September 2017: I've left Europe proper, heading down the black sea coast to Istanbul, where I plan to take a train to the very eastern edge of the country before heading into Georgia.
What to say about this city that has not already been said? Where else in the world can your daily commute take you on a ferry to another continent, past a skyline of towering steel skyscrapers, and Ottoman mosques née Byzantine cathedrals; where the veil and the v-neck t-shirt, the hijab and the hot pant, sit side by side; where elderly Turkish men born under the Ottoman sultan smoke and sip sweet tea across from hipster coffee shops serving frappes and lattes; where the young emerge bleary eyed from trendy night clubs into the morning sun in time to catch the early morning call to prayer blaring from the cities myriad minarets in harsh nasal arabic tones.
My hostel is in Galatta, an area named after the Genoese traders who lived here. They were forbidden from living in the old city proper, this side of the river is historically where most of the Europeans lived. The centerpiece of the district is an imposing tower on the top of the hill, built by the Italians. Up from the tower is Ikilal street, famous for its bars and restaurants, and at the end of that the renowned, if somewhat shabby, Taxim square. Further down the hill is Karakoy, a liberal neighbourhood with many bars and clubs, and across the river is the old centre of Istanbul proper, which is home to the big hitting sights such as the Hagia Sophia, built by Constantine in the 4th century, destroyed and rebuilt twice, then turned into a mosque by the Ottomans, and finally turned into a museum by Ataturk, to celebrate the nation's new found secularity.,
The next day I met a Chinese girl who was living in Paris, she seemed bewildered by the city so I offered to show her around as I have been here before. We look at all the obvious sites such as the Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace (old play den of the Ottoman Sultans), the blue mosque, an enormous, still functioning, Mosque in the middle of the old town, we also check out galata tower and Ikilal street and further to Taxim square. The grand bazaar is closed due to the eid celebrations, and it won't be open for another three days, so there is no chance of seeing it on this visit. One thing that struck me about Istanbul is that the European tourists have completely deserted the place. I saw hardly any, they have been replaced, to some degree, by Arabs. This has greatly affected the livelihood of many people in Istanbul, especially the restaurant and bar owners along Ikilal street. The Arabs come here and spend money as well, but they seem to spend it on very different things, i.e. more fancy shops rather than alcohol. The desertion of the western tourists, and also the political situation more broadly, seems to have had an effect on the city. It has lost a little of its liberalism and its edgy vibe and seems more commercial than I remember it. It still retains much of its magic however.
We end a long day of sightseeing in a Hammam, a typical turkish bath, clearly one designed for tourists as they allow me to enter the hammam with the woman! We stipped down in our private cubicals and came out into the foyer in a far from flattering thin long white towel, that leaves me feeling a little exposed, we then head into the steam room. A hot and humid dommed area made of marble, with a wide raised square in the middle, and a series of taps for washing yourself placed around the perimeter of the room. We wash ourselves and lay down on the raised section in the middle, awaiting our fate. A few of the other guests are called through into the other room one by one, until it is only the two of us left on the hot marble, flat on our backs. The Chinese girl is called away, and I am left there on my own. A big fat turkish man comes into the room and instructs me to sit down by one of the taps, he proceeds to scrub me vigorously with a coarse flannel, and then to lather me up with soap, finally dosing me with cold water. I then lie flat on my front in the middle of the room where he indulges his love of amatuer chiropractary, clicking all of my joints into place one by one. Finally it’s the turn of my aching back and I can't help but let out a large uncontrolled grunt, to which he chuckles and slaps me on the chest, content to leave me in peace for now. I'm then called into another room to have my massage. An older guy with a "middle-east chic" mustache, wearing nothing but a towel, hairy as a goat, beckons me upstairs and tells me to lie on my back. He then massages me, pressing hard into my inner thigh with his big hairy Turkish hands, grunting in seeming pleasure as he does so. Finally the ordeal is over, and I go downstairs to cool down and claim my free apple tea. My masseur grabs my hard by the shoulders as he sees me off, letting out a large and satisfied "hmmm" sounds as he does so. A decidedly homoerotic experience, but one that leaves me feeling a new man, fresh and ready to face the world.
