Bathing in sweat in a Turkish bath

This blog is an equal opportunity employer, and so I’m happy to follow up the male-focussed shaving post with some pampering that both sexes can enjoy, albeit in segregated fashion:  a Turkish bath (aka ‘hamam’).

(For those not in the know, “equal opportunity employer” is a self-applied epithet used in job ads in Australia by companies and government departments who wish to impress potential applicants by boasting that they endeavour to refrain from blatantly illegal discriminatory practices like only hiring candidates with dangly bits down there.)

So, without further ado, how to enjoy a Turkish bath…

Step one:  nude up.  After paying (60TL – roughly £21 or €27 – happily forked over up front), I was shown to a changing room and handed a towel.  Unsure of the procedure, (having heard different things from different travellers who’d attended different hamams), I asked whether I was supposed to wear anything under the towel – board shorts, perhaps? – and got the proprietor’s best idiomatic English in reply:  “are you kidding?”.  Fair enough.  (The point of my asking had actually been not so much out of prudishness, but more to avoid the awkward “what the hell, why would you do that?!” if I wasn’t supposed to be imitating a true Scot under the towel.)

Step two:  enter the hamam, proceed to your assigned marble washbasin, and spend a few minutes pouring warm water over yourself (and towel).  There was no one else in the hamam when I was there (5pm on a hot Friday afternoon is presumably not their busiest time), so I got to spend a bit of time poking about and admiring the all-marble room at this point, too.  Then again, some other participants would have been helpful:  a few surreptitious glances would have answered some crucial questions like “am I supposed to keep the towel on for this bit?” and “does it matter if I get the towel soaking wet?”.  (Answers:  yes and no, respectively.)

Step three:  have a nice lie down on the heated marble platform in the middle of the room.  After all that enthusiastic washing, you’ve earned it.  When delivering hand-wavy instructions at the beginning of step two, the proprietor (who from now on I’m going to call ‘bathman’, just because after many minutes spent staring out the train window at the Mediterranean in southern France I can’t think of anything less dumb) had gestured that this was a good time for a ten to fifteen minute nap.  At this point, however, one begins to take notice of just how hot and humid the hamam is, and the effect that that’s having on one’s pores:  namely, that they have opened the sluices and become a plethora of little sweaty waterfalls.

Step four:  enter bathman, now himself clad in towel;  follow his instructions to sit next to your assigned washbashin so he can throw progressively cooler and cooler water over you.  After all the sticky sweating, this is incredibly pleasant.

Step five:  back onto the marble platform to be covered in soapy water and manhandled through a brief whole body sports massage.  I’ve never really been one for massages, for some reason, so this didn’t really do that much for me other than produce a couple of invisible bruises on my thighs the next day (the bathman has quite a grip!).  But I’m sure most people enjoy it, and it was entertaining if for no other reason than to see him do it mostly with his eyes closed, in order to preserve the modesty of the aforementioned true Scot.

Step six:  amateur sports massage completed, it’s now time for the bathman’s turn at amateur chiropractic.  He seemed to gain quite some pleasure from producing cracking noises from my back and ribs, in particular.  No harm no foul, I guess.

Step seven:  more water sloshed all over you.

Step eight:  bathman’s duties are complete, and it is now time for another lie down to complete the experience.

Step nine (optional extra credit):  once changed back into your clothes, allow the door to the haman to slam shut on your heel as you go back in to take a few happy snaps (which don’t turn out anyway because it’s too humid for your camera to capture anything at all without getting its lens covered in mist), and spend a good five minutes trying not to bleed all over their nice clean marble.

They sure know how to pamper a guy in Turkey

A bloke’s visit to Turkey just wouldn’t be complete without getting another man to have at his face with a straight razor.

But before I got around to that, the mop on my head needed some attention.  So in the spare hour I had before my train out of Selçuk, I wandered into the barber for a haircut.  (It would have made sense to go for the shave experience at the same time, of course, but as a not-exactly-testosterone-heavy individual who’d recently wielded the safety razor myself, I needed to wait another day or so before that became sensible.)

I like to think it’s testament to improvements both in my travelling skills and general outlook on life that I wasn’t the least bit phased (and in fact was quite pleased, from an entertainment perspective) to discover that neither of the scissor-wielding gentlemen in the establishment spoke a word of English.  (For completeness, I should note that I haven’t even managed to remember the Turkish word for “thank you”, such is my foreign language prowess.)  But the lack of verbal communication was no problem;  a few basic hand gestures later and my excess hair was falling to the floor.

The entertainment began at the point at which Western hairdressers would consider their part of the bargain complete.  First came the delicate trimming of ear, nose and eyebrow hair (although I’m pleased to say that not much attention was required at any of those sites – I’ve got a few years to go before the unwanted but apparently inevitable eruption of excess follicles there, I hope).  Then a scalp, shoulder and full back massage and a polite enquiry as to whether I would like some tea?  (Yes, please!)  As the tea was retrieved, the barber slathered a mud mask onto my face.  This was highly amusing, but I can’t help but think its primary purpose was to allow him the opportunity of a smoke break while the mud did its work and I enjoyed my tea.  (He looked genuinely surprised when I turned down his offer of a cigarette, too:  smoking is still fairly universal in Turkey.)

Looking entertained with my mud mask and Turkish tea

Anyway, a hair wash and more scalp massage as he washed the mask off, and then, the pièce de résistance:  an alcohol-dipped flaming cotton bud on a metal skewer which he slapped enthusiastically against my cheekbones, presumably to burn off any stray facial hair above the tree line.

Total time:  roughly 45 minutes.  Total cost:  10 Turkish lira, or roughly £3.50 or €4.50.  Including the tea.  Bargain.

