Tuesday, July 3, 2012

My Turkey Trip

A view of Trabzon city from the KTU campus.

Erzurum is built on a 1,950m (6,400 ft) high plateau, surrounded by the Eastern Anatolian Mountains. It is the junction of the old Central Asian trade routes, and was the base for the Turkish War of Independence – the Erzurum Congress of 1919 effectively ended Ottoman rule in Turkey. The house in which the revolutionaries stayed is now the Ataturk Museum in a side street off Çaykara Caddesi. Even though Erzurum has suffered · some horrendous earthquakes in its time, a considerable number of remarkable old buildings still survive to attest to its past. 


by Hafeez R. M.

"I'm from Pakistan. I’ve got a lot to declare", said I entering Turkish Customs. "Musheriff eldum", replied the officer. (He meant he was honoured.) "Gule, Gule." (go laughingly), he continued and I was out in a wink with my backpack remaining un-zipped.
I went to a road-side shack and said loudly, "Salaam aleikum". Words of "Waleikum es salaam" echoed back. Muslim greetings had been exchanged. I was overjoyed to see that people were having curry with red chilies like us. I sat there for a while and got a free cup of kahve (thick, heavily sweetened coffee). With sign language, I was told that nearest town was Dogubayazit and a dolmush (mini-bus) would take me there in about two hours.

The dolmush ran swiftly on the asphalt road, skirting the outer flank of Mount Ararat. The mountain had a cone-like peak rising to 17,000 ft. It was sunny, warm and dry. The terrain was endowed with natural beauty. I saw lot of movements a little beyond the road. Being summer, whole villages were moving to pastureland to find fresh grazing for their herds of sheep, goats, cattle and horses.

Dogubayazit was a small town. The population was mix of Turks, Armenians and Greeks. In the evening, I went to an open-air cafe famous for its donner kabobs. The glittering snow-capped Ararat was in full view. I had a good chat with a Catholic Priest. Pointing out to the mountain, he said, " Surely you know about Great Floods. Over there, Noah's Ark came to rest ". I remained unmoved and un-interested. (As per our Holy Book, Koran, the Ark was resting on Mt. Cudi (pronounced Judi), 240 kms southwest of Ararat.)

Next morning, I took a bus for Erzrum. The road was bumpy with tight hairpin bends. A truck had slid off the road the night before and was being hauled back. The bus crossed Tahir Pass at a height of 8,122 feet. At one stop, school children surrounded the bus and demanded pens. Some threatened to stone the bus but that was just a bogy. They looked smart in uniforms with military peaked caps.


Erzerum was built at an altitude of over six thousand feet on a hill. Towering mountains surrounded it, many over 10,000 feet high. The climate was refreshing. I took deep breath to store as much oxygen as I could muster. A double wall surrounded the city. There were plenty of mosques and churches. Its bazaars were large and well crowded. Called souqs, they provided scenes described vividly in the folk tales of "One Thousand and One Nights". 

Seljuk-built Twin Minarets Madrasah—the icon of the city—backed by surrounding mountains

The streets were narrow, one could touch the walls on both sides by stretching arms. No fixed prices but whatever the seller could get through cunning, cajoling and conniving. The shops were piled with olives, herbs, spices and handicrafts. Worth seeing was shoemaking with tapping of the hammers on leathers - embroidered for wealthy and crimson for poor.

ERZURUM - Citadel Mosque and Clock Tower: The citadel was built during the reign of Byzanthine Emperor Theodosius around 5th century A.D. In the tower there is a clock made in Croydon/England, Queen Victoria's gift for the Ottoman Sultan in 1877. There is a nice view from the clock tower to Erzurum city, especially to the town’s landmarks Ulu Camii and Çifte Minareli Medrese.
In the afternoon, I boarded a bus bound for Trabzon. On the way, the bus was frequently stopped and searched. Foreigners were required to flash their passports - blue, green or pinkish. Local held out their IDs. Kurds had their IDs marked with a red stamp. Many times, they were singled out for intense questioning. (Born unlucky, they are spread in Turkey, Iran and Iraq and are fighting a losing battle for a separate homeland).


