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Current Status:
Back home in Seattle as of 1 August 2001

London Bombay Cebu

Where east meets west
by Jim Laurel

Dispatch #8, Turkey
10 February 2001
Damascus, Syria
Note: Be sure to check out Kirsten’s first dispatch, covering Turkey and Syria. She has turned out to be a voracious traveler, and really enjoys seeing new places and meeting new people!

The interior of one of Cappadocia's churches. Every column, arch, and decorative detail was carved out of solid volcanic rock!

Click to view interactive photo bubble. IPIX Plug-in required.

It seemed like we had left spring back in Italy, as we disembarked from the ferry that brought us from Bari to Igoumenitsa, Greece. We arrived at 6am, and immediately started making our way toward Istanbul. The driving conditions in Greece were some of the most dangerous we had yet seen. The temperature hovered around freezing, with frequent patches of ice on the windy road to Thessalonika.

The drivers seemed to have no regard for their safety, passing on blind curves, and sometimes even when they could see an oncoming car! We quickly learned that this was the normal custom, and the oncoming car was expected to move to the shoulder to let the passing vehicle get by. Along the roadsides were many small shrines dedicated to those who had died on the road - a testament to the danger of driving here. Gee, you'd think drivers would get the hint...

We were behind schedule due to our long layover in Italy, so we pressed on urgently, and made it to Turkey in 2 days. The Turkish border was confusing and fairly disorganized, but we made it through in a couple of hours without too much trouble.

After the long hairy transit from Italy, we were ready for some comfort, so we checked into the Crowne Plaza Istanbul. After our long hairy transit from Italy, we felt like doing some no-hassle sightseeing, so we booked a few day tours. We visited several of the most popular sights in Istanbul, including Aya Sophia, Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, and the Sultan Suleyman’s Mosque.
One of the things I hoped to get done in Istanbul was a complete service for the Discovery. We didn’t have time for anything more than an oil change when we got back to Spain from Morocco, and I had brought some new shocks and bushes from the US to be installed. Ebru Ayas, Guest Relations Manager at the Crowne Plaza went above and beyond the call in helping me to arrange a shop to do the work. She introduced me to a friend of hers, Ekrem Ekmenci, who is a certifiable car nut and a prince of a guy.

While Kirsten and the Children spent the day enjoying a Bosphorus cruise and visiting the Egyptian spice market, I went to the shop with my parts and did my best to explain to the manager what I wanted done. A senior mechanic and two younger guys set to work, and in a few hours, the work was complete. In the meantime, several more guys showed up at the shop and before long, we had a little party going while the mechanics finished up on the Land Rover. One of the things I noticed about the shop was that it was filled with American cars - Camaros, Firebirds, Dodge and Ford pickups and even a GMC Suburban! Anyway, it turns out that these guys are totally crazy about American muscle cars, and they even race them in the local club.

One of the guys I met was Can Tahincioglu, a prominent Istanbul businessman with a variety of concerns including the largest candy company in Turkey, as well as several top notch hotels. We had a great conversation, and I was especially interested to check out Can’s off-road racer, an extensively modified Ford Bronco set up for desert racing. Can was kind enough to invite us to stay at his hotel in Cappadocia, the "Perissia". We stayed there 4 nights and I must say, the Perissia’s reputation as the best hotel in Anatolia is well deserved!

We decided to save Turkey’s Mediterranean coast for a future visit during a warmer time of year and concentrate our time in Cappadocia in central Anatolia. If you’ve never been to Cappadocia, let me assure you that it’s well worth a visit. The unique geological history of the area has created a surreal landscape that is hard to describe. Check out the pictures!

Around 10 million years ago, eruptions from three nearby volcanoes spread a thick layer of ash over the region, which hardened into a soft, porous stone called "tufa". Over eons of time, wind and water carved the tufa into the strange shapes you see today. The ancient inhabitants of the area quickly learned that the tufa could be easily worked with their primitive tools, and so they began carving dwellings into the tufa. It made a lot of sense, as these man made caves provided natural temperature regulation and unmatched protection from the elements. When Christianity arrived in Cappadocia, they began carving churches into the rock, the some of which are amazingly complex. Many are decorated with primitive painted designs, but others boast elaborate professional frescoes created by Armenian artists.

We had one of the most interesting experiences during a day trip to a small village called Soganli that is famous for its handmade dolls. The place looked deserted when we arrived, which was around 1 month before tourist season. But before long, a woman came running down from the village at top speed, dolls in hand. Once the others found out that potential customers had arrived, several more women came running down the hill, until we were almost completely surrounded by women, who shoved dolls into our windows, and clamored to make a sale. In the end, we decided that the fair thing to do was to buy from the "early bird" – the woman who saw us first and triggered the stampede.

Once we'd completed our business, she invited us up the hill to her home - a simple concrete structure, but equipped with satellite TV! She tuned in a Turkish news program and disappeared into the kitchen, reappearing a few minutes later with tea, cheese and bread. Over the next hour, children and relatives trickled in until we had met a good part of her family - some 4 generations!

Another must-see in Cappadocia are the underground cities. We visited Kaymakli, which is like walking into a huge swiss cheese. As you descend into the depths of the city, and wind you way through tunnels, holes, rooms, and stairwells cut into the rock, you get a sense of how vast the place really is, and how desperate you’d have to be to actually live there.

Not much is known for sure about how the underground cities were used, but archaeologists theorize that they were only used for short periods at a time, when the population was under siege or when the weather above was especially harsh. But what’s clear is that it took a huge amount of human endeavor to carve out all that rock, and move the material out to the surface.

I'm afraid we misjudged the size of Turkey and how long it would take to make our transits. The country is vast, and there are precious few motorways, except between the major cities. Given the weather and our tight schedule for Syria and Jordan, we missed much of what there is to see here. But Turkey warrants a trip all by itself. it is a beautiful land, filled the remnants of its history as the crossroads between Europe and Asia.

Next up: Syria!

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