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July 20, 2002

TravelBlog: Europe - part 8

This is the eighth of nine letters I wrote to friends and family during a two-month solo trip backpacking through Europe in 2002, a year after I graduated from Haverford College. The photos for this and other entries are on my flickr stream.


Merhaba! (Turkish 'hello')

When last I wrote, I was on Santorini Island in Greece, preparing to depart for Rhodes Island on an overnight ferry. It was that night that I finally made it to Paros Island, although it was only for a layover on my way to Rhodes. I spent most of my time chatting with a young female traveler from Maine who'd spent close to two years in Japan and traveling in Southeast Asia. She had only good things to say about her travels. Perhaps it's because American mainstream culture fosters the view of Asia as a wild and uncivilized (in the American sense, I suppose) place, but after meeting many people who've successfully and happily traveled in both the Middle East and Asia, my desire to visit those places has grown. Not on this trip however...

Rhodes Island lies just off the coast of Turkey, and over the course of the past several thousand years, has been invaded, fortified and shaped by perhaps a half-dozen peoples. From the Greeks, to the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires, Rhodes has evolved into a fairly diverse place. Even modern day Greeks come to vacation at the lush beaches of Lindos. Rhodes was also the home of the Colossus (a 65m high bronze figure), although it fell over close to 2500 years ago. Marking where his feet would have been is a pair of pillars capped by life-size bronze deer. I have no idea why that particular kind of memorial was chosen, but the deer seems to be a symbol for Rhodes now a days (on the various Rodian governmental icons, there was a deer). Rhodes City is split between a new town and an old town, and actually reminded me quite a bit of Carcassone in France - the old town is where the backpackers like to stay and is where tourist shops as well as traditional locals live, while new town has a McDonalds and very few buildings more than 100 years old. The thing I liked most about Rhodes was the dry moat that circled the old city. Between 15 and 30 meters wide, this swath of green land seemed rather out of place considering that the city walls were intended to repel invaders.; palm trees, grass, a wide sandy-dirt path and a large number of what appeared to be stone cannon balls (sometimes just one, but usually a pile of them in a pyramidal shape).

Getting from Rhodes to Marmaris in Turkey ended up being a very expensive hop. All told, it cost 101 euro: 28 for the catamaran ferry, 23 for the port tax and 50 euro for the entry visa! (apparently, only Americans have to pay just a high visa fee; most other nationalities pay less than 20 euro) The Turkish lira has undergone heavy inflation for a long period of time, and everyone here is a millionaire as a result. Here're some examples of prices:

1.5 liters of mineral water: 500,000 Turkish Lira (TL); dorm room in a hostel: 8,000,000 TL; one apple: 750,000 TL. The exchange rate is about 1,620,000 TL per US dollar. I've purchased postcards that cost 100,000 TL, which is about $0.06 a piece. That being said, there are some Turks that try to fleece tourists. Several of my first transactions weren't very pleasant because I had very little idea of how much was an appropriate price to pay. Another noteworthy thing about Turkey is that most prices are negotiable, especially when there isn't a price posted (which is just about everywhere, and allows a businessman so inclined to have a 'tourist' price and a 'local' price).

I landed in Marmaris, Turkey. It's a port town, that apparently is the international yachting capital, and plays host to a very large international yachting competition each year. It also has the largest bazaar in the southwest of Turkey. I ended up having to stay the night in Marmaris (the bus to Cappadocia the night I landed was full), and actually very much enjoyed being able to wander around for about a day. Marmaris, I think, was good practice for Istanbul.

