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Travel

23 hours in Istanbul airport

There are a few things you need to know if you’re flying Turkish Airlines via Istanbul and have to spend 23 hours there.

If you have a transit layover longer than 10 hours due to their schedule, they provide you a free stay at Istanbul airport hotel. The ‘their schedule’ part is the important bit, because it means you’re not entitled to a free hotel if there’s an alternative flight for their connecting leg which has a gap of less than 10 hours for the layover. (I was hoping that someone at their transit desk wouldn’t know the distinction well enough or give me a room anyway, but no luck.)

Turkish Airlines also offer a free tour of Istanbul at specific times during the day. This is an excellent way of eking out more out of your layover. You do need to pay for tourist visa though as you’ll have to pass through passport control landside.

You could also try paying to get lounge access at Istanbul airport – if you don’t have free access to one already, that is. (HSBC card holders are particularly in luck as any HSBC Premier card gets them lounge access. Any other HSBC card holders can get access for 50 Turkish lira.)

Failing everything, you can always sleep like a hobo.

***

Book abandoned

I often used to buy used or “one-off read” books when travelling. Most hip hostels offer some kind of book exchange; this is where I tend to pick them up. And thus started a ritual – inspired by Paul Carr’s The Upgrade: whenever I’m at an airport or a train station or just at a café when I happen to finish reading these one-off books, I leave them behind with a short review. The rationale is that a book that would otherwise have stagnated on my shelf gets a new life and keeps another traveller company.

I like sticking around to see who picks the book up. (Mea culpa, I can be creepy.) It’s fun to note how much time each book takes to be picked because people do judge a book by its cover. Most passengers at an airport are in a hurry anyway and don’t like to pick up books which don’t immediately scream out “this is an easy read!”. What I’ve found works best is to leave it behind at a Starbucks or similarly ‘upmarket’ coffee chain; presumably because people stopping by at a cafe have time to kill. It’s also a question of logistics: if you leave it behind in a restaurant instead, books left behind are sure to be cleared away by waiters.

Some books are harder to get picked up than others. The one in the photo above (Tripmaster Monkey by Maxine Hong Kingston – a used book that I bought from a friend when I was in Singapore) was a particularly tough one. Interesting books get looked at regardless. Less striking ones…I can only assume passers-by think it’s being used to reserve a table. Sometimes I need to leave a note outside the book too saying that it can be picked up for free.

I leave behind my Twitter handle on those reviews too. I hope to hear back from someone who’s picked up my books some day. And I hope they pass it on when they finish too.

Now that I own a Kindle, I hardly ever buy paper books. I’ve slowly been giving away my entire book collection: either by gifting it to friends or by leaving it behind in public places like this.

***

I missed my first flight ever, this weekend when flying back to Delhi. My flight was at 1050, I woke up at 0920. I felt incredibly helpless and frustrated that this happened because I overslept, due to medication that knocks me out as a side effect.

I don’t know why I spent £45 on a taxi to take me from Guildford to Gatwick; there was no way I was going to make the flight. The woman at Turkish Airlines counter was quite helpful when I explained my situation to her. While I looked for alternative flights online, she checked on their system for how much it would cost to rebook on a different date. I’d bought my tickets at an incredibly cheap promotional price of £400 round-trip from London to Delhi, way back in August. And the news was bad: I’d have to spend £530 to pay for the fare difference if I wanted to fly the next day.

I almost didn’t take it. I haven’t been back to Delhi for two years because to me it boils down to simple economics: given the choice of spending £600-800 on return tickets to Delhi, or spending the same amount cumulatively going on a holiday elsewhere, I’d rather take the holiday. I’d rather take a new experience over an old one.

I’ve discussed this need I feel to constantly somewhere else often with my therapist. At the root of what I’ve been trying to get to is why do I want to avoid going back to Delhi? I spent a sizeable chunk of my life there and despite the ties I have to the place, I don’t find myself drawn back. I don’t know the answer why – and now with a missed flight I found myself with a solid excuse to bail on the trip. I really didn’t want to spend an extra £600 (once I threw in lounge access, food during layover, et al), partly because I didn’t even have that much money in my UK bank account.

