07.01.2010 - 13.01.2010
The fact that Istanbul spanned two continents meant I just had to take advantage of the novel factor associated with being in Europe for the morning, spending the afternoon in Asia and then back to Europe in time for tea. Istanbul ran an efficient ferry service across the Bosphorus, which was the narrow straight of water that sliced through the landmass, connecting the Black Sea to the North with the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean to the South. What I was most surprised about however was the cost of the ticket. I'd been spending the occasional 1.50TL for the odd tram ride here and there around Istanbul, and I was pleased to see the ferry cost just the same. This was equivalent to less than 70 British pence. I wasn't used to bargains in Turkey. It was no longer the place to go for a cheap holiday, but still a long way off Western European prices.
The large vessel left Kariköy on the European side and docked at Kadiköy on the Asian side about half an hour later. The procedures were undertaken with such regular practice it hardly looked like work for the staff involved. I stepped off the boat onto the banks of Asia. But what exactly was I expecting? Paddy fields and cone-hatted farmers herding a mass of goats? No, and it was the same. Same people, same buildings, same flag blowing vehemently in the wind. The Turks were undeniably proud of their flag. In the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is the Northern third of the island of Cyprus, their Islamic-based flag graces a good portion of the side of the Beşparmak mountains. They carved it into the rock, and you can even see it from the Greek side of the capital Nicosia. Which remains the world's only capital which doesn't sit in one country, although TNRC is a de facto state, recognised only by Turkey themselves. I'm sure they light it up at night time just to piss off the Cypriot Greeks. In lettering next to the flag it says: 'How blessed is the man who can call himself a Turk'. The Cypriot Greeks read it as If you want it, come and get it, a goading message after the Turks took hold of the land in the Cypriot wars of 1974; and with great insult. It is a hotly debated topic amongst all involved.
I hadn't been to a real food market on the European side of Istanbul but I was getting the feeling that the food displayed so attractively in the market stalls of Kadiköy was of a more exotic nature. Vegetables that I didn't recognise, colourful spices and a dozen types of olives fronted busy stalls, but it was the combinations of foods and the distaste that I felt as I looked at it which set it apart from the cuisine I'd seen so far. And the smell of fish, the smell of fish was dominant above all others.
On the journey back, the night fell in and the lights of the city twinkled between the glorious sight of mosques, minarets and historic architecture on the horizon. The ferry approached the dock. I peered over the edge, the water looked like a dark canvas. The slick black of the waves brushed with neon oils of green and pink made from the reflection of seafood restaurant signs on land. I sat on the dockside for a while, taking in the sound of the waves and smell of the latest fresh catch as the night sky turned out its lights completely. With a sudden swoosh a big wave broke over the edge of the concrete sea wall and a swell of water whirled around my feet. That was my sign to get up and go. But I rather enjoyed that trip across the Bosphorus.
The next day I planned on leaving Istanbul for Bergama (Pergamum), but I wasn't leaving without one more dessert. I'd come to rely on the ready supply of decent cafés serving the most appealing cakes from their shop windows. Single person tarts with whole strawberries piled on top into a dome of deliciousness, generous slabs of spongy flan topped with thick slices of banana, kiwi and peach, and the most outrageously delectable profiteroles with thick chocolate sauce. The most astonishing thing about all these desserts is that the fresh cream, the chocolate sauce and whatever else might be piled on top, but especially the cream, was light, easy on the stomach and didn't even hint at the feeling of sickliness. It was as if God himself had made them in his spare time. Anyone that loves desserts should come to Istanbul and go nuts. Speaking of nuts, the baklava is great too. A pastry dessert made with layers upon layers of phyllo dough, chopped nuts and a special blend of syrup and honey.
On my last afternoon in Istanbul, one of the world's great and most interesting cities I wandered around Sultanahmet and soaked up the atmosphere around the small park along the main drag. A few crows, stray cats and dogs hung around the fountain for a sip. I wasn't even drinking the water from the taps here, it smelled like it'd come out of a swimming pool; so heavily chlorinated. The call to prayer echoed out across the city, the dogs stood and howled. As the volume diminished and silence befell, all I could hear were the quiet mumbles of foreign conversations, the bell ring of the tram and maritime squawk of seagulls overhead. Istanbul was so close to the sea on both sides that seagulls made themselves a permanent home on the air between the minarets of this city.
