Category Archives: Turkey

Dancing in the mountains

Ayder, the gateway to the Kackar Mountains in northeastern Turkey, was one of our most researched places on this trip.  This was simply because there wasn’t much information about it  (in English) anywhere. The Lonely Planet whetted our interest with its account of the various alpine treks to forests, waterfalls and glacial lakes that could be accessed from here, but provided little by way of practicalities. We also found bits and pieces of information on a few good blogs, but just not enough.

So we took a chance and jumped on a bus for the 14-hour ride from Goreme to Rize, a town on the edge of the Black Sea coast about 50km from Ayder. Rize is known as the commercial centre for its surrounding tea and kiwi growing region, but to our surprise it’s is also a bustling town with good roads, a large hospital and many shops.

The main pedestrian boulevard in Rize

As we hadn’t managed to find any accommodation in Ayder or Rize on the internet that was within our budget, we decided to just walk around town in search of hotels. We found one about 500 metres away from the otogar (bus) station. Because it was relatively cheap, and we were too exhausted (as well as a bit disoriented – 14 hours on a bus does that to you) to walk further with our 16kg backpacks, we took it.

We may have well been the only foreign tourists in Rize at the time. There were curious stares wherever we went. Men and women would come up to us and ask where we were from. Some shook our hands. Kids yelled ‘welcome’, ‘hello’ or ‘merghaba‘ from afar. We felt like Brangelina.

Although it was great being the only foreign tourists in town, the only problem was that almost no one here speaks English. So we got by by playing charades.

For example, on the first evening we went in search of the specialty of this region, hamsili pilav (anchovy rice). For some reason, none of the restaurants seemed to have it, they all only served kebabs. We asked a guy sitting outside a grocery shop. After signing “fish” and “eat”, he signed back that that it was not in season, but perhaps one particular restaurant next to the main mosque and museum that might have it.

He then directed a young man (who may have been his assistant) to lead us there. The young man led us across town to a nice little restaurant, which did indeed have the dish on its menu. However, the waiter signed us that the restaurant could only prepare it if given a day’s notice. We signed to him, “Yes, we would like to order this and this, and will come here at 7pm tomorrow.”

We then spotted a tourist information office next to the museum and went in to ask for more information on Ayder. Surprise, surprise, they didn’t speak English either. But they did have a useful tourism booklet in English and called for reinforcements when we started asking questions – in the form of a tourist bus driver who was hanging around outside the office. Yay, we got the information we wanted – a direct dolmus (minibus) to Ayder leaves at 9.30am every day from Sehitler Cad. dolmus station near the coastal highway.

So the next morning we hopped on the dolmus to Ayder. We had originally planned to stay a few nights, but couldn’t find a cheap hotel online, so we left our backpacks in Rize. We had also originally wanted to do some treks in the Kackar Mountains but upon reaching Ayder (and seeing how steep the mountains were), we realised that we were actually drained from the heat and long bus rides in Turkey. So instead of walking up the mountain, we decided to walk 17km downhill to Camlihemsin, the nearest town to Ayder, and then catch a dolmus back to Rize. With that decision, we happily explored Ayder’s other attraction: pastries!

Ayder is a popular holiday destination for local tourists. Many holiday makers picnic on the grassy slopes here

Four young men take time out from grilling chicken to pose for the camera

Ayder is known for its tasty pastries with corn and honey filling

Camlihemsin is a little town between Rize and Ayder

A pretty wooden building that caught our attention in Ayder turned out to be a pension (hotel). Hasan Sori, owner of the pension and Robert DeNiro’s doppelganger, happened to be sitting outside as we were admiring the building. He was kind enough to show us around. For 20 TL (about 9 Euros) per person, we could have gotten a rustic (though basic) room with amazing views of the waterfall and forest! Hasan a.k.a Robert speaks very good English and also offered to arrange for guides to take us up to Kackar. We smacked our heads for having left our luggage in the lowlands, but made a mental note to give him some free advertising. So if any of you plan to go to Ayder, do check his place out.