Such situations crop up constantly when travelling. Things don’t go according to plan and then you need to make a snap decision: do I pay a high sum of money to do what I wanted to anyway, or bail? I found myself thinking of how much I agreed with Seth Kugel’s The Argument Against Pound-Foolish Travel. One thing I’ve learned while travelling is to never walk away from something writing it off as “too expensive” because if it’s something that caught my attention, I will regret not doing it when I think of that trip. And more than my family, what I found myself thinking is that I owed it to my therapist to explore what is it exactly that makes me want to avoid Delhi. My therapist! I’m more concerned about what my therapist thinks of me than my family.

Have you noticed the awkwardness yet? I danced all over the place in the above paragraphs to avoid using “home” and “Delhi” in the same sentence. Because I simply find myself unable to call any place “home” with conviction.

In the end, I just felt like I was having this same fucking conversation over and over again with myself. I wanted to put an end to that. I emptied my Indian and UK bank accounts out to buy myself that amended ticket. And you know what I found myself excited about? Not the flying back. I found myself excited about the fact that I would have a 23 hour layover in Istanbul airport “because it would be a new experience”.

Sometimes I do wonder what’s wrong with me.

***

There’s something about airports that I find oddly calming. An airport is one of those places where time loses meaning – like a casino – yet the pace of human activity round-the-clock is so measured. The cavernous halls just seem to swallow up all sound. There’s a faint murmur of snappy footsteps on tiles and the click of luggage wheels. I find this atmosphere to be incredibly Zen – an epitome of ‘the state of being‘.

I couldn’t blag a free hotel stay, so I headed to the lounges. Oh how I agonised over not trying to look like an unwashed backpacker (which I pretty much was by that point). But before I paid, I asked one of the other travellers in the queue whether he’d sign me in as a guest. And he did! Sometimes, you just have to ask.

I was looking forward to my layover as it would offer me an excellent opportunity for people watching. It’s calming to simply zone out and watch people go by in a busy place like an airport, trying to think about the story of how they got here and where they are heading to. A businessman in an expensive looking suit and a fancy briefcase sprawled across a bench sleeping – how did he not get himself a hotel? The girl working the graveyard shift at a pastry shop. The woman in Versace trousers walking barefoot, carrying broken heels in her hands. The chef at a food court restaurant laying out fresh baklava in the morning. The guard who was all for giving me a tough grilling at a security checkpoint…until I spoke the few Turkish phrases I knew, whence he immediately changed his attitude and waved me along smilingly. A kid who was crawling around a busy terminal gate, his parents seemingly didn’t care about keeping an eye out.

Somehow, these characters I notice at airports stick with me. I think it’s because it’s a time when I slow down and just ‘be’ in the moment.

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Travel

Day #4: Hot Air Balloons and Fairy Chimneys

First on my agenda today was a hot air balloon ride. I’ll come around to why it’s said that if you ever want to splurge on a hot air balloon ride, Cappadocia is the place to do it. I was in two minds about this. All operators in Lonely Planet listed their prices at 180-250 Euros, certainly not what I wanted to spend. Apparently this is because all the ‘reputable’ balloon tour operators have banded together and reached an agreement to offer only one balloon ride a day for safety reasons, since winds become more unstable as the day wears on. Shadier tour operators do more than one flight a day and can thus offer cheaper prices.

To be honest, I wasn’t that concerned about safety. For all that matters, I’d have been perfectly happy with a farmer’s cousin filling up a jute bag with air using a kerosene stove as long as it meant I got a hot air balloon ride out of it. So when my hostel owner – who, by the way, mosies off every winter to Thailand and whom I was exchanging SE Asia backpacking stories with – said he had an underhand deal with one particular balloon operator to offer the flight at 125 Euros, I jumped at it. I knew the prices wouldn’t be any better at any of the other shadier operators, and here I was getting hooked up with one without too much effort. It’s still a lot of money – this item is sure to stand out as one of the biggest expenses of this trip – but You Only Live Once.

I was picked up in the morning (more like woken-up-after-sleeping-through-alarm-and-had-to-dress-up-in-three-minutes-to-leave) by my balloon tour operator and taken to their offices for breakfast. The sky was dotted with hot air balloons. They looked like such graceful creatures, slow-moving whales of the sky. There are about fifteen balloon operators in this region and their numbers are evident when you look up at dawn. Must be a good business to get into.