At the huge Otogar bus station that evening there was nothing for it, I would have to go round asking for prices and just keep comparing. There were dozens of companies lined up in simple shops next door to one another as far as the eye could see in the chaos of it all. The first quote- 40 Turkish lira. No thanks. 'OK, OK 35 lira....' the man offered from behind eyes which no longer bore the guilt of scamming tourists. 'No, I think I can get it cheaper'. The lady behind the booking desk interjected with a three and a zero on a piece of paper. 'I'm going and maybe I'll come back'. Why not just give me the real price in the first place? I got a ticket for 30 lira elsewhere.
The buses in Turkey were a professionally run affair. Some smaller buses operated between nearer towns, but anything over 4 hours would likely be a huge rolling coach with bug-like wing mirrors and cavernous interior. There's free tea or coffee or juice or mineral water, and if you're lucky some chocolate cake as well. On longer journeys the drinks were served every hour or two. The young attendants wore smart shirts and waistcoats. The seat allocation was supervised. The only downside was the terrible soap opera acting on the TV screens. Other than that, I was very impressed. At certain intervals the attendants came round to squirt a kind of fragrant lemon cleansing liquid into your cupped hand. The first time he squeezed the liquid from that bottle into my hand I was unsure whether to drink it or what I should do with it. A gestured charade from the man sitting next to me sorted that one out. It was the Turkish equivalent to a hot towel, which the Indians loved so much in the restaurants back home. I would come to see this stuff in restaurants and on many other coaches during my stay in Turkey. It was just another little thing that made Turkey unique among the places I had been so far.
The coach pulled up for a scheduled stop. A man stepped into the aisle and began his speech, selling packets of something unknown; maybe they were cigarettes. Either way I wasn't interested. Another man stepped aboard. The verbal diarrhoea that came out of his mouth was undeniably impressive despite the fact I didn't comprehend a word of it. As he rambled on he demonstrated the wonders of a 'leather' wallet that he held in his hands like a magician. The light touch he displayed with his thumbs, index and middle fingers reminiscent of any illusionist you care to mention. I was waiting for the trick, but it never came. Maybe the trick was the sale itself. He took out a lighter, a pen and a lighter gift set. Each one from a different pocket of his coat or trousers. If the next item was a rabbit I'd have bought something for sure, I was quite enjoying myself.
The bus rolled on to Izmir, from Izmir I changed for Bergama and at Bergama Otogar- bus station, I experienced my first dolmuş minibus, which took us to the town centre. On the dolmuş service a young man introduced himself as Ibrahim. He carried a guitar in a black fabric case. Upon leaving Istanbul, I sent my guitar home. My pack was too heavy, too cumbersome and every time I entered a train cabin or bus aisle I would unwittingly smack at least one person in the face with it. It had to go. Ibrahim was the first in a long line of people thereafter who either played or travelled with a guitar. My face was well and truly rubbed-in, but it was too late now. Anyway, I was too busy enjoying the benefit of a lighter backpack; it was so much more freeing. At Bergama centrum- a seemingly universal word for centre in every country I had been through, I hopped off the dolmuş and began walking the two kilometres North up to Odyssey guest house. I felt encouraged and flighty by the lesser weight on my back. In this town, the old and young chose the scooter as the preferred form of transport, I was really beginning to feel like I was in Asia for that reason alone. Chickens roasted on rotating spits in shop windows, the ubiquitous carpet shops broke up the line of cafés, convenience shops, butchers, trade shops and all other essential outlets designed for village life. There was nothing glamorous about this town, it was all old-world charm. Weathered men sat outside cafés drinking çay while their wives presumably looked after the house and grandkids. It was a cinematic rolling tape of traditional Turkish life and I had a prime seat to observe.
