Chapter 47: Holy carp!

Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
Trip End Nov 2004

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Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Yikes. Bombs went off in two Istanbul hotels last night. Thankfully few people were hurt (although at last check two had died). Anyway, I was safely tucked in bed 12 hours away in Goreme (still!), and I'm heading to Istanbul tonight on the overnight bus. Hopefully lightning won't strike twice.

Backing up a bit... last Saturday afternoon I fell asleep at the pool, and when I woke up I met my roommate, an awesome 24yo Pennsylvania boy named Greg. Turns out I had our one room key with me and had locked him out of our room, and I didn't wake up when he poked me, so he had to find Dawn to get her to let him in. Ooops. Despite that, we hit it off well and spent a few hours wandering around cute Goreme snacking on peaches, drinking in the shade, and eventually chatting over dinner at Mercan Restaurant. At one point a guy named Mustafa who ran a gift shop offered Greg some raki (nasty Turkish ouzo-like liquor), so we talked to the guy for a while in his shop and picked up some "buy 1 get 1 free" drink coupons for the Fat Boys bar down the street.

Naturally we ended up at the empty bar later that night. The scene was a little pathetic at first, as we were the only patrons and there wasn't much to do besides play cards with the guys (and girl) behind the bar... but at 10-something two friendly and energetic Aussie girls named Joanne and Nicole showed up, and the place started showing signs of life. Nic and I hit it off instantly thanks to a mutual obsessive appreciation of UK indie rock (she kept trying to get the stubborn DJ to play some decent music, to little avail), and we agreed to bring our own CDs the next night. The four of us stayed out until 3 or so, and then headed back to our respective pensions.

The next day Greg & I woke up far too early considering we didn't get to sleep until 4:30 or something. He changed his bus ticket so he could stay another night, and after eating, running errands, hitting the internet cafe for a while, and thoroughly discussing our deep love of videogames, we decided to visit an underground city. Nic wanted to come too, so the three of us hopped a minibus to Nevsehir, and then another bus to Derinkuyu, the largest of Cappadocia's underground cities.

The city consisted of layers upon layers of cramped tunnels (minimally lit and decorated) that wound through the ground like Swiss Cheese holes and served as a giant emergency shelter hundreds of years ago for up to 10,000 people. The best parts were when we got off the main paths and crept down tiny blackened corridors on our own, using our digital camera LCD screens for light. Most of the caves led nowhere special, but it was still cool to reach a completely dark room and turn off the lights for a few seconds. After 90 minutes or so of exploring mouseholes and dodging German tour groups, we surfaced and sat in a little cafe eating gozleme - Turkish pancakes that are like flatbread stuffed with cheese, potatoes, etc.

We rested back at Kose until almost 11, and then went down to Fat Boys for a good night of alcohol and dancing. Surprisingly there were a decent number of people hanging out that night! Nic succeeded (with much frustration) in getting Franz Ferdinand and Delays played in between the usual mix of overplayed 80's pop, and by 3-something when the place had quieted down and we were alone outside on the cushions, we had full run of the CD player, which meant lots of Reindeer Section, Snow Patrol, and Smiths. We finally turned in at 5:30 - just in time for sunrise, but we only rested until 8 because poor Greg got really sick from the previous night's dinner (stomach problems are rampant here), and for some reason I couldn't sleep.

So... Monday was a zoned-out pool day for me, and I let Greg use my bed to sleep for most of the day since he'd had to check out that morning. Nic & Jo stopped by a few times, and in the late afternoon I ran off with them for some excellent baked potatoes. Nic & I brought our CDs to a music store and made copies of a few discs; I scored the Reindeer Section (Snow Patrol side project) from her, while she burned Delays, Modest Mouse, and a few others from me. Greg eventually joined us outside of Fat Boys around 7, and then between 8 & 9 the three of them had to catch their buses to Olympos (Jo & Nic) and Istanbul (Greg). Hanging out with them was probably the highlight of Turkey for me so far, so I was sad to see my friends leave. I think I get attached too fast. Hope we stay in touch at least.