The next day I was in Izmir, and feeling that I’d probably squirted out just enough facial hair to make the procedure not a joke, I went for a shave.  There’s actually not much to tell about the shaving part of the episode:  he did a good job, with two passes for a very close shave, and with no cuts to report (which is more than I can say for my own subsequent attempt to shave quickly a few days later).  There’s definitely something strangely luxurious, not to mention faintly ridiculous, about having someone else shave your ugly mug, but I tried not to grin about that too much at the time, lest I lose a much-needed corner of my lip.  It hadn’t occurred to me prior, and so I hadn’t planned ahead appropriately, but one also needs to refrain from swallowing at certain key points, in order to maintain the wholeness of one’s Adam’s apple.  It turns out that this is surprisingly annoying immediately after downing a complimentary Turkish tea.  But you’ll be pleased to know I soldiered through successfully and emerged entirely intact.

As I reflected contentedly on my now baby-bottom-smooth (but still adult-bottom-unattractive) face, my vendor prepared the next part of the show:  hot green wax, which he proceeded to spatula at my forehead and around my eyes until I looked remarkably like I was trying on my next superhero costume.  Although that look was slightly ruined by the wax-dipped cotton swabs he shoved unceremoniously up my nose.  (Had the previous day’s trimming not been enough?  Had my nasal hair magically regrown overnight?  Should I be concerned?)  Wax time was apparently smoke break time in this establishment, so there was a pause at this juncture as I turned down both a cigarette and a Lipton’s Iced Tea, and waited for both the wax and the barber’s nicotine fix to take hold.  Once the wax came off, it was a mud mask and scalp and face massage and we were done.  Except for his trying to spray some Lynx up under my tshirt (what was he trying to say?!) – which provided me with an opportunity to discover that the Turkish word for ‘allergic’ is thankfully very similar to the English one.

Worst superhero ever. (Excuse the blurry photo; presumably the barber’s nicotine fix hadn’t quite kicked in yet after all!)

Izmir is a bigger city than Selçuk, and I’m sure I got the big city tourist price at 40 Turkish lira (roughly £14 or €18).  But for the entertainment factor, it was worth every kuruş.


I understand and respect Gallipoli’s fairly seminal place in Australia’s history, but I’ve never shared the almost religious attitude that many seem to have toward it.  Gallipoli certainly wasn’t on my list as the Mecca that it is for a lot of Australians and New Zealanders.  I was a little intrigued, definitely, but I wasn’t making specific plans to go.

I did end up going, largely on the basis of an enthusiastic recommendation from an American expat I met in Olympos.  (The recommendation was interesting because it didn’t come from an Aussie, Kiwi or Brit, and because it came with the comment that the tours tended to give a good explanation of the Turkish viewpoint on the conflict.)  I also went because, well, it happened to be pretty much on the way back to Istanbul anyway, given that I was coming from Selçuk (home to the Greek and Roman ruins of Efes/Ephesus) and Izmir, which are farther down the west coast.

Anzac Cove

The main thing that surprises you about the whole tour through Gallipoli is how small it all is.  Anzac Cove is tiny.  And strikingly beautiful.  And intensely hot, at least in the middle of summer when I was there.  If it weren’t for the large-scale human slaughter that made the place famous, it would be a lovely stretch of coast for a small holiday resort to set itself up on.  The water is clear and inviting, the sun was shining hot in the middle of a lovely blue sky, and the expanse of sand is worthy of some of the better beaches I’ve been to recently.  It makes for a strange sense of dissonance to discover that this lovely spot is the location you’ve learned to associate with so much needless death and destruction.  Sweating under a cloudless sky, it’s similarly difficult to comprehend the merciless winter conditions that eventually convinced the Allies to abandon the engagement.

The other interesting discovery from our tour was just how much Gallipoli features as a nation-building moment for Turkey as well.  Especially as the place where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk made his name defending the empire from Allied invasion, before he went on years later to found the Turkish state.  It’s perhaps somewhat predictable, but also interesting, to hear the different emphasis in the Turkish view of the engagement.  Where Australians (and I presume Kiwis) grow up hearing how the Anzacs battled under constant machine gun fire pretty much from day one, the Turks hear of the only 106 men guarding the entire peninsula when the Allied forces arrived (the main forces were farther north, anticipating an attack there), and celebrate their bravery (and luck) holding off the Anzac assault with only single-shot bolt action rifles and not enough ammunition, until reinforcements arrived days later.  Where Australians lament that the Anzac landing party found the wrong cove and so were forced to contend with a cliff where they expected a gentle hill, the Turks regret that had the landing been closer to the spot it was planned for, their longer-range gun emplacements would have had an unobstructed shot at the arriving forces.

A cemetery (there are many) next to Anzac Cove

The comparison is interesting, and all the more poignant for the surprisingly mature attitudes that each of the nations involved has since taken to the conflict and its historical significance:  the Aussies, the Kiwis, the Brits, the French and the Turks all have war memorials on the Gallipoli peninsula, and the mutual respect is obvious.  Atatürk’s speech describes it perfectly:  “There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours.”

Atatürk’s reflections on those lost at Gallipoli

I won’t claim to have come out the other side of my trip to Gallipoli with any greater devotion to Anzac history than I already had.  But if you’re in the area, I certainly do recommend going.  And if you’re staying in Çanakkale (the city next to the peninsula), then spend your evening there thusly:  wander east from the ferry terminal along the waterfront, and once you’ve taken the mandatory photo of the Trojan horse (from the 2004 movie), pick a bar or restaurant to sit on the foreshore and watch the sun set over the peninsula and the Dardanelles Strait (over which the whole conflict was fought) while quietly reflecting on the staggering beauty of the place so many people never came back from.

