Turkish Surprises

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It’s kind of wonderful sometimes to have your misconceptions smashed. Reality appears and it’s nothing like you imagined it to be. This happens to me in Turkey a lot. I’m not sure where my inner image of Turkey came from but it does not coincide at all with the Turkey I actually experience. We were going to skip Antayla altogether. It’s another big city of over a million people but its not famous or trendy or hip like Istanbul. I imagine a crowded, smelly Third World port city with too many humans and too much garbage per square inch. We want to go on to Olympos; the small isolated coastal village famous for its laid back vibe, but we arrive at the bus station in Antayla in the late afternoon. There’s no minibus to Olympos until tomorrow. We will have to stay here in the big city for a night. Conveniently, there’s a metro tram right outside the bus station. We climb aboard and get taken to Kaleici, the old harbor side neighborhood which is the beating heart of town. Wow! Holy smokes! This place is way better than we thought it was going to be. A multileveled, winding maze of walkable cobblestone streets is cut into the hillside above the harbor. This delightful little labyrinth is lined with restaurants, pubs, cafes, boutique guesthouses and pensions. We find a cheap place to stay in the midst of it, drop our bags in the room and head out to find the sea. Ms. B. has never seen the Mediterranean. I haven’t seen it since I flew from Cyprus to Cairo a few months ago. I swear to the universe, it’s like a miracle for the eyes. The cobblestone network releases us onto a sea side patio up on a cliff above the water. Our timing is perfect. The sun plops down into the western horizon. The pure blue waters sparkle in the afternoon glow. A Mediterranean Sunset; what a great place to be.

The next big ticket item on this years traveling agenda is our incredible plan to hike a section of the Lycian Way. But the trail begins in the vicinity of Fethiye on the coast and we are presently in Ihlara in the very center of the country. It’s a very long ways from here to there but we do have time. It’s also true that there are fascinating and fun places to stop en route. No hurry, no worry, chicken curry… It shall be an enjoyable odyssey by public transport across the Turkish landscape.

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We catch the morning local bus from the plaza in front of our pension. The first big surprise occurs before we even leave town. Ihlara is more than twice as big as we thought. Lower Ilhara where we stayed is partly inside the canyon. Upper Ihlara, along the rim, we didn’t even know existed. Now we see it and the geographic reality of the past few days becomes confused. Huh? Upper Ihlara is modern and developed with shops, restaurants and hotels. We didn’t have to stay at the Star and eat at its restaurant because other options were just over the hill. We believed an illusion and now the illusion shatters.

The next surprise is the city of Aksaray. It’s a city all right; much bigger than I thought. Must be a couple hundred thousand people; kind of reminds me of Albany. We aren’t staying long, just have to get money and catch an onward bus to Konya. At a traffic light in the city center, we see a cluster of money machines and bus ticket agencies so we hop off the bus. Everything goes smoothly. Cash and tickets in hand, we will leave for Konya in an hour. With time to spare, we cross the road and enter the shopping mall. That’s right, a shopping mall. A slick, modern, high rising homage to consumer capitalism with multiple escalators and all the same international brand names you see everywhere else in the world. Globalization has claimed this corner of Turkey and its roots sink deep into the concrete. We pass through the metal detector and walk by the armed guard. We ride the escalators to the food court on the top floor. It’s a showcase food court with metal utensils rather than plastic and real food served to you at tables. I have the sensation I am on a set for a mall advertisement rather than inside a real mall. It’s a bizarre case of Turkey imitating America better than America imitates itself.

The unreality continues on the luxurious four hour bus ride to Konya. With a video screen on the back of the seat ahead of me, an attendant serving drinks and snacks and lots of leg room, I am a passenger on a modern first world transportation system. Turkey is not a “developing country,” and this sure as heck is no chicken bus. It’s a brand new top of the line Mercedes with all the bells and whistles. The highway we cruise upon is well paved and wide so we move along at a good speed. I can’t help but notice the solar panels on the roofs of almost every house we see. There’s no doubt about it, Turkey is modern and progressive and ready to embrace the 21st century.

The Melvana Shrine in Konya, Turkey is a world wide center for whirling dervish Sufi mysticism. If you are into Rumi or spiraling spirituality, the city of Konya might be on your bucket list. Otherwise, you probably never heard of it. Though I do have a thing for spirals, Ms. B. and I do not stop for spiritual reasons. Konya is halfway between the canyons of Cappadocia and the blue waters of the Mediterranean and we need a place to rest. Yeah sure, we might check out the whirling dervishes while we are here, why not, but we do not qualify as typical Sufi pilgrims. Ms. B. has a headache upon arrival and we find ourselves in the midst of a thriving modern metropolis at a humungous bus station that sort of resembles an airport terminal. Konya is the third biggest city in Turkey with 1.5 million people most of whom seem to be hanging out at the bus terminal today. There is a conveniently located metro tram right outside that heads downtown but with Ms. B’s headache, our heavy backpacks and the unbelievable crowds, that seems like a bad idea. Instead, we opt for the easy but expensive way. We find a metered taxi and point to an address of a cheap hotel in the guidebook.