Trabzon was located in lush-green forests on the coastline of Black Sea. Blue and Green colours mingled well. In the city, many historical building stood like old guards amidst unspoiled beauty and splendor. Narrow streets, small earth-roofed houses were still medieval. Raised gardens and landscaping gave a dazzling view. The beauty was enhanced by contribution made by a nearby University of Architecture & Landscape. Other things which jacked Trabzon to glory were: birthplace of Sultan Süleyman The Magnificent, a top football team (Trabzonsport) and fine golden bracelets made by its artisans.

Uzun Sokak, one of the busiest pedestrian shopping streets in Trabzon.

In the evening, I went to suburban areas. I walked by vineyards, apricot orchards and melon fields. Mustafa Pasha (who wanted to sharpen his English) joined me. He must have regretted it as my accent was horrible. Nevertheless, he remained glued as my name was a like a magnet to a Muslim. (Hafeez is one of the 99 names of God). 

When I told him my plan to go to Ankara, he reacted sharply as if stung by a bee. "Ankara!! A cluster of modern buildings!! Is this you came for? No dear no, go to underground towns. Get to the heart of Turkey. Go Cappadocia (pronounced cup-uh-doh-kee-uh)." He was so insistent that he changed my mind. I asked him to draw my itinerary in his language. He started scribbling in Roman alphabets, emitting words like Erzincan, Sivas and Kayseri as if in a trance.

Next morning, I went to an Otogar (Bus-station). I stretched the hand-written paper towards a bus operator. "Murhaba", he uttered and personally led me to a front seat on a bus to Erzincan, 330 km away. What was written was so appealing that I became personal responsibility of whosoever read the massage: always front seat, convenient route and time. Many places, I was asked to wait & take rest as it was cumbersome to proceed on. 

Pushed from one bus to another, at long last I reached Kayseri at 5 in the morning, half-asleep, covering 770 km since Trabzon, in 13 hours of bus rides. Luckily, every other hour, the busses had been halting at brightly-lit cafeterias affording me an opportunity to shake the swollen ankles and have tea.


At first look, I was disappointed. There was nothing except brown hills and rocks. Soon I realized that they looked like Ku Klux Klan. These were conical in shape, which resembled hoods & head to heal garments. They had windows or ventilators looking like dark eyes. On reaching near, I noticed openings leading inside. It took me some time to realize that Cappadocia charm lied beneath the surface.

A former cave house in Goreme, Cappadocia, Turkey:

Tourist-turnout was astonishing, many had come from cities as far as Istanbul. Mostly were in groups with prepaid packages escorted by smart English speaking guides. Perhaps, I was the only solo traveller, without a package, with no one to turn to in case of distress. I followed one group and listened to the guide narratives. I changed the group before being noticed. In pieces, I got the whole story without incurring a dime.

A place called Goreme was really a sight. Its had eight levels going down. The passages were lit with bare light bulbs. Tourist voices echoed inside the hollowness. It got cooler & cooler as I went down. At the bottom, I felt reasonably cold and wished I had my leather-jacket. I had to crane my neck to look up to see the sky, eight floors above.

At night, I stayed in a cave-lodge to have taste of the history. Everything looked normal except the insects and flies. Luckily, I had plenty of insect-repellent. I applied it well over my body. It was so effective that even the housekeeper dared not enter. Next morning, I had to wash my body three times before joining others for breakfast.

"Anyone for Konya?" I asked around. No one stirred except two young Turkish girls. They turned out to be research scholars writing a paper on Sufism. They told me in Hitler-accent that I could accompany them. Who would not? They were such striking beauties. The only problem was that if I tried to speak to one, the other also chipped in. It reminded me of a pizza shop in Pretoria, South Africa where they said, "Buy ONE, get ONE free."


The taxi was heading towards Konya, the home of the Whirling Dervish. The first dervish was Jalaluddin Rumi, a renowned scholar. One day, walking by the goldbeaters’ shop, he became enchanted by the sound of hammers. As he uttered "Allah, Allah", he heard it echoed back. In a mounting state of ecstasy, Rumi began to turn and whirl.

