The Republic of Turkey


On August 24th, I woke up at an excruciatingly early hour, around 3am, to catch an early S-bahn to the airport. My flight was at 6:10am. I slept through my flight to Frankfurt and from there to Istanbul. I woke up only to look out the window minutes before we landed at Atatürk International Airport. Upon arrival, as an American, I was required to get what is falsely called a visa for Turkey. In theory it's a visa but in practice it's a sticker that a man peels off a sheet (exactly like stamps) that I have to pay 20 USD cash for. It amounts to a tourist tax. In April 2004 it was lowered from 100 USD to 20. Canadians pay 45 though.

I bought my sticker and went through immigration having collected a nifty sticker and stamp. I changed money and was immediately confronted with the infinite confusion of hyper-inflation. A few years ago Turkey went through a massive financial crisis with outrageous inflation and their econonmy crashing but not before shrinking almost 10%. Thus, 1 euro was 1,850,000 Turkish Lira. It was like Italy was back in the day where everyone was a millionaire. I was lucky enough not to get screwed by anyone despite the confusing and sky-high amounts you had to pay for things, even when it was actually cheap.The worst were coins for 250,000 / 100,000 and 50,000 which were rarely but still sometimes used though less than worthless.

I walked outside to see about organizing public transit to my hostel, met a Georgian (US Georgia) who'd just flown in from Nepal, and split a cab to the old city which cost us 10 million a piece, or 5 euros. While I stayed in Sultanahmet, the old city, it was really cut off from the real city insofar as having all the major sites and thus being very touristy. Though many people, including myself, have a romantic vision of Istanbul with its minaret filled skyline and thousands of years of history, it's still just another big city. Istanbul is home to around 12 or 13 million people from all over the world. There are a number of ethnic enclaves such as a large Russian neighborhood I chanced into a few times where everything was in cyrillic. While it is a bustling metropolis, it is a bustling metropolis with a very Turkish flavor to it.

On my first day, for instance, while walking around and dodging Turkish traffic, I ran across a man with a horse and cart who was selling watermellons. There were many such people, not always with a horse though, selling things from massive pushcarts in the streets. You'd see such carts as well as massive ones, as wide and almost as long as cars, filled with fruits which people would walk around town with. Some would sell pastries or roasted corn too. Prices were excellent. A kilo of figs for example was around 50 cents. In Turkey, you could find anything you want fresh. They had oranges, limons, bannanas, figs, pomegranates, everything. You name it, it was there. There were many stands selling fresh orange juice. I mean fresh too, as in they'd squeeze it right in front of you. IT was usually between 40 cents and a dollar depending on the size. As is endemic to the Middle East, the streets were always brimming with vendors of everything under the sun and thus one didn't find many stores which sold more than a few things and very few chains. And here on the harbor boat go fishing, then come back and dock near a main bridge, cook the fish on the boat and sell it while docked. Then they go back out. Granted that's some mad polluted water and I wouldn't touch that stuff, it was a pleasant sight (Balik means fish).Things like this really provided a nice lively atmosphere on the streets which doesn't exist in Europe nor America.

One thing that many people perhaps think about Turkey (and the Middle East in general) is that people sit around outside a lot, drinking tea and playing backgammon. This is true.Ubiquitous groups of men sit at tiny cafés drinking çay (Turkish for tea), chain-smoking and playing countless games of backgammon. While this is picturesque and lends to that romantic and foreign feel, it simply shows that unemployment is high and that penions are somewhere between little to nonexistant.

One thing that was unexpected though a pleasant surprise, was that many people seemed to mistake me for being Turkish. I wouldn't have guessed it being the white cracker that I am, however, my dark features and beard especially seemed to really throw people off. After this happened over and over, I started asking people why they thought I was Turkish. It seems that in Turkey, beards are solely for religious people. There were many moustaches, but the only people who had beards were the pious.

At one point I met a Kurdish carpet dealer who after trying to sell me a carpet, invited me for the usual çay and a chat. His English was quite good and we sat discussing various things such as why I was not religious, the Kurdish situation in Turkey and the USA. We sat together for at least a half hour and I assisted him in selling carpets since he could sell well and I could speak English well. Unfortunately we didn't sell any although we did talk to many foreigners. Later he had to go pray at the Mosque and walked me to a local Hammam (Turkish bath) as I'd asked where I could find one.

I spent a lot of time walking around through Istanbul, taking very little public transit. There were three Metro lines but since Istanbul is on both sides of the Bosphorus, each line stays on it's side and doesn't cross so if you want to go to the other side, it's not really convenient to take the Metro. One interesting thing that I saw whilst walking along the water was a ship crashed into the harbor that had just been left where it ran aground. That was quite picturesque to say the least, but then again, such a non-sanitary and organized city was also a breath of fresh air from living in Germany and America. Granted I don't know if I'd enjoy living in a dirty and chaotic city like Istanbul for the long term, but it has a sense of life that lacks in the first world. People aren't outside only to get from one building to the next, they really live there. Everything happens outside, dancing, eating, meeting friends, picnics in the parks, business, etc.