Sunset over the Gallipoli Peninsula and the Dardanelles

Happy Turks and smiling friends

You might remember from a previous post our less-than-entirely-successful attempt to get a taxi driver to take us to Rumeli fortress in Istanbul – our fault;  the locals know it as ‘Rumelihisarı’, and if you can’t communicate the ‘fortress’ part of the name to a taxi driver who doesn’t speak English, then you’re just left with ‘Rumeli’, which just refers to the Roman (ie European) side of Istanbul.

After the taxi driver gave up and just picked a random spot on the European side of the bridge to drop us, we started walking in what we figured was probably the right direction for the fortress.  We’d become reasonably good at asking directions during the day, and so we employed this skill once more.  Walking through a residential area, we interrupted a large group of people – I think a family – talking on the street, in front of what I presume was their house.  They helped as much as they could, communicating a surprisingly large amount of details with a few basic gestures, repeated emphatically.  (Apparently it was shaping up to be a longish walk.)  They even called over a friend from down the road to help, since she had a little more English than the rest.

And so we walked off in the direction they’d indicated.  Only to hear, two minutes down the road, polite honking from behind us.  One of the party had gone and fetched his car, and was waving us in:  he drove us to exactly where we wanted, which turned out to be about ten minutes’ drive away, through a series of narrow winding side streets.  (The meandering drive provided us the opportunity to bond with the driver as all three of us marvelled and laughed at the big removals truck bravely soldiering through roads that he really didn’t quite fit down, and around corners that he surely couldn’t make).  This despite our new friend speaking very limited English, and us speaking no Turkish;  all purely on the basis that we’d looked lost and asked for directions.

So this is the other thing I loved about Istanbul, and in fact about all of Turkey.  It’s friendly.  Everyone is.  Not in the sense that people are polite and patient – they are, but that’s not the point.  In the sense that people will naturally treat you the way you would treat your friends.  And they’ll be happy in their interactions with you, and with other people.

By way of comparison, the last bus trip I took in London (out to Gatwick) and the first bus trip I took in Istanbul each featured a bus driver loudly talking into a phone.  For all I know, I suppose the Turkish driver’s conversation may well have involved just as much swearing as the Londoner’s one – but I doubt it.  The London trip certainly didn’t involve the grins and laughs that the Istanbul one did.  Seriously, when did you last see a happy bus driver in the UK?  In Turkey, they all were.  Every time I got on an intercity bus, it was to be greeted by a face that seemed to be glad to see me from behind the steering wheel.  And likewise every interaction with the staff (what do you call the guy who roams the bus checking tickets and bringing water and making sure people get off at the right stops with the right bags – an attendant?  a steward?  a maître’d?!).  There was always a huge store of patience and helpfulness, regardless of level of English.

And it wasn’t just the staff.  I was slightly bemused to get a particularly friendly and earnest waved goodbye from the (non-English-speaking) Turkish passenger who’d been sitting next to me on the bus from Izmir as he got off a couple of hours before the bus’s destination of Çanakkale.  My contribution to our apparent friendship in the few hours we’d been on the bus so far consisted basically of dozing and snoring myself ungracefully awake, but that was enough to warrant a fond farewell, apparently.

There isn’t really much of a point to this post, I suppose.  And there aren’t any pretty pictures, either.  But it seemed worth mentioning anyway:  it makes a big difference to your travels to see smiles on everyone’s faces, and it obviously makes a huge difference when everyone is so willing to help and to be patient, even if they don’t speak your language and you don’t speak theirs.  Other places I’ve stayed have certainly had their moments – don’t get me wrong, there have been lots of friendly people pretty much everywhere I’ve been (and I’m sure I’ll be told off mercilessly if I don’t mention that the Spaniards can be some of the best at this, and ditto if I don’t admit that I haven’t been to Brazil yet, but am told to expect great things) – but Turkey pulls it off better than any other destination I’ve been to so far.

Pamukkale: hot springs and photo shoots

I’ve probably spent more time preparing this post than any other of the admittedly not very many at all on this blog, and yet it’s going to be a short (-ish) and uninformative one.  And it turns out that all my preparations have been in vain anyway.  All that time was spent trying to figure out just what the hell was going on with all the other tourists at Pamukkale – primarily the Russian ones – but to no avail.  The internet has failed me, and with this post, I in turn fail the internet.  My Google-fu is apparently too weak.

For as much as Pamukkale is an amazing natural wonder – and it is beautiful and amazing, and definitely worth a look – the images that stick in my mind are not like the ones that feature on its Wikipedia page.  They’re the ones that will feature in some bikini-clad Russian girl’s modelling portfolio.  Or the ones of guys in budgie-smugglers, trying their best to look like they should be turning up as stills at the beginning of some dodgy behind-the-Iron-Curtain porn flick.

Pamukkale, for those not acquainted with it, is the location of a series of thermal hot springs in Turkey, and the distinguishing feature of these hot springs is their high mineral – especially calcium – content.  As the water from the hot springs emerges and streams away (or, given the Turkish heat, evaporates), it leaves behind its mineral content, and so produces travertine – pretty-looking white stuff which in the case of Pamukkale is laid down in pools on the hillside, made all the more attractive by the blue tinge to the mineral-heavy water they hold.

The traditional Pamukkale photo: picturesque travertine goodness.

