« Pictures From Majdanek & Auschwitz | Main | To Greece Or Not To Greece »

Istanbul And Beyond

Time continues to flash past for us. We bid farewell to Poland to take a night train to Berlin. We were interrupted numerous times during the night, but fortunately it took longer than scheduled (14 hours) so we had plenty of time to try to sleep. We were very sad to be finished with our time in Poland. The place has a bit of an edge to it--the people aren't as polite or cheerful as in Spain, for example, and they have little sympathy or feel little need to address all your concerns. The buildings can be very dreary, resulting from decades of Soviet inspiration in architecture. But the place is so rewarding, and the history is more rich than most places, which was quite unexpected. We were also quite amazed about how "green" their bus system is--the long-distance buses are even "solar heated," and true to Polish values, require a little character building en route.

Berlin. Hmm, what to say about Berlin? Well, to be fair, we were only there for a day, and it was blustery and rainy all day. Also, we had the excellent timing of arriving on a city holiday, the Reunification Day in Berlin, so everything (such as supermarkets) were closed. We did get on a bus that was to take us down to the center, where festivities were occurring; the bus driver, who was apparently one of the five people in Berlin who don't speak a word of English (even though it was an airport bus--right) didn't bother to announce nor stop in the center, and we found ourselves at the end of the line, all the way across the city, with the other foreigners trying to find their hotels from the airport. Still, we did find the center, and enjoyed brats and beer, but only a little, as Berlin is so expensive compared to Spain or Poland. Even our food situation turned out fine, as I found a little shop that had roasted chickens cooking for 5 euros, and we devoured a whole chicken that night. The next morning, on our way to the airport, the sun was shining, and the city looked much more pleasant with some rays on it.

With remarkably little drama, we found ourselves at our hostel in Istanbul. The airport in Istanbul is quite nice and easy to navigate, and the metro and tram system in the city is amazing, not to mention embarrassing when compared to the poor state of public transportation in the US. Istanbul is a little larger than most cities we've visited (with a population of more than 16 million people), but our little district there, the Sultanahmet district, seemed like a small city of its own, which was nice. Our hostel was decent enough, though we had little time to explore much in the neighborhood, since it was 5 pm by the time we checked in. There in the hostel, we found a couple of Americans who had been traveling a bit in Turkey, and we asked them what might be fun to do for our week. See, we have a habit, which could be considered either good or bad, of arriving into a country, usually with nothing but a reservation in a hostel, and making up the plans as we go. That surprises some travelers, who might have every last second planned, but it has worked well for us, and Turkey was no different.

At any rate, the pair had gone to an area of Turkey called Cappadocia. We'd heard about it before, and had considered going there, since it is considered to be one of Turkey's most interesting and beautiful regions. It also happens to be one of its most touristy, and tours that way were expensive enough that we'd pretty much decided to avoid it. Speaking with them, though, it sounded like we could make a quick, affordable trip to the region, so we decided to try for it. We'd paid for the next night in the hostel, but since we needed to catch the night bus to Goreme, which is the center of the region, we talked to the hostel manager and had the reservation moved.

We woke up early the next day to max out our time in Instanbul, since it was the only day we had until Sunday. The rain had followed us from Poland and Germany, though, and we found a strong downpour outside until around 9:30. The rain stopped at that point, and didn't return for the rest of the day, although it was cloudy and a little brisk throughout the day. I guess that is to be expected, as it is now firmly in October now. Once the rain stopped, we ventured out into the Sultanahmet neighborhood, first to the nearby and famous Blue Mosque, then down the waterfront for a long walk along the coast of the Golden Horn. We hooked back up into our neighborhood, and ended up talking to some travel agents about tours in the Cappadocia area. I still haven't decided if we got fleeced. Originally, the agent pulled out this extended, amazing trip that would have taken us through Cappadocia, then headed back to the Coast to other tourist site, including Ephesus. From the coast, we would have made a day trip to a Greek island, then we would have taken a night bus back to Istanbul. From the start, I was suspicious; they broke out cups of tea, which is always a sign that big numbers will be discussed. We asked him the price, and he said $500. We were amazed by that sort of deal, until he noted this price was per person, which made me choke on my tea, which suddenly tasted quite bitter. We bantered a bit, then told him we were off for lunch to discuss the situation.

Still, we wanted to go to Cappadocia, that was certain, and even though the other sites were interesting and had been under consideration anyhow, we figured we could cherrypick the best to do on our own for a lot less than $500 each. So we returned to the agent and asked for a quote for just the Cappadocia portion, plus the bus ride south to the coast. He pulled out a number that was still high, but better. We must have seemed skeptical, because he gave us a double room instead of the dorm. Though the daily cost for the trip was about $30 more than our daily budget, we finally relented. Later, though, doing the math, I realized that we probably could have gotten to Goreme, found hostels ourselves, and still taken the same tours, for about a third less than what we paid, based on how much the American pair told us they spent. Still, this saved us the hassle of having to do a lot of organizing.