Day two of Istanbul and I met up with an old school friend of mine: George, who happens to be living here teaching English. I haven't seen the guy for more than three years. I met him in Karikoy, north of the river, and we went for a few beers here. We then take the ferry over to the confusingly named Kadikoy, which is across the bosphorus from the original part of the city, and technically in Asia. This part of the city is not too often visited by tourists, as there are no real obvious sites of note, but it is well worth the trip for the ferry ride alone. Kadikoy is one of the most liberal areas of Istanbul, with many bars, clubs and excellent fish restaurants, and is generally a great place for a stroll and a night out. We went to a number of restaurants, bars and clubs and caught up on old times. Unlike other parts of Turkey it is possible to meet single girls who are out enjoying themselves without a male chaperone. We meet two girls and end up going back to their flat. The one I was dancing with didn't speak any English at all and so George, who speaks a little Turkish, interprets a bit for me, in the end it doesn't seem to matter that we can't say a single word to each other. I'm sure it is gone 6 by the time I make it to bed.
The next day I felt physically atrocious, but in a good mood nonetheless. I'm in no fit state to continue my travels until tomorrow, so I book another night in a hostel close by in Kadikoy. Much of the day is spent groaning into a pillow in a dark room. Later in the evening I manage to stomach a fish Kebab and a glass of Ayran (sour milk yogurt type thing) and feel a bit better, still a more or less wasted day, but worth it I think.
Next day I took the bus to Pendik to catch the train to Konya. Soon the train will depart from central (albeit Asian side) Istanbul, but for now a 2 hour trip to the suburbs is necessary to catch the train, one might argue that a functioning train station for a city of nearly 15 million people should be a greater priority than the construction of a vanity project mosque as commissioned by Mr Erdogan.
Train is incredibly posh and high speed, I'm flung across the Turkish countryside south-east to Konya in four and a half hours. Next to me sit three conservatives who interrupt their train travel to perform their prayers in the free space at the end of the carriage.
To Konya, the most conservative city in Turkey, central Anatolia. It's literally as hot as balls (the resting temperature of testicles is 35 degrees), which is how the mercury reads as I arrive, imagine August in this place!
The conservatism of this place is striking, much more so than other Muslim cities that I have visited, such as Amman, Erbil, or Marrakech. This town has a flavour of the middle east to it. Old turkish men, and only men, sit on stools outside small shops, smoking and chitting the chat. There are no bars that I have found, tea and cigarettes is the order of the evening. Old fashioned shops selling only one product, restaurants with only one signature dish. Young men bring round huge trays of tea and pass them round the customers, marking on your paper how many you have had so that you can pay at the end. The large majority of women cover their heads, with a few opting for the full face coverage. Friendly people. I’m told that if I were to share a double room with a woman a marriage certificate would be necessary. Alcohol is nowhere to be seen. The main sight here is the stunning Mevlana museum, with blue tiled mausoleum, final resting place of Rumi, founder of the order of the sufi swirling dervishes. The display of the Dervishes only happens on Saturday, so I can't catch it this time. A city of more than two million people, my whole time here I didn't see a single European tourist, although there are a fair few Arabs and Turks from other parts of the country. This is core Erdogan territory, a far cry from the hip and trendy neighbourhoods of Istanbul such as Karakoy and Kadikoy. I visit the museum, and wonder the back streets with their old Ottoman style buildings and the Aladdin park at the centre of the town. Beautiful city, but glad I'm only here for one day as there is not a huge amount to do. English is very seldom spoken and I feel my complete lack of Turkish more acutely; not a problem at all in Istanbul. However, unlike in Istanbul I am never hassled here, and no-one seems to pay me any attention except for a few waiters who open their translation apps and ask me a series of questions about what I'm doing here, and why I am in Turkey. One carpet shop owner shows me his shop and bemoans the fall off of tourists due to the crazy fear of all things Islamic in Europe and the failed coup earlier last year. He tries to sell me something, I feel bad but there is no way I can cart a Turkish rug with me all the way to Asia and back to London, he isn't pushy in the end. I smoke a pipe (nagile) and drink several rounds of tea. I have a brief conversation with a waiter from Iraq (Tal Afar) which is just being cleared of ISIS as I write this. We have so little language in common that we can say little to each other, which is a shame, as I want to talk to him about Iraq. Back to the hostel and tomorrow to Cappadocia and then further into Eastern Turkey.