Hasan Sori’s pension. For reservations, call 0506-951 5808 / 0507-704 6711

The room with the best view of the forest and waterfall. Hasan can also help arrange for trekking trips (both guided or unguided)

Many people have said that Robert DeNiro looks like Hasan Sori. Here he is showing us his DeNiro pose

Barely a kilometre into our walk downhill to Camlihemsin, we came upon a strange sight – a group of ladies dancing in a circle by the road. (Later we found out that they were doing a simplified version of horon, a traditional Turkish party dance). They tried to pull us in, so Sara and her clumsy feet tried to dance the horon, which supposed to look something like this. Our new found dancing friends then invited us to join them for snacks. With limited English and Turkish, they explained that they were there to harvest their honey, and then we somehow became Facebook friends.

Ladies dancing in circles

Gossiping over watermelon and pumpkin seed

A group photo to remember our new Facebook friends

We continued downhill after saying goodbye. About nine kilometres later, we noticed fresh trails of tar on both sides of the road. As the tar lines ran long and within inches of each other, we were worried that it might ruin our shoes. And just in time, a car stopped by the roadside and the young man who was driving offered us a ride. Yippie! The driver was a handsome young soldier from Kayseri who was honeymooning with his equally gorgeous new wife from Ankara. They offered to take us all the way to Rize (as it was on the way to Trabzon, where they were headed) but we decided to give the honeymooners their space and asked them to drop us at Camlihemsin.

At Camlihemsin, trying to figure out backgammon while waiting for the dolmus.

We made it back to Rize in time for dinner. So to end our fabulous Turkish day out, we feasted on anchovies.

Traditional northeastern Turkish dishes: Hamsili pilav (anchovy rice) and Hamsikoli (anchovies baked with maize). Washed down with refreshing cherry juice

The only place you can get these things in Rize (at this time of year?) is at Euuel Zaman, next to the museum

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Up, up and away!

For you, fourty percent discount” said the travel agent. “Pay 20 percent deposit now, and if you change your mind, we give you refund.”

Not one to turn down a bargain, and since we were in Cappadocia, which is supposed to be one of the best places in the world for hot air ballooning, we said “OK lah.”

So at 5.30am yesterday morning, we found ourselves in a rattan basket with 20 other people, floating above Cappadocia.

Warming up the balloon

After a scary lift-off, the balloon behaved. That’s our balloon’s shadow over there


We were the third balloon to take off that morning. Not that it’s a competition, but… yay!

About 80 balloons take flight every morning

Cappadocia’s strange landscape makes the balloon ride all the more interesting

The direction of the balloon depends on the wind. So all 80 something balloons fly in the same general direction

Andy, our British pilot who works here for 5 months each year

Photo from the panoramic App on Sara’s phone

Because hot air ballooning was invented by the French, the tradition is to pop a bottle of champagne after each flight. We opted for orange juice. If hot air ballooning was invented by Malaysians, the tradition would be to make teh tarik instead

Another balloon landing next to us

Two guys have the unenviable job of pulling down the top of the balloon

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Ruins, Ruins and the Cotton Castle

It’s hot. Very hot. 40 degrees Celsius hot. The kind of hot that can fry eggs on the sidewalk, and probably also burn some toast to go with it. So hot that one of us even had to use sun block.

After reminiscing football miracles and harems, we move south to Selcuk (11 hours by bus from Istanbul) and then east to the little town of Pamukkale (three hours by bus from Selcuk). We’re writing this as a 2 town-in-1 post combo because, well, we’re kind of lazy, it’s too hot to think, and both towns have something in common – ruins. We read somewhere that Turkey is so old and has so many ruins that if you dig a hole anywhere, you’ll probably hit some ruins. That’s obviously an exaggeration, but Turkey does have a lot of ruins.

Byzantine era aqueduct ruins in Selcuk.