So far, so much Wikipedia-like goodness.  Where it gets weird is that it’s apparently not sufficient to come and take photos of the natural beauty.  Especially if you’re a Russian tourist.  I’d noted with interest as we wandered through the beginnings of the site that all the signs seemed to be in Turkish and Russian, unlike everywhere else I’d been in Turkey, where English features and Russian doesn’t.  Walking through the main section of the site, we saw why:  Russians made up the majority of attendees, and pretty much all of them were on one or other side of a fancy camera lens, taking studio-style shots of girls in skimpy clothes draping themselves over the travertine.

“This shot will fit perfectly into my ‘pictures of me in a bikini on natural wonders of the world’ album.”

There were come-hither looks, there were cleavage thrusts, there were girls in 1970s-style swimsuits displaying an apparent lust for deposits of calcium carbonate which, to be honest, struck me as downright unhealthy.

And then there were the rich Russian guys in budgie smugglers doing the same.  (One presumes they were rich, based on the very low and very high levels of attractiveness of themselves and their girlfriends, respectively, and based further on the quantity of their jewellery, etc, etc.)

Not pictured: dignity

I’ve heard a rumour since that there’s a Russian music video that was filmed at Pamukkale, and that the Russian tourists are imitating its starlets.  I’ve heard elsewhere that it was a photo shoot in a popular magazine.  But it’s here that my Google-fu has failed me.  No combination of Pamukkale and anything MTV, music video, or magazine shoots has brought me any joy.  And so it’s the artificial wonder of Pamukkale that’s left the deepest impression on me, not the natural one.

Final random totally unrelated thoughts:

  • It’s possible to paraglide over the hot springs.  The three of us (two girls I met on the cruise from Olympos to Fethiye, plus me) were going to do it at sunset – right up to having paid for it and sitting in the hotel foyer waiting to be picked up – but the winds apparently changed, and as a result my face is stuck this ugly for the rest of my life and we also couldn’t go paragliding.  Devastating.  Very jealous of anyone who has actually done it.
  • In addition to the “wow, weird but entertaining…” factor, there is another benefit to the weird posing girls and guys:  the opportunity to take parody shots.  Yes, we did.  No, you can’t have copies.
  • In addition to the hot springs, Pamukkale also has the ancient Roman ruins of Hierapolis, with a huge amphitheatre and substantial necropolis.  Pretty cool.  Some of the tombs are remarkably well preserved.  Some of them not so much.  One of the girls wryly observed as we wandered around that it did feel at times like someone had been having a good time with a baseball bat.   But even as a nerd who studied Latin in high school, let’s face it, we’re there for the hot springs more than the ruins.
  • Finally, thanks to the two girls I spent my time in Pamukkale with for a fantastically entertaining weekend there, to top off the great trip we’d already spent on the boat.  Cheers for the company, and for proving my theory that it’s the people you meet while travelling who really make the difference.

Remains of a tomb in Hierapolis (only partially baseball-batted).

Cruising the blue seas of Turkey, gulet style

There are a number of benefits to being a solo traveller.  It can be easier to meet new people.  You don’t have to consult with anyone before making last minute changes to your travel plans.  In fact, you don’t even have to have plans – and when you’re travelling solo without plans, there’s no negotiating with anyone to figure out where to next:  you just pick a bus and get on it.  All of these combined to give me probably my most enjoyable experience in Turkey…

Having completed my hot air ballooning mission in Cappadocia, I asked around for suggestions on where I should go next.  The hostel owner seemed pretty emphatic in his opinion, so in not too long I found myself on an overnight bus to Olympos.  Three days there on the beach and exploring the old city ruins were days well spent:  Olympos is a great backpackers’ spot to relax and do bugger all.  It’s a tourist-only little village of tree house-style accommodation (permanent buildings are verboten, apparently), but tourist-only isn’t always bad.  It’s a fun and easy place, and if that isn’t high-brow enough for your travel tastes, well, go read somebody else’s blog.

A picturesque walk to the beach at Olympos

But as enjoyable as Olympos was, the first thing I did there was the best:  I walked next door from my hostel (Bayrams) to V-Go cruises, and booked myself on a four day (three night) gulet cruise from Olympos to Fethiye – again, on the recommendation of people I’d run into earlier on in Turkey.

I don’t know what I enjoyed most about the four days on the boat.  Maybe it was just being reminded how much I love the water.  Maybe it was having a little longer than a typical hostel stay to get to know a new bunch of great people.  Maybe jumping in for a swim every time the boat so much as paused.  (Even there I’m not sure whether I enjoyed that more for the sake of swimming, or just as an excuse not to shower for four days.)  Or maybe the beautiful scenery, or not being responsible for my own travel decisions (the flip side of solo travel!).  Maybe sleeping out on deck under the stars.

It was all good.  From the romantic midnight swim in a bioluminescent pirate cave to the minor swell a couple of mornings later which had others feeling seasick but me bouncing around on the bowsprit like a twelve year old with a sugar high.  The company really made the trip, but with no offence intended to anyone on our particular cruise, I suspect it’s the sort of trip which would make most people pretty good company.

Oh, and the sunrises and sunsets were pretty good, too.  Not that anyone but me saw the sunrises.  (The girls wanted to see them, or so they claimed, so I woke them up for one or two.  But for my own safety I wasn’t going to insist once the realities of the time of morning changed their minds.  So I showed them some nice photos in the relative comfort of midday had set in.)

Sunrise on the water while everyone else sleeps.

Pretty colours as the sun begins to set

An extended description of the cruise would make a great thing sound boring and ordinary, so I’ll just say that each of our four days basically involved excellent food prepared by our captain and his helper (breakfast, lunch and dinner, all included), a couple of sessions of a few hours of motoring from one bay or anchorage to another as we all whiled away the time lying in the sun or (on the last day) dancing the Macarena on the foredeck, plenty of swimming, and a comfortable evening of a few quiet beers on deck.