Tuesday I put on my hiking shoes and spent 6 hours exploring the trails of Swords Valley and the Goreme Open Air Museum - both 1km from town. Swords Valley was actually much more fun, despite the fact that it's free (unlike the expensive museum). I climbed up cool rock formations, ducked into ancient caves and tunnels in the rocks, and took in the impressive views from the tops of precarious cliffs. Luckily it was a partly cloudy day and there was a little breeze, but it was still exhausting work and I think I drank 5 liters of water during the afternoon! The Open Air Museum was mostly a collection of tiny chapels carved into the rocks, but aside from some neat Jesus frescoes the churches just didn't have the same mysterious qualities as the caves of Swords Valley.

After walking back to town I stopped at Yama Travel and signed up for a 3-day trip to Eastern Turkey to see Mt. Nemrut and Sanliurfa. It was an expensive package (US$125), but it was all-inclusive and covered a lot of ground, and it would have cost me more to see everything on the itinerary on my own. That night I went to a bar named Cafedoci@, where the super-nice owner (an English woman named Caroline) cooked me a delicious home-made chicken dinner. The Turkish guys who work there were friendly, and I met a great Aussie traveler named Brooke who was living next door, so I ended up hanging out with the whole crew until after midnight, when I headed for Kose after promising to return the next night.

Wednesday was, as Nic & Jo would put it, a "Rancho Relaxo" day. Hung out by the pool until three, when I motivated to get a haircut. I found a place in the center of town and was enjoying the razor action... when I suddenly couldn't feel my hands and started seeing black spots in my eyes. In seconds, I couldn't see a thing, but before I totally blacked out the barber recognized something was wrong and pushed my head under the cold tap. In two minutes I was fine again (aside from the embarrassment), so I'm not sure what caused it - probably too much sun and not enough food. Anyway, I guess I should be happy if that's the extent of the trauma on my trip. Some people get mugged; I black out while getting a haircut.

I returned to Cafedoci@ that night, and Caroline turned over the CD player to me, Brooke, and Brooke's BF Pete. They played obscure 80's hits ("Electric Dreams"!) while I did the Brit-rock thing. Caroline told me lots about Turkish attitudes towards gays, which was enlightening. The men are very affectionate with each other in public, and up to 70% have had some kind of same-sex experience... but they don't seem to fully understand the concept of actually being homosexual. As a result the men tend to be giggly and naive about the subject, but at least they're rarely aggressive.

Thursday I woke up early and got picked up at 8:30 for my Nemrut tour. The bus filled up by 9 with an interesting mix of people: an older German couple, 2 independent Japanese tourists, an English mum with her two teenage sons and their family friend, a German/Turkish guy, and two friendly Dutch couples (Rob & Martine, and Herwin & Josta). I mostly hung out with the four Dutch travelers over the next few days, as they were the closest to me in age and attitude, although the English boys and I had some good conversations about music, travel, and videogames.

The first day was basically a long 500+ km mini-busride. We stopped at a 13th century Caravanserai (silk road stopover), had lunch in the Taurus Mountains, and paused for some tasty thick Turkish ice cream in Kammanmaras, but mostly we hurtled on towards our destination of Kahta, the city near the base of Mt. Nemrut. We arrived at 7pm, checked into our 3-star hotel (swank!), ate dinner, and then went to sleep at 10pm. Why so early? Because...

We had to wake up at 2:30am to make it up the mountain for sunrise! Friday was eternal, but beautiful and memorable. After the disagreeable wakeup call, we met in the lobby at 3, rode in minibuses up the mountain until 4:15, sat for a while drinking tea and staring at each other, and then hiked up the 15-minute path to the summit by 5:15. On the east side of the summit was a raised platform for watching the excellent sunrise, and behind the platform on the mountain was a row of huge stone heads sitting on the ground in front of their giant stone bodies. An ancient king decided he was one of the Gods, so he had these giant statues of himself and some famous dieties (like Zeus) carved and placed on top of the mountain - his eventual burial site. Earthquakes ensured that most of the heads didn't stay attached, so the mountain is pretty eerie with these enormous eternally-gazing heads scattered around. Unfortunately the cold temperature from the elevation combined with the relentless wind made sunrise an endurance test; I could barely feel my hands by 6am, after we'd taken in some similar statues on the west side and descended to the minibus.

