Thursday, October 1, 2009

Turkey - Week 4


So we were very brave and adventurous with this section of our trip and didn't book ahead. Whoa. I know. Scary. At least for us. Because we are total planners, we have always booked all of our hotels and transportation in advance or at least printed off train timetables and itineraries so that we knew what our options were. But we decided that we were just going to wing it once we got to Turkey and gave ourselves two to three days to get to Cappadocia. So once we ferried over from Rhodes, Greece to Marmaris, Turkey, we grabbed a taxi to the main bus depot. We actually wish that we had had some time in Marmaris because it is a beach area of Turkey where apparently a lot of Russians spend their summers, but we just didn't want to run the risk of not making it to Cappadocia for our next hotel reservation. Anyway, we got to the bus depot and nobody spoke English. I mean NOBODY. It was crazy. But everybody was super friendly and really helpful and finally figured out that we wanted to go to Pamukkale (which I had read about before leaving and figured it would be a good pit stop on our way to Cappadocia). So they put us on a little 15 person mini-bus with a bunch of locals and we had a four-hour drive through the mountains of southwestern Turkey.

Turkey is a beautiful country. Lots of pines in the mountains, wheat in farmed valleys, and rivers and streams running through it. I read somewhere before leaving that Turkey is one of only seven countries in the world that is currently capable of being self-sustaining if necessary because of its infrastructure and food production capabilities.

Anyway, while on the bus, Paul made friends with some of the other male passengers who were interested in his camera and seeing photos from our trip. One guy knew a handful of English words and eventually Paul communicated to him where we were going and that we didn't know where we were going to stay. So about three hours into the bus ride somebody else on the bus handed Paul a cell-phone and indicated that there was somebody on the line for him. Turns out the cell-phone owner had found a hotel in Pamukkale and called them up to explain that there were two Americans looking for a place to stay that night. So the owner of the hotel showed up at the bus stop and helped us get on to another bus for the half-hour ride to his hotel which is just under the hotsprings. It was great. The hotel was actually a bit of a dive, but at least we didn't have to wander around looking for something at 11 pm in a country where we didn't speak the language at all.

Pamukkale, which means "cotton castle" in Turkish, is the site of natural hot springs that have so many minerals that they have left huge deposits that have hardened into "travertines" over thousands of years as the water has trickled down the side of a mountain. The original settlors believed that the waters had miraculous healing powers and built a city at the location, called Heirapolis - now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The travertines were abused back in the early 1900's and so the government has been working to preserve and protect them by draining a lot of the pools so that the sun can bleach them back to their original colors. They have also built a number of artificial pools to allow for swimming in the water without damaging the rock formations. But all of the photos here are of the natural pools. As soon as we entered the travertine area, we were required to take off our shoes and carry them for the rest of the time. The ground is wet and chalky and tore up our feet, but it felt good to walk through the cool, white and blue pools where it was allowed.


After spending the day in Pamukkale, we took an overnight bus to Cappadocia which is in central Anatolia. I took dramamine so that 1, I wouldn't get carsick, and 2, to knock me out so that I could sleep. As a result, I had a great night and slept like a baby even though I was sitting up on a bus. Paul took nothing and was miserable.

Cappadocia was awesome. It is a huge area of insane rock formations called "fairy chimneys" that were carved out into houses, chapels, and nunneries hundreds of years ago and dwelt in by troglodytes. The people who lived here were mostly Christians hiding out to avoid religious persecution, so there were some pretty incredible frescoes painted on the walls inside the cave-houses. The biggest structure is a 27-story castle. These were perfect homes for the area because the stone is soft to carve and it keeps the homes cool during the really hot summers and warm during the frigid winters. The climate, from what I understand, is very similar to Idaho.

What these pictures can't convey is the vastness of these areas and the thousands and thousands of cave-dwellings and fairy chimneys that exist here. People still live in many of the fairy chimneys and our hotel was even built around one with fairy chimney rooms. It was crazy using a bathroom with a ceiling not much higher than our heads and a shower carved into the rock, but it was such a cool place to stay, and it only cost something like $35 a night.

