The great Jim visit of 2014

Winner winner pottery dinner

Winner winner pottery dinner

One of the wonderful things about living abroad is the chance to host friends and relatives at our place and show off the beauty of Turkey. So when Mike’s dad Jim came all the way from White Bear Lake Minnesota to Ankara for a visit a few weeks ago, we were glad to welcome him. Plus it gave us the excuse to head out on a road trip to revisit some of our favorite places, and take in some new sights.

Dad arrived in his usual good spirits and settled right into Ankara and letting us take him in to town for dinner. During the next few days, some of our Bilkent friends showed him around the highlights of Ankara, and when he had a break from that, he enjoyed hiking the ‘wilderness’ trails of Bilkent University with our trusty hound Remington. Then, on Friday when school let out, Akasha and I picked up our rental car – a sturdy Hyundai – and the great Jim in Turkey road trip of 2o14 began.

Our first stop was Cappadocia, which you may recall that we’ve been to before, and might be wondering whether it’s worth going to again. The answer is a resounding YES YOU SHOULD GO MANY TIMES! There’s always something new to see, and the things you remember are just as spectacular if not more so.

A killer breakfast

A killer breakfast

Our hotel had a beautiful patio with a great panoramic view of the valley, and on our first breakfast Dad discovered the delicious joy of sigara boreks, honey and cheese, and cucumbers and olives for breakfast. From the patio we could  also watch a balloon company’s headquarters across the street, where a steady stream of baskets, propane tanks, and balloons on flatbed trucks returned from the fields where they’d landed after the morning flight, were cleaned and covered for the day.

We spent the day wandering the red and rose valleys of Cappadocia, in and out of the caves and churches, stopping for juice on a hillside cafe. In the evening, we stopped for dinner, and then Dad had more ice cream.

The next morning was our balloon trip. with Turkiye Balloons.  We woke well before dawn, and were picked up at the hotel by a shuttle bus that took us to breakfast, then down to the launch fields. Here, dozens of balloons were being inflated in the calm morning air, bright nylon colors reflecting sunlight, fluttering under the hot air being fanned into them as they rose, held in place by stubborn attendants on the ends of ropes or just grabbing the nylon. After twenty minutes or so the balloon was inflated, the basket uprighted, and about 20 tourists climbed up over the edge. After a pause for safety directions, (and pictures) we rose off the ground and went over the canyon on the slow steady breeze.

Whatever word you want: breathtaking, amazing, transcendent, pick it and times it by ten or so – the experience

Balloons over Cappadocia

Balloons over Cappadocia

was spectacular. We passed over the valley we’d hiked through the day before, drifting and oohing and awing and grinning like little kids. Our group was a great mix of Koreans, Russians, Spaniards, Argentines, and us Americans.  Our pilot was great, he told jokes and tried to speak to everyone, a bit, in their language.  When the balloon finally landed – right on the bed of the flatbed trailer that would haul it back across town – we got out, celebrated with a glass of champagne, and were bussed back to our hotel.We celebrated again, later, with ice cream.

After our flight we went down to Mazi to see a cave city that was off of the beaten path.  We pulled up to the village and were greeted by a group of guys. One of them is working on the restoration of the underground city and he gave us a brief breakdown of what his neighbor would show us. Then we went up to the top of the hill where he showed us several ancient pre-hittite tombs of stone in the old cemetery.

Our cave guide at Mazi

Our cave guide at Mazi

After this we walked back down to the road and went into the underground city. These cities had everything – wine cellars, nurseries, kitchens – even a stable where they kept animals! The rooms were linked by narrow tunnels we had to duck-walk through, and vented by narrow shafts that led up to the surface. We poked around ten or fifteen rooms, which our guide said was maybe 1 percent of the whole city – it was sobering to think of the people who had spent their lives there.

Afterwards we had tea with our guide and the guy working on the restoration – they were incredibly friendly and warm. It was a unique opportunity to see the town before it becomes commercialized, and I’m glad we were there.

Sadly, we had to leave Goreme and Capaddocia. Our rented Hyundai took us down through Konya – home of the Mevlana museum, where we stopped for, I think, ice cream, then down the coast to Antalya. Antalya is a nice little historic town on the Mediterranean sea surrounded by a sprawl of resort communities owned mostly, it seemed, by foreigners – I wouldn’t not recommend it, but I wouldn’t tell you to go out of your way for it. We had a nice dinner at a fish restaurant, and stopped by the Anatolian museum of antiquities, and after a few days, we were on our way again.