Actually, the evenings were a little more varied than the above implies.  The first night we spent at a bar only accessible from the water, mingling with the inhabitants of another cruise just like ours, discovering along with them the prodigious and hitherto unforeshadowed talents of one of our party on the dance floor (no, it was most certainly not me!).  The second we were presented with the highly entertaining spectacle of watching and hearing the Spaniard on our cruise listen with almost religious fervour to her iPhone stream (Spanish) commentary of the Spain v Portugal Euro 2012 semi-final (especially as it dragged through a goalless extra time to be decided on penalty shootouts);  listening with an intensity and excitability matched only by the ferocity of her insistence that actually she wasn’t really that involved, and she wouldn’t be that upset if they lost.  The third night was again in a bay with a bar (albeit a much quieter one, minus dance floor), and this one came with TV reception, so we could actually watch the second semi-final, rather than interpreting the match mainly via the alternating ecstasy and pain of our friend’s facial expressions.  (Well, we could watch it so long as the bar owner kept most of the lights off, so that the generator had enough grunt left to power the TV.)

And in fairness the days were plenty varied, too.  (Except for the snorkelling.  There’s only so much excitement you can muster when the best outcome of any of our many snorkelling expeditions was the one swim where we managed to find not one but two sea slugs.  Two!)  They became especially varied towards the end, when our swims started to turn into giant maritime dodgeball competitions with constantly changing rules, as we pelted around a small inflatable ball that one enterprising passenger had managed to acquire.

As I’m sure you can gather, the whole experience was a ton of fun (and, in case you’re in the area, everyone else I’ve spoken to who’s done the same cruise at other times had the same to report).  But all good things blah blah blah.  When it did come to an end, it was so very tempting to see if it wasn’t possible to jump on tomorrow’s cruise going back the other way.  But better to move on, I suppose, and see what else Turkey had to offer…

Butterfly valley

Just looking at this picture makes me want to go for a swim.

Cappadocia: early morning gingerbread scenery from 700m

Cappadocia is a small town in the middle of a volcanic area roughly in the middle of Turkey.  The ground is packed ash and pumice, pretty much.  Apparently it’s technically called ‘tuff’.  Apparently someone’s decided recently that it’s OK for technical words to sound like ‘tuff’ these days.  The state of the world these days…  (That’s OK, I’ve just discovered I get to use the world ‘troglodyte’ correctly in this post – and not just to refer to my friends.  So I’m happy.)

So anyway, it doesn’t rain much in Cappadocia, but when it does, it rains hard.  This combination – ‘tuff’ and occasional erosion-friendly torrential rain – results in vaguely conical stalagmite-like protuberances projecting weirdly out of the ground, looking for all the world like they’re made out of gingerbread.

Gingerbread-y, no? Looking out over Göreme.

There are a couple of valleys in the area, and in the cliffs of these, and in the stalagmite things, people have carved out caves.  They started doing this a very, very long time ago, and it seems to have been a popular past-time in particular for early troglodyte Christians, who built cave monasteries and cave chapels and whole cave settlements there.  (Hooray, ‘troglodyte’!)  So lots of the caves are decorated with old friezes, etc.  Some of those are viewable from the other side of ropes in the Göreme Open Air Museum.  Others you can go climb through if you find them yourself when hiking through the valleys.

So I spent about five or six hours one afternoon hiking and climbing through the valleys.  There’s something very rewarding about discovering and exploring these little bits of history yourself.  And some of the cave decorations are surprisingly well preserved.

A remarkably well-preserved chapel decoration in a cave I clambered through while hiking around Cappadocia.

A part of one of the larger cave chapels I came across.

So I recommend the hiking – though ideally with a better map than my crappy tourist thing:  the trails are reasonably well marked, but finding where they start and figuring out how they diverge can take a bit of work, especially when your crappy tourist map has them starting off roads which turn out not to exist.

But the hiking isn’t why people go to Cappadocia – in fact, most people don’t bother with it (their loss, the fat, lazy bastards!).  People go for the hot air ballooning over the valleys and stalagmite things.  (They’re called ‘fairy chimneys’ apparently.  Personally I’ve decided that’s a silly name, so I’m sticking with ‘stalagmite things’.)

Early morning gingerbread scenery from a hot air balloon over Cappadocia.

I’ve never been in a hot air balloon before, so I can’t compare it to ballooning elsewhere.  I can, however, compare it to not going hot air ballooning in Cappadocia, and compared to that, it’s fantastic.  Of course, to get the best display over the valleys and stalagmite fairy things, you and 139 other balloons all go up at sunrise.  And of course, clever bastard that I am, I did mine the day after the summer solstice, making it a somewhat early morning, with a hostel pickup at 4.50am.  But the whole experience was spectacular, even if it was finished off with a less-than-quality and somewhat cheesy glass of crappy ‘champagne’.

The colours of the sunrise over the valleys, the stalagmite fairy things, the caves, and the other balloons – yeah, not too bad.  Worth checking out if you have the chance.

Hehe, ‘troglodyte’.

Istanbul travel tips

Some random travel tips if you’re heading to Istanbul for the first time.

