Tales from Türkiye

Basilica cistern

Turkish Airlines non-stop: Mumbai-Istanbul. Deafeningly noisy & filled with holidaying families & college groups; strangely, for none of whom Turkey is the final destination. How do I know this? Well, when you have people yelling across the flight about how they can't wait to get to Switzerland, about how mama should definitely be there at Heathrow to pick them up, about how many rides they'll ride at Disneyland or whether all the home-cooked food will suffice until they get back from the 'Europe Tour', you're bound to figure that out, aren't you? K (the hubby), I & a few businessmen travelling to Turkey shift ourselves to the rear of the flight (which is thankfully empty) & try to get some shut-eye. Our flight takes off very early in the morning; an odd time for a flight, really.

Seven hours later, I'm roused by the sun on my face. I peer down to see the gleaming Bosphorus snaking its way through the city, around equally gleaming buildings. I can see ships & yachts. I can see minarets. I can see bulbous domes. I can see the mad jumble of buildings, but, I can also see sprawling gardens……I can see Istanbul! Hungry, my mind starts conjuring up images of the fabled baklava & embarrassingly, I drool over my T-shirt. The baklava will have to wait; I've first got immigration to deal with.

I went to Turkey much before it began its active publicity campaigns in India. I had rudimentary knowledge of Turkey (known as Türkiye, locally), gleaned from sources as varied as school history books, TV travel programmes & cookery shows: Baklava, the Mediterranean, Turkish delight, whirling dervishes, Hagia Sophia, Constantinople, Ottomans, carpets & pottery. The Turkey I came to discover had all this & more. These are snippets of my experiences, thoughts & anecdotes, from the 2-1/2 weeks I spent in this lovely country:

Istanbul, Bosphorus & Galata bridge

Camel rock, Cappadocia

The Golden horn, dividing the city

Tale of 2 cities:

Istanbul accorded me a grey, rainy, cold & windy welcome. Nonetheless, I pulled my jacket tightly around me & stepped on a boat. All the tiled & gleaming buildings looked freshly bathed, the rain having washed away all the dust. As I bobbed around the Bosphorus (the strait separating European & Asian Istanbul) under bridges spanning across the two continents, I took in the contrasts that the city offered: Palaces, villas as well as contemporary buildings on one side & densely populated residential quarters on the other side. The unifying factor on either side was minarets, towering above everything.

Istiklal Caddesi

When I returned 2 weeks later, it was to a different city; sunny and with Tulips in full bloom. But the jacket had to stay; if not to keep out the cold breeze, then, to prevent me from being incongruous in a crowd of nattily dressed & jacketed Istanbullus (residents of Istanbul; like Bombay-ites or Bangaloreans). I felt this acutely as I stood out like a sore thumb at Istiklal Caddesi, in up-market Istanbul. People walked past with a swagger, displaying what looked like Versace's latest winter collection. As stilettos & boots clicked all around me, I peered down to be greeted by the sight of sneakers adorning my feet, my 'functional' green jacket & an even more 'functional' backpack. But here, clearly, black was the colour of the season & so were smart black bags. It made me want to bury my head like an Ostrich. Since that wasn’t possible, I did the next best thing; take a tram back to 'not so up-market' Istanbul. But, not before I'd grabbed a dondurma cone to go.

Inspired by the Palace of Versailles, the Dolmabahçe palace is a worthy replica. The Baroque overdose & bling hits you in the face as soon as you spot the gates at a distance. I watched the change of guards & then walked into the manicured garden. We were all given protective covers for our footwear; maintaining the parquet flooring & carpets is difficult enough without visitors like us bringing in dirt & grime. This palace had everything that would probably make even Louis XIV nod approvingly: Baroque? Check. Bling? Check. Ornate columns? Check. Domes & cupolas? Check. Freshly waxed Parquet floors? Check. Un-imaginably large, heavy & ornate carpets? Check. Gilded walls & ceilings? Check. Stunning paintings & frescoes, in vibrant colours? Check. Gardens & fountains? Check. A view of the sea? Check…..why, it's right by the ocean! Doesn't that beat Versailles?