The Odyssey guest house was a renovated 180 year old Greek home, and proudly declared itself so. The owner Ersin welcomed me with few words and a perma-grin. The house was interesting but what lie at the top of the hill was the main attraction. Bergama's main hill was the home of the Acropolis, an ancient Greek site of archaeological importance. The road that wound up to the hilltop was a kilometre away from where I stood in the village. I began walking North through the network of tiny streets to get to it. A thousand worn shades of blue, pink and green lay exposed on the crumbling exterior walls of the stone houses. Doors splintered top and bottom and with gaping holes on several panels were the only protection from outside conditions. Several children of the village appeared from around random corners, looking at me with bemused faces 'Merhaba!' or 'Hello!' they would shout, which was then all too often followed by 'money!' They were taught early. I didn't mind. The thing I was learning about Turkish people was that even if they were asking for money (which happened a lot less than in Central and Eastern Europe) it was hard not to like them for their character. I appeared out of the stone matrix and onto the open road. It was going to be another five kilometres to the top. Three or four kilometres and an amount of sweat later I heard a vehicle approach from behind me along wth a string of male voices. I looked behind to see a dump truck and four or five men aboard, all encouraging me onto the back. Relieved and excited I jumped onto the back, just where you'd throw the rubbish in to crush it. I hung on for a free ride and jumped off at the top. 'Teşekkur ederim!' I declared gratefully, thoroughly pleased at the randomness of it all.
Five minutes later I found myself deep in conversation with a Turkish man at the café by the ticket office for the Acropolis. The subject of the discussion was salep. Salep was a hot milky drink served in Turkey, mostly after meals. The shame of it was that if you didn't know to ask for it, you missed out. Only one person ever offered me salep, and that was a gentle charactered man selling it from a wooden cart on the streets of Sultanahmet. It was usually kept in a brass-coloured urn, but in restaurants it rarely made it onto the menu. The possible reason for this, as I found out in conversation, was that salep was made, primarily, from a type of crocus flower which only grew in Turkey. It would likely become extinct in the next twenty years if they picked it at the current rate. It was dried and ground up into a powder which was then mixed with either milk or water. It smelled and tasted of rice pudding, milk and a hint of nuts. It was divine. The cinnamon on top complimented the thick, creamy taste and texture perfectly. Virtually every restaurant I ever went in I asked for a cup of salep. All too few sold it. But then, the fact that they couldn't cultivate this flower did make it something of a blessing while it was still about.
Having already been to a few archaeological sites on the island of Cyprus in the past I wasn't sure I'd get anything new from seeing the same things here in another country. I was right. Walking around the ancient ruins of the Temple of Dionysus and Alter of Zeus, I couldn't help feel that they were just that- ruins. It wasn't a grand city. It was ruins. Even the Temple of Trajan, which was the only barely surviving semi-structure, built during the reign of Emperors Trajan and Hadrian didn't inspire visions of Romans worshipping Zeus all around me. I did try but I was unsure if I was lacking imagination or whether this place was just too destroyed to feel it. I felt the same at the Asclepion which was another ancient Greek site a few kilometres down the road. Its use was as an ancient medical centre for the people of Bergama. It was founded by Archias who was a local man with first hand experience after he himself was healed in Greece at the Asclepion of Epidaurus. But the real claim to fame was that Galen (AD 131-210) who was quite possibly the greatest early physician, influenced the work in the medical centre here and brought favour and respect to the Asclepion. His work on the nervous and circulatory systems formed the groundwork of Western medicine until as late as the 16th century.
I walked around the ruins of the Asclepion with Derek. A long-haired and tattooed rocker from Ireland. I met him in the guest house while making coffee one lazy afternoon. But seeing as we were the only two there, I guess that was only a matter of time. Derek and I shared views on world politics, government agendas, spirituality, Radiohead and baklava. The annoying thing was that he could feel the positive energy from the Asclepion. I must have been closed-off, because to me it was no more or less energising than a night in with Ant and Dec. I found more rewards in hearing about Derek's adventures setting a hostel up in South-East China. He was a brave and positive man, who philosophised with ample knowledge on culture, religion and history. 'The Chinese....man, they'll fuck you over no matter whether you're Chinese or a foreigner, they're nice people like, but they won't think twice about ripping you off. The police are cool, we'd bring 'em inside the hostel for a free drink, make 'em feel like a celebrity and it wouldn't matter what you were doing inside, they'd turn a blind eye, or have a go themselves.' We spoke a great deal about human civilisation, nature and the spiritual self, some of my favourite topics. I was a little disappointed that Derek was leaving that day. I could have learned a lot more from him. Still, we had time to relax at the local hamam. A hamam was a Turkish bathhouse. Although the massage was a little rushed in this particular hamam, there's nothing quite like sweating it out in the citrus air of the stony enclaves. It's an essential experience as a part of Turkish culture.
