Where's Sam the Man

48 countries, 12 months, one man, half a brain

Name: Samuel Hathaway
Location: Roaming..., Germany

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Go East, young man, go East

I was stubbornly trying to sleep on a night bus rumbling along through the barren hills of Turkey. The sleek new Mercedes charter bus was packed with dirt-crusted potato farmers and work-worn farm wives, who stuffed their burlap sacks in luggage storage and were returning home after the Ramadan festivities. They hadn't left the party in Istanbul; these peasants were the party. As a Turkish-dubbed Jet Li film blared on the screens, the hot-blooded Turks laughed and shouted and cried late into the night. Some cultures are too powerful for earplugs. I dozed off and on, tossing and turning, until suddenly I opened my eyes and the bus was empty.

In a panic I squinted through the tinted windows -- and saw water rushing past past me. Struggling to shake the dullness of mind that comes after a recent nap, I grabbed my bag and stumbled out the door. A cold slap of wind brought me to my senses. I was on a ferry.
Thus reassured, I wearily slumped in the lounge, sipping a chai. The rocking of the boat was soothing me back to sleep, until my excitement suddenly roared up again. My chai and I sprinted to the deck. The view from the bow justified my agitation. I realized that, in the middle of the night, alone amidst Turkish peasants, I was crossing the Bosporus Strait. The million twinkling lights bejeweling the black hills on the opposite shore was Asia. I was leaving the elegance of the European continent and drawing near to the exotic mysticism of it's neighbor. I was stepping from one world to another.

The thrill of that night is still with me.

I had three weeks before halting my travels to work in Germany, and, after a week in Istanbul, I was convinced that there was no need to explore another country during this time when the one I was in had such treasure buried in the hills. So I bought a second-hand Lonely Planet guide book in Istanbul, bought a Hugo Boss duffel bag (how these street vendors get this stuff so cheaply is beyond me...), left my bike at my Istanbul hostel, and did my first unhindered backpacking tour in the heart of Turkey. I tortured myself for hours as I read through my guide book. Ruins rivaling Greece, stunning natural wonders, whole towns protected by UNESCO... Cutting anything from my itinerary felt like a sin! Vowing to return later in my life to explore the rest of the country, I decided to limit myself to the Eastern half. So, one evening, I hopped on board a bus and motored off to Asia.

Unlike the rest of Europe, Turkey has an almost nonexistent train network. Instead, an armada of luxurious charter buses whisks you from one ancient village to the next. And what service! Within minutes of pulling away from the otogar, a immaculately groomed steward offers you cologne to freshen your hands and face. He is followed by another steward who offers you either tea or coffee, accompanied by a strange, gooey, Ottoman carrot bar (if you've never had one, then I can't explain it). All of this serves to make your neighbor's BO that much more bearable. Perhaps it would be cheaper just to pass around deodorant, but each culture to its own.

My first stop was in the small town of Selçuk. Although most tourists use Selçuk as a base for exploring the ruins of Ephesus (which I will come to later), the town itself has places to explore. Set in dusty, bleak hills, one of the main attractions is the site of the Basilica of St. John the Apostle, a sixth century masterpiece built on the supposed tomb of -- you guessed it -- the disciple whom Jesus loved. Catholic/Orthodox tradition says that John moved to Efes (Ephesus, next door to modern Selçuk) with Mary (the mother of Jesus -- a shrine built on her tomb is a major pilgrimage site for Catholics) in the last years of his life, where he went on to write the three epistles attributed to him. Alternately, you could visit the Temple of Artemis (also known as the Temple of Diana), one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This is where Paul of Tarsus, in chapter nineteen of the book of Acts, faced the rioting of the Ephesians loyal to Artemis. Although today the temple is completely destroyed, aside from one solitary reconstructed pillar, being on the site of such a monument is a thrill in itself.

But the real attraction of the area is Ephesus, the best-preserved Classical ruins in the world. Although some parts were spectacular, most was not actually "preserved" but reconstructed my modern archaeologists -- very badly, in my ignorant opinion. They tried to build the facades of buildings, various arches, certain homes, etc., but most of the time it looked like some child had piled some lumps of marble on top of each other. Sometimes there were so many pieces missing that almost the whole arch was made of concrete...supporting one original marble keystone. Ridiculous. To come to a site of historical significance and wonder whether you are seeing history or someone's imagination is...a bit disappointing. However, like I said, there were parts that the archaeologists seemed to get just right and, when it happened, it would blow your mind away. Out of the marble litter strewn around the ground would suddenly rise up a magnificent facade or monument. You are stunned to see the foggy, distant elements of history suddenly rising proudly, tangibly in front of you. It makes the glory of history very real, and, for that, Ephesus was worth every penny.