We were then taken to our launch site by van. This was the second flight of the day for my balloon operator so we waited for the balloon to empty out, replacing the occupants one-by-one to balance out the weight distribution. In all, there were twenty people in our own party.

Hot air balloon take sequences have safety briefings too. Landing is the hardest part, as the basket hits the ground running so to speak, and we were briefed on what our brace position should be as we landed. Take-off is exciting – these four propane burners open up full throttle and spew hot air, and the balloon canvas slowly fills up and goes firm. And then ever so slightly, you drift away from the ground.

Our pilot was Rodrigues, a jovial Portuguese who’s bald and thus wears this silly afro wig to keep his head warm when flying. He started flying hot air balloons in November 1992, so he’s been doing this for about 20 years now. His first season in Turkey was in 2006-2007, following which he worked in Tanzania’s Serengeti. He moved back to flying in Turkey after that stint because he enjoys a much better social life in Turkey than out in Africa’s bush plains. He’s done five seasons of ballooning in Turkey, including this one.

The flight was kinda middling throughout. Our maximum altitude with respect to launch point was 30 metres and top speed during the flight 12 km/hr. We simply didn’t get the favourable winds that we needed to safely go higher up than that. At one point, out basket brushed against tree tops and there was a noticeable nervous hush in the crowd as the pilot joked it off as the wicker basket’s bottom being wiped clean now. We flew low over a couple of valleys that surround Goreme, Uchisar, and Avanos.

Looming power transmission cables signalled a premature end for our flight for safety reasons; the scheduled flying time of one hour was cut short to forty minutes. Landing wasn’t as scary as I imagined it would be as there was a crew on ground to tip the basket right using rope tackles. Fittingly, for the underwhelming flight, we landed in a field of manure.

There was a champagne toast – well, technically Turkish sparkling wine – (orange juice for those who don’t drink) afterwards since it’s a custom to do so after hot air balloon flights. Legend has it that the first hot air balloon fliers knew they would probably be met with pitchforks when they landed in some farmer’s field. Indeed they were – but a toast of champagne shared with them had the pitchfork-wielding farmers mollified. They really go a step extra to stroke your ego, giving you a signed flight certificate from the pilot too.

So I got taking a hot air balloon ride off my bucket list – but if you’re visiting Cappadocia and want some advice, here’s what I have to say: pay the difference and go for one of the more reputable operators, which only do a single flight earlier in the morning. It was evident just looking at them that they could safely climb to a higher altitude, and thus afford you better views.

And remember how I said Ataturk was everywhere in my Ankara post? This was the Land Rover the balloon crew chased us on the ground – that’s his signature on the hood.

***

Just when you think such a natural sight cannot be spoiled, you spot electric lines.

I put Goreme on my itinerary because of this fairly unique kind of rock formation that you find here: they are called ‘fairy chimneys’ and as you can see in this picture in the distance, they look like giant dicks with holes in them. These rock formations were built out of gradual natural erosion of sandstone and volcanic ash – the volcanic ash coming from three nearby volcanoes, the closest of which is Mount Erciyes. Many of these were later chiselled away by the inhabitants of Cappadocia – and the soft volcanic rock made it easy – into churches. If a fairy chimney here has a ‘normal’ rectangular entrance, it’s a house; and those with arched entrances are typically churches of some description.

Goreme used to have a thriving industry collecting pigeon poop from holes in this giant dicks called pigeon cotes, and then using it as manure. The pigeons, sadly, are no longer that extant in this region. Over many years rampant commercialisation had resulted in ugly signs all over the place and use of non-indigenous construction material. Nowadays, it’s more or less back to using stone and rock to retain an authentic feel in houses, and this is what you’d find in most of the ‘cave hotels’ here. Some of them are genuinely old places – sometimes buildings with a different original purposes like granaries – that have now been turned into hotels or houses.

There’s another reason this place is such an important tourist destination: this is an important place for Christianity. A lot of modern Christianity’s tenets come from saints who took refuge in the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia region, first from the Romans who were persecuting them, and then from Arab crusaders. Goreme Open-Air Museum (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) has six major churches dedicated to the influential saints of Cappadocia, including one called ‘Sandal Church’ which is supposed to have an exact fresco copy of Jesus’s sandal prints from Church of Ascension. The fact that an exact copy of Jesus’s sandal prints exists absolutely anywhere in the world, of course, once and for all answers the question whether Jesus wore sandals with sand grinders attached to their bottom.