  • The metro and tram systems are really easy.  The bus is not quite so simple, since you have to buy tickets in advance from a shop.  For the former, at each metro or tram station, you just buy a token for 2TL.  You then take your token and put it in the turnstile, and walk through.  Done.  No proof of purchase required, etc.  Take the metro/tram to wherever you want.  (Although if changing from metro to tram, there’ll be another turnstile, so you’ll need a spare token.  This will be important when landing at Atatürk airport – buy yourself two tokens so that when you change from the metro at Zeytinburnu, you’ll have a token to get you onto the tram towards the interesting parts of the city.)  For the bus, you can’t buy tickets at the stops or on the bus – you need to have bought your tickets in advance from a convenience store or similar.  Or, like we did, you can get on the bus, try to buy tickets, be waved to a seat, and then be gestured towards a convenience store near a later stop while the bus driver holds the bus so you can buy tickets and get back on.  This move may or may not be easier if one of your travelling party is an attractive blonde girl in a short dress.
  • Pretty much first thing when you get to Istanbul, take a Bosphorus cruise.  It’ll show you the interesting bits of the city from the water, and give you an idea of what you’re going to see from there on in.  You can take a short one (maybe an hour) or long one (all the way up to the Black Sea and back, if you want), and you can take them from Eminönü or Kabataş.  You can probably get your hotel or hostel reception to help you pick one, or you can just head down to the water and pick one of the many many guys yelling out “Bosphorus, Bosphorus”.  Regardless, get on the damn boat and sit there for a bit, taking in the view.
  • In Sultanahmet, you have the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque), the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern (which lots of people skip – don’t, it’s cool, and gives you a great opportunity to play with the various dials on your camera, if you’ve got a good one) and Topkapı Palace.  Go early to avoid the lines, and if you’re dedicated, you can do all of them in one day, even if you’re being thorough.
  • If you want to get out to the Rumeli Fortress (and you should – it’s really quite cool climbing around over its walls looking out over the Bosphorus), you’ll want to know that you can’t get there by tram.  Take a tram to Kabataş, and get a taxi from there (it’ll probably cost you about 15TL each way).  Be aware that taxi drivers won’t understand “Rumeli Fortress”.  It turns out that “Rumeli” just refers to the Roman (European) side of the Bosphorus, and so given they won’t know the English word “fortress”, you’re really not giving them a lot of information on your intended destination.  Which partially explains the bewildered and confused look on the face of the taxi driver that a friend and I encountered on the first day I spent in Istanbul.  (The remainder of the explanation was that the guy was a complete nutter who felt perfectly at home gesticulating his disbelief at the evident stupidity of the person going the right way down a one-way entrance to the motorway as he – the taxi driver – sat blocking the road facing in obviously the wrong direction having just completed an illegal U-turn off the motorway to get there.  But it’s OK, because the previous stretch of one-way road was navigated facing in the right direction, even if it was in reverse.)  Anyway, the magic word is “Rumelihisarı”.
  • If you want to see Dolmabahçe Palace, go early.  The line gets long, and it moves very, very slowly.  It’s a nice place to visit, but its guided tours only through the two buildings (the palace and the harem), and no photos inside, so if you were planning on spending a while capturing happy snaps of the beautiful parquet floor and chandeliers, well, bad luck.
  • If you’re looking for a hostel, I can recommend Agora Guest House (in Sultanahmet, which is the tourist area, and with a fantastic rooftop terrace with views over the water) and Chambers of the Boheme (in Taksim, which is the nightlife area).  I’m sure there are other great ones around too, but those are the two I stayed at, and I was comfortable and happy at both.
  • When usıng a Turkısh computer at your hotel or hostel, try to remember that the Turkısh alphabet (and therefore keyboard) has letters that the Englısh one doesn’t.  Including an ‘i’ wıthout a dot over ıt.  Thıs wıll bıte you ın the arse when usıng the ınternet, because you’ll probably pıck the wrong ‘i’ all the tıme, whıch wıll make loggıng ınto gmaı a lıttle tricky for you, sınce you’ll be at the wrong sıte.  İt wıll also make all your Facebook posts look kında weırd.
  • Roadside kebab vendors turn up late at night with carts and meat on a stick (see previous post).  Oh God yes, eat your heart out.  If they ask if you want spicy sauce, the correct answer is “yes”.
  • You’ll obviously want to spend most of your time walking around singing “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” to yourself.  So, to save you some time and consternation, you can find the lyrics here:  You’re welcome.

Rumelihisarı (the Rumeli fortress), viewed from the water on a Bosphorus Cruise.

Turkish tea, ayran, kebabs and baklava

In the UK and Australia, a kebab is normally like that girl you’d rather forget:  a drunken mistake that you picked up at the end of the night because, well, let’s be honest, who knows what you were thinking.  Come morning, you’d really rather you’d kept your lips away.  There are exceptions, of course – sometimes you’re not even drunk yet, but you just feel like something cheap and easy (I’m talking about the kebabs, people!).  And sometimes it’s not so much regret as just an ignorable feeling in the back of your mind that probably you could have chosen more wisely.

In Turkey, the kebab can serve that purpose too, but with the added bonus of substantial competition between about three million kebaberies in close proximity, so your late-night inebriated self has quite the array of rotating meat products on display to drool over while waiting for its fix.  (No, kebaberies is not a real word, but it totally should be, so I’m using it anyway.)  But in Turkey, the kebab can also function as a perfectly respectable meal.  Score one for the Turks.

In fact, score two for Turkey for the fact that not only can you purchase said kebabs from a variety of perfectly respectable restaurants, or from a veritable treasure trove of dodgy-looking meat merchants in the bar areas.  You can also, if you keep your eyes peeled, find a third category of vendor:  the man with the kebab cart.  This champion will set up shop in the evenings down a little side street somewhere by wheeling his cart into place and lighting the charcoal in its little barbeque.  Like most restaurants, he will be serving şiş kebabs (the meat is cooked on a skewer before being gift wrapped in bread along with the other presents:  lettuce, tomato, onion, spicy sauce, etc.) rather than doner kebabs (where the meat is cooked as it slowly rotates on a glorious vertical rotisserie).  Unlike restaurants, you will be able to wander along on the side of the road, spot our lonely hero going about his delicate work, politely request your serving(s) of delicious delicious meat products, and be on your way, reward in hand, in about ten minutes.  And they’re the tastiest kebabs I’ve ever had, even despite the fact that I was stone cold sober.  (Well, at least one of the times.)