We went to a 12th century caravanserei (a stop along the silk road coming from China where travelers could rest) one night to see a whirling dervish performance. The people at our hotel were so good to explain that a lot of the whirling dervish performances are just gaudy spectacles that are for tourists and aren't religious at all, but hooked us up with the real deal at the place we went. It was a truly interesting experience to listen to the drumming and singing while the whirling dervishes spun around and around in a trance.

We also learned about the blue eye beads that are everywhere in Turkey. There was an entire tree covered in these charms against the evil eye and you can see them hanging over doors, painted into the ancient frescoes in churches, on clothing and jewelry, houses and mailboxes, from rear-view mirrors in cars - pretty much everywhere. They are meant to protect against evil and we had a guide one day who explained to our group that blue and green-eyed people were especially known for having evil intentions. Everyone kind of laughed but still shot glances at me and Paul since we were the only people there who didn't have dark eyes.


After three nights in Cappadocia, we took an early morning flight to Istanbul from the tiny Kayseri airport. We rode the metro into the city center and found our hotel before heading out to explore.

Istanbul is a really great city and I highly recommend visiting it if you ever have a chance. There are a number of huge, famous mosques, including the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sophia is reddish on the outside and has a huge unsupported dome made of special hollowed out bricks. It was originally built as a Christian church and was the largest in the world for a long time. At the time, Istanbul (Constantinople back then) was a Christian city, and continued to be for a thousand years until the emperor converted to Islam. At that point, he turned the Hagia Sophia into a huge mosque, plastering over the exquisite mosaics on the inside and building minarets on the outside that are still part of the structure today. It was a mosque for 500 years until the 1920's when it was turned into a museum. Once the Turks made it into a museum, they started cleaning up the plaster and discovered these amazing mosaics underneath that had been created in the 9th century and preserved in secret for hundreds of years. These mosaics are actually really important because most of the Christian artwork in Turkey has been destroyed over the years (it is now about 99% Islamic) and even a lot of the frescoes and other artwork has been damaged over the years (usually intentionally). I am in love with this close-up of John the Baptist. His eyes are so mournful and expressive. I don't know how the artist created these emotions with tiny chips of tile, stone and glass, but every time I look at his face I am moved. Other mosaics show images of the archangel Gabriel, Christ, and past emperors and empresses. We really liked this mosaic showing two emperors of Constantinople presenting Jesus with the city (on the left) and the Hagia Sophia (on the right).

The Blue Mosque was built directly across from the Hagia Sophia at a time when the Hagia Sophia was still a Christian church. It was built to be more impressive than the Hagia Sophia to show symbolically that Islam is superior to Christianity. Consequently, there are now two of the biggest mosques in the world sitting side by side in Istanbul with a gorgeous park in between. We were able to walk through the interior of the mosque in between prayer times. The entire inside wall-surface is covered in intrically painted geometric designs made up of tiles.

I surprised Paul with a funky trip underneath the city to the underground cisterns where water used to be stored for the city to use. Now they are mostly empty and dramatically lit and tourists pay $5 to go down and wander around in the dank atmosphere. Spooky halloween-type sounds played while we wandered around getting dripped on - something like monks humming or chanting while a wind blew. It was awesome. Apparently there are concerts and laser-light shows that are held down there sometimes, which would be super cool. When the cisterns were drained, two giant medusa heads were discovered as the bases for two of the columns. Nobody is sure why they were turned upside down, but researchers know that the heads were scavenged from Greek ruins and reused in the cisterns.

We also spent quite of bit of time exploring the Grand Bazaar, which is a collection of merchant shops that has been around for hundreds of years. You can find anything at the Grand Bazaar - carpets, spices, lamps, jewelry, clothes, hats, belts, paper, books - there is even an entire section dedicated to buttons. My favorite places were the lamp stores where there are brightly jeweled hanging lamps that we saw all throughout Turkey, and the spice bazaar where were spent a long time smelling each of the different teas and sampling Turkish Delight (which was surprisingly better than we had heard and expected). My favorite tea was called "Love Tea" which was made up of hibiscus, rose, cinnamon, apple, and lemon. It smelled SO amazing.