(God do I hate large tourist groups. I don’t hate tourists per se; I am one myself after all. I don’t mind small groups either. What really ticks me off are large, elephant-like herds of 20-30 tourists that you get to see in Goreme’s Open Air Museum. Ferried along in air-conditioned buses, barely walking any distances at all these slow-moving elephants block your way every which way, half paying attention to what their guide is saying and making it a pain in the ass for independent travellers to see the churches. And the fucking elephants just keep on coming, one after another. They must be spending upwards of hundreds of dollars yet none of them would fork out an extra three dollars worth of tickets for one of the most beautiful churches in the Open Air Museum compound that is ticketed separately. All they want to do is slowly amble with fucking sunblock applied on their pasty bodies when they aren’t spending any serious time in the sun, take a few pictures in front of a hunk of rock for their grandchildren, and not understand one thing about the place. Really, I want to take a scalpel and slice them from scrotum to sternum, every single one of them. Large French tourist groups particularly piss me off. There’s something about their oohs and aahs and mercis that I find really fucking annoying.)

So where was I? The churches, yes. Unfortunately, photography in any form is not allowed in most of the churches since flash photography over ages can actually make the frescoes fade (and you can’t count on elephant herds to remember that – and they didn’t). Many of the frescoes related to Saint George and the legend of him slaying a dragon, which evoked a lot of memories since I studied part of my school life in St. George’s School. In addition to the pictorially detailed frescoes, many of the other ones were plainer, symbolic images pained using ochre colours (see for instance the one above) to disguise overt displays of religion at a time when the inhabitants were being persecuted.

I also spotted what appears to be a squat toilet inside one of the fairy chimneys. (Sorry, I didn’t hire the audio guide again.)

By far the best is the Dark Church. It costs an extra 8 lira to get into, but is totally worth it. The frescoes are in an excellent state of preservation and it’s a tiny church, and for that reason it is ticketed separately to keep tourist numbers low. There were two American women having a stubborn argument with a tour guide that Joseph (son of Jacob) had only one consort, Virgin Mary, and that he had no other wives or children other than Jesus. They were glumly shaking their heads and going on about “what they teach in aahr Bahble”. Ever noticed how conservatively religious people tend to be most misinformed about their beliefs?

In all, it’s a pleasant hour or two scurrying around small hills and looking at pretty well-preserved churches in a unique setting, only if you can grit and bear the large tourist groups. (The independent travellers are fun. There was this couple, where the guy had been a sniper in Israeli forces, and he was absolutely eloquent on the topic of behavioural economics.)

Walking back down from the museum, you see a tree on one of the side roads adorned with blue-coloured discs. These are put there are Turks have a superstition about “the evil eye” and use these to ward of said Evil Eye. You often see these trinkets in souvenir shops.

A UFO mannequin, in Hrithik Roshan’s ‘Ek Pal Ka Jeena’ dance pose.

There’s also a ‘UFO Museum’ about a possible UFO sighting in Goreme that I was really excited about visiting, but it seems that in the off-season it turns into a pottery shop. I had to content myself with clicking pictures of broken alien mannequins guarding the entry of the pottery shop.

I was starving by this point, so I walked down to Goreme town centre (it’s a small town) to this small, unassuming restaurant tucked away in a corner called Firin Express. The gist of a flyer at every table in the restaurant claimed that their kunefe was “ISO 9001 certified” (at least, I think that’s what I think it said; I don’t understand Turkish). I wasn’t disappointed by my choice of dessert.

The highlight of this restaurant, being a pideci, are its pides – ‘Turkish pizzas’ which I can only describe as akin to a thin calzone stuffed with your ‘topping’ of choice and cut into little chunks. I ordered a potato pide stuffed with potatoes, spices, vegetables, and cheese. Truly filling meal, for the equivalent of less than two pounds. This clearly seemed a restaurant of local repute as I saw fancy cars pull in and get pide after pide as takeaway. They also gave me free tea. Hearing one of the little delivery boys hum the tune to Loreen’s Euphoria (the Eurovision 2012 winner, for those don’t follow) as it came on TV says a lot about Turkey’s European ambitions. Or perhaps the kid just liked the tune.