Ruins, history & lore:

The entrance gate at Aphrodisias

I ran around Disneyland, giddily. No, Turkey does not have a Disneyland. But, seeing such magnificent Greco-roman ruins, to an architect, is akin to a Disneyland visit. Having been a part of Greece until the 20th century, Turkey has its fair share of monuments & ruins. Probably not to the scale or abundance of Greece or Italy; but, impressive nonetheless. Aphrodisias is my favourite and the most picturesque; quite befitting Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The guide who was supposed to take us (hubby & I) there never showed up. We decided to go ahead, armed with guidebooks to tell us the story. I was smitten by the ruins! Visited by very few, and, on that day, by none, I quite felt like Indiana Jones. And, it gave me goose-bumps; especially when I stood in the centre of the large sports arena. The arena was also used frequently for gladiator fights & you could see areas where the animal lay in wait & areas from where the gladiator entered. He may not necessarily have left the arena on his feet; carried for burial, maybe? The setting sun added to the eeriness of it all. More goosebumps!

A corner of the communal bath

Your slave wakes up before dawn, before the rooster has crowed. He walks in the dark to the bath. He sits on the toilet bowl & waits for sunrise. You're up at the crack of dawn. You shake laziness off your limbs & head outside. You meet a few friends along the way & chat until you get to the bath. Your slave gets up so that you can sit on the bowl. The marble seat, cold until just about an hour ago, is now warm & inviting, having been heated by your slave sitting on it. You sit alongside your friend & watch the fountains splutter & gurgle to life. As if on cue, the live musicians begin playing songs. A harp emanates soothing notes. Relieved to have the music mask any embarrassing sounds, you do your thing. Incense burns in a corner & fills the air with its sweet scent. People walk in & out & you wave to those you know. You scan around the room with its marble-clad walls; your eyes chance upon the new marble sculpture they've added, of a young man with his rippling muscles; ooh..if only you had a boyfriend like that!

This is how your morning bathroom rituals supposedly were, if you lived centuries ago, in Ephesus. I stood at the communal bath, visualizing the scene. My guide invited me to sit on a bowl. I did & instantly felt the cold marble chilling my gluteal muscles. But, the vision swimming before my eyes was so inviting. Suddenly, even the poshest bathrooms I'd enjoyed seemed boring in comparison!

Travertine pools

Tombs overlook Pamukkale

"Walk through the water, following its course & you will reach the ancient city" Mehmet told us "And take off your shoes else it's slippery". There was a road that would've let us drive straight to the parking lot but we'd wanted to trek up. We looked quizzically at Mehmet "Through the water? In this freezing weather?? Without shoes???" He smiled "You forget that it's water from a spring; it will be warm". Driving up sounded so unappealing that we decided to walk; comfortable or not. I'm glad we did! Walking upstream takes you to the famous travertine pools of Pamukkale, formed when mineral water cascaded over the cliff edge, creating calcium shelves & stalactites. Misuse in the 20th century led to the water draining out & intervention has now restored some of it. After some time in the pools, we continued walking up till we reached the ancient spa city of Hierapolis. We spent the whole day there, walking through the historic ruins, the museum, bathing in the pool & walking around the enormous theatre. As the sun threatened to set, we took the path down, passing alongside a beautiful necropolis (burial place for the dead). The beige tombs, overlooking the town of Pamukkale & the travertine pools, with pretty spring flowers running riot around them, didn't seem to be a bad placeat all, to be laid to rest in. After we visitors had left, the pools & Hierapolis would make for such an amazing place for the spirits to wander in; if I were a ghost, I'd really like it here!

Where we’re up in the air & fairies are on the ground:

Aerial view of Love valley

The hot air from the fire was a welcome respite from the cold at this elevation, as we floated around peacefully. Below me, surreal landscapes unfolded. As the sun rose, it tinged everything orange & shadows slowly appeared, adding to the drama. Our pilot Kylie pointed out to the different rock formations; some called 'love valley' and some, 'rose valley'. The fairy chimneys of Cappadocia are intriguing enough from the ground but to see them from the air was a different experience altogether. After floating high enough for some time, Kylie lowered the balloon so that we floated just over the pretty apricot trees in bloom. We could've plucked some fruit if we’d bent down. Of course, being 10 adults tightly packed in a basket didn't allow for luxuries like moving around or bending. A couple of hours later, we landed; literally with a thud, on the grass. It was time to toast to our flight with some champagne. In 'high spirits', we returned to our cave.

A view of Goreme, Cappadocia

Yes, cave! Cappadocia is famous for its volcanic rock formations, called 'fairy chimneys'. People built houses within these rocks. So did pigeons. The rocks were also great to hide in, when you were being persecuted for your religion; this is how early Christian monks hid. We can now see their hide-outs as part of an open-air museum. We stayed in a family home, now converted into a 'cave hotel'. This is something I'd never seen before nor have ever seen since then. Of course, the younger generation was said to prefer conventional dwellings & we could see that most families had moved out of the cave homes into brick-n-mortar ones. Oh, if only I could live in a cave…..I'd never leave it! Talk about the grass always being greener on the other side!

