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My First Trip to Turkey - How It Came About - Where I'm Going

My First Trip to Turkey - How It Came About - Where I'm Going

Old Jun 26, 08, 3:35 pm
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Monday, June 23: Ürgüp to Konya

Like many of the tourist hotels in Ürgüp, the Dinler Hotel (where we stayed) is about a 15-20 minute hike outside of the town. As a result, the town itself is pretty devoid of tourists. However, the Göreme Open Air Museum, our first stop of the day on Monday, was loaded with tourists. The cave homes, the cave churches, and everything else made this one of the most outstanding places I have ever visited. We spent nearly three hours there, and I could have spent another three very easily.

But we didn't have three more hours. We had a full day ahead of us. Before heading to Avanos for a pottery demonstration, we stopped to see some more of the fairy chimneys that Cappadocia is famous for. I was beginning to get hungry, so I picked some apricots off one of the trees at the stop. Being 6'5" made it easy for me to pick some that had been missed, and they tasted like sugar! We ran back to our bus and traveled a few miles to Avanos. One of the potters made a vase while we watched, and then one of our group members tried to reproduce his effort. She wasn't quite successful, but I got a few pictures that I plan to use as blackmail material if I can get them to her students in Arizona!

After lunch, it was time for a nap. Unfortunately, there was no time for a nap. The underground town was waiting for us in Derinkuyu. Cappadocia has quite a few of these, but this is supposed to be the best. There are eight levels underground. The purpose of these towns, many of which were connected to each other, was to provide a hiding place from invaders. A few of our group stayed above ground because of warnings about the tight spaces. As the tallest member of the group, I can proudly say that I never bumped my head, but my back scraped against the cave ceiling quite a few times. I felt a great sense of accomplishment when we reached the eighth level, followed by a great sense of dread. Most caves, including this one, don't have elevators. If we had really descended 85 meters, as our guide told us, we would have to ascend 85 meters to get back to the entrance. We did, and it was not easy. However, the cave has outstanding ventilation due to the air shafts.

And Monday was not even close to being over yet! Konya was Monday's final destination, and we still had another stop or two before we got there. After a stop to refuel the bus and buy some roasted hazelnuts in Aksaray (a town that Lonely Planet didn't have much nice to say about), we headed to the Sultanhani Caravanserai. The Selçuks built these caravanserais so that those traveling on the trade route would have a place to spend the night. Because they could only travel 10 - 15 km per day, a lot of these had to be built. This one was supposedly the largest and grandest of all. It didn't have all of the comforts of home, but it did have a mosque, hamam, kitchen, and places for travelers to bed down for the night.

Konya was only two hours away. It would have been 90 minutes had our bus driver not lost his way. We checked into the Selçuk Otel, ate dinner, and collapsed after the long and fascinating day.
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Old Jun 27, 08, 9:38 am
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Tuesday, June 24: Konya to Istanbul

Lonely Planet says that Konya is the heart of the "Bible Belt" of Turkey. Shouldn't that be the Koran Belt? I certainly could not dispute that claim. By my count, there were seven mosques within 150 meters of our hotel. In addition, finding a beer was not easy, but some of the more thirsty members of our group managed to do so.

After breakfast, we took a whirlwind tour of some of the sites within walking distance of our hotel, including the Alaeddin Mosque at the top of Alaeddin Hill , the Ince Minareli Medrese (and its incredibly ornate dome), and the Karatay Medrese (which was closed). I had never been inside a mosque before my visit to the Alaedidn Mosque, and there were a few features that our guide says were unique, specifically, the "forest of columns" inside. There were a few dozen columns inside the mosque, many of which had different designs. According to our guide, this suggests that the columns had been "recycled." As we approached the mosque from our hotel (the west), it did not look terribly impressive. However, looking at it from the north, I was able to appreciate its grand scale.

We had about 45 minutes of free time before having to check out of the hotel and head to the Mevlana Museum, so I explored Alaeddin Hill a little longer. Then we boarded the bus for the short ride to the museum. After touring the museum, I wished that I had taken some time to read about the Mevlana and the Sufi sect. The most impressive part of the museum, in my opinion, was the room with all of the Korans, from the simple to the ornate, including a couple that were 1,000 years old.

We broke for lunch, and I had Bamya Çorbası as an appetizer. I had looked for it on menus, but this was the first time I had the okra soup. Having grown up in Alabama, I was raised on okra. However, I knew that okra served in the Middle East was not the big pods I am accustomed to, but smaller ones about the size of the last joint of the pinky. These pods were maybe half that size, and they were in a tomato/beef (I think) broth. Delicious.

