millennia of existence and navigating cultural influences from countless countries, I expected Istanbul to exhibit a European pretentiousness, Middle Eastern opulence and a spectacular Mediterranean seaside. Instead of an aggressive proclamation of greatness, I found Istanbul to be surprisingly relaxed and down-to-Earth. As a city that weathered countless conflicts, housed so much history, centuries of existence lead to a seasoned wisdom where Istanbul humbly and modestly exists with a dulled and inoffensive personality. Already bustling at the seams, Istanbul doesn’t seem overwhelming welcoming and friendly, instead, accepting visitors and inhabitants with a slightly watchful, slightly guarded vigilance of a place that witnessed so many civilizations rise and fall. Supposedly home to the 4th most billionaires in the world, Istanbul didn’t seem perceptively wealthy. Passing multi-million-dollar homes on the waterfront near the famous Maiden’s Tower, the money seems to be spent on securing prime real estate instead of investing in flashy exteriors. With a population of over 14 million streaming through its streets, why make an effort to stand out when you’re going to get noticed anyway? And who can really compete with the beauty of the Sea? Seagulls poised to pose for pictures with tourists when offered pieces of Turkish, ferries streaming through the strait with faint foghorns and the muted clang of bells. Closer to the city center, men with fishing poles line pedestrian bridges with buckets of wiggling fish ready to be immediately passed along to gold-paint-plated boats bobbing along the docks. Serving as Istanbul’s version of New York City hot dog carts, pedestrians can pick up a quick and cheap bite of the freshest seafood with a “fish and bread” sandwich, wrapped in paper, for 6 turkish lira ($3 USD). Absorbing the Atmosphere So how did we explore this enigmatic city? Typically with only 36 hours to see a city saturated with so many sites, I’d bust out of baggage claim with an ambitious itinerary, reading to check off the “must-dos” according to the city guidebook. But Istanbul doesn’t have the same race pace as New York City (Izmir actually felt a lot more East Coast ambitious, with people in a hurry to get places) and I knew an approach like that would be setting myself up for failure. Istanbul’s so populated that you have to move with the sea of people, flowing down the city streets and getting caught behind people stopping to snack on a sesame covered simit or snap a selfie in front of a random store front. Satisfied with absorbing a general feel of the city, Orhan and I went bowling (a completely uncultural activity, highly atypical for me when I’m supposed to be exploring a new place) and spent our second night whipping scarves around, participating in the human wave and jumping and chanting at the Galatasaray football match. We experienced the more romantic and relaxing side of Istanbul nightlife with Dorsun, Orhan’s friend who hosted us in an amazing apartment overlooking the Bosphorous bridge. We trotted down the hill, by the prime minister’s house (looking surprisingly peaceful considering the recent controversy and riots surrounding this political figure, whose slogan is saglam irade: solid will), passing through the deserted (but smelly!) fish bazaar to wander by the waterfront near the romantic Maiden’s Tower. We snacked on roasted chestnuts as we walked by a Turkish bachelorette party (henna night) with the out-of-place bride-to-be decked out in a ridiculous ball gown on this quiet city street, sipping salep (a hot thickened milky drink I tried with Sumeyra) with her girlfriends, watching candle-lit “wish balloons” float skyward. We passed street vendors selling roses, trinkets and even grilled fish before settling by fire pits to...

