Overall, I loved our three weeks in Turkey. I don’t think there’s any place quite like it. But there were some uncomfortable moments when I quickly realized that I was far from home and what I’m accustomed to. The last three months in Europe have been a cake-walk. Europe isn’t a big culture shock for travelers from the US. (the Euro-Trip is usually a good starting point for newbie backpackers). After we parted ways with my parents in Germany, Bryan and I flew to Istanbul, Turkey to travel with some Virginia Tech friends (Mark, Curt, and Ace). It was awesome to have our good friends join us for the majority of our adventures in Turkey. Even though a sliver of Turkey is still in Europe (and they’ve unsuccessfully applied for E.U. membership), it’s mostly Asia/Middle East. Turkey was my first experience in a majority Muslim country (98% of the population) and it was my first time in the Middle East (Bryan has been a few times before for work).
Turkey is an absolutely massive country. We rented a small car for the five of us so we spent a lot of time smashed together and driving for several hours. We tried to see as much as possible during Curt and Ace’s one week and Mark’s two weeks in Turkey. But even in our three weeks in Turkey, we couldn’t see all of the varied and intriguing things the country has to offer.
The Historical (and Biblical Sites)
If you are a history enthusiast, Turkey is a must. There are just so many incredible historical spots. You could spend months visiting all of them. After a lot of sightseeing, some sites start to blend together, but a few spots definitely stand out. I especially enjoyed the sites that had Biblical ties. Ephesus was fantastic, and not far from there was John the Apostle’s Tomb (where St. John’s Basilica was built). Ephesus is also where the Books of John and Ephesians were written. On a hill overlooking the area is the Mother Mary’s house. Right before his death on the cross, Jesus asked his closest disciple John to care for his Mother. When John fled to Ephesus to avoid persecution against Christians, Mary went with him to live out her final years. You can visit her home (a popular pilgrimage site for both Christians and Muslims). Eastern Turkey is also home to Mount Ararat – the mountain where Noah’s Ark came to rest after the flood. It made me wish I’d read the Bible more growing up so I could remember more specific details (Yes, I should have listened to my parents!).
Along with the more common historical sites in Western Turkey, Eastern Turkey has plenty to offer. Sanliurfa (Urfa) is the birthplace of Abraham and Job. You can visit the cave where Abraham was born. The locals are in the cave devoutly worshipping the birthplace of their major prophet so I don’t think they were too thrilled to have me in there. I was nearly knocked over by little old women half my height and probably three times my age. About 9 miles outside of Urfa is Gobekli Tepe, the oldest known manmade religious structure. This site was found relatively recently in 1994 and is 12,000 years old! At this time, excavations are still in progress but it’s still worth the trek to see something so ancient and monumental.
One of the most iconic sites in Turkey is Mount Nemrut. Atop a 7,000 foot mountain in Eastern Turkey, the ethereal-looking stone statues were constructed in 62 B.C. to honor the ancient gods. The statues were built by King Commagene to decorate the royal tomb on top of the mountain.
Turkey’s food is just so fresh. As I learned from our friends at the Parallel Life, Turkey is the only country in the world that’s able to supply its entire population with fruits and vegetables (they do plenty of exporting, too). You wouldn’t expect it because much of Turkey’s landscape is arid – brown, dry, and dusty. But there are crops everywhere, from cotton to olives, pomegranates, and cherries. The fruits and veggies are cheap and delicious. We were there during pomegranate season so there were tons of enormous pomegranates everywhere sold for next to nothing. Turkey introduced the world to the cherry and the infamous and juicy kebab (we ate dozens of them).
Turkish Hospitality: Hitchhiking & Tea
After some time in the touristy areas, I wasn’t so sure about the local Turkish people. I felt like all they did was try to sell us things or find any way to get their hands on our money. But as soon as we left the touristy areas, I began to see how genuinely kind and helpful the people of Turkey actually are. This was especially true in Eastern Turkey. During our trip to Gobekli Tepe, we exited the city bus on the outskirts of Urfa. We were immediately offered a ride by a tour bus full of people. They expected nothing in return and were happy to help. As soon as they dropped us off, some men at a repair shop along the deserted road waved us over and insisted we have tea with them. They then drove us a few miles down the road to Gobekli Tepe, waited for us while we explored the site, and then drove us all the way back to the main road. They wouldn’t accept any money in return for their time and gas! Once they dropped us off, a tractor immediately picked us up and we sat on the big wheel covers as we rode back to the city. I believe this was our first hitchhiking experience. Don’t worry, Turkey is probably one of the few places I would feel comfortable doing so.
The Turkish people are extremely hospitable towards tourists (and genuinely so outside of tourist regions). Nearly everywhere we went we were offered tea in tiny tulip-shaped glasses for no charge. This happened at restaurants and even when we were just sitting on the street waiting for a bus. During almost every meal we were presented with “a present” which was often a delicious appetizer, some fruit, or Turkish Delight. Now that we’re out of Turkey, we miss those fun presents at meals! And everywhere we went in Eastern Turkey (from restaurants to buses), the people were insistent that we take a big handful of hand-sanitizer. They are serious about clean hands, which I definitely appreciated.
