Most of this post was written before I heard news today that my granddad died yesterday. He was 99. I wish I could say that he’d want me to troop on with the trip. He did, after all, fight in Burma during World War II in the Royal Indian Air Force and whatnot. But I didn’t know him that well, and I wish I did. We’d all known for a while that this was bound to happen sooner or later as he was in bad health. In fact, I don’t even know how it happened. Getting this kind of news when you’re travelling is the worst. I’d wanted to be there for his funeral when it happened, and now I can’t. May he rest in peace.
I’m not going to rewrite what I had already written, so there may be a disconnect in tone from this preface to the rest of the entry. What I’ll try to continue doing is to keep writing to keep my mind off things, and try to explore every opportunity on this trip possible because I never know when, if ever, I’ll be back in all these places.
I got an early start today morning, skipping the free breakfast at my hostel (the horror!). I’d spent some time last night after writing the previous blog entry trying to figure out how to use metro, light rail, and train systems to get to Istanbul’s main otogar – the bus station – without much success. From every way that I looked at it, it seemed impossible. And yet…they simply couldn’t leave a part of town disconnected like that, could they?
I arrived just in time at Taksim Square to find a bus intended for Otogar. So began the slow dance of how to pay for buses in strange cities where you and the driver don’t speak the same language: you sloooooooooowly take one coin at a time out of your wallet (do this sloooooooowly), show it to the driver, and rinse-and-repeat until he tells you to stop. I was in luck that Istanbul’s notoriously nasty traffic was light early morning.
To imagine Istanbul’s Otogar, think of a huge arena of buildings arranged roughly in a circle with offices for three-to-four dozen bus companies, some signs for which I spied multiple times in this ring. Where do you even begin in this madness! Bauhaus the ethic of this place is definitely not, yet I spied a sign far in the distance proclaiming…the skyline…to be so? Perhaps it’s a museum. I should explore this later.
I plunged straight in at the bus company office I was closest to and started asking timings for when their next bus would be leaving. The journey from Istanbul to Ankara takes about seven hours by bus and even leaving at 8am, I was only realistically giving myself half a day there. What I was more concerned about is that the monument I wanted to visit Ankara for in the first place closed at 5pm. I had to get there before that. I passed on a few operators since they all seemed to have buses leaving at 9am or later, but then found one that was leaving in a few minutes. They were nice enough to let me on that even though they weren’t selling tickets any more for it, and I was on my way.
Turkey is a large country, and for inter-city travel buses hold the mainstay. The surprising fact – and this is repeated often – is that travelling by bus is actually faster than travelling by train in Turkey, although perhaps that might change in the future as I believe a high-speed rail line is in construction between Istanbul and Ankara.
The other thing about bus travel in Turkey is that because the journeys are long, bus companies go out of their way to make it comfortable. Sample this: my bus had two drivers (a main driver, and a standby driver who switched places every few hours), and three other staff on board who were almost like airline stewards. They had snazzy uniforms and came by your seat handing out drinks and cookies every few hours. As the only foreigner on-board, the stewardess kept giving me extra cookies which I would then smuggle onwards to two kids sitting in front of me, subject to the glare of stern looks from their mums.
Each seat has its own seatback TV which could access sixteen channels – including a camera feed from the back of the bus bizarrely rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise for some reason – and neatly stowed-away headsets to plug-in to your seatback monitor. I didn’t understand much of the TV channels, which were all in Turkish, but I watched this one Turkish sitcom for a while which had a girl talking to a genie in the mirror in a men’s toilet (there were urinals in the background) who kept pulling out a landline phone receiver out of his pocket and talking into it, while the girl waited smilingly and patiently. It was insane enough that I wanted to continue watching it. Sleep got the better of me, and I reclined back to nap the rest of my journey.
Except…for this one bit of excitement. We had stopped for one of our usual go for a piss / a walk stops at one of those typical bus rest places. I left my bag on the bus, and I’d taken my glasses off too since I was napping, and went to the loo. When I came back, I saw a bus from the same bus operator parked in the spot where my bus was…only that this one claimed it was going to Istanbul! I wasn’t the only one to be surprised by this – there was a mum travelling with her kid too (one of the kids I was smuggling cookies to). None of the people waiting knew what happened to the bus.