One place that I failed to find despite multiple efforts is Flintstones Cave Cafe & Bar. It’s listed in Lonely Planet as an absolute Goreme insitution. My desire in visiting these stemmed from two things that I really wanted to find out. First, whether they served a cocktail / mocktail / any drink named Yabba Dabba Doo. Second, whether its dessert menu had an Upside-Down Flint-Rubble Double-Bubble Cake. Goreme is a small town with all shops in one single road, and yet I simply couldn’t find it in the place where Lonely Planet claimed it was. I did find something called Flintstone’s Workshop, closed at the moment, further away. It’s perplexing because every other establishment listed as right next to it are there where they are supposed to be…but NOT Flintstones. I don’t know what’s up with that, and I was disappointed.

I finished reading Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent travelogue at Meeting Point Cafe & Bar, run by a friendly Turkish-South African couple. (I highly recommend reading the book, by the way: it’s about Bryson’s search for the quintessential American ‘small town’ and is funny a way only British writers can be.) I spent the rest of my time mooching off the free wi-fi in the café finishing up this blog entry, and then hung around lazily at Red Red Wine House – another café/bar where Carlos Santana once visited. Right above which is Mydonoze Cafe, that has a cozy decor and stacks of vintage LP records. Between the last two places, my last hours in Cappadocia were spent to a relaxing mix of rock and jazz.

 

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Travel

Day #3: Living In A Cave

Parting thoughts from Ankara…

Reminded me of The All-Seeing Eye
  • Throughout Ankara’s metro system, there are no ads on the display advertising boards. All that you can see are posters with this one eye shown, in the same purple-pink hue. Not sure what’s that supposed to mean.
  • There don’t seem be any trash bins I see on the streets. Instead, there are cleaners or huge trash trucks quietly sweeping away the detritus whether I was walking down streets in the afternoon or at midnight. There was one cleaner wearing a huge bag twice his height and width, solely chucking in empty plastic bottles into it (recycling?). The whole keep-the-city-clean strategy here seems to be “people will throw trash anywhere anywhen, so let’s clean up after them!”
  • In the rush hour morning traffic, I saw many office workers wearing ripped jeans. Boy, they must have a relaxed office wear attitude here or what! Then again, perhaps they all work at Levi’s.
  • Another nugget I heard at the hostel: pharmacies in Ankara have among themselves decided to keep their stores open in turns, so that each locale has at least one pharmacy open any of the 24 hours in a day. Now that is a some sense of civic duty!
  • Did I mention how fashionable people here are?! I mean seriously, they all look so blissful and look like those people who can dress nattily without any effort. I wonder whether there’s a culling strategy in place to off the lame dressers in secluded part of the town.

***

Stretching out to the horizon in all directions is the salt lake. Yes, the white bits.

My next destination was Cappadocia. I want to talk more about it, but I think that pictures I plan to get tomorrow is what will really do it justice. Getting there involved a five-hour bus journey from Ankara. On the way, we stopped at this one place that was right next to a salt lake on the highway. This salt lake stretched out for as far as the eye could see! I couldn’t help thinking what a good place this might be for speed racing. If you haven’t heard of it, the flat tracks of a salt lake offer the best places for setting land speed records, case in point being salt lakes in Utah where many of the world’s land speed records have been set.

My dorm room at Nirvana Cave Hotel, carved into rock.

I arrived in Goreme (pronounced as go-ray-muh), a sleepy little village town late afternoon. By this time, most of the attractions were closed so there wasn’t much to do for me except relax. My hostel here is a cave hostel: my bed is literally carved into a hunk of rock! This funky hostel doesn’t cost the earth either: I spent $15 for a night in the dorm room, with wi-fi access everywhere and a pool that I spent most of the rest of the day, lounging in a deck chair, reading and swilling back drinks while listening to Two Door Cinema Club’s latest album Beacon. This is the life.

Restaurant owners in sleepy towns like this work hard to earn their keep and impress you. You can get good quantities of food for half the price you might pay in Istanbul and they are so eager for your business in the limp season like it is now in September that they act pretty much like your personal butlers. I wouldn’t be surprised if I asked for a painted green puppy along with my order of food and they’d arrange for it.