Originally, our afternoon was supposed to be free time in Konya. However, we had done just about everything we could do (or wanted to do) in Konya. Therefore, Kathryn (our leader) arranged an optional trip to Çatalhöyük. This is the site of the earliest evidence of civilization that has been discovered, dating back about 9,000 years. Estimates suggest that more than 5,000 people lived here, and it has been under a slow excavation process for nearly 50 years. The stone houses here had doors in the ceilings. For obvious reasons, we could not get very close to them, but there was a model that we could explore.

We arrived back in Konya at 5:00 p.m., and our flight to Istanbul was not scheduled to leave until 10:30 p.m., so we had a few hours of free time anyway. A group of us set off for the bazaar, but I didn't find much of anything that interested me. I became separated from the group and disoriented. I decided to head for a busy street (and a WC!). I was very relieved when I found both, and soon spotted the hotel we had stayed in. I also saw a sign for a hamam. I looked at my watch, and it was 5:50 p.m. I was still a little sweaty and gritty from the visit to Çatalhöyük, so I thought to myself "What better way to waste another couple of hours than by getting a bath?" So I headed inside.

The hamam was empty, and the attendant showed me a menu. The complete package was 25 YTL, a bargain, even though it did not include an oil massage. Considering how average the oil massage I got in Antalya was, that didn't deter me. So I went into my little room to change, and one of the attendants stopped me. I didn't realize I was supposed to remove my shoes, so I apologized and did so. Overall, the experience was better than the one in Antalya. The attendant who bathed me gave an outstanding soap massage and actually massaged me instead of slapping me. He seemed a little annoyed at first because I was slow to respond to his instructions due to the language barrier. However, within minutes I realized that this guy knew what he was doing. When he finished, he took me back into the hamam and gave me the coldest shower I had ever had. I made some faces and noises that made him laugh. As he sent me back to the cooling off area, he said "Good?" and I nodded. Then he pointed to his wrist and said "Time no problem." Another attendant wrapped me in towels and brought me a glass of çay, and then another as I sat and watched TV with them. I had no idea what the person on TV was saying, but it was a relaxing way to spend the rest of my time in Konya. I think they would have let me stay until closing time if I had wanted to.

At 7:30, I got dressed, paid, tipped the attendant 3 YTL, and walked back to the bus. When other group members asked me what I had done and I told them, their responses were "Why didn't I think of doing that?" Well, it was an accident that I did, and a very good one.

June 24, 2008 KYA-IST
Turkish Airlines 251
Seat 22D

We arrived at the airport before check-in started, so we sat down. Around 9:00 p.m., the check-in desks opened and we got in line. Even though my bags weighed 27 kg, I wasn't charged an excess baggage fee. I wasn't sure if it was because of my *A Gold status or an act of generosity. Even more puzzling was the fact that my bag had not gained any weight in the past week, even though I had been buying souvenirs. Had my bag's weight been inflated at AYT?

After the gate opened, we all went through security and waited. Boarding started a bit late, and we didn't take off until 10:44 p.m. As usual, the seat belt sign was off three minutes later and FAs were in the aisles soon after that. Our dinner choices for the short flight after 10 p.m. were sandwich and salad. I had the sandwich: Village cheese, lettuce, and tomato on a soft roll, a glass of sour cherry juice, and a packaged chocolate mousse that was actually very good. The flight was packed, but everyone was served and all of the rubbish was cleared before we began to descend. We were on the ground a little before 11:30 p.m. Thankfully, our bags came out quickly, we didn't have to wait long for the bus, and we were on our way to the city.

Just one problem. Traffic. Istanbul has lots of it, but we thought it odd that it would be so backed up after midnight! Thankfully, the problem was due to an accident, and we were moving quickly again. We were headed to the Marble Hotel, near Taksim Square. As we reached the square, the bus driver had to take a detour, because the street in front of our hotel was blocked. So we had to go through the square, down a hill, along the Bosphorous, up a hill, and finally to our hotel. Checking in was about as good as you could have expected it for a group of 20+ exhausted people, and when I got to Room 305, I didn't care that my room didn't have a view. I just wanted to email my partner to tell him that we made it. Unfortunately, the internet was not working on the third floor. I was too tired to walk downstairs, so I sent my first text message from Turkey:

"Arrived Istanbul. Love you."

I was happy it went through, and even more happy less than a minute later when the cell phone buzzed with a response:

"Not Constantinople?"
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Old Jun 28, 08, 12:47 am
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Wednesday, June 25

Even though we were late getting settled into the Hotel Marble on Tuesday evening, we had an early morning on Wednesday. We met our guide for the day, Koray, in the lobby at 9:00 a.m. and walked to the bus that was waiting in Taksim Square. Koray explained that he lived on the Asian side of the city, and that everyday approximately 1.6 million commuters travel from that side of the Bosphorous to the European side for the jobs, creating the traffic nightmare. The commute from his apartment could be as little as 20 minutes or as much as tow hours.

