In the little time that I spent in there, I felt that Turkey had something to offer to tourists and travellers of all kinds. The country is full of wonderful natural sights and urban chaos, a mix of the religious and the liberals, delicious food and thousands of years of history. There are plenty of tour operators as well as infinite options for do-it-yourself types. I was in Turkey for about two-and-half weeks – travelling through Istanbul, Cappadocia, Konya, Pamukkale, Selchuk, Efes and Izmir – in other words more or less on the tourist highway.
I tried various ways of slicing and dicing my Turkey travel experiences in a summary post and I thought that the best way to capture the essence of this country was to show you that Turkey is, indeed, for everyone.
1. Historic, architectural and archeological sites
Istanbul’s historic district is an architecture enthusiast’s walking dream. The beauty of Turkey’s mosques, especially the ones modeled on Sinan’s masterplan, is jaw-dropping; magnificent domes and
soaring minarets make you feel trivial and humbled in this house of god. Each city you visit has a grand central mosque and scores of smaller ones scattered around the town. Most let visitors in and photography is allowed during non-prayer hours.
The Greco-Roaman ruins at Ephesus and Hierapolis, once grand cities in the empire, are being restored to somehow convey their past glory and grandiose. I love visiting historic sites like these to get a glimpse of how our ancestors lived in the past.
2. Hiking and outdoors
Turkey is beautiful; way more beautiful than I had seen in pictures. There is a ton of geographic variety and sub-climates, all kinds of terrains from coastal to snowy, humid to arid, giving ample opportunities for both, adventure enthusiasts and relax-on-the-beach types.
Turkey’s Kappadokya region is great for outdoor hiking and rock climbing. The region has numerous valleys with bizarre penis shaped rock formations and cave houses, colourful rocks and a spectacular scenery. Plenty of options for hiking here, either in tour groups or chart your own.
3. Unique natural wonders
Imagine a landscape with rugged brown mountains, dry terrain with occasional trees and patches of green farms, deep blue sky with wisps of little clouds that prompt you to wonder what they are shaped like, and dusty, smoky air rising from a city on the horizon. Now in the middle of this scene, picture a large mountain draped in white colour. How oddly would it stand out? My bus was passing through a series of monotonous mountains when the road took a turn and I looked out of my window, awestruck. Standing before me was a large mountain, bright and white, covered in Calcium deposits at Pamukkale.
I have never been to the Moon or to planet Mars. But from countless pictures and movies, I have a pretty good idea oh how the Martian or lunar surface would look like; it looks like what you see in Cappadocia. It felt like I was in a movie set for Star Wars or another space sci-fi. Quite dramatic and very strange for sure! Both these places are UNESCO world heritage sites.
4. Friendly people
My trip started in Istanbul which is the largest city and really the gateway to the country. In Istanbul you can prepare yourself for what you can expect in the rest of the country. There are gay bars in neighbourhoods next to mosques that call for prayers five times a day. There are women in mini-skirt and high-heels sharing a seat with women covered in a full veil. Streets are well marked but traffic chaos prevails. It’s a mix of urban and rural, modern and orthodox, young and old in Turkey. I felt that Turkey was on a quest to find a balance between two extremes and two identities. European v/s Asian, orthodox v/s modern, love-hate relationship with the Arab countries as well as the EU, the contrasts are endless. Turkey is really a colourful social mosaic and a place I would immensely enjoy because I like places of social diversity. The people I met were very friendly and helpful.
From a Turkish immigrant living in France who was visiting his hometown after ten years and wouldn’t let me travel by myself because he thought it was too dangerous, to a group of old men who taught me a common Turkish board game called ‘Tavla’ (played in tea houses), each day was quite eventful on the social interaction front. I learned some basic Turkish before visiting and that helped me immensely throughout the journey. People are generally quite overjoyed to see a foreigner make an attempt to speak their language.
Where do I even begin?! From the moment I stepped in Istanbul, I was in food heaven. There is so much diversity and sophistication in food preparation there. Local specialties in Anatolian Turkey are quite different than the food you get on the Mediterranean coast. I simply loved their seasoned kebabs and meats. Turkey consumes the highest amount of bread per-capita and you get a basket of bread wherever you go! Vegetarians will have a very comfortable time in Turkey, they make excellent preparations out of various kids of beans, and the selection of fresh vegetables, cheeses and nuts is immense.
Turkey makes the best of its strategic position between Europe and Asia. Turkish cuisine made it to India via Persia and, although transformed, one can still identify similarity between Turkish and Indian food. Bunch of dishes have same names even.
I did have some rather extreme experiences
- On my second day in Turkey, my flight to Cappadocia got caught in a wind storm, made a failed attempt to land, twice, and the turbulence was so intense that the oxygen masks popped out and people started yelling, crying and praying to Allah. I did feel my life flash before me and in that moment I thought about my friends and family and some memorable time spent with them. Not money, not work and certainly not any material possessions.
- While hiking in Cappadocia I was confronted by a pack of wild dogs which was quite a trembling moment. Again, I quickly thought of all the people I loved and thanked everyone who helped me in my life. (LOL, just to be sure)
- I have couchsurfed lots throughout my life and in a bunch of countries. In Istanbul a couchsurfing host asked me to leave probably because he didn’t approve of ‘people like me’ which I thought was quite an extreme reaction.
- In one very funny incident, a bike that I had rented got stolen while visiting Ephesus. I complained to the Turkish army (who work as the police in rural areas) and they took me to a surveillance room to go over video tapes and managed to catch the thief. Very impressive feat!
So you see, Turkey has something (including surprises) to offer for everyone. My travelogues in subsequent posts will focus on my style of travelling, i.e. backpacking, with glimpses of organised tours once in a while.
Have you visited Turkey? Did you have similar thoughts?