I ate at Comlek Restaurant, right outside my hostel. Nice terrace view. I was intrigued by the display stand outside for testi kebaps. I’d heard of this: it’s a chicken or a beef dish slow-cooked inside a pot, and then broken ceremonially at your table when it’s served to you.

Sadly, for the 15 lira price I was paying for my tuvac testi (chicken testi kebap), they weren’t going to break the pot open for me – merely break a foil covering the pot. So much for being a personal butler. On the upside, the food was really good. Slow-cooking inside the pot makes the meat really tender. I washed it down with ayran, a yoghurt drink not unlike an Indian lassi, except its much thicker.

For dessert, I had a kunefe – which is shredded wheat pastry stuck together with thick sugar syrup and cheese. The crunchiness of the shredded and fried wheat goes nicely with the thick sugar. I knew I’d blown my calorie count for the day and wouldn’t need to eat dinner that night. Headed back into town late evening after a nap, and it all looked decidedly empty. There was definitely a nip in the air.

I’m liking this living-in-a-cave business, given that I have wi-fi and a round-the-clock hot water supply. Sleepy towns like this are excellent for rest and recuperation. And while the people living here must be happy with their lives, I cannot imagine myself ever living in such a place. I was raised as city rat than a country mouse, and I eventually start craving for the frenetic life that only big cities can offer. Perhaps that’s why I really love cities like London, Hong Kong, Singapore because they give me a life much like what I grew up with in Delhi.

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Travel

Day #2: Ankara

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.

The Lion Road

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.

That’s the main memorial at Anit Kabir in the background.

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.

Not a mannequin!

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.

Route 66 gas pump, right outside my dorm room

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.

Not sure that this TED is related to that TED conference.

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.

Categories
Travel

Day #1: Istanbul

I was apprehensive of getting deported or worse the moment I landed at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. You see, for Indian passport holders who have an existing US, UK, or Schengen visa, Turkey offers a 30-day visa-on-arrival. That’s all the official rules say. Posts from other Indian travellers on Internet forums suggested that they got scrutinised a lot. One personal experience in particular, from author-journalist Sidin Vadukut was that when he tried to get the same visa-on-arrival, the immigration authorities wanted to see hotel bookings for the whole duration of his stay AND scrutinised those thoroughly, making him wait hours before relenting. (In his words, “India’s soft superpower bullshit is not working, bro!”)

I didn’t have a plan as to what itinerary I’d be following and I didn’t want to lock down hostel bookings for the duration. So I did something very shady: I booked a hostel for my first night in Istanbul, took the confirmation they sent me, and edited the HTML file of the booking to say the booking was for the duration of my stay.

Indians don’t even get their visas in the same counter for Western travellers. I walked to the fag-end of the airport, to reach the counter that said “SOUTH AFRICANS, SUB-SAHARAN AFRICANS, INDIANS, PAKISTANIS, AND BANGLADESHIS JOIN THIS QUEUE FOR VISA”. Sure enough, there were downtrodden-looking African men sleeping on benches nearby and two sleepy police officers at a counter. I went to them, they perfunctorily looked at my documents, and handed me a slip of paper to show to the visa officer. I kinda assumed that my destiny was to wait with the African posse until a special visa officer showed up for us, so I slumped down on the floor and started reading Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent, all the while grumbling about the cruel unjustness of it all.

I won’t lie. I was shit scared. Mentally, I was kicking myself in the butt for not taking out the hostel’s phone number in the booking confirmation. What if the visa officer called to check? I’d taken a very risky gamble here. Would I be deported? Cavity searched? Jail time? It was 3am at night and I wouldn’t even be able to get help from my embassy until many hours later if it came to this. THAT would be some story, even if fucked up my trip.

Turns out, I needn’t have worried. After a while one of the police officers came over and asked me why I was waiting, because I could just go and show my slip of paper to the visa officer for gora people. Stunned, I did go there, and after mispronouncing the Turkish for “thank you” to three different immigration officers I was on my way out with a visa in less than 10 minutes. I could have saved myself a lot of heartburn in hindsight.

***

I used to think that getting accosted by taxi drivers the moment you step out of an airport / train station is purely an Indian thing. No, it happens everywhere else too. Just that taxi drivers in India are way more insistent and have no concept of personal space bounds. The moment you step out of a train station, ten of them surround you and pepper you with questions of where you want to go. My dad did this funny thing that he’d look on dead straight pretending they weren’t there and then finally pick the last one remaining. Anyway, so the staring dead ahead trick works even if there’s a single taxi driver lazily calling out to you.