The Marmaris Bazaar occupies perhaps five square city blocks of space, and consists mostly of little shops. The streets are covered by a steel and plastic barrel vaulted roof that is a boon in the intense heat. In Turkey, it's customary for stores to post a man outside who will call to passers by in an attempt to get them to come in to the shop. I heard 'Hello my friend, how are you?' and 'My friend, where are you from?' quite a bit. There were leather shops, barbershops ('Hello my friend, do you need a shave/haircut?'), clothing shops, jewelry shops, etc. At the recommendation of someone at the hostel, I ate several of my meals at a traditional Turkish kitchen, where the food is very cheap (prepared in very large, shallow pans and put on display - you point at what you want) and Turkish men come to eat, mostly alone and in silence, while they're on break from work. Meal price: less than 2,000,000 TL ($1.33). I did decide to go for the haircut/shave though, and it was quite an experience. First was the shave with a straight razor, then the haircut (more like a trim), and the facemask, and the ears (they light the end of what looks like a long metal qutip (sp?) and flick your ears with it to burn off the little white hairs) and finally a shoulder massage. The guys wanted 40million ($25), but I haggled them down to 30. Turns out, it was only worth about 10million. Ah well :)

Another thing about Turkey is their legalized obsession with Ataturk, the man who founded the republic of Turkey in the early part of this century. He really was a visionary as well. Ataturk made Turkey a secular state with no state-religion (although 99% of Turks are Muslim - that being said, many don't practice, just like with other religions), enfranchised women so they can hold jobs, land, etc. (Turkey has even has a female prime minister), and otherwise modeled the Turkish state after some parts of Western governments. Because of all these progressive reforms, his likeness is found on every unit of currency; seemingly every town bears at least one road with his name and a statue of him. I've often seen a picture of him hanging on a shop wall. I believe it's even against the law to say anything bad about him!

The night bus from Marmaris to Cappadocia was an interesting experience. Long-distance travel in Turkey is usually done on these overnight busses, which are nice Mercedes ones that tour companies use. Unlike our pathetic Greyhound system in the U.S., the Turkish busses have a steward that comes by several times on the trip with your choice of tea ('cay' here - in Marmaris, I was offered turkish tea on several occasions spontaneously. Drinking tea with someone is a traditional form of meeting someone, and there's even a saying that translates roughly as 'One glass of tea shared makes fifty years of friendship'), coffee or a soft drink. Just before coming around with the drinks, the steward comes around with a bottle of scented cologne, which you rub into your hands and perhaps arms and face to refresh yourself.

Finally, I arrived in Cappadocia, which is in the center of Turkey. I stayed in a small village, popular with backpackers, named Goreme, which lies in the heart of the exotic landscape that makes Cappadocia so interesting. Here's a bit of history on the region:

Millions of years ago, there were four volcanoes that, through I suppose a series of eruptions, covered all the surrounding land in layers of ash, dust, mud and lava. The ash, mud and dust congealed into a substance called 'tufa', which is a bit like cement. The lava turned into basalt and obsidian. The volcanoes also ejected large chunks of basalt or pyroclastic stones that embedded themselves in the tufa, compressing the rock below them, making it denser than its surroundings. The volcanoes died out, and the forces of erosion took over, wearing away the tufa and basalt. Tufa, being a porous substance, and slightly flaky on the exterior, wore away quickly. In some areas, the tufa was the most prevalent substance, and as wind and water wore it away, large valleys were created. In a place nearby, called the Ihlara Gorge, as the lava cooled into basalt, the ground split open, forming a gorge with sheer walls. Because tufa is easy to dig into, this area became a perfect place to settle if you wanted to hide from someone else. The Hittites and the Christians used the area the most, delving into the tufa valley walls, creating cave houses, underground cities (which were only inhabited in times of war, as they were extremely defensible), and (by the hands of the Christians) more churches than you can shake a stick at. Goreme sits in the middle of a large valley, flanked on either side by what would appear to the naive eye as sand dunes, etched by a recently fallen rain. Starting from the top ridge, the white tufa falls toward the valley floor in a cascade of branching flows of solid tufa. It's really quite beautiful, and very difficult to describe (I've been trying to come up with a good analogy by which to describe it for several days and am still at a loss). Some of the tufa is tinged yellow from a high concentration of sulfur, other is red from iron, while most is white from calcium. Speckling the landscape inside Goreme's large valley are giant basalt cones, rising 20+ meters from the ground. Into these have been carved rooms and homes, and many are still inhabited or used in conjunction with traditional dwellings. There are even a few pensions that tout themselves for being 'caves'! In other places, are odd projections of tufa, capped by a basalt pyramid that served to shelter the underlying tufa from the elements that wore away the surrounding stone. Some of these projections are called fairy chimneys (the legend says that once upon a time, humans and fairies lived together in peace in these tufa houses, but when a fairy and a human fell into forbidden love, it broke the peace, and the fairies left forever), others that are penile in form give their valley of residence the name 'Love Valley'.