The cab drops us near the metro stop but the recommended hotel is closed so we have to wander around to find one. Fortunately, a couple of friendly locals are there to point us in the right direction. The world famous shrine is only a few blocks away. Pilgrims come from around the world to see it so there are lots of cheap places to stay near it. If we head towards the shrine and keep our eyes open we should be able to find a comfortable home for the evening. It’s the old traveler m.o., head to the holy place and you can usually find cheap accommodation. It’s a way of the world…

Now is different, however, as a paranoid thought surprises my brain. Ms. B. and I are not technically married. We have no official documentation to demonstrate a family relationship. Indeed, one glance at the different names on our passports shows that we are independent legal entities. It has occurred to me before that this sort of thing could theoretically be a problem in some very conservative communities. But I always thought of the problem as more of an abstract concept. Not as a serious issue that would ever actually arise. But here we are in Konya. It’s known as a very conservative Muslim city and we are near a conservative Muslim shrine. As a matter of fact, our unmarried personas are actually walking towards the shrine as we look for place to stay. It’s kind of like a metaphor unfolding in one of the holy books. Are we sinful hethens there to defile their holy homes with our unmarried lust or are we fellow pilgrims on the road to wisdom who need a place to crash for the night. As Ms. B and I climb the stairs of some random cheap looking hotel on the plaza, the fate of the universe hangs in the balance…

The hotel man speaks no English but he is ever so helpful. Of course he has a room and yes we can stay there. Do we want two separate rooms or a single room together? He asks politely with awkward gestures… We tell him yes a single room with one double bed as we hand over the passports. “No problem,” he says, “I show you.” If he notices that we are unmarried he certainly doesn’t mention it. The room is nice with wifi, heat, hot water and a big comfortable bed. It costs 70 lira but that includes breakfast. All and all, not a bad deal; me and Ms. B. have found ourselves a comfortable home in the land of whirling dervishes. The universe is safe for another chapter.

Konya is a total surprise. I expected primitive Muslim pilgrim world with basic services and developing world mystique and chaos. Instead I find a slick and modern and well organized city that caters to the needs of it many visitors very professionally. It seems a very successful business model. Perhaps it’s just the whirling dervish mystique. I can’t describe the variables that give the overall impression but it all seems clean and efficient and well organized and practical. Obviously these people here have been in the business of serving the interests of pilgrims for a very long time.

The next morning we have a hearty breakfast and catch the two lira shuttle bus to the bus station. It’s easy and simple. I can’t believe we paid 30 lira for a cab the other day. In Turkey, a cab is hardly ever needed. They have the infrastructure, the system and the organization. Turkey is one country that has public transport that works. We go from downtown and comfortable in Konya to downtown and comfortable in Antayla as smoothly as if it was the starship enterprise. C’mon Scotty, beam us on over. It’s especially impressive considering the fact that we weren’t even going to go to Antayla. We were going to skip it as just another big city. But No! Says the transportation gods. No minibus for Olympos today. You must stay in Antalya.

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Seriously, put Antayla, Turkey on the list. It is one of the coolest big cities on the whole planet earth. Over a million people, lots of action and more Mediterranean atmosphere than you can paint in a painting. We stop for the night and stay for three days, that’s how much we like it. It’s really the kind of place I could settle in for a few months. We sip coffee in sea side cafes, we walk the cobblestone maze, we admire the art work and the architecture. There are bars and restaurants and hotels and pensions. There’s lots of places to just hang out and do nothing. This is a kind of living that I could definitely get used to.

But we don’t stay long. The odyssey continues as we go two more hours down the coast to the somewhat isolated Olympos. We have to exit the big bus at a roadside restaurant on the main highway and take a minibus the 8 kilometers down the dirt road to the coast. The town itself is little more than guesthouses, camps and pensions with a few shops and tour agencies. It’s a tourist trap if ever there was one but a tourist trap in an amazingly atmospheric place. A narrow canyon leads to the ocean. Between the town and the beach are ancient stone ruins. Strangely, it’s empty now, very empty because its the off season. It feels like a ghost town and a little apocalyptic. Several places are open though and they all offer us the same deal. A bungalow, buffet breakfast and buffet dinner for forty lira per person. Not bad… Within budget. We choose one at random and settle in.

