17.04.2010 - 28.04.2010 20 °C
Now, where was I? Oh yeah, I entered Turkey.
Crossing the border from Syria to Turkey was a similar experience to crossing from Jordan to Syria. I took a service taxi from Aleppo to Antakya, a relatively short 90 km journey. I was in the car with two other passengers, neither of whom spoke English, neither did the dirver for that matter. We sped towards the border crossing at what seemed like 200 kilometers per hour while Middle Eastern style music blared from the car stereo. At least this time I didn't have to change cars or drivers but I did have to "carry" a carton of duty-free cigarettes across the border for the driver, as did all the other passengers - obviously a nice little money making scheme he has going on the side (I did witness the driver purchasing the cigarettes at the duty free store so I was confident I was not smuggling a block of hash instead).
Sign post to Turkey from service taxi
Once again we aquired an extra passenger at the border - this time a friendly Tunisian woman who spoke a little English and a conversation with her helped to keep me distracted as we sped away from the border at ridiculous speeds.
Eventually I was dropped off in a seemingly random parking lot, with no obvious bus station or tourist offices in sight. When I first started my journey back in November 2009, I was quite organised about where I was staying and how I was going to get there. I even made sure I learnt the basics of the language just so I could at least greet people. Now almost seven months later, I found myself in a brand new city in a brand new country and I didn't have a clue about how to even say "hello" in Turkish, let alone where I was going to stay that night. The best part was that I wasn't in the least bit worried about it. One thing I've learnt about traveling is that the harder something is, the more satisfaction you get from it once you've accomplished it.
I started walking around the streets of Antakya in search for either a tourist office or an inviting budget hotel. While I wandered I noticed how different things appeared compared to where I'd just come from. First of all, there were very few women wearing head scarves and even less that wore burkhas. Not only that but women of all ages were showing their arms and shoulders in public and couples walked hand-in-hand down the street. It felt more familiar, yet strange at the same time. All of this from a country whose population is claimed to be 98% muslim - but then again, once you get to know Turkey and a little bit of its history, it's not difficult to see why it's so different to it's fellow Islamic neighbours.
After about an hour of walking around the city with my backpack digging into my shoulders, I spotted a sign in English which pointed towards the tourist office. I was lucky to have spotted the sign because asking people on the street for directions had turned out to be a fruitless exercise since there was a distinct lack of English speakers.
Center of Antakya near the tourist office
The woman at the tourist office gave me a little map of Antakya and she kindly marked where the best budget hotels were in town. She was the first of many truly friendly Turkish people I met during my travels there.
I didn't stay long in Antakya, just long enough to catch my breath and to get accustomed to a new country, new people, new currency and a new language. The only sightseeing I did was a quick visit to the Archeological Museum as well as several strolls around the city.
Mosaics and Statues at the Archeological Museum, Antakya
The impressive Sarcophagus of Antakya in the Archeological Museum
The Orontes River through Antakya
The morning I left Antakya, I was supposed to be taken to the otogar (bus station) by a free shuttle from the travel agent's office where I bought my ticket, but as the clock ticked, I realised someone had missed or forgotten me. The travel agent's office was closed and my only hope was to ask someone at the tourist office across the road how I could get to the otogar by public transport. Instead of showing me, the man working there kindly offered to take me there in his car - what did I tell you about the friendly Turks?
Unfortunately trains in Turkey aren't particularly fast and they don't have an extensive coverage of the country. This wasn't a problem because Turkey has a top class bus network. Numerous competing bus companies offer reasonably priced modern buses which go almost everywhere you'd want to go. They even have attendants on board who offer snacks and beverages during the trip much in the same way you get on a flight, except more basic. So I took a bus to Cappadocia, a region located in the center of Turkey which is famous for its cave houses, underground cities and the martian-like landscapes.
The first place I visited in Cappadocia was Ürgüp, a small city full of boutique hotels, restaurants, travel agencies and honey-coloured stone buildings. The hills surrounding the inner part of the city were dotted with dozens of vacated cave houses carved into the hill sides. I stayed in a small but comfortable hotel in the middle of town run by a sweet old couple. I felt just a tiny bit out of place there because I think the hotel was more often frequented by couples on romantic get-aways. It was here also where I got my first taste of a typical Turkish breakfast and all the generous helpings of white bread that come with it - it tastes good but by the end of my journey through Turkey I'd regained most of the weight I'd lost in Asia and the Middle East (I'd lost around 4 kgs by the way, which is quite a lot for me)
Typical Turkish breakfast - white bread is their staple and it is always provided at breakfast, lunch and dinner
Cave houses in Ürgüp
The weather was quite fickle while I was in Ürgüp and when I woke up one morning to clear blue skies I took advantage and headed for a long trek to one of the surrounding valleys which according to Google Earth had an amazing landscape consisting of strange looking rock formations. It didn't look far on the map, so I headed out of town by foot. To my surprise, after about an hour I hadn't found the valley, but I did come across what I thought was a small nearby town. It wasn't until I spotted a familiar looking hamam (Turkish bath), that I realised I'd walked in one huge circle and I was back exactly where I'd started. I felt rather stupid at the time, but at the same time I was relieved that I didn't have to walk all the way back to Ürgüp... because I was already back in Ürgüp!