My first day in Goreme, I visited the 'open air' museum, which is a tufa house village complete with some nine churches created by Christains in hiding. The floors of many of these churches were covered in now open and empty graves. Many were decorated too, some by a technique that applied a reddish paint directly to the tufa surface, while others had frescoes (in which a layer of plaster is applied to the surface first, and the paints applied while the plaster is still somewhat wet) on them. In some churches, there were no images of people, as the decorations were done during an iconoclastic period of Christianity (when representations of people were forbidden), while others are completely covered in rich imagery. In some of them, the faces of the people had been scratched off. Islam prohibits representing people in religious art, and so over many years and through misunderstanding, the faces of the Christian frescoes were marred. It was neat to be able to walk around this village and see the rooms and architectural elements carved into the tufa. Afterward, I hiked through the Sword Valley (so named for its preponderance of large pointed basalt and tufa shapes that I suppose resemble swords pointing toward the sky). This was a real thrill because I could clamber into and around the various dwellings that I found in my hike. At one point in my wandering, I spied a large flock of pigeons. These were the first truly wild pigeons I'd ever seen, as I don't think the ones that inhabit cities really count as being wild!

My second day in Goreme, I went on a guided tour. We covered some 220km that day, and saw enough for another email itself, so I'll have to condense a little. Our first stop was Pigeon Valley, where for many years, the locals had cultivated pigeon colonies for their guano (dung). Once a year, they would collect the guano and use it as a fertilizer for the local crops (potatoes, squash, grapes (for wine) and sunflowers). Next, we visited an underground city, which delved some 80m underground. Apparently, nearly every village in this area has such a city beneath it, although some are more extensive than others. All of them are ventilated by a large number of air shafts, that appear to be wells from the surface. When a village was about to be attacked, everyone (including animals) moved underground, and they would draw large basalt millstones across the entrances. The access tunnels between levels and from the surface were also intentionally made small and narrow so that an invading force would be easy pickings for the defenders. Next we hiked a part of the Ihlara Gorge, which yawns very suddenly open in the rolling hills of the area (it's closer to the volcano, so here there is less tufa and more basalt). The sides of the Gorge are like huge, vertical, tightly pressed fingers of basalt. Here erosion works differently from the tufa, as basalt is a much harder stone. Between the slabs of basalt, water freezes in the winter, and over the course of several cycles of freezing/expanding and melting, slabs are shorn off the sides, continually widening the Gorge over time. Here too, Christians took refuge, as except from nearby the Gorge is invisible in the countryside. The land surrounding the Gorge is mostly brown, yet inside the Gorge is a lush greenery, cultivated by the river that runs the Gorge's length. The hike was fairly easy, although there were a few times when we had to either climb up over, or under large blocks of basalt that had fallen from the Gorge's walls. Our next stop was by far my favorite - Selime, a monastery and village carved into a cliff face of tufa. This spot also happens to be featured somewhere in Star Wars: Episode I. I don't remember where it was, so I'll have to watch the movie again sometime :). Selime was my favorite spot because we were allowed free run of the place, and could climb through the wending tunnels and explore the unidentified rooms that reached upward from the base of the cliff to perhaps 50 meters above the road below. This place was like an underground city with a view. Next we visited a fortress on the old Silk Road - the caravans from the East would stop at these stone fortresses for protection from thieves. But when Europe started using Asian routes, or using ships (which were faster and carried more, and also avoided the taxes the Ottoman Empire charged for the use of its section of the Road), the Silk and Spice Roads fell into disuse. We then went to Avanos, which is world famous for its pottery. We had a guided tour of one of the towns most famous family workshops, and I have to say that my respect for quality pottery has increased quite a bit as a result. One of our group even tried her hand at making something with a manual wheel. Then we were ushered into the 'exibition room' (a.k.a. sales room). I think the cheapest piece there was about 30million TL, while the most expensive went for thousands of dollars.