Popularly known in the world as the city of the Whirling Dervishes, Konya, Turkey, is one of the oldest urban centers in the world where prominent figures in history walked its streets and left awe-inspiring marks behind them, which are now the top tourist attractions in the country. Most notable highlights in Konya are the Mausoleum of Jamal ad-Din Rumi, also known as Mevlana Museum, Alaeddin Hill Park and the city's marvelous Seljuk architecture. 

The two girls, Nilufar & Lale, were engaged in heated discussions. For my benefit, they translated in English, a message of Dervish:

Even if you deny your oaths a hundred times, come!
Our door is the door of hope, come! Come like you are!" 
In the evening, the taxi reached Konya. While the girls headed for the shrine, I scanned the area to secure a place to stay at. I got a room above a cafe. It was Sunday evening. The café was jammed packed with Turkish men watching a foot-ball match on TV. They were crying, singing and jumping on tables. "Football-mania" was going on live.

Next morning, I went to the shrine, which had a mosque, dance hall, dervish-living quarters, school and tombs. In the dancing hall, the dervishs were whirling. Drums, violins and flutes were pounding out an insistent rhythm. Dervish skirts were swirling horizontally, higher and higher. With their faces rapt, they seemed to free themselves from the gravity. 

When the skirts spun above their heads, they slowed down to let them fall, symbolizing material sacrifices and surrender. Right arms were raised and left arms lowered down, a gesture of reconciliation between heaven and earth. Across a brief silence, there were cries of "Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar!" (God is Great!)

In the evening, I went to a lokanta (restaurant). There was a wide variety like sav tava (grilled lamb, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and garlic with rice pilaf). This could be washed down with ayran (a salty yogurt drink) and finished with a dessert, borek (cheese filled pastry). Indeed, Turkish foods were very tasty.

I stayed at Konya for two days and took a bus for the next town. The ultimate destination was Ankara. Travelling by bus was much more pleasant for non-smokers like me. Smoking was banned on all buses nationwide. From the bus window, I saw summer homes and summer grazing of herds of animals. I stopped at two places. This afforded me an opportunity to look around the nearby villages. It was very pleasant to see rounding up animals for milking and weaving of carpet in artistic designs. 
There were goats in large number, famous Angora-breed, looking majestic as if they owned the place. People were working in the fields with families. They would call me over to share lunch or have a cup of tea. A young man from a wedding party ran out and invited me to join them in their ceremonial dance. Women picking cherries forced me to have some. None spoke English but conveyed his best wishes and prayers through body language.


At first sight, Ankara was a pleasant surprise. Lush-green, it was like a Western Metropolis. Later, I observed that the city was surrounded by strings of shacks, shanty and cardboard houses.Central area was clean and tidy. There were a number of museums and Mausoleums especially of Mustafa Kamei Ataturk at a hill-top. Chankaya, a residential area, had a panoramic view. It was a rich-man world. Buildings constructed on rolling hills were marvel of modern architecture.

One fine morning, I braced myself for long and straight walk. It turned out a travel through time-tunnel. The modern buildings gave way to old architecture; streets became narrower and crooked. There were many wooden mansion of Ottoman style. Some were converted into restaurants. A little further down, I could smell the stink. I was entering Gecekondu, houses built over night with all types of construction materials, wood, asbestos, iron rods, cardboard and what not. 
They had survived because of a centuries old Ottoman law stating that houses, one erected, could not be demolished by anyone. The life was miserable devoid of any amenity. It really pained me to see that benefits of economic development had not trickled down to poors. Kids were playing football on the road with their little bare feet. Some were flying kites standing on walls and risking their lives. Women were also standing on the make-shift walls waving a huge carpet up and down. They wanted to get the dust out to make it marketable. 
With heavy heart, I returned back and got lost in the bazaar. Every street was specialized in some item: clothes, hardware, copper, carpets, spices, fruit and veggies. In abundance were small restaurants (All-male preserve, full of smoke). In the evening, I went to a hairdresser. He just didn’t cut my hair, he also gave me a good look by shaving my face and cleaning my ears and nostrils. Next, he directed me to a nearby hamam, a Turkish steam-bath for sweating out all toxins. When I walked after the bath, I felt light. Gone was the dust gathered from slums around the Capital City.

 was now longing for Istanbul, a city in the two continents. I boarded a bus of Turkish Tourism. The inside looked like an air-bus with reclining seats, hostesses and music. Fragrance was distributed every two hours for rubbing face and hands. Turkish music was soothing to ears letting one forgot the long haul. Sulman Oghlo, the man seated next to me, was a teacher. He seemed very happy as teachers were well-paid besides having free accommodation, duty-free import of cars and last pay as pension.


