Sunday, July 6, 2008

Day 13 & 14: Ankara and the Midnight Train to Istanbul

After gathering at our last meeting point in Cappadocia, we got on the ever-crowded Fez bus. We managed to stuff all our bags and ourselves onto it and set off for Ankara. The ride was eventful in and of itself - every so often the bus driver, Mustafa, would swerve across the three lanes of highway we were on. At one point, he was tailgating some poor guy on a moped - the bus was literally 2 meters away from him. I was asleep when the main commotion started, but soon the sounds of yelling and screaming came to the back of the bus. By this time - 12:45 am, we were 45 minutes past the time we were supposed to arrive at Ankara, and everyone was starting to wonder what was going on. The story eventually made it back to us that the bus driver had missed the first Ankara exit. When Prof Shields and the Fez tour guide saw this, they told him to take the next exit. He refused and purposefully missed all the exits for the city. He then started screaming in Turkish to the poor tour guide, saying that he had not been told to get off at Ankara and that he was going to refuse. The twelve of us were frantic because we had to stop, but Mustafa seemed to be on a mission to get back to Istanbul, 7 hours away. After ten minutes of yelling, the bus driver finally got off and turned around. All the Americans and Kiwis and Australians were still tense from the experience so all of us were still watching the road when Mustafa turned right at a sign that stated Ankara was to the left. In the middle of getting off on this wrong exit ramp, Mustafa realized what he did and stopped the bus, then put it in reverse as cars honked and zoomed past us. Then we got into Ankara and he stopped on the shoulder of the highway to ask for directions - at that point, Prof Shields had had enough and told us to unload. It was quite a scene, all twelve Americans with all their baggage on the shoulder of the highway at 1 in the morning. Thanks to Yekta, we managed to get off the bus alive and got three taxis to take us to Bilkent University on the outskirts of the city. We thought it was all funny, another Turkish mystery, but we're lucky it ended well.

In any case, we got to the dorms at 1:30 and were divided into rooms - the guys stayed at one dorm and the girls in another. Bilkent University is a private university that uses English as its primary language - from what we understood, it had 15,000 students. The campus itself wasn't very centralized, though, so we didn't really get the sense that we were at a university in the American sense of the word. The dorms were nice but the rooms tiny - it's a wonder how all the Turkish students put up with it for 4 years.

Now that you've been briefed on the journey to Ankara, a little information about the city itself. Ankara is located on the crossroads of ancient north-south and east-west trade routes. For thousands of years it was an important trade post. Its importance decreased significantly and by the 20th century it was a town of 30,000 people. During the war of independence, Ataturk decided to make Ankara the headquarters of the movement. When the Turkish Republic was established in 1923, Ataturk decided to shy away from making Istanbul - the obvious choice - the capital of the new country because the old Ottoman monuments, palaces and mosques would be too much of a reminder of the Ottoman and Islamic days and hinder the success of the new republic. Ataturk instead selected the sleepy town of Ankara as the capital and immediately set upon building the new capital.

Now, Ankara is a bustling city of more than 4 million people and the political, if not cultural, capital of Turkey. The section of the city as it was during Ataturk's time - Old Ankara - is far superseded by New Ankara, a city that was purposefully built as a secular counterpart to Istanbul. The result was wide boulevards, parks, organized city centers and a generally bland city that lacks the character Istanbul has.

The first day we decided to take day trip to Gordion, a two hour bus ride from Ankara. Gordion was the capital of the Phrygian kingdom, which flourished several thousand years ago. Ken Sands, a UNC professor, happened to actually excavate at the site and led us around:

Quiz: who is the most famous of the Phrygians? You'd never guess. You know King Midas, as in the King Midas who could touch anything and turn it into gold? He was the king of the Phrygians. This mound of earth was reported to be his tomb:

Inside the earth tomb is a simple wooden building which is the oldest known woodest construction known to man.

The tomb is now actually considered to be that of Gordion, Midas' father.

We visited the local museum there and then went back to Ankara. At the bus station, Amanda and I decided to try some Cheetos, only to find that there were not only cheese cheetos but a whole shelf-full of different flavors:

I was conservative and stuck with the cheese, but Amanda got some yogurt flavored ones. Delicious.

Once back there, we decided to go get something to eat and then headed to a bar to watch the final game of the Eurocup between Germany and Spain - I was pulling for Germany, but Spain ended up pulling it out. We got a tower of Efes:

We also visited Kocatepi Mosque, which is one of the largest mosques in the world. It was huge and very nice inside, and even though it was only built in 1992 it compared to the Blue Mosque back in Istanbul:

The chandelier was ra-dik-ulus:

The second day, we were taken around Antikabir - Attaturk's burial place. It was like the Lincoln Memoria but even more grand in scale:

The Man's tomb:

While we were there, a procession of politicians, military generals, businessmen, girl scouts, and taekwondo practicers came in and laid a wreath on the tomb. It is standard practice for any visiting diplomat and for Turkish politicians to lay wreaths whenever they came to the capital; there's a whole process to it.