Ephesus and Izmir: Ancient Greek city, beautiful girls and palm trees

Ephesus and Izmir: Ancient Greek city, beautiful girls and palm trees

We left the alien landscape of Cappadocia to continue our otherworldly travels with a trip back in time to the Ancient Greek city of Ephesus (Efes). After the 12 hour bus to Izmir, we traveled another 40 km to Ephesus. Surprisingly, almost immediately after leaving the city bus station, we were alone in the mountains again until we reached a small town close to the ruins. We bounded off the bus, energized by the fresh mountain air and eager to stretch our legs, we set off to the sound of jingling bells as herds moved through the hills. Ancient City of Ephesus Thankfully Orhan knew where we were going because for a site of international renown, the ancient city was surprisingly hidden. The city was mind-blowingly ancient, built back in 10th century BC, once containing the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The temple was destroyed in a Gothic raid but remained an important religious site under Roman rule. Ephesus contains one of the seven churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation and the Book of John might have been written here. I’ve got an aversion to any place with giant tour buses (they couldn’t fit down Cappadocia’s tight corners) but I guess that’s to be expected. Camera-laden Asians snaked around ancient columns to follow their flag-waving guide. Another group of elderly explorers sat peacefully on a hill, apparently deciding a birds eye view was the best way to experience the site. Cats climbed out of climbed in the ruins, scratched their backs against steps of the theater and peered down at silly tourists from their perches atop broken columns. Supposedly, cats and lions have roamed the city since ancient times and still have free reign of the place. Orhan and I power walked through parts, flashed peace signs for photoshoots in others and explored any dark tunnel we could find. Like Cappadocia, we could take any route we wanted and we were free to peek in mysterious cervices or hop across ancient pools. Downtown Izmir  After a few hours, we returned downtown to explore one of Turkey’s largest and most unique cities. Izmir has a reputation for being atypical, known for beautiful women and less conservative lifestyles. I saw a couple girls rocking punk-ish hairstyles but the population didn’t seem too different to me. As a major port, Izmir is a beautiful city along the sea, streets lined with palm trees and with buildings crawling up the surrounding mountains. Downtown felt a little like New York city, with people striding purposefully its streets, with food carts selling Turkish bagels to grab and go. However, every other store seemed to sell ridiculous ball gowns, shimmering with an excessive amount of sequins, unrealistically long trains and cupcake-poof skirts. I can’t imagine why Turkish people need such ridiculously lavish dresses but it makes for elaborate window decor. We walked along the waterfront, feasted on some $1 pide (Turkish pizza), got surrounded by a cloud of pigeons near famous clock tower and mosque in the main city square. We wandered the ancient Ottoman bazaar (my favorite so far!), with hookah pipes, Turkish carpets, evil eye charms and tea sets exploding out of the small shops. We headed to Tugba, a famous confectionery shop to sample different Turkish delights, exaggerating the sugar high with electrifying shots of Turkish coffee. All energized, we marched around town, past rainbow hippie stairs and a city garden waterfall to this adorable cobblestone street honoring the musician Dario Moreno. It felt very European with romantic music played as boarded an ancient elevator. Built by a Jewish philanthropist, Asansor lift was designed to help elderly people get back to their houses on the hills but now, it appears to be mostly a tourist attraction with beautiful views of the city and the sea. And a great excuse for Orhan to finally use the tripod we had been lugging around! With that, we wrapped up our day in Izmir, waiting in an incredibly inefficient line to board taxis to the bus station, piling seven grown people in the small car when it came. And with a 13 bus ride, we were back in Adana in time (kind of) for Orhan’s important Masters degree meeting and exam. Song of the Moment:  Drop to Hold You by Matt...

Underground cities, canyons and castles: Cappadocia Day #2

Underground cities, canyons and castles: Cappadocia Day #2

Orhan jokes that people in Turkey look at my naturally blonde hair and piercing blue eyes and calmly conclude I’m an alien.  I don’t know if that’s true but I could definitely find a home planet in Cappadocia’s extraterrestrial curves. Waking up in Wonderland Sunset over the valley and a delicious dinner had me entranced the night before but Cappadocia had more surprises in store. The next morning, we wake up, trudge downstairs skeptical that we would get the complimentary breakfast considering the deserted lobby , except for an old man napping, swaddled in a sheet by the extinguished fireplace. Then the receptionist, a shy, 22-year-old chemistry student donning a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, pops up from behind the counter and pulls us across a courtyard, cluttered with concrete blocks and wooden planks. We shiver as we follow her up the stairs, and she opens the door to an upstairs patio, overlooking the valley where hot air balloons fill the shyly sunlight sky, rising and falling like aquarium bubbles. She leaves us, watching the colorful bubbles bob over rooftops, shyly approaching each other, then half-heartedly changing direction like preteens at a middle school dance. About 15 minutes after the we arrive, the sky suddenly cleared, as if by Etch-a-sketch, as the tour companies finished their sunrise tours. We returned downstairs to a gourmet feast of cheese, bread, olives, jam, nutella and custom-cooked omelets. As we feast, our receptionist reveals how big the area really is so we sign up for a tour to visit an underground city, a canyon and a castle, to get the full spectrum of Cappadocia’s diversity. Underground City Derinkuyu is one of several underground cities in the region even after entering, I expect a slightly claustrophobic, dark, dimly lit space and a fairly boring tour. We learn the whole city was designed for defense, and as we squeeze through shrinking walls and ceilings, we see how an invading army would need to abandon their weapons unless they wanted to get skewered. We huff and puff up steep staircases and Orhan comments, “now I know where gladiators get their muscles” and veer off down random passageways to find graves, ventilation system, animal stables or wine storage. Exploring the World 5th Largest Canyon After the underground city, we return to sunlight in the 5th largest canyon in the world in Ilhara Valley, created when lava from a volcano pried the gulch apart. The whole valley is 14 kilometers, but we hike a portion by the river, surrounded by an entirely different type of rock formation. We climb several hundred stairs up to a hidden church, discover a few frescos and then bound up random rocks like billy goats. After a traditional regional meal of a hot skillet of veggies and tandoori bread, we drive past the volcano that created the canyon, cloaked in clouds and snow, past where they filmed some of Star Wars and to the Selime monastery. Having seen two major defense areas (valley, underground city), we approach the castle carved into the sand formations, which served as a fortress, trading center and monastery at some point over the past millennium. We were allowed to go basically anywhere, poking our heads out windows, crossing the kitchen into monk’s confessionals and staring up into where they made the wine. Playtime to end a perfect day and get out our extra energy before a 12 hour bus ride to Izmir. Song of the Moment: Californiacation by Red Hot Chili...