Koray had a tremendous challenge: Introduce the group to Istanbul in 7 hours. Anyone who has ever been to Istanbul knows that there are too many things to be introduced to in a seven-hour tour, but Koray did a masterful job of keeping the group moving, hitting the high points, and skipping over the things he knew that we would be able to see in more detail later on our own.

In seven hours, we were able to see the Hippodrome, the Cistern, Aya Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapı Palace. We also had time to stop for lunch at Tarihi Sultanahmet köftecisi and sample their world-famous köfte, stop for Çay outside of the Blue Mosque, and have some time after the tour to wander around Topkapı Palace.

I was especially impressed by the mosaics in Aya Sophia, and I can only imagine what they looked like before it was converted to a mosque in the 15th century. In addition, a few of us noticed the sag in the marble floors at the upper gallery. I guess that happens after over 1000 years!

The Blue Mosque was also impressive, not only because of its size, but also the beauty inside and attention to detail. Unfortunately, I committed a cultural faux pas after I exited. I sat on the steps to put my shoes back on. I didn't notice the signs that said not to sit on the steps until after I was walking away from the mosque. No one corrected me, and Koray told me that it was not a problem because there was no intent to offend on my part, but I still felt badly about it.

I think Topkapı Palace is worth a day by itself. Even without seeing the Harem (which we did not), one could spend the better part of a day exploring. I plan to spend more time there the next time I am in Istanbul.

At 4:30 p.m., part of the group walked toward the Grand Bazaar. I joined the rest of the group, not because I was tired, but because my camera's battery pack was dead. I guess 400+ photos in a day will do that.

Are You Ready for Some Futbol?

Before we left, Kathryn warned us about the Turkey-Germany EuroCup match that evening. Taksim Square is a gathering point, and she said that the celebration could get rowdy if Turkey won. Therefore, it might be a good idea to plan to be in our rooms before the end of the match.

When we got back to the hotel, I explored the area around Taksim Square. The square was already crowded with people wearing red jerseys, waving Turkish flags, and selling gear for the game. Istikkal Caddesi, a pedestrian street leading into the square was wall-to-wall people, almost all heading toward the square. It was a great sight. I stopped an bought a red "Türkiye" cap and put it on, in case anyone might think I was German! At least 5 different people came up to me before I went back to my hotel and asked me where I was from and encouraged me to watch the match on the square. It was tempting, but I had had a long day, and all I wanted to do was eat and go back to my room before it got too late.

Unfortunately, Turkey lost on a goal by Germany in the 90th minute. I watched most of the match, and when Turkey tied it at 2-2 late, the roar from Taksim Square drowned the sound of the TV in my room! At least I have a new team to support when the 2010 World Cup rolls around!

Thursday, June 26

Today we explored some of the neighborhoods around Istanbul that were undergoing urban renewal. It was interesting, but it was also hot. Also, I was approaching my limit of information. I guess it was important to spend at least an hour in each of the neighborhoods, considering that it took at least an hour to reach each of them. However, it seemed to me that our guide was most interested in talking about good real estate deals that had been made, and showing us some of the renovations that his friends were undertaking. I don't know. Maybe I was just antsy and wanting to do something else. We did have lunch at a wonderful place called Süleymaniye Kuru Fasülyeci in the shadow of the Süleymaniye Mosque. The beans and rice were so delicious, that even people who didn't think they liked beans and rice at them!

After our tour of the neighborhoods, we boarded a boat for a Bosphorous Cruise. The cruise did not go all the way to the Black Sea, just up to the second bridge and back, taking about 90 minutes. Next time I am in Istanbul, I will take the one to the Black Sea, but this one was great, considering our time restrictions. Again, I took lots of photos. The only thing I would have changed about the tour was the music: Nonstop Turkish hip-hop! And it was loud!

We returned at around 6:00 p.m., and a group of us decided to explore the Spice Market before it closed. More pictures, and as beautiful as they were, nothing can capture the sights, sounds, and aromas there. I also bought a few gifts, enjoying the pained expressions I would see when I was able to get something for a few lire less than the asking price but I am sure many lire more than the true value!