Earlier that day whilst walking back down from the Acropolis I spotted a small stone hut in the distance down the bank. There was a small break in the fencing which was hinged back together with strategically placed hooks. I unhooked them and climbed through. There were virtually no cars on this road so I felt no worry about looking dodgy. A rusty tanker sat next to a makeshift wooden stick gate. The gate was locked with a sturdy padlock and chain and laced with barbed wire. I climbed on top of the tanker which would allow me to step down on the other side of the gate- criminals take note. I looked into the distance from on top of the tanker to see if anyone inhabited the hut. I noticed a scooter just around the corner. I felt the rush of adrenaline in my belly as I often did when facing uncertain adventures. I loved the unknown and the unexplored. Put me in a desert and I'd be excited to the pit of my belly. Or in a forest. Any landscape which provided isolation and the feeling of unlimited space in front of me. Somewhere I could be at one with nature, as corny as that sounds. I remember that exact feeling in the Australian outback. Wandering out into the bush and seeing what I could find. My wife at the time beckoned me back to the car on several occasions, slightly worried by nature's venom and not sharing quite the same spirit for the the wilderness that I had. I began having short visions of finding a local family down there who would feed me rustic foods cooked on a bonfire and that they would let me stay there for the night among the stars, then in the morning I might milk the resident goat for coffee and cornflakes. However, there were some things to consider, point number one- they had a locked fence complete with chain and barbed wire. To me, that doesn't say welcome all strangers. Point number two- I already paid for my room today. Point number three- they might have a gun. Guns were readily available in Turkey. The military and the police often walked about in the streets with automatic weapons and gun shops in the street seemed to offer little security. Despite this, Turkey always felt like a very safe country for me. Couple that with Islam, which seemed to have an effect on the people and you find that crimes such as stealing, pick-pocketing and mugging have very low rates by most worldwide standards. Points number one and two were enough for me to creep back through the hole in the fence and continue on down. Further down the road I poked my head into a small cave carved out on the hillside. The entrance was about three feet high. I was feeling inquisitive. I took my tiny LED torch and poked it out in front of me. It was nowhere near bright enough to allow me to see what was deep inside. Apart from a few scraps of rubbish all I could see was one passageway leading off into the blackness and another two which branched out to the sides. I crouched momentarily inside, only to see the mosquitoes buzzing around my head, If I had a proper torch I would have gone right inside. 'Hello?' I said, knowing I wouldn't get an answer. I thought about the possibility of wolves, bears and snakes and then backed out. I liked to take chances in life sometimes, but I'd rather be able to see where I was going.
Returning to the hilly village back streets I came upon a small boy with his family. He wore a traditional-looking waistcoat and slightly scruffy clothes. 'My name Ibrahim' he declared. He spoke to me in Turkish in an open and innocent fashion. 'I'm Adam, nice to meet you kid'. His Mother smiled at his innocence as if to say you have your fun with the foreigner. Further into the network a man in the funnelled distance of the street raised his arms up as I took a photo of the emaciated houses. 'Halo!' he shouted. 'Deutsche? Deutsche?' he questioned, in a friendly but raised voice from thirty metres away. It took me a while to understand the strange blurting sound coming from his mouth. He was asking if I was German. I came closer. 'No, no... Ingiltere'. His smile became all the wider. 'Oh, ok I no speak English, my English.... schieiße'. He was clearly Turkish but his second language was German. His wife and child joined him at the gate to his house, he introduced himself and shook my hand. The three of them smiled warm smiles and looked on with a kind of novelty written all over their faces. He offered his hand again and they waved me goodbye as I moved on.
Another two minutes passed. I turner a corner to see a young, determined-looking man sat on a tractor, trying nobly to back up into one of the narrowest parts of the whole street-scape. It reminded of that scene from Austin Powers. One inch forward, one inch back. He came so close to grazing the wall of someone's house with the trailer he was pulling, which had several people in it, naturally. Not that it would have shown. Maybe that's what happened to this town. This fella was let loose with a tractor and gradually over the last twenty years he set about scraping the place to bits. He welcomed a picture and smiled with a greeting. I was really beginning to warm to the Turkish people. At every turn there was a toothy smile, a wave or a merhaba waiting for me. These people were first and foremost all about the welcome.