"In Istanbul, ask for Aya Sofya" a French tourist said to me as a piece of worldly wisdom. It turned out to be a windfall. There were lot of dormitories, rooms and lean-to available for around one $. Some hostels offered free belly dancers twice a week.

Istanbul is a city which doesn't seem to sleep, or if they do it isn't for very long! No matter where you are there is something open - whether its just a kebab hut, bar or even a florist!

Istanbul was great except for the taxi rides. The drivers used to make turn without indication, dashed in one way streets, climbed up footpaths, changed lanes without warning. Indeed, until one travelled in a Turkish taxi, one hadn't really tasted Turkey.

Facing Aya Sofya was the world famed Blue Mosque. On a busy day, it gave a bit of a Disneyland feel with a large number of tourists milling around. Blue Mosque had blue tiles and 6 minarets. Another popular site was Topkapi Palace. It had large collections of crystal, silver and Chinese porcelain. I got into a queue lasting one hour to get into the harem ( wives and concubines rooms )to gawk at the luxury of the Ottoman Sultans. Baghdad Pavilion was another sight. One room was devoted to silver stuff, one to pure 24-CT gold ornaments, one to emerald ones and one to diamonds. I recalled having seen a film, Topkapi, wherein a diamond studded dagger was stolen and subsequently recovered.

Among the religious relics, it was a lifetime chance to see tooth and footprint of the Great Prophet, his clothes and his banner. These were enclosed in a golden case and could only be viewed through a thick and protective glass.

In the evening, I took a bus to go to a ferry stop in the Black Sea. Known as Hyder Pasha, the area was a living display of true Turkish Culture. A large number of local people were resting along the edges of the sea. Tea sellers were paddling tea to the exhausted customers. There many stalls selling fresh fish fired in a number of ways. Sitting in an open-cafe, one could view the sea as well as the skyline full of minarets with ship sirens in the background.

I jumped into a ferry which cruised through the Bosphorus, giving an enchanting view of palaces, old wooden villas, and mosques. An old bridge, Gulta, had two layers - traffic up and pedestrian down. On return, I passed by Pera Palace, an 1892 building where passengers of "Orient Express" used to stay. In fact, Greta Garbo had stayed here, Mata Hari and Dame Agatha herself who wrote 'Murder on the Orient Express' . One could have a meal plus wine in the most exclusive place in town for £25.

Istanbul was a city with a character that invited attention or embraced visitors with warmth. Too much of its historic fabric had been shredded by new construction but a lot remained to see. The beauty of the city was enhanced as it stood on seven hills. Turkey has two faces: modern and old. Those living in big cities imitated western style. In rural areas, people still lived in the same way as at the time of Ottoman Empire. Little boys still wore skullcaps and women continue to drape themselves in non-revealing clothes.
The villagers were hospitable and  welcomed guests with open hands. In one village, I had a chance to see famous Angora Cats flowing with beauty. (Muslims love cats as the Great Prophet approved it.) I patted a blue eyed female and an odd eye male. These were said to be natural breed with original Turkish lineage. Slightly larger, they had unique appearance. 


I had been out of country for over two months and got home sick. It was time to head back. 

ource, Title image, Remaining images (downwards)   1  2   3   4    5   6    7    8    YoTube video

Note: This is an old yet interesting travellogue [as you might have also noticed], hence the prices and costs of staying at different places mentioned by the writer may be much higher than the ones prevailing at the time he undertook this journey.
Hafeezur Rahman Malik is an ex-Bank Executive. As says Hafeez, he now whiles away his time in teaching and traveling. Each year in summer and winter holidays, he goes on a footloose and fancy-free safari to a new country or to a new area of a large country like USA. His travel tales are published by various websites specially www.hubpages.com & www.cstn.org . He lives in Karachi, Pakistan, with wife and a cat.Email: hafeezr@bigfoot.com
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