It’s a three hour bus hop, short for Turkey, to the town of Goreme, the centerpiece of the Cappadocia region. Cappadocia is famous for its so called fairy-chimney rock formations, improbable towers of rocks on a valley floor into which the locals carved cave-like dwellings. Early christians used to hide here from the Roman empire before Constantine adopted the faith in the 4th century. The town of Goreme lies at the floor of the systems of valleys that make up the Cappadocia region; it houses some 2,500 residents, but upto 10 times this number when the tourist season is in full flow. I stayed in one of the cave hotels/hostels. There was a mistake with the booking as I booked to stay in a dorm room, but I was put in a private room instead, but at the same rate, so I had an ensuite private for 5 euros a night! The owners have built a stone house on and around the original cave dwelling which merges seamlessly with the surrounding cave walls. The place has a very upmarket boutique hotel feel to it. I had planned to do some hiking by myself but the hotel was offering tours of the region, and given that the temperature was hitting low thirties I opted for the (air-conditioned) minibus tour which took in a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape; the underground city of Derinkuyu, also built by early Christians, a labyrinthine structure built 7 floors down into the rock; the Ihkal valley, Turkey's second biggest canyon, of which we hiked 3km and stopped for tea on a cafe built on the valleys river; another panorama of a stunning lake, and of course the mandatory stop at the jewelry and sweet shops with the inevitable hard sell. A great day tour and a really friendly guide, who’s name I forget. In the evening I took some bread, cheese and Turkish delights to the top of the hill and watched the sunset. There is very little to do here in the evenings other than to take the very overpriced beer in the tourist restaurants in town, so I sit with the guy who was working in the hostel and chat with him a little bit over some more tea.
My next stop is Kars, there is a bus that goes all the way there but is a brutal 20 hour trip. I felt as though I had come far east in Turkey, but I'm not even halfway across the country. Instead I opt for the bus to the nearby town of Kayseri, which along with Konya, is known as one of the most conservative towns in Central Anatolia, and from there an 18 hour train ride; far better to be on a train than a bus. My bus didn't leave until after 4 in the afternoon so there was time to take a short hike in the morning. I left Goreme and went up the so-called pigeon valley, which is so named because locals would keep pigeons for sending messages, using their droppings for fertiliser and no doubt the occasional tasty snack when the goings got tough. From there it's 4 km to the town of Uchisar, which has the ruins of a byzantine castle at its very peak, the main draw of which is the 360 deg view of the surrounding valleys and the distant peaks, the tallest of which stands at 4000m. The canyons are impressive, and look as though the earth has been torn into shreds by a series of earthquakes, the sun is brutal here and the earth is as dry as a bone, there is something of the middle east about this place. From there I walked down a different valley to get back to the town, namely "love valley". The pictures should give you some idea about how this place got its name, definitely not Halal! I'm surprised Erdogan hasn't tried to put a stop to this. There isn't a soul in the valley, and the bizarre rock formations, and the brutal heat give the walk an almost hallucinogenic feel. Finally, I get back to the town, I stink after my hike but there is no chance of a shower or a change of clothes before I get my bus so I'll have to stay like this for the 24 hour trip ahead of me.