As night fell, I decided to stay in this part of the city and take some evening pictures. Walking in the breeze and seeing the families out together for the evening was a bonus. I had a corn on the cob from a street vendor, and a chicken doner from a shop as I walked. As I approached the Golden Horn, I noticed even more vendors and families. Some of these families were buying food from vendors and some had brought their own. A boat was docked near the south bank of the Galata Bridge, and it was selling fish sandwiches. About two dozen men were trying to catch fish.

I walked across the bridge and took some pictures of the Bosphorous Bridge as it changed colors. It was after 10:00 p.m., and I was exhausted. I found a taxi, and 10 minutes and 7 YTL later I was back in Taksim Square with another 400 photos ready to be downloaded.
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Old Jun 28, 08, 7:44 am
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The end is near

Friday, June 27

Our last day of work took us to the Asian side of Istanbul for a visit to Sabancı University. It took us about an hour to get there. The location is, as one of the staff members said, "out in the middle of nowhere," but it is a beautiful, modern campus. That's because the campus is less than ten years old.

The language of instruction is English, but almost all of the students are from Turkey. We met with faculty and staff members and learned a little bit more about Istanbul and the Turkish national identity.

We arrived back at our hotel at 5:15 p.m., and we were told to meet in the lobby at 8:00 p.m. so that we could walk to our farewell dinner. I took advantage of the break to walk down Istikkal Caddesi one more time, dodging the people cheerfully talking on their cellphones as they left work or went to meet friends.

After a shower and change of clothes, I was ready for dinner and one final chance for some social time with my new colleagues. We walked out of the hotel and turned left, walking down Sirasleviler Caddesi for about 10 minutes, then took another left. I am not sure what the name of the restaurant was, I think it was Doğ Balık. We took turns on the elevator, going up to the 7th floor. We were taken aback, group by group, by the view. The Golden Horn, The Blue Mosque, Aya Sophia, Topkapı Palace, all laid out before us in the distance. What better way to spend our final night in Istanbul? We gorged ourselves on assorted meze, then salad and pastry, then perfectly grilled sea bass with lemon, and finally tray after tray of fresh fruit.

By 11:00 p.m., I followed the lead of a few others and went back to the hotel and had the best night of sleep I had had since the program started.

Saturday, June 28 (Today)

I awoke not sure if I should start packing or eat breakfast. Breakfast seemed like a better choice. I arrived in time to see a few of my colleagues and say goodbye to them. At 9:30 a.m., I decided to take a taxi to visit the Spice Bazaar, one more time. On Thursday, I had requested a late checkout (2:00 p.m.) for today, and it had been granted. On the way out, I decided to confirm it. The front desk agent said, "No, check out is 12:00, it is not possible." I explained that I had already had it granted, and he replied, "We have a big group, I cannot extend your stay." I repeated that it had already been granted, and he said, "Who granted it?" I didn't have a name. He finally relented, partially, and allowed me a 1:00 p.m. checkout.

I found a taxi, and told the driver where I wanted to go. He headed down the street, then turned around. He said traffic was bed in that direction, so he headed back to Taksim Square. That seemed weird to me. Anyway, we got stuck in traffic, and I realized that I would be rushed at the bazaar, so I handed him 4 YTL and exited. I walked around the square for awhile and went back to my room to pack.

I am going to try to be nice about the Hotel Marble, but it's tough. The best things about it are the location and the breakfast room that overlooks the Bosphorous. The worst things are the 1960's decor and the service/facilities of varying quality. The internet works sometimes. The A/C kind of works sometimes. The rooms have A/C, but it's really like someone left the refrigerator door open. With temperatures in the high 80s and humidity to match, that doesn't make the rooms very comfortable.

I finally finished my packing, showered, dressed, and was out of my room at 1:00 p.m. on the dot. I stayed in the lobby to take care of a few things online, and then walked to the havas bus. By 2:00 p.m., I was at the airport. Unfortunately, I had to wait until 3:10 p.m. for BA to open its check in counter. However, I checked my two bags (one to TPA, the other that I will need for the evening to LHR), and made my way through passport control. I am now at the BA lounge, about to board my flight and leave this country that I have thoroughly enjoyed and hope to visit again soon.
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Old Jun 28, 08, 2:31 pm
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Bye Bye Turkey

June 28, 2008 IST-LHR
British Airways 677
Seat 27B

As I left the BA Lounge, it hit me that I had been in Turkey for 16 days. Australia and New Zealand are the only other countries outside the US that I have ever spent as much time in continuously. When you spend that much time somewhere, anywhere, there will be things that you miss. But I am ready to go home. The first stop on the way home is London.

Our flight finished boarding and loading bags well before the scheduled departure time of 5:25 p.m. However, because of air traffic control at LHR, we would not be allowed to take off until 5:45 p.m., optimistically. Thank goodness the optimistic estimate was correct.