A street vendor makes me a delicious delicious şiş kebab in Sultanahmet. Make sure to ask for the spicy sauce.

I don’t know whether there are any nutritional bodies which issue guidelines specifying a recommended daily intake of kebab, but as you might guess from the preceding paragraphs, I’m pretty sure I consumed more than whatever that hypothetical limit might be.  Fairly regularly.  In fact, I’m pretty sure there was one twenty-four hour period which involved about five or six kebabs, and pretty much no other sustenance.  At that point, I decided that it was probably time for some variety.  And thus for the next twenty-four hours, I consumed pretty much nothing but baklava.  Three cheers for a balanced diet!

You will find a variety of different types of baklava in Istanbul.  I highly recommend the place on this corner near Gulhane.  I can’t for the life of me remember what it’s called, but it’s on the south side of the road on the corner where the tram turns right to head towards the water, and it’s a bakery / sweet shop on the bottom floor and café on the first floor.  Head up to the first floor, peruse their ridiculously large catalogue of baklava and assorted other sweets (it’s too big and has too many pictures to be denigrated a ‘menu’, so I’m going with ‘catalogue’).  And order lots of them.  Get a seat next to the (open) windows, so you can look out at the traffic chaos as you reflect on the sugary goodness you’re about to stuff in your face.  Good times.

While enjoying your baklava, you will most likely also want a Turkish tea (çay).  In fact, while doing pretty much anything in Turkey you will most likely also want a Turkish tea.  Or possibly a Turkish coffee – although, to be honest, while I love them, I didn’t see many other people partaking.  Tea, on the other hand, you will see literally everywhere.  In fact, from all the visual evidence available to me, I’m fairly confident in claiming that tea is all that’s required to sustain an elderly Turkish gentlemen into his dotage.  That and a game of dominoes.  Or chequers.  Or just a newspaper.  In dire circumstances, just the tea by itself may suffice, as long as its consumed in a park somewhere.  Or, if the gentlemen operates a store in the Grand Bazaar, then there.  In which case it will have been delivered on a silver tray by a delivery boy whose sole occupation is to run around the bazaar delivering tea to said gentlemen.

Tea delivery in the Eminönü Spice Bazaar.

Between sips of your Turkish tea, you may wish to try another local beverage:  ayran.  It’s a slightly strange drink, with the appearance and texture of milk, but the taste of greek yoghurt.  Actually really quite good.

There are other Turkish delicacies that you should try too, if you get the chance.  Pide (Turkish pizza), for example.  Fish sandwiches from the market at Eminönü.  Köfte (meatballs).  Çop şiş (lamb on a skewer), especially if you’re in Selçuk.  But my final real main recommendation, if you get out of Istanbul to anywhere in the south and/or west of Turkey, is to make sure you get some gözleme into you.  It’s basically like a crepe, normally made with minced meat filling, or spinach, or cheese, or some combination.

The process of making gözleme appears to go like this:

  1. seat an old woman with some dough and a rolling pin in front of a small round table about thirty centimetres high, and give her the filling and access to a round dome-shaped grilling plate on which to cook the gözleme (it’s cooked with the filling already spread out on the dough and with the dough folded over)
  2. ???
  3. profit (although not much, since it’s typically going to set you back around five to ten Turkish lira)

Someone told me that the best gözleme to be had is up in the little mountain village of Şirince – and certainly the cheese and spinach one I had there was fantastic.  But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the best one I had in Turkey was on the boat cruise I took from Olympos to Fethiye, on the afternoon of the second day.  We pulled into a reasonably popular but remote bay, only for our boat to be immediately assailed by a variety of ice cream sellers, jet ski owners offering rides for a specially discounted fee which they were offering just for us this one time only, etc.  And by a rowboat equipped with an old woman, a small round table about thirty centimetres high, some dough, a rolling pin, and a round dome-shaped grilling plate.  A little old lady made me gözleme on a boat that her son rowed up to the side of ours.  Seriously.  It made my day.  (And it was already a pretty damn good day by that point.)  How could I not have two?  And, although it may not be traditional Turkish fare as scientifically defined by alimentary archeologists, the nutella and banana gözleme was definitely a winner.  Authenticity be damned.

They rowed out to our boat and made me gözleme! Could Turkish food get any more awesome?

Istanbul on foot

I came to Istanbul with no idea what I would find, but if I was worried about culture shock, that fear was quickly dispelled as soon as I dropped off my bags and headed out for dinner in Sultanahmet (the Old City) with a some new friends:  halfway through our first beer, the bar across the road (Cheers) started pumping out The Nosebleed Section by The Hilltop Hoods.  So here I was in Turkey boasting about an Adelaide band to a Melbournian living in Istanbul and two Americans travelling through.

(Side note:  for once, Wikipedia fails to have a ‘demonym’ heading in the sidebar on its page for Melbourne.  I’m going with Melbournian over Melbournite.  Other suggestions include ‘twat’ – thanks, Chris! – and ‘person who supports the wrong football team’.  You’d think I’d know, having been born in the damn city.  But apparently I wasn’t paying much attention to terminology at the time.)