Other traits that impressed me about the Turkish people are their religious devoutness and their pride for their country. Five times a day (beginning at the crack of dawn), the loud and melodious call to prayer emanates from the many mosques. The people hurry to the mosque for prayer, or lie out their own personal prayer mats. Although I’m Christian and not Muslim, it’s admirable to see so many people that are vocal and diligent in their faith.
The Turkish also love their former president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He was Turkey’s first president and considered the founder of the Republic of Turkey. His surname Ataturk was given to him and means “the father of the Turks.” He established Turkey’s independence and made great advances for his country, such as the adoption of the modern Turkish alphabet (Latin). You constantly encounter streets named after Ataturk, posters and monuments of him, and stickers on the majority of vehicles. We happened to be in Turkey for the major national holiday commemorating Ataturk’s Birthday.
The Breathtaking, Unusual Landscapes
There are a few spots in Turkey that I don’t believe can be found anywhere else in the world. The region of Cappadocia is renowned for its unique and awe-inspiring landscapes. The area is filled with hundreds of “fairy chimneys.” They were formed millions of years ago from volcanic lava turning to tuff with basalt on top. Eventually, erosion wore the tuff into narrow towers but the basalt tops remained, leaving behind the odd chimney-looking shapes. Throughout history, the caves and chimneys were carved out to form homes, monasteries, and excellent hiding places. Today they are a major tourist attraction and many of the caves and chimneys are used as hotels and restaurants. The caves are a comfortable, cozy place to stay.
Cappadocia also has hundreds of underground cities. It’s not known exactly how many underground cities there are but some estimate around 300. The city we visited was several stories below ground. They were used long ago for communities to escape from enemies. I don’t know how people lived under there (along with their livestock). I was ready to get out after ten minutes.
Another incredible and unusual sight in Turkey was Pamukkale. Pamukkale consists of bright white travertine ledges that are overflowing with mineral-rich teal hot springs. It looks like a ski-slope from the distance. During sunset, the pools turn into mirrors and the travertine changes from bright white to a pinkish salmon color. Unfortunately, the pools aren’t nearly as impressive as they once were. There is still water in some of the travertine pools but many have dried up because the water was redirected to other places.
The skyline of Istanbul is an impressive sight, especially from along the Bosphorus River that separates Europe and Asia. The horizon is dotted with grand domes and narrow minarets from the myriad of the city’s grand mosques. Inside the mosques, the vast spaces are filled with intricate and colorful designs, beautiful Arabic script, and low-hanging twinkling lights. It’s expected for women to cover their heads and their legs (this goes for tourists, too!). It seemed incredibly disrespectful to me to see some tourists snapping photos and wearing revealing clothing while the locals were trying to pray.
We weren’t the biggest fans of Istanbul. We didn’t dislike it, but we didn’t love it like we thought we would. I think our expectations were a bit too high after talking to so many other travelers who were just enamored with Istanbul. I also think it was because there were hordes of tourists (even during the low season), and we aren’t “big city people.” We prefer small cities, towns, or villages. But there was plenty to keep us busy for a few days in Istanbul – palaces to visit (that included harems), lots of mosques of course, the ancient underground Basilica Cistern (featured in the James Bond movie “From Russia with Love”), the Grand Bazaar (a lot of junk and hassling), the Spice Souk (delicious chocolate baklava), and a cruise down the Bosphorus River, just to name a few. For us though, a week in Istanbul was a bit too much time.
The Turquoise Coast
Big cities like Istanbul may not be my cup of tea, but small, laidback beach towns are definitely my scene! My favorite places are often determined by the vibe of the place, not just what a location has to see and do. That’s why I loved the tiny, chill beach town of Cirali next to Olympos, on the southern or Turquoise Coast of Turkey. The towns are at the end of a long forested dirt road. There isn’t much to the towns except some pensions, relaxed restaurants, little shops, and fruit stands. There are also ancient ruins right along the beach. We explored the ruins, picked up a few Efes beers and kebabs, and spent a lazy afternoon watching the rough seas of the Turquoise Coast. I wouldn’t mind returning to Turkey someday to see more of the Turquoise Coast.
As I mentioned before, not all of our time in Turkey involved beautiful places, friendly people, and pleasant things. But if everything during travel goes smoothly, we wouldn’t have any good stories!
Blood and Beef
During our few nights stay in our cozy cave hotel in Goreme (Cappadocia), we kept hearing mooing. It wasn’t a rural area where a cow would usually be so we weren’t sure what was going on. I even thought it might be someone’s cell phone ring tone. As I was packing up to leave on our last morning, I heard a horrific, loud mooing sound. A few minutes later Bryan returned to our room and advised me not to go to our car out front for a little while. People outside had sliced the throat of the large bull we’d heard mooing. It was a terrible, bloody sight and a slow, agonizing death for the poor bull. Somehow all the knives used in the slaughter ended up on top of our rental car, along with tons of bloody handprints.
