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Last month I went on a two week trip to Turkey. Half of me didn’t really want to go because I needed to save money for my parent’s financial crisis. But I was reminded that I needed to live my life too, especially if I’m expecting to be broke in the near future. Fortunately, Turkey must be one of the best bang-for-your-buck countries to visit. Fine dining for three cost about the same as a single entree in San Francisco for much smaller portions. And the food was phenomenal. I fully expected—before the trip—to consume large quantities of falafel, baklava, and kebabs from my limited experience with Mediterranean food in the States. So it was a pleasant surprise to discover that Turkish cuisine is so much more diverse. Domestic airfare and long distance buses proved to be well-used, convenient, and dirt cheap. We found clean, private suites in hostels within $30/person every place we went (at some point in your life, you realize that “dorm-style” housing is not worth saving that few extra bucks). This last point is important, because when we tried to find accommodations for our overnight layover in Amsterdam, we were outraged by the prices—in fact, the only thing we might’ve afforded was an airB&B listing for a boat docked on the river…until we discovered that it was an hourly rate. Overall, this trip probably cost me a grand total of $1700 for two weeks, which is incredible considering how much I was able to see, do, and eat.

Highlights

1) Minarets are one of the most conspicuous features of any city. Five times a day, the muslim call to prayer is sung live and broadcasted from the megaphones hoisted on top of these towers, including a bright and early wake up alarm at 4:30 AM that I miraculously learned to sleep through. And when prayer calls from neighboring minarets join together, the resulting cacophony of melancholic warbling is actually quite beautiful. I will miss it.

2) Breakfasts are serious deals. I’ve devoured plates heaped with olives, cheese, boiled eggs, bread with sesame paste, cucumbers, tomatoes, yogurt with honey. Always accompanied by freshly squeezed fruit juice. In fact, you never have to walk far to find someone manning a storefront or street cart with a juicer and piles of bright oranges or halved pomegranates with their plump, red seeds exposed. Juice is an any-time-of-day affair.

Fruit stands

3) Turkish hospitality is a real and wonderful thing. I remember the shop owner who ran after us down the street to invite us back for tea—on the house. The local who saw our tired, lost faces and insisted that we accompany him for lunch and an afternoon walk through Antalya’s old city.

4) Cay (“Chai”) is Turkish black tea that is drunk all day, every day. It’s served in small, handle-less glasses. Often, people dart around the market with trays of steamy cups of cay. We found out that tea shops brew large quantities of cay to serve store owners who would order cay to be delivered to each other. Always there would be locals sharing a hot glass with each other, especially in the mornings when the city stirs at 9 AM (nothing is open before then).

Cay

Istanbul

5) The Aya Sofia is easily the most beautiful and inspiring building I’ve ever seen. It’s hard not to be impressed by the vaulted ceilings, detailed mosaics, grand arches, and extravagant chandeliers. And like most historical relics, there’s a heavy sense of time passing—the remains of Christian icons juxtaposed next to Islamic fixtures.

Istanbul, Aya Sofya
Istanbul, Aya Sofya
Istanbul, Aya Sofya
Istanbul, Aya Sofya

6) We were provided with head scarfs before entering the Blue Mosque. Inside stood large granite pillars next to wide, circular chandeliers. Underneath those lantern-like bulbs, prayers were made. The domed ceiling was adorned with intricate finishes that were highlighted by light streaming from behind stained windows.

Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque

7) The Basilica Cistern was a dark, damp underground chamber that was beautifully lit with soft, golden lights. Pillars rose from gently rippling waters that surrounded the walkways while fat koi fish swam beneath the surface.

Basilica Cistern

8) The Spice Bazaar was a covered marketplace that held countless stalls selling Turkish delights, baklava, tea leaves, spices, and dried fruits. To walk through the bazaar is a feat in itself, since you would be bombarded by store owners hawking their goods and offering free samples of their sweets. It doesn’t take many Turkish delights before your tastebuds become overwhelmed. The surrounding stalls outside the main market featured more local items. Cartons of different varieties of olives, large wheels of cheese, long strings of dried eggplant and peppers hanging from the storefronts. Nearby, we found a smaller market section selling only pets: bunnies, pigeons with fancy tail feathers, parakeets, and—my favorite—medicinal leeches crawling up the sides of glass jars.

Turkish Delights in Spice Bazaar
Tea in Spice Bazaar
Spice Bazaar

Istanbul market

9) Rice pudding was delicious. Many stores had fancy bowls of pudding topped with pistachio, coconut, or flavored with mango and chocolate. But my favorite was just the plain rice pudding with a lightly, caramelized top.