Upon closer inspection, you’ll notice that storks have nested on top of these ruins

Ephesus, which is just outside of Selcuk town has the largest collection of Roman ruins in Eastern Mediterranean, even though it’s estimated that only 15 percent of the ancient city has been excavated. With a population of more than 250,000 in the 1st century BC, Ephesus was one of the largest and most happening cities in the Mediterranean world. It had a terraced housing estate, amenities like a library, theatre, brothel, public baths, hospital, as well as many temples, including the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Sara became our tour guide, with a little help from the Lonely Planet

Not sure what this is

Temple of Hadrian, which is known for its intricate carvings

Medusa sits on the second arch at the temple to ward off evil spirits

Library of Celsius. The library held 12,000 scrolls, making it the third largest library in the ancient world after Alexandria and Pergamum

Terraced houses. Each house had running water (hot and cold!) as well as beautiful frescoes and mosaics

Restoration of the houses is ongoing. Here they’re restoring a jigsaw puzzle

There was going to be a party for some VIPs that night

The theatre, which was used primarily for municipal meetings

Hierapolis, on the other hand was essentially a huge hill-top spa and leisure centre in Pamukkale founded by the King of Pergamum in 190 BC. The main attraction here was the natural thermal springs which was believed to have curative properties. There was a huge swimming pool, a gymnasium, a threatre as well as a huge latrine.

Ancient swimming pool, and modern bikinis

Ancient latrines (toilets). Apparently taking a dump with your friends used to be a popular past time

Columns. Was too hot to care about what ancient buildings they belonged to

Most of the hilltop looks like this

You’re probably really, really, really tired of looking at ruins by now. So are we. In all honesty, they’re just not our thing, ruins. But we found something that we like a lot more: travertine. One will never fully appreciate the wonders of calcium carbonate deposited by mineral springs until one dips in a pool of fresh travertine. And Pamukkale is one of a number of places in the world where one can do this. Indeed, many have been dipping in travertine here for thousands of years. Meaning “cotton castle” in Turkish, Pamukkale is both the name given to the bright-white hillside leading to Hierapolis (above), as well as the small town on the bottom of the hill whose main trades are carpets and tourism.

A white hill… can you imagine?

Although the springs and travertine deposits are a natural occurrence here, we suspect that the hill slope was modified (probably by the ancient fellows who used to run Hierapolis) to make it more amenable for recreation. There’s a man-made looking drain that keeps most of the water moving along the main path parallel to the ridge, and there are several man-made looking pools that are suitable for wading in.

Many types of people throng Pamukkale. Some wear shirts, some go shirtless, and some go half-shirtless

A continuous sheet of water cascades down the broad path. In order to limit the impacts on the travertine, no footwear is allowed

There are numerous pools on the hill slope. We’re still not sure if travertine is good for the skin, but the thing to do is to lather yourself in it

It’s quite hard to wash off and leaves a pesky white residue

Some people prefer to keep dry and cool though (because we were due for a 12-hour bus ride on the same day)

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The Miracle of Istanbul

We’re back! Apologies for the long hiatus, but we’ve been having some much needed R&R in the UK (yes, we needed a break from travelling because it’s hard work, but someone’s gotta do it, right?). We had a really nice time too, catching up with family and friends. Will post about that if we have the time.

Now on the final leg of our travels, we find ourselves in sunny Istanbul, which as many of you know, has a rich and glorious history. Sitting on the crossroads between Europe and Asia, Istanbul, Byzantium or Constantinople or whatever you call it has seen the ebb and flow of many great civilisations and empires as well as had its fair share of glorious battles.

A recent battle that many of you may remember was the so-called “Miracle of Istanbul’. It was right here in the Attaturk Stadium, on the 25th day of the fifth month of the the year 2005, that a rag tag team of warriors representing the Liverpool FC performed stupendous feats of courage to achieve what is widely agreed to be the most astonishing comeback in the history of European Cup finals. Up against the might of an AC Milan side that boasted the likes of Shevchenko, Kaka and Maldini, no one gave them a chance in hell when they fell 3-0 down at half time. Then a six minute spell of utter magic in the second half orchestrated by captain Steven Gerard the Magnificent, plus a couple of miraculous saves by keeper of the goal Jerzy “Spaghetti legs” Dudek saw the Reds claw back from the brink of defeat to emerge as champions of Europe for the fifth time in the club’s glorious history. That night under the Istanbul sky, this group of young warriors ceased to be mere mortals and arose to become legends in their own right. Check out this video if you want to relieve that awesome night.