So, we spent the rest of the day walking around our district of Istanbul, browsing the Grand Bazaar, then heading off into the more local areas. Jess found herself a little uncomfortable, not because anyone seemed lewd or dangerous, but because she was really the only woman in sight. This area was really the working class, with streets lined with shoes shops, car repair shops, and the like. It didn't take long to get back to our hostel, though, and we were picked up around 7:30 to head to the bus station. Now, this was the part that I was happy about our package the most; we had a ride to bus station. Istanbul is immense, and while I'm sure that it is quite possible to reach the bus station from Sultanahmet, it wouldn't have been relaxing or easy. Istanbul is a terrific city, very lively and busy, and at night it lights up like a giant carnival. Our trip to the station was fascinating.

Now, our trip to Goreme wasn't quite so enchanting, although it was funny once we looked back on it. The station was just pure chaos, buses packed like sardines and going in every which direction. I am pretty sure we may never have found the company going to Goreme, much less the bus itself, if we hadn't been dropped at the door. On the bus, we found that we had a steward, albeit one with an attitude. He tromped along the aisle like a sultan, briskly ordering the cowed passengers with various grunts and hand motions. For awhile, he seemed very confused about his passenger list, and I was suddenly very afraid we were on the wrong bus, especially when he asked for our tickets multiple times. Given that you're lucky not to get beheaded on a Greyhound bus in the US, it was interesting to have a steward on a bus for awhile, but he lost his esteem in our minds at 4 in the morning when he turned on the lights to serve another round of tea and coffee. Our seats weren't the most comfortable, and there were fairly frequent stops considering it was a direct bus to Goreme, but I think we managed enough sleep to not be completely wrecked upon arrival in Goreme.

That was a good thing, because we were awoken at 7 am to be dropped off at some random gas station that turned out to be about 15 km from Goreme. I haven't any idea why the bus didn't go on into town, but there were other buses as well that dropped their confused passengers to shiver in the cold Turk dawn along with us. We were told a minibus would be coming for us, or at least I think we did (no one spoke English out there), and eventually one did. That minibus was too small, and we didn't move fast enough to get seats. Around 7:35, I became a little more hostile to the agents in the nearby tour agencies, and lo and behold if they didn't reluctantly have a minibus waiting. And Jess always tells me that hostility doesn't get me anywhere...

Anyhow, the driver didn't know which direction to drive in to Goreme (resulting in an amusing 10 minute tour on some town) and he wasn't very good with a manual transmission, but eventually we were dropped off at the bus station in Goreme, which wasn't far from our hotel, the Nomad. There, we had a little breakfast, and around 9:45 we were picked up by another minibus. This time an old man who spoke no English was our driver, and for about 30 minutes I was terribly worried that the assurance of an English speaking guide wasn't going to pan out for us. At some point, though, we met up with our guide, who had a good handle on his English, and the day only improved from there.

Our first main stop was in an area with all kinds of "fairy chimney" rock formations. That is an impressive way of naming an area of soft stone that has been heavily eroded over the eons. Starting almost 5000 years ago, people have carved tunnels and rooms into various formations. We hiked through a valley where there were pigeon hole structures, which were small holes carved in the stone far up these formations; apparently they were accessed from inside the stone via tunnels, and pigeons were housed in caves in order to harvest their droppings to be used as fertilizer. This system is still in use; the fields along the valley had people working in them, and apparently the pigeon poo helps along the crops, much like bat guano. People have also carved homes, even apartment like structures, as well as churches and monasteries. It was like an ancient combination of Mesa Verde and the Painted Desert in Arizona. Our hike was quite nice.

Before lunch we visited the ruins of an entire hillside community of such carved homes. History has continually flowed through this area of Turkey since people stopped picking berries to build up towns, from the Hittites to the Persians to the Romans to Muslim conquerors. That makes it difficult to say what civilization has done what, or even if such communities have been continuously improved upon over the past two thousand years. After lunch we had several other visits, several of which were a take on the old carpet shop trick (we stopped at an onyx shop to "see the process of jewelry being made" as well as shop for it, and we stopped at a winery for wine tasting). The highlight of the afternoon was a visit to an underground city, Kaymakli; I had visions in my head of a cavern with an immense city. While this was wildly inaccurate, I wasn't disappointed. We found ourselves walking and at time ducking through the corridors and rooms of a continuous network that had been carved out of the stone to provide protection for people from invaders. Of course, people never continuously populated the city, it was for defensive purposes, but it could hold between 10,000 and 15,000 people. The underground city was really something worth the bus ride from Istanbul.

We still have another full day of touring tomorrow, and then a night bus out to the coast. From there, we still don't have a definite plan, although there is talk of trying to get back up to Istanbul by Saturday morning and then trying to reach the Greek/Bulgarian border. Given how we like to wing it, those plans won't be definite for a couple of days yet. 

Until next time, be safe.



TrackBack URL for this entry:

Hosting by Yahoo!

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)