10) Ficcin was an Anatolian restaurant in the Beyoglu district that we went to thrice. It sits in one of the alleyways off the main thoroughfare where all the modern, fancy shops were located. I especially enjoyed the red pepper, walnut paste, eggplant in olive oil, and ravioli filled with meat and topped with yogurt and tomato sauce.

11) On one of our last days in Istanbul, we rode the ferry across the Bosphorous and spent the afternoon perusing hipster-esque stores in the Moda district. Where else can you find custom made mugs with snarky comments and towel hooks in the shape of giant paper clips (except San Francisco)? With a bit of luck, we finally stumbled into a fish market that we had been trying to find for two hours. There, we enjoyed cups of yogurt with generous scoops of honey taken straight from stacks of honey comb dripping with sweet, sticky golden syrup. But even better was our trek to Kanlica, another town on the Asian side of Turkey where we found yogurt topped with heaps of powdered sugar. Sounds odd at first, but the combination of powdery sweetness with creamy tartness was a refreshing snack in the late afternoon heat, especially when enjoyed next to the shimmery waters of the Bosphorous.

12) Dondurma is a special Turkish ice cream with a unique, elastic-y texture. I wondered if they used gelatin or starch to achieve such a chewy consistency.

13) This city is overrun by cats. Never seen so many fat, healthy looking stray cats in my life. Rodents must not be a problem in Turkey.

Cats of Istanbul
Cats of Istanbul
Istanbul
Istanbul

Mosque exterior

People selling bird seeds from booths outside of a Mosque

Galata tower

Galata Tower in Beyoglu, near our hostel.

IstanbulFerry boats selling grilled fish sandwiches. They were delicious.

Istanbul

Lycian Way (Likya Yolu)

We began our hike on the Lycian Way in Oludeniz. Bright wildflowers lined the trail, and in the distance, we could see the colorful chutes of paragliders drifting over the resorts on Oludeniz beach. Later in the morning, we escaped a sudden downpour by hiding out in one of the abandoned buildings on the trail, which might have been the remnants of Greek communities that were deported in the 20’s. The goats also had the same idea. So we stood for awhile amid piles of goat droppings and damp, moody goats. We donned our ponchos and continued on until we found a Cay cafe and decided to wait out the weather with some fellow trail hikers. For the next hour or so, we sipped hot tea and coffee beneath a verandah, listening to rain and hail ping against the tin roof and the rooster crowing in his coop. We finally made it to Faralya, the next small, quaint town on the Lycian Way where we found lodging in a beautiful bungalow at the family-run Montenegro Motel. The rest of the afternoon was spent sipping wine, enjoying the beautiful backdrop of forested mountains overlooking the coastal shore, and sharing wonderful conversations with my two good friends. And although I can’t quite remember what we had for dinner that evening, I do know it was the most delicious meal I had on the trip. Perhaps, even the best day I spent in Turkey.

Lycian Way
Lycian Way
Lycian Way
Lycian Way
Lycian Way

On the second day, we took an alternative route to Kabak along the coast. This was the most strenuous and painful day I had in Turkey, even though it wasn’t terrible in retrospect; we were mostly tired of the heat and being lost towards the end. But the scenery was unbeatable—clear, turquoise waters of the Mediterranean and granite bluffs that were reminiscent of Yosemite. The moment we trudged into Kabak, we ordered delicious Turkish pancakes (gozleme) stuffed with dill and cheese at Mama’s Restaurant and sat in the veranda which had a gorgeous view of Kabak beach below.

Lycian Way

On the third day, we took a bus back to Oludeniz where we transferred and rode to Demre. There, we climbed some rocks at the Myra ruins to peer into Lycian tombs that were cut into the cliff face. The ample supply of stone near Demre made it an important city in Roman (or Lycian?) times for the production of sarcophagi. In fact, sarcophagi are strewn across the valley floor and even some parts of town where modern buildings and streets have built around them.

Lycian Way
Lycian Way
Lycian Way
Lycian Way

On the fourth day, we rode to Antalya where we spent the day touring the Old City with a local who insisted on showing us around. We strolled through narrow alleyways lined with boutiques and hotels with red tiled roofs. At the docks, signs advertised half hour rides on ridiculously decorated boats (think “Pirates of the Caribbean”). We were only slightly tempted. Come evening, we boarded our overnight bus to our next destination, Goreme in Cappadocia.

Lycian Way
Lycian Way
Antalya

Cappadocia Highlights

1) Rolling into Goreme around 6 AM with the silhouettes of hundreds of balloons hovering in the skies. Even in my sleep-deprived, cotton-mouth state, I was struck by the surreal beauty of the land.