In the afternoon, we went to the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, one of the preeminent museum of pre-Greek and Roman civilizations. They had cave paintings more than 5000 years old:

After that, we got a hotel room for Clayton and Kristina who were feeling bad - Kristina got food poisening from some sketchy looking cig kofte. The rest of us went to dinner at the Ottoman house, which had a nice view of the city.

After dinner, we all headed to the train station. After the experience with the Fez bus, we decided it wouldn't be a good idea to take that back to Istanbul. Instead, we went on the Midnight Train to Istanbul - it sounds like an Agatha Christie novel. Here's pictures of people in the compartments:

The people that were doing alright decided to have a darty in our train compartment. It was crazy. At one point, Edward pretended to be a BBC reporter, and at another we danced on top of the train cushions. 'Twas fun.

The train pulled into Hayderpasa station at about 7:30 am the next morning. Needless to say, we were all exhausted from the trip and ready to be back at home.. er.. Istanbul. It's good to be back.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Day 10, 11 & 12: Cappadocia

After the little adventure in the village, we were off to the penultimate place on our journey - the valleys, mountains and cliffs of Cappadocia.

Cappadocia is the most bizarre place I've ever been to. Cappadocia itself is a region between three ancient volcanoes that spewed rock, silt and lava for thousands of years. The hundreds of meters of silt were worn down by wind and rain and formed cliffs and rock formations that are utterly weird in every sense of the word. Besides the weirdly shaped cliffs, erosion caused the formation of rock formations called "fairy chimneys".

We arrived at our hostel in Uchisar, which is a town on the base of the tallest of the fairy chimneys in the Cappadocia region. People have been coming to the region for thousands of years because it is so attractive to people who are fleeing persecution. These people, especially early Christians who settled the region around 300 A.D., built caves into the cliffs. Uchisar is actually Turkish for three castles - the settlers of Uchisar actually built a series of dwellings into the mountain, and I actually climbed to the top of it was able to see caves and rooms people had used.

The hostel where we stayed, the Kilim Pension, was probably the nicest place we stayed at in all of our journey. The place had a magnificent view of the entire Cappadocia valley:

Apart from the great breakfast and dinners we had at the pension, the coolest thing about it was that we got to stay in caves. The hotel rooms were actually carved into the mountain, which we all thought was the greatest thing since sliced bread. It actually turned out being kind of irritating, since the rock in the cave was so soft that any vibrations caused rock and dust to fall from around the cave. By the end of it, all our bags were covered in rock dust and we were all very annoyed. Still, people continue to live like this throughout the area - people still build into caves:

By far the coolest thing I did in the entire trip was going ballooning. They say Cappadocia is second best place in the world to go ballooning, with the first being over the Serengetti. Our balloon captain thought different, and he's probably right. I got up at 4 am with Edward, Amanda and Kelly and after getting ready waited in the cold to be picked up. A mystic Turkish driver tried talking to us for 10 minutes before finally telling us to get into his van, and we headed off to the balloon launching place. We saw them inflating the balloons, which was cool in and of itself:

After a while, the Turkish guy in charge told us that two little girls would find us and take us to the correct balloon. Sure enough, two little Turkish women came up to us and told us to get into another van, which took us to a balloon on the other side of a cliff. It was perfect - the balloon ended up fitting 6 of us and the captain and copilot, instead of 20 like the other balloons. The Aussie captain got us onboard and we were off.

Let's just say that ballooning was, along with Bursa, the best experience I've had in Turkey. I think the others with me were annoyed by how giddy I was about how beautiful the scenery was. The captain took us over a plateau and once we went over the ridge the entire Cappadocia valley spread below us and into the distance, with Uchisar on the horizon. Words cannot describe how beautiful everything was. I took 400 pictures in one hour - here's a sample:

Uchisar Castle is the mountain jutting out. Our hotel was near the top of it.

There's a lot of ballooning in Cappadocia, which makes for a really pretty view. Here's a whole bunch of them with Uchisar in the back center.

At one point, we were so low that we could actually pick apricots off of some trees and eat them:

A view of our balloon from the hotel - William took this:

After about an hour and a half in the air, we came down. A pickup on the ground follows the balloon while the balloon captain carefully lowers the balloon into an empty field or road. The landing was very smooth. Afterwards, we were given champagne by the captain - apparently, it is a tradition to drink champagne after every balloon flight.