I took the airport bus into downtown Istanbul. It was 5am, and yet, I was surprised to see so many restaurants and cafes open and buzzing with customers! Many places claim it’s a “city that never sleeps” but I think of the places that I have been to so far, only Hong Kong / Macau and perhaps Istanbul can legitimately claim that. After half an hour of customary stumbling around, I found my hostel – a six-floor operation on top of a Domino’s Pizza.

The reception was manned by a hostel staff – Malik, a Nigerian lad who studied medicine in Kiev (Ukraine) and has been stuck in Istanbul as a stateless person for eight months working at the hostel after his family village got bombed in northern Nigeria and many of his personal documents got burned down in his house, and it turned out that the passport he had been fake (he didn’t know that) – and Yassin, Turkish guy from Ankara, just back from parting in Istanbul Beygolu nightclub district, who’s lived for years in Germany and is now going to Cairo to study economics with three of his friends from similar backgrounds. Both were knocking back Efes and chatting, and I joined them while my reservation was sorted out.

See, that’s the thing I love about hostels. You just meet such an eclectic range of people from the oddest set of personal backgrounds! It’s a very charming and intoxicating atmosphere, any hostel you go to, and thanks to its owners / operators each has its own unique signature. You also end up with the most random conversations. For instance, apparently Kiev is full of Indian students studying medicine. Who woulda thought of that! You never hear about these things in, say, the news you know.

I also asked Malik whether kiev (the food) comes from Kiev (the city). As it turns out, no, it comes from Odessa in Turkey.

Later, a Belgian girl came in and Malik remarked that he’d never seen her alone. She replied that she did check in alone and was flying back home today. Then began a painful hitting-on session with Malik trying to get her Facebook details (“Pleeeeeeeeease? Not many single girls check-in here.”) which didn’t result in success because of a fairly innovative excuse as to why her profile name couldn’t be searched on Facebook then-and-there (“Oh, I can’t find the accented characters. Goodnight!”)

This ‘mystery’ of why she hadn’t been seen alone somewhat cleared up when she returned in the afternoon, arms around what I assume is a Turkish version of a hunk. While she chatted with the receptionist about checking out, the guy shifted uncomfortably on his foot and looked around everywhere. Said gentleman was seen exiting the building half an hour later, so perhaps the last fuck of the holiday season didn’t go that well.

***

To be honest, I still wasn’t feeling any better today. I spent about twelve hours sleeping, woke up at 7pm. Which, in hindsight, was a bad move as naturally the hostel had emptied out by then. I didn’t feel like leaving my bed but I hadn’t felt like eating for more than a day and the hunger was hitting me hard by now. My hostel is located close to Taksim Square in Istanbul’s Beygolu district, where there’s this massive street called Istiklal Caddesi which is the hub of nightlife activity for Istanbul.

…and I completely missed it. Really, it starts right outside my hostel and I walked right on the opposite direction. You know when you take a wrong turn and just keep going on because you have invested so much time into it. Yeah. That happened.

Istanbul has an old funicular tram system that runs for a small stretch from Taksim Square to Karakoy [EDIT: apparently, the tram system is a lot larger than that], which traverses the length of Istiklal Caddesi. Back on track, I found going with the flow is what I should have done in the first place. Istiklal Caddesi is a massive neon-lit street of shops, a surprising number of tattoo parlours, cinemas, bars, clubs, restaurants, cafes – you name it, it has it. And it was absolutely packed with fashionable Istanbullus. Really, it’s hard to describe the mob of humanity that you meet there.

The thing about Turkish people is that they are very indistinguishable from white people. (Not being racist. Asian people stand out – and there weren’t any of those tourists I saw either.) I mean, you’re walking down that street and you think “Ah! So many tourists!” and then you walk closer past the people you think are tourists and they’re talking in Turkish. I wonder where all the real tourists were hiding because for such a supposedly hotspot for tourists, I only saw small bunches of them.