A Hamam (Turkish bath) in Ürgüp - It was located only a few steps from my hotel
The next day I made more of an effort to study the map I was carrying and I actually made it to the rock formations.
Rock formations near Ürgüp
Ürgüp was a nice place to stay, but it wasn't really a backpacker type town. In retrospect, I should have gone directly to Göreme, a smaller yet far more impressive town built within a small valley where most of the surrounding hotels and houses are caves carved directly into the hills and limestone rock formations.
Some fairy chimneys in Göreme
Göreme from outlining hills
Whilst having breakfast at the hostel in my first morning in Göreme I met Natalia, a lone traveller from Canada. We decided to join forces for the day which turned out rather well since we both got to do and see more than if we'd gone it alone. I learnt later that we'd both stayed at the same beach huts in Goa, she'd nearly stayed at the same hostel in Delhi (except she got there late and couldn't find it), hated pineapple on pizza, hated heights, spoke fluent Spanish, she was a computer programmer and was also travelling around the world on an extended sabatical, so you could say we had plenty in common. I also thought she bore a striking resemblance to the actress Natascha McElhone... Ok, I know what you're thinking, but she was married. She even showed me a photo of her hubby to which I regretfully reacted by saying, "Him? Really?"
Anyway, our first destination was the underground city of Kaymakli. Apparently there are over one hundred underground settlements in Cappadocia, but only a few are open to visitors. They were built for protection from wild animals, invading armies and the harsh winter conditions. It was truly impressive how deep and intricate the cave systems were devised. They came equiped with bedrooms, kitchens, cribs, toilets, wine houses, food stores and ventilation chimneys. We opted to forego an official tour guide and instead Natalia took on the duties of explaining what each room was used for using the few signposts and a little improvisation. Her stories usually involved dwarves since the height of the ceilings suggested that the inhabitants were either very short or ended up with really bad backs.
Underground City in Cappadocia
Natalia in Underground City in Cappadocia
After the underground city, we took a bus back to Göreme for a quick bite (and camera battery recharge) before heading to the Göreme Open Air Museum about 1 km walk from the edge of town. We had left it quite late but fortunately it was open later than what our guide books suggested and this turned out to be a blessing considering the small tourist crowds. The open air museum consists of a monastic settlement where some 20 monks lived circa the 11th Century AD. Once again, it was a city consisting of caves built into the rock formations. There appeared to be as many churches in the city as there were monks and each church we visited was decorated with impressive medival frescoes.
Some of the caves at the Open Air Museum, Göreme
Medieval frescoes inside a church cave at the Open Air Museum, Göreme
Natalia stepping out of doorway to one of the caves at the Open Air Museum in Göreme - the doorway was high up and only reachable by a skinny stairway so this was a bit of a challenge for us vertigo sufferers
After the museum, we wandered across the road and decided on a small hike along one of the surrounding valleys. The valley ran in the same direction as the road that led towards Göreme so our goal was to find an alternate way back. Unfortunately, after a while of walking, sometimes squeezing past huge boulders and climbing down small overhangs, we got to a drop that was just to big to navigate and we had to turn back.
Valleys near the Open Air Museum, Göreme
Natalia taking photo in valley near the Open Air Museum, Göreme
Natalia squeezing past a rock in valley near the Open Air Museum, Göreme
Curious looking trees beside road between Göreme and the Open Air Museum - one bears clay pots and the other "wish" ribbons
It was dark by the time we arrived back at the hostel and Natalia went for a Hamam (Turkish bath) for a bath and a massage. You had to pre-book the Hamam plus they were quite expensive so I stayed back at the hostel and hung out a Dutch guy called Sebastian who'd hitchhiked to all the way to Cappadocia from the Netherlands. He was quite young and very enthusiastic about life. He'd taken photos of all the people who'd given him rides and it was quite interesting hearing the individual stories behind each one.
Göreme at night
That was it for my Cappadocia experience, the next day I'd be heading to the southern coast of Turkey for my first glimpse of the Mediterranean. It would also become one of the highlights of my trip and the first time I'd chose to stay in one spot for an extended period of time.