Here I was, in the middle of nowhere where not one soul seemed to speak English, with my glasses on the bus with the rest of my bag, my passport, my netbook, all my clothes…with just about the only thing I did have being my wallet with two cards in it, and a phone that had no prepaid balance in it since I hadn’t gotten around to doing that. I hoped that the bus had sauntered off to fill its tanks. Surely they couldn’t just leave three passengers behind! What’s the point of having three stewards on board then! Five minutes grew to ten to fifteen and I really was quite stunned by all this. And…then the bus pulled right back in. I don’t understand what the point of its exercise was. Just that if it ever happens again – in this country or another – I now have the experience if asked by a fellow traveller to say “They do that sometimes,” and look away with a mystic smile.
I made it to Ankara by 3.15pm. There was a clear difference between Ankara and Istanbul’s otogar: this was more of an airport with parking bays, signage, shops, and a direct link to Ankara’s metro system. I made my way to the metro to get from ASTI Otogar to Tadogan, within walking distance from the monument I wanted to visit (the one that closed at 5pm): Anit Kabir.
Anit Kabir is a memorial to Mehmet Kemal, the father of the modern Turkish nation as we know it. In fact, the title that he took on and is better known by – Ataturk – means Father Turkey. Think of him as similar to Mahatma Gandhi: considered to be the father of a nation, except in Ataturk’s case he actually ruled the country directly for a long time. He was the one who set up Ankara as the base for his Turkish revolution due to its central location and then later made into the capital of the modern state. To this day, he is widely revered in Turkey – to the extent that any word against him could land you in prison.
I was reading about all the reform that Ataturk had done in making Turkey a modern nation. He introduced the modern Turkish script using Roman characters. He also, get this, mandated that every Turkish national should have a surname. That’s just so bizzare, when you think about it! Here was a whole nation that somehow never thought of or needed to use the concept of family names! Government records must have been a nightmare before Ataturk’s time.
Anit Kabir is a leisurely stroll up a hill from Tandogan metro station. I was glad they made me keep my bag behind at the reception because I was getting tired of lugging it around for hours now. I was also very glad at coming across at one of those rare monument where they don’t charge you an entry fee to get in. You don’t think about it much for one occasion, but they do add up over a trip.
As you walk towards the monument, these huge statues of three men and three women on a raised platform facing each other comes into view. I was too skint to buy an audio guide, but I believe that’s Ataturk with his soldiers. Probably.
And those are the statues of the three women facing the men. I don’t quite understand why the one in the middle is facepalming, though.
This leads on to a path called the Lion Road, lined with stone lions on both sides which are supposed to signify the strength of the Turkish nation. (On that note, does Turkey even have lions? I mean, natively?) Now, at last, I could feel that I was in a touristy place. Yes, the Turks still outnumbered outsider visitors, and yes, I still couldn’t distinguish between Caucasians and Turks, but then I saw a group of Japanese tourists clicking away on their Nikons and I felt a tiny bit less lonely. I wanted to hug them.
I made it to the main memorial are just in time to see a military ceremony taking place near the flagpole in the previous Lion Road picture. They marched. all. the. way. down. Lion. Road. with. those. high. kicks. There were staff everywhere, keep that the place was kept clean, people stayed of the marching posse’s way, and so on.
Anit Kabir sits on top of a hill, with the city of Ankara stretching beneath it. You can get a good, almost 360 degree view by walking along the large courtyard that surrounds the main memorial. It’s spread over such a huge area that even with all the tourists, it didn’t feel crowded at all.
By far the favourite takeaway picture for all tourists seemed to be with the guards posted around Anit Kabir. Very much like Buckingham Palace guards, they are not allowed to move an inch while they are on duty. You do wonder how on earth they manage to do that. Surely they are human too. What if the kebap from last night doesn’t agree with their constitution? I’ve also wondered whether ceremonial guards like these carry loaded guns. Like, whether they are actually trained marksmen who can do damage if it comes to that.
The main mausoleum chamber has a high vaulted ceiling, and you can walk around look at floor-to-ceiling high inscriptions such as this one…
And, if like me, you don’t speak Turkish…
And so on. It gives a sort-of Soviet Union vibe to the place. Even though there were signs prohibiting plucking flowers from the premises of Anit Kabir, I saw a few families surreptitiously plucking a few leaves from a tree and hiding it inside their bags. Clearly, many Turks hold Ataturk close to their hearts and its touching to see such respect. It was great to see a public monument this well-maintained. The view of the spread beneath is makes it all the more worthwhile.