Jim discovers his love of dondurum

Jim discovers his love of dondurum

I’m pretty sure we stopped for ice cream somewhere as well. Turkish ice cream, dondurma, is extra sticky, which allows it to cling to the long steel rod the vendors use to scoop it up. This stickiness allows for lots of tricks, and the street vendors who serve it up have developed whole carnival routines to mess with the heads of people buying it – I wish we’d filmed it. But Akasha, dad, and I all got a kick out of watching them fling 5 kilo slabs of ice cream around, and play with the cones, faking handing it off and pulling it away time after time.

The library

The library

Our next big stop was in Selcuk. This is another beautiful little town near a historic city, the ruins of Ephesus, once a thriving commercial port and home to Greeks and Romans for centuries before a receding coastline and series of earthquakes turned it into a ghost town that wasn’t dug out again till the 20th century.

We wandered through the impressive restoration work, including the great amphitheater that once seated 15,000 people, and the facade of a great library three stories high. We ooed and awed and craned our necks, and giggled a little bit at the presumably original public toilets, with their tiny openings just a few inches apart. They’re probably technically functional, though this is highly discouraged.

From there we went up to Bursa, a smallish city we’d chosen mainly to break up the 10 hour drive back to Ankara. There are beautiful things to see in Bursa, and great ski resorts on neighboring Ulu Mountain, but we were getting tired, so we just had dinner at a small diner and retired early.

In the morning we stopped by the city of Eskesihir, and by evening were safely and kind of sadly back in Ankara. We took Dad around some more sights of the city – the citadel, and Ulus market, the Temple of Augustus. There were days and sights I’m barely even touching on here, things we barely had time to register, like:

The mineral springs of Pamukkale, with its own ancient city of Heliopolis;

Driving out to the Aegean sea to watch the surf.

Driving up to the assumed final home of Mary, Jesus’ mother.

The ruins of St. John’s basilica.

Stopping off in a national park on the migration path of pelicans and cormorants, watching them by the hundreds nesting and feeding on the banks of a lake.

Our return to Ankara, where Jim visited the Anitkabir, resting place of Mestafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish state.

And everywhere we went were friendly people who told us about their lives: men who ran fruit juice stands, journalists from near the Syrian border, women who studied the Koran on the train while on outings with their girlfriends, little kids playing with their parents. I wish we could write them all up and give you sense of the scale of Turkey, its sweep and history and rich vibrant life. I have to give credit on this to Akasha, the most outgoing travel companion you’ll ever have, who makes friends so easily I wonder how everyone can’t do it.

Well, I do go on. But. The most important thing that we learned, from all we did, was that Jim likes ice cream. A lot. On our final days in Ankara, dad set some kind of ice-cream : body ratio record in his three weeks of visiting.

We salute you, Jim. Intrepid traveler, good sport, great father and friend. We miss you! Did we mention that we have a spare room for you, when you’re ready to move in?

 

Iyi Bayramlar 2013

One advantage to living overseas is learning new holidays, and taking advantage of the time off. Kurban Bayram is an Islamic holiday that commemorates Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son.

rams for the slaughter

rams for the slaughter

During this festival, which lasts a whole week in Turkey, people head home to have plenty of family time. People who can afford it make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime which ends in the sacrifice in commemoration of Ibrahim and Ishmael. For everyone though, the sacrifice is important. Families who can afford to sacrifice animals.  They distribute meat to those who can’t afford it, their neighbors, and their family.

For us, Bayram meant renting a car from a local family company and hitting the road. It’s our first time outside Ankara, so we decided to keep it simple.

We left on a Sunday morning, heading out around noon, leaving Remi with a neighbor. Our first stop was a dried salt lake about 25 miles south. At a roadside pull-off, we parked and walked out into the flats with many other families hiking. One family was even flying a kite. Typical of roadsides here (and in Korea when we were there), vendors sold melons and nuts and dried fruit. Free enterprise flourishes on the open road.

Writing in the dried lake bed

Writing in the dried lake bed

A bit down the road we stopped for lunch in a small town just outside Nevsehir, where a friendly family cooked up some chicken doner and salad, and then it was on to one of the great highlights of Turkey and the world: Cappadocia.

Carved from soft volcanic tuft, the Cappadocia valley covers about twenty square miles of central Turkey. Over the years erosion has carved out huge cones of soft rock that generations of humans have carved into churches and villages. Currently no one lives in the cave cities, though they are filled with shops and hotels. We stayed in the Guven cave hotel in Goreme. It was fabulous, very clean and romantic.