Wandering in Cappadocia

Wandering in Cappadocia

“Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and nature” -Anatole France I’m sorry I’ve been such a bad blogger this trip- having published more professional articles makes me more self-conscious about what I post here, my words seem insufficient to capture these otherworldly sites and traveling with a buddy makes it harder to focus as intensely on the scenery. But I’m going to try because Cappadocia is not what I expected but positively breath-taking. Leaving Adana, it wasn’t long before we were in the middle of nowhere… We watched the temperature drop from 18 degrees Celsius to 5 as we passed olive farms shaded by the Taurus mountains, shivering in the frost-covered cold, naked in the desert-like scenery. Nearing Cappadocia, we began to see dark windows peppering the mountainside, housing caves. Soon, we began to see other styles of alternate living: giant anthills growing out of the dirt, with lopsided doors and the occasional staircase. Eventually, a sign indicated we were “Entering Goreme National Park”, which I thought would be the end of civilization. However, the bottom of the valley cradled a little town, filled with cave hotels, restaurants advertising home-cooked food and tourist agencies eager to sign you up for a balloon-ride. Winter is the off-season so we had the snuggly village almost all to ourselves. After dropping off our bags at Walnut House (our own private hotel), we began our explorations with a hike up to the canyon rim for sunset. One canyon rim had houses climbing up the wall, while another layered shades of pink and orange, and another contained a basin of these sand formations. After hiking around until our fingers turned blue, we went to Dibek restaurant (which we also had all to ourselves) for an amazing home-cooked meal. The restaurant was 475 years old, converted from a stable, dimly lit and decorated with traditional clothing and farm gear. We lounged against pillows as we sniffed the 7 pots of spices (basil, mint, red pepper, salt, pepper and some more mysterious ones) and experimented with them on the salad and pickle appetizer. My meal was vegetables cooked in a clay pot (a characteristic style for this area), which they used a hammer to crack in front of us, and served with rice and pillowy tandoori bread. We tried a traditional dessert too, whose main ingredient Orhan couldn’t translate which makes it hard to describe here. But the whole gourmet meal was less than $10 USD. The cheap prices for phenomenal food in this country is pretty unbeatable. Song of the Moment: The World is Watching by Two Door...

Sensory experience of time in Adana, Turkey

Sensory experience of time in Adana, Turkey

It’s the morning of day 3 on my Turkish holiday- I love vacations where you can forgo typical units of measurement. In Turkey, the passing of time is heard in the crackly croons of muezzins calling the city to prayer five times a day and the clink of a metal spoon against glasses of Turkish tea. The rate of rise and fall of snow-capped mountain peaks measures the speed of the train and shrinking farms indicate arrival at city limits with the cluck chickens replacing the snowing of greedy goats. Walking along streets lines with citrus trees, progress is heard in the periodic plop of juice-laden oranges. Life runs slower here, when buying a sweater at the bazaar involves sharing tea with the shop owner.   When trips to the park involve families of eight exploding out of a small car, gaggles of children dispersing in different directions, an hour passing before the kids are collected and the family’s ready to move forward. Our days have been filled with leisurely exploration with walking, eating and meeting up with various people along the way. The first day we spent seaside in Mersin, the city where Orhan went to high school. We wandered the docks of the pier, watching fisherman sort slippery fish into buckets, the sun reflecting off their writhing scales. We boarded a boat for lunch, the kind of place that only served one thing, fish so fresh and grilled in front of you on the dock of the boat. Small fishing boats and wooden stilts for boat repairs were replaced by extravagant yachts and a helicopter pad at the new marina where we met up with Har Khan, one of Orhan’s “bros” from high school. From there we rode the bus along the coast, passing lemon farms, lonely tourist hotels and beaches with lazy sea waves softly massaging the sand. We stopped for sunset on a small beach, near castle ruins. Legend has it that a fortune teller told the king his daughter would die at the age of 18 so he built her a floating castle within viewing distance of his, where he could safely satisfy her needs. As all protected princess fairy tales end, his best efforts were in vain when a snake appeared amongst a bucket of apples, poisoning her as predicted. During the summer, you can swim or take a paddle boat to her castle but we just enjoyed having the beach to ourselves. We hitched a ride back to Adana with some banker friends then ended the evening with Istanbul-style rice and beans and a famous pistachio-marshmellow-desert we brought back from Mersin. Yesterday, we explored Adana, sticking closer to home since Orhan had the test for his motorcycle license mid-day. We walked on the bridge used in the opening scene of James Bond Skyfall movie, shopped in the bazaars, walked through a riverside sculpture garden and went inside the largest mosque in Turkey, which stood in sharp contrast to the “oil mosque” in the old city, built in 907 as a church that was later converted by the Muslims. We soaked up the seventy degree sunshine on the oldest bridge in the world, taking in views of the mountains, mosque and the river.   We are currently en route to Hayal for waterfalls, ancient ruins and dinner with Orhan’s friends family. The drive itself has been an excellent display of Turkey’s diverse geography, as we wind through mountains, overlooking the sky-colored sea, lush farms and sandy rock mines. Song of the Moment: Mountain Sound by Of Monsters and...