So if not culture shock, what was there?  Well, there was a lot of walking.  It’s stupid to write something like “Istanbul is a very walkable city”, because Istanbul is enormous, and there’s no way even a dedicated pedestrian like me can get around it all on foot.  But then, I’m not here to see every inch of every street in this city of over 13 million people.  And the bits I am here to see are for the most part thoughtfully lined up along the tram line (which you can easily follow alongside on foot), and especially collected around Sultanahmet.

Plenty of Istanbul to walk around.

So speaking as a tourist and not a local, I’ll stick with my assessment that Istanbul is a city to be experienced on foot.  Not just because it’s convenient (the trams are convenient too, with their token system where you just put your two Turkish lira into the machines just outside each station and then immediately use the bright orange token they reward you with to get in at the turnstile), nor just because Istanbul’s fantastic weather means you’re spending some lovely time outside in the brilliant sun, nor just because part of the experience of being in Istanbul is being in the middle of its vaguely crowded open spaces.  But also because that way, you don’t feel quite so bad about the unfeasibly large quantities of baklava and kebab you ingested the previous day.

In actual fact, the first full day of Istanbul I experienced was nowhere near Sultanahmet nor the tram line.  But it was still on foot – about six or seven hours of ‘on foot’, in fact.  The lovely American girl in the bunk bed below me had a vague plan to visit the Asian side of Istanbul for the day, and the invitation to join her sounded like a fun excursion.  So we ferried across from Eminönü to Üsküdar and walked up the eastern side of the Bosphorus for about four hours right up to the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge.  We would have walked back across the bridge to the continent with our hostel on it, but the nice police man with the machine gun politely indicated that that wasn’t going to happen, thanks very much.  (No pedestrians on the bridge.  I heard later what I guessed at the time – that this is to prevent the suicides from it which were apparently once prevalent.)  So we backtracked about twenty metres and found a taxi driver who would take us across the bridge and then around in a few purposeful but destination-less experiments in something-like-navigation (many of them purposefully up the wrong way of a few destination-free one way roads) on the other side.  (I should note that the driving around almost in circles was not because he was trying to rip us off – it was because we were trying to get to the Rumeli fortress, and he didn’t know what a ‘fortress’ was;  as I figured out many weeks later, that means all he knew was that the two blond foreigners were asking for something on the Roman side of the bridge and not being very helpful about specifics.)

In all honesty, there’s not much to write about our adventure into Asia.  It was a fun day, and definitely worthwhile:  we walked through some interesting areas, and it’s good to see how people live in a city, rather than just what other tourists do in it.  The palaces on the Asian side weren’t worth the trip (since they happened to be closed that day), but the yoghurt that my companion’s guidebook recommended in the cute little waterside suburb of Kanlıca was – a particular highlight of the day.  Never had yoghurt covered in icing sugar before.  Full of win, and washed down with a tasty Turkish tea.

My other days on foot in Istanbul were mostly extended strolls around the big tourist attractions.  But when you’re done wandering around the tourist attractions, pick a random pretty side street and walk down it.  Enjoy the feeling of being in a city with a different culture.  Pick another random pretty side street.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  This is how I wandered down from the ruins of the old Roman aqueduct to the water and discovered a series of lovely parks full of locals, including many fishermen – and, uncultured heathen that I am, it was interesting to see elderly women in niqabs laying out rugs in the park and praying as their grandchildren fished and played.

It’s also how I discovered the Gulhane Park next to Topkapı Palace, which is a great place to sit and read a book after a hard day’s walking.  And of course the bazaars – the Grand Bazaar and Eminönü Spice Bazaar – are both walking experiences where the whole point is to roam around and get lost.  The Grand Bazaar is especially good for this:  we ended up with a hugely entertaining half hour or so of us almost stalking the guys running deliveries of Turkish tea and doner kebabs around to all the other stall owners in the bazaar.  And then further entertainment ambling through the Spice Bazaar being hawked various concoctions marketed as Turkish Viagra (“no sleep!”) or some other aphrodisiac or variation thereof (including the bottle with the truly bizarre and more-than-slightly disturbing logo of the silhouetted baby with a huge erection).  I seemed to be a particular target for the hawkers, as a foreigner who happened that day to be walking around with two pretty foreign girls.  Highly amusing – apparently for the locals as well as for us.

Kebab delivery, coming through!

Yes, the logo on the lid is indeed a silhouette of a baby with a massive erection. No, I don’t understand either.

The unplanned wandering approach also works in the evenings, we discovered:  a couple of us spent a great night wandering around the Taksim area, discovering a couple of the locals’ favourite bars.  The first bar was a hilarious experience of trying to hold conversation over incredibly loud live music as the only other five patrons (all male and slightly older) hit the dance floor for some typically Turkish dancing.  The second – Beer House – was a cool little bar entirely open to the street on one side, with a slightly younger crowd;  I’m sure we were the only foreigners there, observing everyone enjoy the karaoke-with-a-live-band.

Even if walking is not always your thing, perhaps water is.  In that case, Istanbul has you covered as well, with plenty of the blue stuff all around the city.  Having been cooped up in London for much of the last three years, I think I’d sometimes forget quite how much I enjoy the water.  As it happens, I didn’t end up jumping in it at any point in Istanbul (that would come aplenty later on in my journey around Turkey), but just having it around was satisfying.  Especially looking out across the Bosphorus while enjoying a nice rooftop beer up on the terrace on the top floor of my hostel.  What does that have to do with walking around Istanbul?  A fantastic way to rest the feet and end the day, that’s what.  Surrounded by blue seas, and inspired to walk it all again tomorrow.

Sunset over the water to inspire the next day’s wanderings.