On the way back to Kahta we stopped at Arsemia (with an incredible large relief sculpture of the king meeting a quite naked Heracles) and the 3rd century Roman bridge of Cendere. We had breakfast back at the hotel, and then took off at 10:30. On the way to Urfa we made a few stops. First was the Karakus Roman tombs where soldiers were buried centuries ago. The place reminded me of the Barrow Downs from "Fellowship of the Ring," and we found some excellent lizards in the tombs. Next up was the Ataturk Dam - the 3rd largest in the world, according to our guide. It was a cool feeling crossing the Euphrates River and officially being in Mesopotamia!

We arrived in Sanliurfa after 12, and checked into the Hotel Bayak, which was decent. Actually I would have slept in a sewer as long as it had A/C... our guide estimated that it was 45 degrees (C) in the sun! That afternoon we went on a walking tour of Urfa. The city is a fascinating mix of Turkish culture, modern technology, and Middle East tradition, and it is famous for being the birthplace of the prophet Abraham. There are many holy sites there related to the stories about Abraham; we visited the cave where he was born, the spot where he fell into the flaming coals that the king tried to kill him with, and the pools of "holy carp." God supposedly turned the coals into fish, and these fish (carp and trout) must be their descendants. Through centuries of overfeeding and/or inbreeding, they're massive, and they make like frenzied pirhanas if you throw bread crumbs (or stick a finger) in the water.

After the Biblical sites we toured the bazaar for an hour or two. The easy highlight was hanging out drinking Coke and watching our guide do card tricks in the "Man Han" - a sort of central square / tea shop where men (no women) with nothing better to do sit around playing backgammon and sipping tea all day. Just when I though we couldn't squeeze any more into the day, we jumped back in the bus and drove an hour south to Harran, the tiny town a few miles from the Syrian border where Abraham relocated after the Urfa incident.

Harran was where I truly felt I was in the Middle East - not surprising when you consider that you can see Syria from the high points in town. It's obvious where Turkey ends, because the fertile green fields of cotton brought about by Turkey's irrigation efforts turn to desert immediately at the border. Harran is famous for its "beehive houses," which are architectural oddities where each room is covered with a hollow beehive-shaped roof that supposedly keeps the rooms cooler in summer and warmer in winter. Dunno 'bout that... it was pretty hot inside. The crumbling old castle in Harran was cool, too, although we had to dodge throngs of annoying begging children to get there. Just like Asia! Finally the touring part of the day was over, and we went back to Urfa for a good dinner and some much-needed sleep.

Our group had started thinning out by Saturday... both Japanese tourists had left us, Herwin and Josta were leaving from Urfa to go further east, and the Germans were staying in Urfa, so by the time we dropped Rob & Martine off in Antep there were very few of the original tourists left. The seats on the bus were filled by our guide's family, however, as he was bringing them home after a week in Urfa. The long ride back was identical to the long ride there, except that we stopped at a bald ibis bird sanctuary for a few minutes. We had another helping of nasty food in the Taurus Mountains (more on that later), and I watched a couple of movies ("Holes" and "Paycheck" - both enjoyable) to keep myself entertained. We were back in Goreme by 6pm. I reclaimed my bed at Kose and had another fun night over at Cafedoci@. Brooke, Pete, Caroline, and I got dragged to a Turkish wedding a few doors down and had to dance for a few minutes (no fair - we were the only ones dancing!), so that was an interesting and embarrassing cultural experience...

At around midnight I walked back to Kose and went to sleep. Luckily I had the room to myself, because at around 4am that gross lunch I'd eaten pressed the "liquify" button on my internal blender, and I was up every half hour until 8 or 9 spewing from every orifice except my ears. I probably deserved it, because I was so overly proud of the fact that I was the only person I knew who hadn't gotten sick in Turkey yet. Nothing like over-compensation... I spent all day Sunday lying around the pool and my bed, reading, eating crackers, and sipping water. By that night I had a fever of 101 and felt like I wanted to die. By some miracle (Thai valium, maybe?), I managed to sleep undisturbed for a full 8 hours, and by yesterday morning I was 75% better. I still took it easy all day, though, and put off traveling to Istanbul until tonight. So, yeah... now I'm finally getting out of Goreme and heading back to the big city. No idea where to go from there, so I'll check bus fares and airline tix tomorrow. Take care of yourself and stay in touch...

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