We don't have photos of this (it was not allowed as you will quickly understand), but on our last full day in Istanbul, we went to a hamam for an authentic turkish bath experience. This is going to sound really weird, I know, but in all of my research I read that if you really want to understand Turkish culture, you have to experience the hamam. So we went to the Cemberlitas Bath, which was built in the late 1500's at the request of the Sultan's wife, and is considered the most authentic bath experience in Istanbul. The thing you have to understand about the baths, is that is was a very important part of Islamic practice to maintain cleanliness but also modesty. For hundreds of years, the baths were one of the only times that women in this culture were able to socialize freely. They would bring food to the baths and spend the entire day there visiting with the other women and checking out future daughters-in-law, while being scrubbed and rinsed and plucked until they were red and pruny. So I understood that there would be nudity involved and I had to ask myself whether I was brave enough to overcome my American prudishness enough to hang out with a dozen other women in my altogether before I went. I decided that if that was the price of understanding a culture that is so foreign to anything I have ever experienced, I could handle it, so we went.

You pay a fee and are sent in separate directions (in older times it was a capital offense to breach the strict male/female segregation). In the changing area, you are given a locker, a "peternal" (like a short sarong), a pair of swimsuit bottoms if you didn't bring your own, and slippers, before entering the "warm room". In the middle of the room is a huge, heated marble slab in the shape of a huge circle. I would guess that about thirty women could lay on it at a time if necessary, although there were only about fifteen at the time that I was there. There were five Turkish "mamas" working there, washing the women who were waiting on the marble slab. It was fascinating to see these women who wear burkas on the outside walking around in black old lady underwear while they were doing the washing inside the baths. They basically direct you to a free space and pull your peternal off, then started scrubbing you with a buffing mitt, getting rid of any dead skin, while they chat and laugh with each other. The whole experience is really very social, which is kind of bizarre. Then they use these pillow-type things that they blow into to create massive quantities of bubbles which they use to wash and massage the person on the heated marble slab. After that, they walk over to the side of the room where there are faucets running with warm water and they filled copper pans full of water and bring them back to throw at you until you are rinsed clean. Then they lead their client over to the faucets and sit them down on a stone slab so that they can wash their head, and dump copious pans of warm water over your head until you are all clean. After that you can either continue to relax on the marble slab in the warm room or go into a low-ceilinged room with a small warm pool with seats all around the edge. You sit in there and chat with the other women who have already been washed. (Paul was jealous afterwards when he learned that the women's section has this pool area because apparently the men don't have one). There were two turkish sisters who were probably 12 and 14 and have obviously just been allowed to start coming to the hamam and they were trying to be so grown-up. Paul said that there weren't as many people in the men's section and that the guys who do the washing are more rough - they pretty much just grunt at you when they want you to turn over and they throw buckets of water to rinse you off rather than pour the water over your head, but he really enjoyed the experience as well. Afterwards we felt not only clean, but cultured, and it was an absolutely perfect way to end a trip to Turkey before heading to Egypt.


  1. That was an awesome post. Turkey by far sounds like one of the most interesting and culturally unique places you went.

  2. I love reading about your adventures. I agree with Jessica, Turkey sounds amazing; and even though it would be a somewhat uncomfortable experience for me, the baths sound so relaxing. I love the picture of John the Baptist. It's amazing the kind of detail accomplished with tile, stone, and glass.

  3. Those lamps are gorgeous! You are very brave to go to the bath. I love the story about the evil blue & green eyed people and how everyone kept looking at you guys. That is funny.

  4. My in-laws went to Turkey this summer on some kind of Mediterranean cruise and came home with one of those beautiful lamps. I love it. I'd love to have one for my house!


Your turn...