The next two days, I spent hiking in the area. Each day, I took with me 2-3 liters of water, as it is hot hot hot here. Apparently, it gets as hot as 45-50 degrees Celsius here! (that's 110-125 in Fahrenheit) My first day, I wandered through the Rose Valley (called that for its rose colored tufa) among the tufa flows and projections. Usually, the trails looked like dry streambeds (this area doesn't get a lot of rainfall), and would wend their way under thickets, up slopes of tufa, through tunnels or along narrow trenches that the rainfall had cut into the tufa. I was really surprised at how much flora there was in the valleys, but I guess they serve as a kind of funnel, collecting rainfall from the ridges high above as well. At one point in my wandering, I came across a church. There was a Turkish man stationed in a cave nearby, with a few drink cans on display. The price of admittance to the church was one million TL. What really made me think though, was that this fellow sat here all day waiting for the occasional hiker or small group of hikers to wander by. This was a recurring theme in Turkey. In the Marmaris Bazaar (and the Goreme commercial area) there are multiple vendors selling essentially the same goods, all courting the same customers. It's a marvel to me that any of them actually sell anything considering that there aren't that many people who actually buy. I think a lot of the vendors don't actually make much money, but then again, it doesn't cost much to live either. You could live fairly well on less than 50million a week ($33), and that includes everything from food, to renting/owning a house, etc. In my second day of hiking, I hiked the Love Valley (with those phallic projections) and the White Valley (named for its pure white tufa) to a small village called Uchisar. The village wraps itself around the base and mid-section of a small atoll that thrusts itself up out of the surrounding ground and is capped by another tufa village. The view from this point was just stunning - you could see the various tufa valleys stretching out like fingers and arms, the plateau of harder basalt rock in the distance, the rolling soft brown hills of the general Cappadocian countryside and faintly the shape of one of the volcanoes.

One thing that I have been extremely impressed by is the friendliness of the Turks. In the commercial areas, it's harder to tell if the friendliness is genuine or just part of an attempt to get money out of you. But even in the Marmaris Bazaar, it struck me as being unusual. I had tea several times (for no charge) with random people (a guy at the bus station, a waiter at a harbour-side restaurant, and in the Turkish cafeteria), and chatted a little with them. While I was walking along the main road from Goreme to the entrance of the Love Valley, no less than four cars honked, slowed down and gesticulated about given me a ride somewhere. I don't think I've ever seen that happen in the States. While I was wandering around the Marmaris Bazaar trying to find the youth hostel (which was very well hidden), several people spontaneously gave me directions. When driving, there are a couple of Turkish-isms that I thought were interesting as well. The overnight bus would flash its bright-lights at on coming cars as a kind of 'here I am, be aware of me' gesture. Cars will often honk at each other as a way of saying 'hello', and especially when you pass someone in your lane. When I was hiking along the roads, sometimes a car would honk as it drove by and the driver or someone would wave to me.

Tonight I head to Istanbul, then to the ruins of Ephesus, and finally to Athens to fly back to the U.S. I have only another 8 days of travel. If I get the chance to come back to Turkey, I'll certainly take it - it's a beautiful country, with many many things to see. Next time, I'll spend some time on the Mediterranean coast and in the east part of Turkey near Mount Nehmut (where the large carven heads are).

Now reading: nothing. I finished Lord of the Rings the other day (and am really looking forward to seeing The Return of the King on screen - of the three, it's my favorite), and will soon start re-reading Crime and Punishment, by Dostoyevsky.


posted July 20, 2002 04:33 AM in Travel | permalink