The afternoon is like a scene from a low budget, late night sci fi film. The dilapidated town is so empty it resembles a movie set for a movie that has ended. The ruins we pass through are indeed ruined. Not rebuilt or modernized or tidied up for tourist consumption but fallen down rock piles all overgrown with moss. With no other visitors around, the whole place feels gloomy, doomy and end of the worldish. We reach the endless and empty beach and get bedazzled. Now would be the time for the spaceship to land. Me and Ms B., the last surviving humans on the abandoned and forgotten planet. Actually, it’s kind of romantic…

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But alas, we are not completely alone. There are about 8 other people scattered about on the sand and rocks in the distance. Some are fishing, some are walking and some are sitting and soaking up the scenery. It’s a bit chilly for swimming or sun bathing as the temperature hovers in the high 60s Fahrenheit (15-20 Celsius). It’s also not the sandiest beach in the word because a large part of it is covered by an amazing collection of wave tumbled rocks and pebbles. Surrounded by so many smoothed and polished stones, Ms B. is in some version of jeweler’s heaven. And me, well, we all I know how I feel about rocks to play with. Wow! What fun! Olympos is definitely a place we could stay a while.

But we only stay for three days. Three days of sitting on the beach, playing with pebbles, and rambling about grown over ancient stone ruins. The castle on the cliffs overlooking the bay is just amazing. Really, you should see it. No words or pictures can possibly capture the all around sensation of the atmospheric overload. Sight, sound, smell, feel… The experience of being alive. But I don’t swim at Olympos. I strip to my shorts, wade to my knees and walk up and down the shoreline in the afternoon sun but I don’t take the full body plunge. Too cold, lots of rocks, very rough surf, so it might be dangerous. In other words, I’m a sissy. Oh well, I enjoy myself plenty splashing and dancing in the tumbling waves on shore.

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Hugo Chavez dies while we are in Olympos and the U.S. stock market reaches an all time high on the same day. My friend the Frog sends an email to ask if I am disturbed by the news. No doubt, I am slightly troubled. Me and Hugo, well, we go way back. Believe it or not I was backpacking in Venezuela when he made his first roll of the revolutionary dice in November of 1992. I’ve been following his career ever since. Pretty good guy too. Didn’t start wars, didn’t torture people, reduced a lot of poverty and he was freely elected several times by overwhelming majorities. Nevertheless, the U.S. media bashes him like he was some kind of evil tyrant. Hmmm kind of makes you wonder what he did do…. like, maybe, perhaps, inspire millions of people around the world that they can free themselves from the yoke of American imperialism. Anyway, it’s hard to be disturbed by anything political when you are wandering around the fallen ruins of Olympos. Death is a drag only for the living and Hugo’s revolution of independence lives on. As for the peaking stock market… This too shall pass. Empires fall, they always do. These walls around Olympos will attest to this truth. The real modern day tyrants, the ones who feed at the trough of globalization may be riding high now. But their day will come. At least I hope so.

After Olympos, we go to Kas. I can’t say I am surprised by Kas because I never heard of it before we actually arrive there. Nevertheless, I am surprised by Kas, in the same way I am repeatedly surprised by Turkey in general. Kas is a beautiful little harbor town with great pensions and restaurants and shops and cafes. It is wonderful and modern and organized and together. It has everything you could ever want from a town you are staying in. We eat some nice meals and we visit an ancient Roman Ampitheatre. We stroll along the sea and I overcome my hesitation to take the plunge in the Mediterranean. It’s cool but refreshing and now that I’ve done it once, I will do it again and again. Gosh darn it, I like it here.

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So Kas is another town where I could stay for a very long time. That seems to be the conclusion I come to a lot while traveling in Turkey. Everywhere we visit seems like a very liveable place. It’s not particularly adventurous or exciting, just wonderful and pleasant. Yeah, I know, Turkey has its share of social, political and economic problems. The Kurds and Armenians and several others would no doubt have many corrections for me if I got too carried away with my praise. Turkey is not a perfect Islamic paradise on earth. It has lots of problems. Nevertheless, our one week overland odyssey from Cappadocia to Fethiye leaves me with a very positive outlook. This country is full of surprises and way better than I expected it to be.

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One thought on “Turkish Surprises

  1. I fell in love with Turkey since the first time I saw it. Glad to know it affects other people likewise. Do you actually shoot medium format film? Or is that a photoshopped filter? I really hope it’s the former. Thanks for sharing!

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