Train across Turkey
It was a short 1 hour hop to the city of Kayseri. I have a quick walk around the town, there is a stone citadel, now housing a market, and a mosque which is unusual in that it is made of bricks. None of the tourist brochures mention this place and I can see why, it feels a bit dead, a bit seedy and grotty. For the first time I feel like people are really staring at me for being here, as if to think why on earth would a tourist come here. After some dinner of some very tasty pide (Turkish take on the pizza) I went to the station, there was still another 5 hours before my train left, which I spent at a tiny shady little tea shop by the side of the station. Stations always bring out the lunatics, and this one is no exception. Finally, I get on the train to Kars at 1.30 am, the train is due to arrive in Kars at 17.50, so it's a long trip. I don't even get a bed as these are all sold out, just a reclining chair. A young family tries to start a conversation with me, they are fascinated to know what I am doing here, clearly few tourists are mad enough to take this journey. I got to sleep around 2am and slept pretty solidly for around 6 hours. By this point in my trip I've learnt to sleep pretty well in all kinds of weird places. At 8am I wake to find our train in the middle of an enormous canyon, with a small lime coloured river which our train follows for several hours. On either side: 50m high cliffs. The train bends around the valley, through tunnels and lurching alarmingly over cliff edges eventually meeting with the Euphrates near its source. There is no need for entertainment here, just glueing your nose to the window will suffice. The landscape looks hot and dusty, and this train seems like the only way you could realistically experience this part of Turkey, there is no road through this valley. Most of the other passengers look bored and close their blinds and play with their phones except a young boy who comes and stands next to me to look out of my window, the only one in the carriage with the blinds up. Words from the book “the little prince” come to mind: “only the children stare out of the windows”, well the children and this 29 year old backpacker in this case. More and more people leave the train in improbable locations, there seems to be very little here apart from the occasional complex of bee hives at the side of the track and the occasional unremarkable settlement.
As the train left Erzerum, the last proper town before Kars, another 5 hours ride from here, it began to climb suddenly and the scenery made another abrupt change. At the top of the accent is a flat green plateau of steppe land. The original Turks were nomadic horse riding people from the steppe lands of central asia, and this part of Turkey must have reminded them of home. This is the most desolate part of the journey, with endless grasslands stretching into nothingness. The sun began to set for the second time on this journey as we pulled into Kars, a city that seems impossibly located in the middle of nowhere. I found my hotel and went straight to bed.
The next day I awoke in Kars, Kars is a smallish city, but the only settlement of any real note in the area. It seems like a world away from the beauty of Konya, or the cosmopolitan hipsters of Istanbul. A man waking from a comma since the 1970s would be reassured to know that almost nothing has changed here since he has been sleeping, from the way that people dress to the daily rhythms of life. People sell tea at the side of the street with water heated from wood burning stoves, the fumes from which linger in the still air of the streets, along with the thick fumes from the myriad cars honking their way down the main grey concrete drag of the city. Kars is truly one of the ugliest places I have ever visited. The Russians occupied this place before their revolution, and have left their indelible mark on the city. In the dying days of the Ottoman empire this place would have had a large Christian Armenian population, until they were systematically wiped out or deported. It seems that since then the city has existed in stasis, without being bothered by, or bothering, the outside world, happy simply to tick along in isolation. Why did I come here then? Not just because I am a travel contrarian, but because I want to visit the city of Ani, and also because Kars makes a convenient location to cross into Georgia from. Ani was the capital of the Armenian empire, which had its glory days in the 10-13th centuries, after which the Armenian people suffered a series of brutal defeats, absorbed and decimated successively by Mongols, Russians and Ottomans, culminating in the genocide of one million Armenians at the hands of the Turkish at the end of the first world war, an event which the Turkish government to this day denies ever happened. The city was already in ruins at that point however, and the Turkish government does little to promote or maintain this sight; sad, but on the plus side it does mean that I had the sight all to myself once again. How spoilt I am! The bus hurtles over the steppe land to the very eastern edge of the country, a literal stone's throw away from Armenia, although it is impossible to cross legally between these two countries. Ani is mostly in ruins, but you are greeted by an imposing gate and fortified walls, guarded by a few mangy looking stray dogs. Inside there are a series of derelict cathedrals, a fortress perched on the canyon which separates the two countries, and a tiny church clinging to an tall island in the middle of the river, reminiscent of the monasteries in Meteora in Greece. The disrepair, and the isolation of this place only add to the atmosphere, it really has to be experienced, all that I can say is that it is a hauntingly beautiful place, a chilling and mystical experience up there with my trip to Chernobyl. It's the eerie quietness of the place, and the sense that this once mighty kingdom has been all but forgotten by the world. One of the highlights of the trip, and one that I shared with no one but the gentle wind of the Turkish steppe land.