About 30 minutes after takeoff, the FAs started serving the meal: chicken stewed with vegetables, salad nicoise with tuna (canned, but packed in olive oil), a packaged roll, and chocolate silk pie. The video system was not working, but I didn't care. I had some work to do and my iPhone to keep me entertained. The flight arrived at the gate a couple of minutes ahead of schedule (7:35 p.m.), and less than 30 minutes later I was waiting for the Hoppa Bus to take me to the Sheraton Skyline Hotel. When T5 works as planned, it is a thing of beauty!

I arrived at the Sheraton Skyline a little after 8:30 p.m., and my reservation for a classic room with a double bed was upgraded to a king executive room. It was nice to walk into a hotel room that was really air conditioned!

I made my way up to the Club Lounge for a snack and some water, and to check email. The ability to use the free wireless in the lounge is much more attractive than the price the hotel charges in the room.

Off to bed, for my flight at 7:55 a.m. tomorrow.
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Old Jun 29, 08, 11:46 am
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Back to the U.S.A.

My alarm woke me at 4:15 a.m. I made a cup of tea, watched St. Elsewhere (!) on Channel 4, showered, dressed, and was out of the hotel about an hour later. The Hoppa bus for Terminal 3 arrived after a short wait, and I was at T3 very quickly.

June 29, 2008 LHR-ORD
American Airlines 99
Seat 12G

The AAgent who checked me in acted as though he would rather be anywhere at 5:35 a.m. than standing behind the counter. At least he was quick. I was through security--my MacBook stayed in the bag and my shoes stayed on my feet--within 10 minutes! I waited for W.H. Smith to open so I could buy a copy of Q (for those of you who don't know, that's the world's best music magazine) and a few bags of Allsorts for my partner. He spent four of his teenage years in the U.K., so I always grab some for him when I fly through LHR. That done, I walked to the FL.

If you've never been to the LHR FL, the descriptions in this post give you an idea of the decor. However, it's usually a quiet place to grab a light breakfast before an early morning flight from LHR, a better alternative to the AC, in my opinion. I stayed there until about 7:15 a.m., and when I arrived at the boarding lounge, the boarding process was already at Group 3.

The flight was pleasant enough. I would post the menu, but anyone who has been on one of these morning flights from LHR in the past two years has it memorized: Breakfast is a choice of omelet with chives, blueberry pancakes, or risotto with chicken. Cheese and fruit is served mid-flight. And a light snack of coconut shrimp or cold beef with caramelized onions is served before landing.

Even though I was in the next to last row of J, my order was one of the last taken. What happened to FEBO? I was able to get my first choice for breakfast (the risotto), but not the light snack. For some reason, the flight seemed short staffed in J. I only saw 2 FAs working the cabin the entire flight, and one of them kept telling me that she hated the morning flight from LHR because it was too early for her. She also told me that she hated summer flights to and from LHR. At least she seemed to like me enough to confide in me!

We arrived at ORD a few minutes early, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that ORD no longer has the long-distance walk from the gate to immigration. Down two escalators (I took the stairs instead) and we were there!

I was unpleasantly surprised by what came after immigration. My bags came out 22 and 26 minutes after bags started rolling off the belt. Hey, I am always happy just to see my bags roll off the belt at all! The bad surprise came when it was time to drop them off. I am accustomed to the convenient system that AA has had at ORD: After you exit customs, you take a few steps give your bag(s) to someone who puts them on the belt. That was what I saw last month when I flew LHR-ORD and after all of my past AA international flights into ORD. But not today. I entered a line that stretched almost back to customs, exited, turned left, and inched along until I was able to give my bags to someone who put the bags on the belt. This took about 20 minutes from the time I gave my card to the customs agent. Who instituted this system and why? Is AA trying to make flying through ORD internationally as annoying as flying through MIA? If so, this is a good first step!

Now I am at the ORD AC, with one more segment before I get home. Turkey was fun, but I am ready to get back to Tampa!
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Old May 16, 09, 3:48 pm
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I know this thread is a year old, but I'm on my way to Turkey and my FT research pulled this thread up. Great reading Flying Buccaneer. Obviously there's lots to see and do in Turkey; your thread is making me more anxious to get there!

Originally Posted by Vaclav View Post
Indeed, what did Canadians do to be charged $60 for a visa?
It seems that Canadians are the only ones who are faced with a high visa fee. I suspect that this is retribution as I believe Canada was the first country to recognize the Armenian Genocide. Though the events happened a generation ago, it's still a touchy subject with Turkish officials.
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Old Apr 24, 15, 6:23 pm
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An excellent read that kept me from start to finish.
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