After we got back, we ate breakfast, took a nap and then were off again. We hiked with everyone for 2 hours from Uchisar down to Goreme, the main town in Cappadocia. The hike was long but nice - we walked through a beautiful canyon full of the weird-looking wavy cliffs Cappadocia is famous for:
After eating lunch, we got in a bus and went to the open air museum at Goreme. The open air museum is basically a collection of monasteries, churches and other buildings built into the caves in the earliest centuries after Christ. This monastery used to house 300 priests:

I don't really understand why early Christians used this area as a way to hide from their enemies, since the region was along a major trade route and the entrances to the caves weren't exactly hidden from sight, but it's still impressive to go into them. They painted really impressive frescoes onto the walls of their churches:

After the Open Air Museum, we got some dinner back at the hotel. The next day, we loaded up on a van for a thirty minute ride to visit one of the many underground cities built in the area. Whoever built the cities did an extensive job of tunneling underground - the largest city goes 9 floors underground, had stables, churches, food storage, air vents, baths and more, fitting more than 60,000 people for more than a month at a time. It was very impressive. It was also very claustrophobic - the tunnels were apparently built for midgets, as this picture attests:

At one point, we were at the deepest level and were stuck because people kept coming down the 1 way stairs. It got kind of scary because we had at least 150 people crammed into a small room at the bottom of this cave with more people coming down the 1-way stairs. We did finally make it out though.

After the city, we went to another canyon where cave houses and churches line the rocky cliffs on either sides. The coolest thing about the caves is that there's no signs or bars or anything promoting or hiding them - they were simply there. It was up to us to clamber up into them and see if it was just a room or an actual system of caves. Here's us climbing into one:

We walked into one that had tunnels stretching far into the interior of the mountain - guided only by the light of our phones, we started to get very freaked out and half-expected something to pop out at us (something that I ended up doing to Edward and Amanda, which scared them so much that Edward fell over). Here's one of some of the group at a church:

And one of Emily with the canyons behind her:

After hiking the 7 kilometers and visiting three of the churchesand some other houses, we finally arrived where Prof Shields was waiting for us. We then got on the van and headed for an old volcano crater turned lake:

We went swimming and soon found that the ground wasn't actually earth or sand but decomposing reeds that we would sink through like quick sand. It was gross. We decided to swim across it which was pretty impressive for me, since I hadn't really swam since middle school. It was a distance of probably 8-900 meters, so close to a kilometer.

We were all exhausted afterwards but still managed to sing songs from Mulan and other movies for the entire ride back. Yes, we're a bunch of 4th graders, but that's ok.

The next day we met with Prof to talk about Cappadoccia and about our experience in the village. It was really interesting to compare Memed My Hawk, a Turkish novel about life in rural Turkey we all read with the actual thing.

After that, most of us got back on the bus and were taken to walk through Red Valley, which is one of the famous valleys in the area. It was a nice hike and went close to the cliffs which seem to compare to the Grand Canyon:

We also got to go into a cave that ended up being a magnificent church with huge columns. It was really nice - and it was crazy that we had just stumbled into a random cave to find something like this. Incredible.

After Red Valley, we got all our stuff and headed to the point where we'd get picked up by Fez. Cappadocia was incredible - if you ever have a chance to come here, do it. It's amazing.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Day 8 & 9: Esenler

Note about the map, again. This post is about Esenler, the small village outside of Konya that we stayed at. Cappadocia comes later:

After Konya, the profs arranged with Mehmet from the carpet shop for us to go to a mountain village where he was from and stay with families there. We drove to the village in a small van and it took us 2 hours to get there driving through plains, valleys and mountains, and passing many small villages along the way. The first night I wrote a summary of what I did the first day:

We arrived in the village at about 1. It took us a good two hours to get here from Konya, most of it through back roads. We passed many small villages on the way here, but the place we stopped at was literally the end of the road – there are no more villages after it. We unloaded our stuff and then got back on the bus to go to picnic we had planned. The bus took us on the road to a rocky bluff, where we found a formation of rocks to eat on. After eating, we hiked around a bit, climbing to a cliff where there was a dramatic view of the valley below. We were standing on the Taurus mountains, which wind their way up central Turkey, and so from our viewpoint we could see some really tall mountains still covered with snow.