Back at the hotel I chat to a man from Africa (I forget which country). He is the only person I found who could speak English in the city, and one of the only foreigners in the whole of Kars. I checked out a few of the other sights in the city, a fortress, a ruined hammam, and an old church that has been converted into a mosque; a diverting enough way to spend an afternoon. There is just time to sample the local delicacy before hitting the hay: cig Kofte, raw minced lamb rolled into meatballs and wrapped into a pitta bread: surprisingly tasty. To bed and an early start tomorrow as I attempt to cross into Georgia.
I caught the bus at the civilised time of 9.30 the next day. The lady at the travel agent speaks no English, but we communicate via her translation app. The travel agent does not run a bus to the border, but she knows one that does, she calls them and they offer to come and pick me up, in the meantime she gives me tea and breakfast. It occurs to me that she has made no money from this interaction, and she has actually recommended a rival company to me, whilst providing me with a free breakfast, it seems like the kind of place where this is the norm. The people from the other company come and pick me up and take me to their different bus station and put me on a bus to a town called Hopa, 20 km from the northernmost part of Turkish Anatolia and the border with Georgia. It's a tiny minibus that zig-zags its way through a series of deep and narrow canyons, travelling roughly 10 km on the road for every one km of straight line distance. The scenery is again spectacular. The river which cuts through the canyon is dammed at several points to generate electricity for the surrounding areas; quite an impressive feat of engineering. At one point we spend an hour and a half going down one side of a canyon only to cross a small bridge and to climb it again on the other side. One man is sick at the front of the bus, but the driver refuses to stop as we are on a schedule, the whole bus stinks, and I begin to feel a little queasy too. Inevitably on the bus there are four German backpackers, there is no escaping these people, strange that I didn't see them either on the bus to Ani, or in the city of Kars, but there are always German backpackers, wherever one is. They are also crossing into Georgia with the same plan as me. It seems I am not such a pioneering adventurer afterall. Suddenly we cross a ridge and my old friend the black sea stretches out in front of us; the arid land takes its cue to change dramatically once again. Suddenly everything is a lush green, and there are multiple tea plantations clinging to the side of the hill. Women in traditional dress pick tea and place it into a large sack on their backs. Little wicker baskets on pulleys running up the side of the hill take the tea back to the collection point, some cows mill about in the middle of the road, it feels like I am in India! Turkey is so culturally and geographically diverse I feel like I have crossed a continent in one day, from steppe, to semi-desert, to subtropical all in the same bus journey. Finally the bus stops after a tiring 6 hour ride and dumps us onto another smaller bus which is waiting for us. This one takes us to Sarpi, which is the border crossing between Turkey and Georgia. Along with the German backpackers I cross into Georgia on foot. The border crossing is a brutal free for all, with people pushing and shoving their way to the front. It is necessary to leave any British sensibilities at home at this point, otherwise you will be waiting for days at the border crossing, push, claw and elbow your way through. On the Georgia side things seem much more civilised, "have you been here before?" the nice young lady at the border asks me (a woman in a position of responsibility! this would never happen in Turkey), "No" I say, she smiles and says "welcome to Georgia!".
Final thoughts about my time in Turkey. Again I feel it is a tragedy to have spent so little time in this perplexing and diverse land. It's a cliche to say that Turkey is a land of contrasts, but it's a cliche with a large amount of truth. A country in which is aggressively hospitable to visitors, but has a long history of cruelty to its own minorities. Here the guest is king, but so is the man. A deeply religious country with a conservative heartland but a secular constitution, a history so rich that a lifetime of study would barely scratch the surface. It mixes the cultures of the Asian steppe lands, the ancient civilisations of Rome and Greece, and the religion of the Arabs and fusses it into something truly unique. The food is incredible, the women are beautiful, the landscape never lets go, it’s a full frontal assault on all of the senses. So close to Europe, the infrastructure is incredible, and compared to many of its neighbours it's surprisingly easy to travel, and yet it is one of the most exhotic places I have ever seen. I endeavor to come back one day and do this place the justice it deserves, but Georgia awaits me and I must move on.