Cappadocia

View from our hostel rooftop in the morning

2) Pigeon Valley was one of the first sights we saw on the Green Tour. The valley walls were gentle slopes of smooth, dune-like formations. Rocky spires rose from the valley floor. Almost each one had several rectangular windows carved in its side, presumably to house the carrier pigeons that were used in antiquity.

Cappadocia

3) We visited Derinkuyu, an underground city that used to be inhabited by Christians who sought safety in these caverns from persecution. The chambers were dark and cool, and surprisingly airy. The walls of the caves were soft and moist to the touch. We wound our way through the narrow corridors, crouching in several places to avoid smacking our heads into the low ceilings. To think that whole communities, including heir livestock, were all housed underground!

4) Selime was a beautiful, rock-hewn monastery. The chambers were simply carved; shallow indentations in the walls might have served as shelves. From the windows, we caught a beautiful view of the neighboring towns. My hands ran across the rough surface of the window sill, shifting some of the small stony grains that had collected there. Selime, a centuries-old relic quietly crumbling with the times.

Cappadocia
Cappadocia
Cappadocia
Cappadocia

5) We went for a stroll just outside of Goreme to enjoy the beautiful morning on the second day. A cheerful, stray dog joined us on our little venture, playing among the tall grassy stalks that lined the path. Once again, I was struck by the rocky dunes—like the creases and folds of a fine cloth.

Cappadocia
Cappadocia

Vicky and our doggy companion standing at that peak.

6) There were two very memorable meals. One at the Anatolian Kitchen in Goreme. We ordered kebabs that were slow cooked in hand made clay pots that were broken open when served. The second dinner was at a Urgup, a remote town in the region where we found a cozy, secluded hotel/restaurant, Aravan Evi. The family owned business serves fresh vegetables grown in their garden. We dined inside a charming enclosed terrace, enjoying the taste of fresh dill and mint in yogurt served with stuffed grape leaves.

7) Much to our frustration, we didn’t find the way markers for the Red/Rose valley trail. But we did have a beautiful hike through Sword Valley. Once I managed to get down to the valley floor, we were surprised by the abundance of vegetation. We followed a small, trickling stream that ran through some cave tunnels. Tadpoles were spawning in puddles on the side. Once the trail took us out of the valley, we found ourselves surrounded by fields of tall grass with brilliant, red poppies standing among them.

Cappadocia
Cappadocia

8) We rose at 4 AM to ride a hot air balloon. I didn’t really wake up until we were up in the air and met the breath-taking shapes of the Cappadocian land. We spotted the light pink hues of the rocks marking Rose Valley, which we didn’t get a chance to hike. Some of the other balloons were delightfully patterned with bright colors that stood out among the patches of green fields below. We drifted over the canyons and rose higher to catch the rays of the rising run peeking over the edge of the mountain. I couldn’t imagine any place else more beautiful than Cappadocia.

Cappadocia
Cappdocia

9) We rented a car on our last day in Cappadocia. We drove to see the phallic shaped rocks at the aptly named Love Valley. We saw the “fairy chimneys,” which were more pointy shaped rocks. But the best part was visiting Avanos, a small town in the region that is known for pottery. At Sultans Ceramics, we found shelves stocked with some of the most carefully molded and intricately decorated ceramics. There were tall, slender wine flutes; short, stout tea pots; round bottomed jars; hour-glassed vases. Each one was covered with fantastic illustrations and designs—ornate flowers and leaves, silhouettes of antelopes. We learned that each painter specialized in painting just one thing. One person paints only carnations; another would specialize in fish. It resonated with some of the art culture that was beautifully described in Orhan Pamuk’s, “My Name is Red.”

Cappadocia
Cappadocia

10) On a side note, I was really glad to read some of Pamuk’s works before coming to Turkey. “My Name is Red,” especially, because it managed to vividly describe art as if I could see it—no, more like feel it. Pamuk writes, it is one thing to paint a tree in all its glorious details—leaves, branches and twigs, carefully captured on paper. But it is another thing to paint a tree that is its meaning. I would say it is the same with this novel.

Both in this book, and in his other one, “Snow,” Pamuk draws on the theme of conflict between Eastern and Western culture, modernity and tradition. I don’t think I know any more of Turkey’s long and storied past from reading Pamuk, and I’m not meant to; but I feel like the novels offer an essence of this country’s meaning in a way that is perhaps more valuable than historical facts. This is all to say—please read Pamuk.

Kitten and wine

Kitten and wine at a winery
Kitten

Pictures on my flickr

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