Clayton on the cliff overlooking the valley below:

Climbing around the cliffs:

After coming back from the picnic, we took the bus and got to where we had left our belongings. The people there were laying out rugs – Turkish rugs and kilims are among the most famous in the world – in order to fade them out a bit. Carpets can be laid out for several weeks or months, depending on how much fading you want for the carpet. Apparently, in previous years as many as 4000 carpets are laid out at one time, covering the hillsides. Now, though, only 300 carpets were being laid out, a consequence of young people leaving the villages where weavers traditionally come from to move to big cities like Konya and Istanbul.

Muammer, who organized the trip for us, brought a few carpets for us to sit on, and some nice Turkish women served us tea. After sitting around for a bit, we finally received room assignments – two of the girls and William and Prof Shields would stay in one house, the other four girls would stay in another house, Edward and Clayton would stay in one house, and Kevin and I would each stay in separate houses. This surprised us, since we all expected to stay in pairs, but it was fine with me.

Unfortunately, I was kind of disappointed with the home I stayed in – I’m very grateful for Bekir and his wife having opened up their home to me, but I really wanted to be able to interact more with a family. Instead, the couple I stayed with were older and had four sons, three of whom were living in Konya and one in Poland. The wife didn’t really stick around and I ended up seeing her only when she brought food in; the husband was nice but not a very good talker, so we ended up having a lot of awkward moments. I would try saying something in Turkish, and he would either respond in something I didn’t understand, or would laugh. Needless to say, our conversations didn't go very far.

The house I stayed in:

And the bathroom, which was across the street, non western and not working. I tried to spend as little time there as possible:

The village:

After a while, I decided to go walk outside, where I heard some kids playing. I watched them play soccer for a while before I was approached by a nice man named Memed, who invited me to sit with him. I introduced myself as an American student travelling around Turkey, and pretty soon some other guys came up and started talking to me. Everyone was extremely friendly, and one of them even brought a bowl of cherries for me to eat. I got out a bag of candy I had bought for kids and offered it to everyone, which seemed to make them happy. We talked a little more and then I decided to start playing soccer with the kids. They kind of mismatched the teams, with me and two others on one side and five on the other, but it was still fun. After working up a sweat, I stopped playing and then started taking pictures of the kids, which they seemed to like.

After that, I was told to come to dinner. I ate with Bekis a somewhat awkward meal consisting of potato soup, spicy pilav, salad, yogurt, ayran, watermelon, and something that seemed to be a mix of eggplant and lamb’s stomach. I didn’t enjoy that last one so much. After dinner, I was led by Bekis to the house where the rest of the Americans had assembled, and we each discussed our experiences thus far while drinking tea. The people in the other houses (they had all come there too) seemed to be very nice, and from what I heard, everyone was having a good time. I came back with Bekis at around midnight and saw that they prepared a bed for me in one of the rooms. I said my iyi geceler (good night) and headed to bed.

The second day, I woke up at around 8 and ate breakfast with Bekir again. Muammer called me at the house number and I walked up with Bekir to the original place where all the carpets were laid out. There I met up with Kelly, Zoe, William and Prof Shields and a group of Turks. They ate breakfast while took pictures and played with one of the cutest toddlers in the world:

The and William sharing a moment:

After that, Muanmer took Zoe, Kelly and I to a farm to pick cherries with one of the guys they had eaten breakfast with. We drove to the orchard and started picking some delicious looking cherries. The first few buckets we picked were "male cherries", which are yellow and help pollinate the other cherries. We also picked a few buckets of red Kiraz cherries. They were all delicious. I asked Muammer if they used pesticides on the cherries and he said that they did but used them infrequently because the climate so conducive to good growing.

View from the cherry orchard:

After the cherries, we went to eat lunch and afterwards were taken down into the big valley we'd seen the day before to go swimming at another waterfall. It was beautiful:

We walked and hiked around the waterfall in our bathing suits and even went behind the waterfall into a cave. The current was really strong, so we couldn't really swim like we had in Egirdir, but we still had fun. We ate peaches that some of the other girls had picked and Muammer cut a watermelon for us.

After a while, we decided to head back. I had a quiet dinner with Bekir, then headed to Kevin's house and drank tea with his family. They were all very nice, and their son Mustafa Kemal (named after THE Mustafa Kemal) was very cute. I watched a Turkish version of Deal or No Deal, and then headed to the girls' place and stayed there for a while. After that, it was back to Bekir's house - except when I got there, they were not there. I momentarily panicked as I tried opening the door but was rescued by Kevin and his host, who had come to get me to tell me that Bekir was still at their place. The Turks all thought it was very funny.

We left the next morning, and Bekir was nice enough to get me a couple of bottles of soda water for the trip. Overall, it was definitely an experience that I won't forget, and it gave me a lot of insight about the way people actually live out in the small vilalges that most tourists don't even notice.