Ankara is a city of ripped jeans and beautiful people. Let me qualify that statement. Ankara itself can be split into three major locales: Ulus, which is the old Ankara and home to the old Citadel (a place that I had no interest in visiting. It’s a fort. Big whoop.); Kavaklidere, the diplomatic quarters; and Kizilay, where the university and much of the student population lives / hangs out. It is this last locale that I was my hostel is in, and it’s no surprise that thanks to being the heart of the university life, it is teeming with college kids. University towns can go many ways in vibe, and Ankara happens to be the one where all fashionable and glamorous kids go to. This felt like home, it felt comfortable, knowing that many of these people were university kids just like me.
My hostel in Ankara has quite the character too. When it comes to dorm beds, I always like it when a hostel invests in wooden dorm beds. It somehow feels more welcoming to me compared to metal bunk beds. Bright red walls, an open-air lounge air with plush sofas and swings, much of the hostel staff fragging it out on Unreal Tournament in the indoor lounge, and cool decor like a faux Route 66 gasoline pump gave it a friendly vibe.
I met a South Korean guy, Jay, in the same dorm who used to work in a university but then quit to spend five months (and ten days, so far) motorbiking across Korea, Russia, much of Europe, and is now in Turkey so that he can continue onwards towards Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia. So far, it has been hard luck for him getting a visa for Sudan – he’s been rejected at three different Sudanese embassies and is now in Ankara to try his luck at the Sudanese embassy here too. (If not, then he plans to bike to Iran to try there.) Such travel stories are not uncommon, yet it doesn’t detract from what a tough personal challenge people like him take on. It’s insane. He’s also told me about his time backpacking around India on another trip. I couldn’t help wondering whether I’d ever do something similar: hit the road for such an extended period, leaving everything behind. As enticing as it sounds, I kinda find giving up a job completely and going on such a long trip…a waste of resources. Perhaps I’ll eat my own words in the future if I grow disillusioned with working life. I mean, it’s great and all to take a break and go travelling, but giving up everything is too daunting for me at the moment. But his trip stories are not the first thing we talked about. The moment we introduced ourselves and I found he was South Korean, I went “Oh! So tell me…how big is Gangnam Style in Korea? CAN YOU SHOW ME THE STEPS?” Way to go with racial profiling.
The hostel was located a short walk from Kolej metro station, and a ten-minute walk from the heart of Kizilay suburb. I went out for a walk, and I really liked the vibe of the city. People – mostly university students, from the looks of it – look so contended and happy! Even when crossing streets with huge throngs of people, the noise of people talking was barely above a murmur. Everyone had such blissful smile on their faces. Kizilay is dotted with kebapcis (kebab shops), cafés, and restaurants near the suburb centre. At the centre and within twenty minutes walking in either direction, there were massive parks full of blissfully happy people too. I could totally see this as a city I wanted to live in if, say, I could choose another study exchange. I was glad that I decided to stay the night rather than simply take an overnight bus, as I had originally planned.
I really liked gardens and the fountains in the central plaza sort-of area.
I don’t quite know what the above statues are for. They look like protective demons to me.
Part of my aim in visiting that part of town was to find offices for bus operators, to find out bus timings for buses to Cappadocia that I need to catch tomorrow. It was during this that I stumbled across a pastanesi – Turkish for a restaurant serving Italian dishes, primarily pasta – called Penguen that had the Linux mascot Tux on its signboard! I so wish I had gone in there, even though they probably don’t know what Tux is.
Later that evening I headed out to Yuksel Caddesi and the general region around it, which is a hub of cafes and bars students hang out in. Ate dinner at this café called Le Man Kultur that has a decor themed around a comic strip. The tables and mats they serve food on are all collections from this comic strip. What a quaint touch! I ordered a crocodile sandwich – which is an odd dish as it consists of a chicken breast sandwich drizzled with cheese, with salad and wedges, and not actual crocodile meat (something that I have eaten previously). The wait was no help as he didn’t speak much English. Still, the portions were large and I found myself feeling sick stuffing myself. Just not used to that quantity of food these days.
I walked around for a bit and came across this pub called Papillon, decked out with vintage Les Pauls on its walls, playing a black-and-white film on a projector, and an owner with an eclectic collection of classic rock CDs who kept the hits coming. Sadly, it was a bit empty today and I found that story repeating itself at all the streets I walked down. Clearly a Sunday night is not when the streets are most lively here – I’d been warned as much at by the friendly guys at the hostel – which is a bit sad really because I’m sure on a Friday or a Saturday night, it would be so much more enjoyable. The hostel’s owner also owns a club called Possage, and when that turned out to be empty too I knew it was time to call it a night. Ankara is a city that does sleep – 11.30pm, by the looks of it.
I really need to learn how to sit down on a swing. I tried it while writing this entry and fell over on my first go. I stuck to the plush sofas after that.