We thought this cow slaughter was an isolated incident but as we left Cappadocia and made our way west back to Istanbul, we saw probably a hundred more slaughtered cows and sheep along the way. It turns out our knack for hitting places on holidays isn’t always a pleasant thing. We finally realized that day was part of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice). The holiday involves the sacrifice of animals (cows, sheep, goats, and even camels) to commemorate Prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son (before he was replaced with a sheep). An estimated 100 million animals are sacrificed each year during Eid al-Adha across the Muslim world. After the sacrifice, the meat is divided among the family, their friends and relatives, and the poor. Obviously I’m not Muslim and I won’t say anything negative about other people’s religious practices and beliefs. But I will say the sacrifices were an extremely difficult thing to witness and understand from an animal lover’s point-of-view. I won’t be eating beef for a while, no matter how appetizing a big cheeseburger may look.
Language “Misunderstandings”: Wi-Fi vs. White Wine
At some points and places during our travels, I start to feel that everyone around me is trying to con me out of money. This is a very frustrating feeling, especially since I used to be a very trusting person. It starts to make me a little crazy. One evening, we stayed in a nice hotel on the beach that included a big dinner. While we were checking in, I asked the hotel owner for “Wi-Fi” and his son gave us the password. We enjoyed a huge, delicious feast for dinner and what we thought was a complimentary bottle of white wine (it came out with the free dinner and without our request). We went to pay for our stay and dinner but the owner insisted we pay for the white wine we had allegedly ordered (an extra $35 USD!). We insisted to him that we did not order white wine and he said that I specifically asked for it. We finally figured out that he had thought I ordered “white wine” when I asked for “Wi-Fi” in the lobby when we first arrived. It maybe (and probably) was a misunderstanding but $35 for a bottle of random wine was ridiculous. I got pretty worked up about the whole thing. Bryan finally convinced him to compromise and accept half of the amount. The whole thing is pretty funny now but I was livid at the time because I was sure the owner was trying to scam us.
Topless & Naked
A Hamam is a traditional, ancient Turkish bath where you are thoroughly steamed and scrubbed. Most people enjoy a good hamam and I was looking forward to one. But in typical Kristin-style, my experience turned out incredibly awkward. I wasn’t sure what to wear to the scrubbing room. So I didn’t wear anything under the wrap that they gave me. Then I saw that the other women had bikini bottoms on so I ran back to the locker room to put mine on. When I returned the scrubber lady called me in for my turn. I realized (too late) that the other women also had their bikini tops on because the scrubber ladies take your towel for you to lie on. So there I was on a marble slab in the middle of the room, lying on my back topless with several Turkish women watching me. It was rather uncomfortable. Eventually as more women filed in the room, I realized I wasn’t the only topless one.
The scrubber lady washed me, scrubbed a few layers of my skin off with a mitt (that actually felt good), and then abused . . . I mean, massaged me. Maybe I’m a wuss, but that massage was more pain than pleasure. “Ooowww” didn’t seem to translate into Turkish. And it was a little uncomfortable that the large Turkish scrubber lady was soaking wet in a bikini and her boobs and stomach were pressed onto my head when she massaged me. I wasn’t too relaxed when my hamam was finished, but I was relieved to be finished and clothed again. I’d probably try one again though (with both pieces of my bathing suit on!). 🙂
As you can see, Turkey has a little bit of everything for everybody – tons of history, culture, religion, good food, beaches, spectacular landscapes, welcoming people, shopping, you name it! Although I had some awkward culture shock moments, our time in Turkey was unforgettable and completely worthwhile. It took me a bit out of comfort zone but that’s a big part of what traveling is all about.
– We found some great suggestions from our Parallel Life friends’ blog about Turkey. Ashley does a thorough and helpful overview of every country they visit.
– Gobekli Tepe wasn’t even mentioned in our guidebook. But if you are in the area, it’s definitely worth checking out. At first we were quoted an insane amount for a taxi ride from Urfa to Gobekli Tepe, but that was a rip-off so we went on our own. It’s only about 8 miles outside of Urfa. All you need to do is take Bus #90 to the edge of the city (tell the driver where you are going). The driver and some signs will show you the way. You can take a long walk the rest of the way but chances are many local people will offer you a ride.
– As always, the best food and deals are outside the touristy areas. This rule seems to be especially true in Istanbul. So wander at least a few streets away from the tourist places for the best quality and price (look for where the locals eat!).
– Balloon rides in Cappadocia are popular and most travelers love them. However, our company (Balloon Turca) and our pilot were terrible (we only saw a trash-strewn field and no fairy chimneys during the ride). It was a major rip-off and the company ignored our complaints. If you decide to take a balloon ride, thoroughly check other travelers’ reviews (www.tripadvisor.com). We should have gone with the top-rated company “Butterfly Balloons.” Everyone we talked to afterwards that used them had an awesome experience.