Our first view of Cappadocia

Our first view of Cappadocia

All Monday, we walked up the Cappadocian valleys. We found orchards filled with apples and grapes, quince, plums, and pears. We found a kind couple selling some of the sweetest dried fruit we’ve ever had – we bought a mixed box for 2.50 tl (about US 1.25). Later, there was a small cafe in the valley where we rested with a glass of wine.

Then we hiked up into one of the churches carved into the mountainside. These churches were built during the Byzantine era; some have beautiful frescoes painted into the walls and domes. I have no idea how these churches functioned, being so remote and relatively hard to access, but they are an amazing accomplishment.

Byzantine church, the red was ochre painted on the walls

Byzantine church, the red was ochre painted on the walls

We left Goreme and headed out to Konya on Tuesday morning.  Along the way we stopped at a small city that has an amazing wealth of well preserved, functioning architecture from the 1,100’s, Nigde. This was Akasha’s favorite spot.

Our kind host and his amazing home

Our kind host and his amazing home

There was no sign of tourism, the town is beautiful and the people were so warm and kind.  We were taking a picture of an amazing Seljuk home when the owner, Bekir, came out.  He didn’t speak English, but he spoke slow, patient Turkish and offered to take us on a tour of Seljuk buildings, especially mosques.

He took us to his mosque and introduced us to his imam, Yusuf. Yusuf spoke English and explained various features of a typical mosque and told us what we should see in the region. Bekir took us to the Aladin Mosque and the  Hittite castle that dates back to 8 B.C. It was a major holiday and most of the castle was closed, but they opened it up and showed us around. It gets very cold here in the winter and many people come to the castle to socialize and keep warm.  Ali showed us the brazer that they fill with coals to keep everyone warm and the cafeteria where folks hang out. A soldier on military duty joined us and translated for a bit. I think we were all exhausted after an hour of speaking Turkish or speaking to foreigners with limited Turkish.  Everyone was so warm and kind, we were sad to leave.

We went on to Konya. In the 13th century, Konya was home to the Sufi mystic known in the west as Rumi. He was also a poet and philosopher, and is credited for founding the mevlevi order, also known as the whirling dervishes. His tomb, which also houses the Mevlani museum, is near the center of town. Konya remains one of the most religious cities in Turkey, and you can feel this when you walk down the street. We spent an evening strolling down to and around the Aladin hill, exploring side streets and passing mosque after mosque, hearing calls to prayer that went on for minutes. You could also see evidence (as in, remains) of the lambs and cows sacrificed for the ceremony on many street corners, or being wheeled down the street in carts.

IMG_0561

We can say Konya is a beautiful city, but unfortunately our dog sitter got sick, so we had to cut our visit short and head back to Ankara the next morning. We never got to the museum, but we got to see Remi a day early, and we still had a car. So: day trip!

The next day, we went out to another great historical sight, the tomb of (not mythical) King Midas.

A view in king Midas' tomb

A view into king Midas’ tomb

Minnesota has a beautiful history and many great locations to explore. Some have a long history, but nothing like this.  It seems like, if you keep your eyes open you will see history everywhere you look here.

The Midas tomb is an hour from Ankara, near the current town of Polatli. His tomb was built in 670 BC as a tribute to the Phrygian king immortalized by legend as the king with the ‘golden touch.’ It seems he survived that curse and lived a long life, dying after a war. When they opened his tomb they found evidence of a huge feast that was held there.  It’s a log cabin that was filled with relics from his life, and his body, and then covered in a 50 foot mound called a tumulus. There are dozens of these mounds in the Gordia region, but Midas’s is the largest. It lay undisturbed for thousands of years before being excavated in the 1950’s.

It was sobering to walk down the long narrow tunnel, perhaps a hundred yards long, that led deep into the heart of the mound. There we saw the tomb itself, made of ancient logs still a deep rich red, and the chamber that used to hold the King’s remains. The museum nearby holds many items from the region, which was an important crossroads for hundreds of years and several empires, from the Phrygians to the Romans, the Byzantines and Ottomans. Turkey has seen it all.

Korea was also rich

The road from Nigde to Konya

The road from Nigde to Konya

with history, but they did so much in wood that burned in the many invasions and wars they have suffered. Here, the stone construction has endured.  One exhibit at Gordia showed an ancient mosaic tile floor a local villager found while working on the foundation for his house. You can’t dig ten feet without finding history here, it seems.

One other thing that struck us was how much central Anatolia reminds us of home.  We could have been driving in Western Minnesota or the Dakotas. It was beautiful to see the golden rolling hills, farms, and fields. It made us miss Minnesota.

Here is a gallery with a bit more of our tip.

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