One night, I entered a small café at Goreme. It was empty, given the 'non-smoking' sign, something that's quite a rarity in Turkey. Run by a couple, this café served home-cooked food. I dug into some hearty soup & gozleme (savoury pastry), as music played in the background. Suddenly, strains of familiar music wafted in. Chatting with the couple, I asked them how they'd got Indian music. They were quite surprised to know that the music was Indian and said that this was one of their favourite CDs, given to them by a backpacker. They started this café because they enjoy meeting people from different countries. These travellers left gifts behind at times, sometimes also in lieu of money for the food. We continued to chat as I ate; it felt like I was at their home.

Walking through corridors

I bent & ducked my way through the stairs. A hundred stairs later, I could stand erect in the small, cavernous chamber. I took in what the guide was telling us & shook my head in disbelief. No way did a few thousand people live here! The steps & narrow passages had actually taken us below the ground, to the underground city of Kayamakli. A few hundred feet below civilization with no light shaft & cleverly concealed ventilation shafts, the very thought of living here filled me with a wave of claustrophobia. I wouldn't have lasted a day. I was also overcome by a wave of sadness, for the people who had to escape marauding armies or religious persecutors & escape underground. But, it definitely beats being killed by marauders & I was happy that they'd come up with such an ingenious solution. Each house had access from within to the underground city & people could escape quickly without being discovered.

Fun, laughs & surprises:

I was promised that all my dead skin would fall off me & I would feel as soft as a baby's bum. A very tempting thought that lead me to the hamam, a communal Turkish bath-house. But, as I lay on the cold marble slab in a bikini, pummeled (I kid you not!) by a stocky old man, some coarse soap & an even coarser loofah, I didn't care two hoots for the baby's bum. I was worried I'd have to have plastic surgery to recover from this. Many others around me seemed to share my fear, for we all looked at each other in alarm. But, none of us wanted to be sissy enough to scream. 30 minutes later, after a sauna session where my raw skin boiled in the heat, I sat drinking apple tea at the reception. This is the least they can offer me, I thought! K too came out looking like a boiled carrot. We, two dusky Indians, had magically been transformed into red-skinned people. I slathered myself with lotion to help my chafed skin. But, by the next day, the burning stopped & I did feel like a baby's bum. Well, no pain, no gain! And for the record, I didn't need surgery.

A tea-house at the bazaar

K & I ambled through the spice bazaar; some things very familiar & some things, exotic. A man called us into his store & we browsed for a bit. Taking K aside, he said "Buy this bottle. Drink 2 tsp of this and you will run like a horse". "Thanks, but I don't want to run like a horse" said K, amused. "You don't understand", the man persisted "you will run like 4 horses". K too persisted, even more amused "I don't even want to run like 1 horse, let alone 4". "Then how will you have children?" wailed the man. That's when it hit us..he was trying to sell us one of Turkey's fabled aphrodisiac potions! I guffawed & the man turned pink, embarrassed that a lady had heard his sales pitch. Soon, he laughed too and K & I left for some more browsing, without the 'horse syrup'.

Aishwarya! Shah Rukh! Sometimes, Salman. This is how we were hailed by shopkeepers at Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, asking us to look at their wares. They knew where we were from; our un-mistakably Indian features being a dead give-away. An elderly gentleman sang a Raj Kapoor song as I debated whether to buy those expensive Turquoise earrings or Amber pendant from him, which he insisted were 'original gems set in pure silver'. His song swayed me & I bought both. The Grand bazaar is as grand as it sounds; a planned, covered market, heaped with carpets, onyx, blue pottery, jewellery, lanterns, evil-eye charms & the works. Built more than 5 centuries ago, it is still as bustling & wallet-draining as it probably was, then. When all the shopping tired me, I popped into one of the numerous cafés for some çay (Tea). I silently thanked the person who had designed the bazaar & thoughtfully sprinkled it with cafes.

In the days of yore, when a Turkish woman was hunting for a groom, she had to undertake a carpet-weaving test. The more skilled you were, the better the husband you'd bag. For a Turkish man, it was a pottery test. A man had to use the potter's wheel & produce a jar & a lid. If the lid fit the jar perfectly, he was said to possess enough skill to earn money & hence, take care of his family. I tried my hand at weaving a few knots in a carpet. The giggling girls at the weaving school proclaimed me fit to marry; not necessarily to the best groom, though. K sat at the potter's wheel & produced a jar with a hole at the bottom. His lid looked like a mashed potato. He was deemed unfit to even dream of marrying!

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