The food in Turkey was excellent, granted I got a bit tired of eating the same things over and over by the end, it was delicious stuff. I've never seem cheaper lamb in my life. One could order lamb shish (kebab) for 2 or 3 dollars and that was a bit expensive. To wrap up Istanbul with a few last random pictures and observations, first and foremost would would be Mustafa Kemal Atatürk or at lest his statue.He was a great Ottomon general and after the Ottomon Empire was defeated, sliced up, and occupied by the allies after WWI, he began an independence movement, partially in response to the Greek invasion of the west. As the founder of the Turkish Republic who installed secular democracy in a 98% Muslim country, he's worshipped. The Turks are extremely proud of the fact they live in a secular democratic state and constantly compare themselves with the "backwards Arabs." Ataturk is a god there. In fact, as far as I know, it's still illegal to say anything bad about him (lese majeste laws). This is what I read, people I asked weren't sure. Every city in Turkey, and in N. Cyprus had at least two or three statues of him and every business had a huge portrait of him (which was formerly required by law). I'd never seen a democracy with a personality cult as serious as the one I would later see in Syria.


I took a 6 hour bus from Istanbul down to Çanakkale which is a small city on the Gallipoli peninsula. On the bus ride I met a very friendly young Turk who dressed quite European, which was extremely unusual. He was the only Turk I saw wearing shorts the entire month I was there. His English was very minimal but it was sufficient to converse a bit. At one point the bus had to board a ferry so we got out and talked while crossing the Dardenelles. Tthere really isn't anything to the town, it's small and important only in relation to what it's close to. What is it close to? Ancient Troy and Gallipoli. I thought ancient Troy would be exciting but it was the biggest waste of time and sleep (started at 8am!) of the whole trip. There were about one dozen cities built on top of the original Troy hence the ruins you see aren't from the first city but some are from the 2nd, some from the 5th, or 10th etc. It's a mish mash and since there's not much anyway, it was rather boring and didn't provide any sort of overall picture of what things were like.

The second thing there was to see, actually the main reason I came, was the Gelibuli (Gallipoli) peninsula. It was the site of a major WWI battle where the Allied forced attacked attempting to wrest control of the waterway from the Ottomans. Winston Churchill, against the advice of most everyone else, was set on taking them and launched a huge attack. However, the Turks, aided by the Germans, had mined the waterway at it's narrowest point (about 1 mile across) and although the Brits had demined in the night, the Turks remined it before dawn. British ships attempted to go through only to be destroyed. The Aznacs (Australia New Zeland Army Corps) landed on the other side only to be mowed down by the Turks lead by Atatürk. By the end of the battle, the Allies ran away with their tail between their legs and around half a million dead. They never took it despite two attempts, one 6 months long. I walked around the battle field, actually the entire peninsula on an excellent tour led by a Turk who'd married an Australian and thus spoke excellent English (albeit of the Australian variety). Not only that, but he loved history and talked nonstop about everything that happened. This was someone who was really doing what he loved and it made the 6 hour tour not only fun, but very educational and I walked away having learned a lot. That's a good trip in my mind. Fun, beautiful surroundings and learning. I was, by the way, the only American there. Only Aussies and Kiwis came to this, because it was an important part of their history as it was what kicked off the movement for Australian independence.

Fethiye and a cruise

After two days in Çanakkale, I took an excruciatingly long night bus down to the Mediterranean coast to the city of Fethiye. It was fairly touristy but I was only there for one day. The next day I set off on a yacht to cruise the coast for 4 days. I'd not originally planned on doing it, because really I hadn't thought of it but it was truly a highlight of the trip. We basically sailed along the coast, stopping at various coves, beaches, islands, ruins and one or two small towns. I also picked up a bit of etymological information, namely that the word turquoise comes from "Turk" because the water along Turkey's coast is that color. The Turkish Mediterranean was absolutely fabulous, far better than what I'd seen in Croatia. It was amazing. I've never seen coast like this anywhere. It was even better than Croatia. There were dozens and dozens of tiny islands and every single one had Byzantine and/or Lycian ruins all over it. In fact, there were so many ruins on the coast that almost none of them were protected. Turkey would go bankrupt restoring and protecting it's wealth of historical ruins. One of the nicest places we stopped was some island whose name I don't think I ever knew. There were Lycian sarcophogi everywhere, some in the water, some carved into a rock face, others above ground. The island was small and there weren't many people on it. After we landed at the end of the 4 days, I stayed a night on the coast and set off early the next morning to Alanya in order to catch the ferry to Northern Cyprus.


Alanya didn't interest me at all and I'd only chosen to travel there as it was the city furthest west with a ferry connection and that's about the only thing that makes it worthwhile to visit. It was horrible. It was the most built up city I saw with hundreds of ugly apartment buildings. The streets were packed with scantly clad europeans who had come on package-tours to "the beach" and not to Turkey. I had met a very friendly Turk on the bus who spoke no English but with whom I still communicated a little. He asked me where my hotel was I and told him the name. He got out of the bus with me, asked around to find the correct local bus, paid my fare, found the stop, got off with me, and then asked around until he finally led me to the door of my hotel. He didn't want money, it wasn't a scam, he was just another friendly Turk. Anyway, I paid a whopping 65 USD for a rountrip ticket to Cyprus and was on my way after 2 nights.

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