I sat at the street café the next morning, watching the people go about their lives. Old men creeped past, wearing Grandad caps and thick suit jackets. The few women in appearance wrapped themselves up in a foray of headscarves and drape-like clothing. Half the people sat drinking çay. A large portion of people stood chatting and gesticulating, the rest waddled through the small crowds, hands behind backs or hands on walking sticks. Many people fingered through prayer beads while walking. Dolmuşes, cars, motorbikes, tractors and horse and carts all shared the cobbled road. Curled sausages, tied to shop awnings swayed in the breeze. Lamb carcasses hung lifelessly in the butchers window. The backdrop- a crumbled Ottoman house and above that the mirage of the Acropolis on the distant hillside. An aged, decrepit man walked towards me and rambled on in a foreign tongue. I looked at him and signalled my inept understanding with strained eyes. The café owner took him by the arm and lead him away from the outside tables. Even when they were shooing each other away there was a sense of closeness among these people. Bergama touched a little piece of my heart.
I arrived that afternoon in the Australia & New Zealand guesthouse in the town of Selçuk. I was here to see one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. I pushed at the brown-painted gate and became slightly startled by the heavy brass cowbell above my head which rang with a hefty gong. An old lady appeared to my left from a small utility room, 'Welcome, sit please, err, my son, he come, he at Mosque'. I nodded and drifted around the small courtyard. Three-seater sofas draped in patterned throws sat at right angles under a canvas veranda, potted plants lined the outer edges against the butter yellow walls. I remember the sound of the call to prayer going out over the town as I stepped off the dolmuş only five minutes before. The proprietor- Harry, came bursting in with a quick pace and an even quicker way of speaking. He spoke with an Australian accent through a Turkish moustache. His heavy-set figure peaked at the stomach. He joked at a million miles an hour with unfunny quips. Engaging in conversation, I would learn, was a tough task with Harry, and although he was filled with questions and constantly suggested staying one more night, you felt you had to give the right answers lest you receive another rapid machine-gun fire from behind his 'tache.
I read through the welcome pack inside the cosy lounge. Some hostels insisted on putting every piece of advice possible inside these shabby ring-binders. Where to go, what to eat, useful phrases, bus times and things to avoid. In this instance there was a warning about strangers selling supposed old coins dating back to ancient times. They were as fake as the 9/11 commission report. A little later, I walked up to the Karameşe restaurant for a bite. At the top of the hill a happy looking chap faced me from a souvenir shop, 'where are you from?'
'Do you know anything about the Isa Bey Camii?' It was the mosque at the foot of Ayasuluk hill which was all of twenty feet away and covered at least 75% of my eyeline. He began listing off a round of general knowledge content- built in 1375, the style was pre-Ottoman, the rest I would never remember. At the point where I had nothing to respond with he dipped his hand into his pocket. 'Are you interested in this?' Resting in the palm of his hand were two old coins. 'Alexander' he added. My brain went into rejection mode. 'Ah, no thanks, I'm off to get some food, see you' and I strolled away. Typical. I did find, however, that I was becoming less and less offended by sales techniques, scams and fake things sold as real. Anyone thinking they could get an ancient artifact from a dude outside a souvenir shop should think again before travelling with money in their pocket.
'Where are you from' asked the waiter in the restaurant, which was in fact a transparent marquee in a summer garden. 'Oh, I'm ahh...from Ingiltere'.
'Where in England?'
'Essex', I said. Then something unusual happened.
'Alriiiight, lovely jubbly...nice one mate!' the gentleman replied. Clearly, he knew about Essex.
The Temple of Artemis, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world formed a part of the Biblical city of Ephesus, just three kilometres from Selçuk centre. Unfortunately, as with most of the ancient sites in the world, it has been all but destroyed by earthquake and/or fire at some point in time. However Ephesus was actually appreciable for such a gargantuan pile of levelled stones. A certain percentage, however, of the structural splendour remained in tact and the layout of the city inspired a fair degree of percievable completeness. Three hours later I emerged, mildly educated, thirsty and acheing. I wondered if I should begin doing alternate things to the usual tourist trail as I rarely felt like the entrance fee was set in proportion to the enjoyment factor. It was worth seeing, but after a few ancient sites, a pile of rocks is just a pile of rocks, y'know. And so with that thought I reset my agenda to find uniqueness, Pamukkale might do it...