En route to my next destination, I took a spur of the moment stop at site called Pamukkale. As you watch the steep brown mountains roll by outside the bus window, you suddenly see a brilliant white scar come streaking down the hillside. It looks like a avalanche of pearls, or a waterfall of porcelain. You would swear that it was snow, but the temperature is 80 degrees. All around it are grey filthy hills, which makes it blaze even more brilliantly. As you begin to hike up the trail, you see people in speedos and bikinis sunning on the slopes. Up close, the white substance looks exactly like freshly fallen snow...hardened into stone. What is this, you ask? Pamukkale is the site of a calcium-rich spring that has been trickling down the mountain for centuries, depositing its treasure in every nook and cranny it flowed over. Creeks and ponds of this bright turquoise water provide delightful bathing or foot-soaking all across the hard white slope. Modern tourists weren't the first people to discover this remarkable place; the ancient Romans built a city called Hierapolis on top of the springs. It was famous for its mineral baths, but the city also had a breath-taking theater, built into the hillside and overlooking the sprawling valley, and the ruins of a basilica built on the site (again, according to Catholic/Orthodox tradition) where St. Philip was martyred. The site was a remarkable blend of natural beauty and history.

Another bus ride drove me into the heartland, into one of the most fascinating regions I have ever seen. Cappadocia, an ancient volcanic region, is lined with hundreds of valleys, each filled to overflowing with beautiful and bizarre rock formations know as fairy chimneys (essentially a stone mushroom of gigantic proportions). Although the land is dry and vegetation is limited, there is no other word to describe the area besides gorgeous. It is a different kind of beauty, more raw and rugged, still there. The landscape constantly morphs itself into new and wonderful shapes -- the stone never repeats the same trick twice. Which would be remarkable and worth a tourist visit on its own, but it gets better. Since its first conquerors (the Persians, in the 6th century), Cappadocia has been slowly transformed into a human-sized ant nest. The inhabitants have been tunneling into the soft stone for centuries, creating castles, cathedrals, monasteries, schools, and entire cities...all underground! Like I said, this habit was not carried out by one people; each new culture would build upon the construction of the last. The cities were expanded layer by layer as the builders added ventilation shafts to carry fresh air, wells to supply water during a siege, stone doors to halt intruders, kitchens, schools for children... Today the cities extend eight levels into the ground! The rock cut churches are equally famous. Although not as structurally remarkable as the cities, most contain stunning frescoes painted by centuries of Christians. The churches seem to be built every few feet in the cliff faces -- there are hundreds in the area -- and as you hike the valley you may likely stumble across a forgotten one. Although the modern Turks do not live in these underground buildings today, their cities still grow organically from the stone. Especially in the old part of town, it is hard to tell where the wall stops and the cliff face begins.

My final stop was the UNESCO town of Safranbolu, in the north of Turkey. It is an almost perfectly preserved Ottoman town, which somehow escaped modernization and large-scale development after the collapse of the empire. Off the charts of large-scale tourism, living prices have stayed down and the town is populated almost entirely by a lower/middle class, which lends the town a very authentic feel despite its beauty and charm. Ottoman style is, to a certain extent, comparable to the American "Bungalow" style. Heavy, dark wood trim frames white plaster walls. The design is largely modest -- the only excitement comes from patterned woodwork and the richly colored Turkish carpets -- but the effect is pleasantly restrained and refined. Ottoman craftsmanship was renowned, and the homes are filled with ingenious touches, such as revolving cupboards which allowed the servants to serve food without being seen. The attraction in Safranbolu is simply the town itself, and you can wonder fascinated for hours through a living piece of history. Local crafts still thrive in the antique streets, and you are quickly welcomed into a store for a cup of chai and a private demonstration of the master's art. The locals seem to have forgotten that time has marched by. But, seeing the blissful bubble of culture and tradition that they live, I don't see any reason to tell them.

Istanbul was a thrill, but the last few weeks of backpacking in Turkey have thrust the country up to one of the highlights of my trip. Turkey is so historically rich, culturally thriving, and delightfully ignorant of a more traditional way of life, that my extra time only made me hungry to see more.

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