The victorious Red warriors lift the Champions League trophy (Source here)

Other than that, Istanbul is a pretty nice place. In two days we visited some of the main tourist sites, including the Hagia Sofia, Blue mosque, Topkapi palace, and Basilica Cistern. We also went pants shopping along Taskim Road. To tell you the truth, this was quite a pathetic attempt at sightseeing actually. There’s a whole lot more in and around Istanbul that we didn’t see, but the weather was just too hot, there wasn’t enough time and we had to get back to our hostel to catch the Euro 2012 matches each evening.

Hagia Sofia – a church turned mosque turned museum

We’re not sure, but the Hagia Sofia may have been the only mosque in the world where Christian art sits besides Islamic art. In this photo, a mosaic of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus is juxtaposed by medallions inscribed with the names of Allah and Muhammad

A beautiful ceraph (winged biblical angel)

A mosaic on the upper floor depicting the Last Judgement

Vikings worked as security guards at Hagia Sofia at some point. They left their graffiti marks on the marble bannister of the upper floor.

Basilica cistern built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 532. Not your usual cistern, this one is a sprawling underground cavern filled with water that is full of scary carp.

Two columns in the cistern are supported by medusa heads – one upside down, one sideways. No one knows why.

Taksim square, which leads to Taksim road, which as a very nice place to shop for things like pants

In many cities, stray cats come over to you looking for food. The cats here have taken this to the next level – they have their own begging bowls!

Guarding the entrance to Topkapi palace. The Blue Mosque is in the background

The Imperial Harem at Topkapi palace piqued our interest in particular, because, you know, it’s a harem. So we forked out the extra charge to get into the harem, and spent some time browsing through the ongoing harem exhibition at the palace stables. We were amazed to find that rather than being the kinky stereotype we had in our minds (you know, of the Sultan lying in the garden being fed grapes by a bevvy of skimpily clad dancing girls), the Imperial Harem was actually a complex social system that was one of the most important elements of the Ottoman Court. It was also not altogether a bad thing for the young girls that entered it. In a nutshell:

  1. Young girls from around the empire are brought into the harem, either sold by their parents, or captured in war, or through the slave trade.
  2. In the harem, the girls were educated in subjects such as world studies, language and Islam, as well as taught various skills such as sewing, cooking and singing. They were eventually assigned specific roles around the palace, depending on what they were good at. These roles could be as important as keeper of the treasury.
  3. Around 600 people lived in the harem at any one time. The harem held an air of mystique to the folks outside, as no one, except for the Sultan, the Sultan’s mother, Black eunuchs and the occasional traders, were allowed inside. Nor were the girls allowed out of the Harem except for the purpose of carrying out their duties.
  4. The girls were freed after nine years of service, usually married off to noblemen who would appreciate their refinement and education as well as benefit from their connections to the Sultan.
  5. All of the Sultan’s offspring borne from the ladies of the harem (children of his official wives as well as concubines) had equal chance of being chosen as the next Sultan. The mother of the new Sultan would then rise to become the Valide Sultan, the second most powerful person in the kingdom after the Sultan.

The harem

The harem apartments

Pretty interesting stuff, eh?

We know that the Malay Sultans of yore had their own harems too. And there are some written accounts of these. For instance, a late 19th century annual report for a certain Federated Malay State on the east coast written by the British noted that all girls residing in the royal town who reached a certain age would have to enter the Sultan’s harem for a few years. An even more bizarre article in an 1892 edition of the Milwaukee Journal alluded to the fact a certain Sultan of a certain Federated Malay State was arm-twisted by the British to accept a Resident after he ran into some trouble involving a Chinese girl whom he wanted to bring into his harem… Wouldn’t it be just wonderful if Muzium Negara held an exhibition on our Sultans’ harems too?

Note: This post is dedicated to our friends Alex, builder of railways and Ee Lynn, friend of animals, both loyal Koppites.

Disclaimer: Sara wishes to convey that she had no part whatsoever in writing the first part of this entry.

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