What I wanted to do was to take the tram to Karakoy and then walk from there to Galata Bridge, where I’d been recommended you can find the freshest fish sandwiches – think a Turkish Filet-o-Fish burger – served right off the boat by fishermen. The tram itself is a sight to behold. I don’t know whether this was a special occasion, but when the tram I was supposed to take pulled in, there was a second open-air carriage right behind it with a live band! The passenger carriage was old-school: wooden, tiny seats, cramped…and full of Turkish people signing and dancing along to the band. As the tram slowly made its way down the street, with the driver furiously ringing a bell to get passersby on the street to clear the way for him, people on the street joined in singing and dancing too. That atmosphere cheered me up a bit.

Galata Tower, Istanbul

I got off at the last stop for the tram, saw a sign that read “Galata” and assumed it meant the bridge so I started walking in that direction. After a while, I ended up at fortification which turns out to be Galata Tower. There isn’t particularly anything Lonely Planet says about this place so I don’t have much to relay. Unfortunately, for my quest of a fish sandwich, my map also told me that I was way off the mark.

Istanbullus youngins hang out near Galata Tower

While Galata Tower itself was unspectacular – with the exception that it seemed like a well-fortified, well, tower – but for seem reason it seems to be a favourite place to hang out for Istanbul yuppies. There wasn’t even walking space left with alfresco restaurants all around it, and when those spaces seemed exhausted, there were dozens of youngins sitting down and enjoying beers on a hilly bit surrounding the tower. It looked like Ground Zero for the Istanbul hipster scene, going by the number of checked shirts and skinny jeans I saw.

The writing was on the wall

I didn’t feel like doing much after my fish sandwich prospects had slipped away. I briefly even considered eating at a McDonald’s – which I consider to be rock-bottom in travelling terms. I walked back Istiklal Caddesi, and I think I need to come back here again when I’m in a better mood. There are bookstores, record shops, and art shops that look really inviting and I’d definitely enjoy hanging out here any other day.

That’s the home-made Theremin!

What also blows your mind are the variety and skill of street performers there. On the walk back, there was a solo violinist chick, a full jazz band, a lone ten-year-old kid blowing a plastic trumpet, and – this was my favourite simply for being so unique – a guy playing a homemade Theremin! The performance was quite different from playing a normal Theremin because it seemed the equipment was rigged to play in a different way.

Turkish baked rice pudding – Finn Sutlac

You’ve got to hand it to the Turks for making great dessert. I tried out finn sutlac – baked rice pudding – and it reminded me Thai sticky rice pudding, except for this one had a burnt caramelised coating on top.

I headed back to my hostel because I wasn’t feeling up for more pointless trudging around. All I saw were Turks everwhere on the main street. Although Beyoglu is supposed to have nice cafes and bars, I was lost without my copy of Lonely Planet – and I certainly wasn’t going to a club named ‘Crabs’. The hostel’s not that bad – it has a rooftop café/bar that looks out to Galata Bridge – my arch nemesis for the day – and I zoned out there watching Animal Planet. Man has that channel changed since I last watched it years ago. It has a childish new logo, and the show on was ‘Shark Feeding Frenzy’ – which consisted of a sunburnt man, presumably Australian, frying onion rings on a stove on his boat and throwing in bags of tuna blood / stuffed turkeys tied to a rope / lowering a mannequin in a shark cage and then presumably going “Crikey mate!” when a lone shark turned up on each occasion. I can only assume that’s what he said because the channel was muted.

I’m starting to think this hostel might be a dead place to hang out. Yes, the staff are nice and it’s by far the cheapest place on HostelWorld. And to be fair, it’s actually not that bad at all. Just that…it’s a bit out-of-the-way from where the scene is happening. It’s 3am now and I’ve hardly seen anyone leave or go, so all the supposed party-goers I may have missed out on meeting earlier may also possibly be non-existent.

My original plan was to spend another day properly exploring Istanbul, and then take overnight buses in the next two days: from Istanbul to Ankara, and then from Ankara to Goreme. I’ve been looking this up online now and it seems like there are no overnight buses from Ankara to Goreme, so change of plans are in order. I’m leaving early morning today for Ankara, spending the night there, and then catching an early morning bus to Goreme. The upside is that I get to sleep in actual beds, not cramped in a bus seat, but it also throws me slightly off budget as I’d been planning to save up a bit by taking overnight buses.

I want to do a circuit of rest of central and Aegean Turkey, and then arrive back a couple of days before my flight back from Istanbul. Will have to explore this city properly then.