Sultanahmet Mosque

Travel in Turkey – The Ideas Behind a Country

Check out my article on trip finances to see how I ended up in Turkey in the first place

"Sitting there in bed, I happened across one of my lists. "REDUCED PRICES FOR RT TICKETS TO ISTANBUL," the banner blared at me with unrelenting intrigue. A normal person thinks, "ISTANBUL!? Dangerous, far, expensive, no time, no money, no interest, where is that again?" But I'll be the first to admit that I'm far from normal. My first thought is, "[DESTINATION]?! That's exactly the place I've been wanting to go!" A click here, a swipe there, and before you know it an airfare calendar is maximized on my screen."


Chasing the surprise of travel

Stepping out of the plane's recycled air and onto the tarmac, the Turkish sunlight mercilessly shined into my squinting eyes. As my first time in a country with a Muslim majority, you may expect that I had a palpable feeling of things being "foreign"--a jutting spire here, a blaring adhan (call to prayer) there--but familiarity was the emotion du jour. However, this was just a modern airport. My real feelings would emerge later in the day as I made my way to Istanbul. 

Despite Turkey's modernization, integration into the international economy, and Westernized cities, there's still something about the presence of Turkish spices in the air and towering mosques on the horizon that keep you aware that you're not in Kansas anymore. The feeling of the unknown is often just a glance or a sniff away! I search out this feeling, running full speed towards it with each new trip I take.

Knowing the unknown 

Sadly, that feeling seems to be more fleeting with each trip. The more countries I travel to, the harder it is for me to feel that a place is "foreign." I used to think that Britain was so peculiar and unknown that my whole life would feel totally different (and even difficult) if I lived there. Now, I usually just need about 8 hours to bridge the gap between "this is strange" and "I could easily live here for the rest of my life."

Likewise, living in Asia's bustling but organized metropolises for 3 years has made it slightly more difficult for me to appreciate cities. Now, I need a bit of time to adjust to the idea of delayed transportation schedules, "ancient" subway networks, and cities that were laid out without a grand, overarching design. Those have all become givens.

But these are all minor concerns. It's the fact that no two cities are the same that draws me to visit more! I always try to embrace the differences and find the upsides. For example: while losing the gleaming corridors of brand new subway stations and towering glass skyscrapers in Asia's cities of commerce, I gain a city landscape rich with history, local culture, eclectic architecture, and ethnic diversity. This is especially true in Istanbul!

Skyline of Istanbul from a boat

Saving graces: reprieve from contentment

I don't want to sound like there was something "wrong" with Turkey because I adjusted to it so quickly. On the contrary, it was one of my favorite travel destinations so far! There were absolutely no disappointments on my trip. Rather, I brought this up because I wanted to juxtapose two conflicting feelings I experienced while on my trip (both of which were positive). On the one hand, I adjusted to their incredible country quickly, which is a testament to the comfortable feeling I got from the people and city itself. One of the other hand, Turkey threw more surprises my way than any other country I've traveled to recently. The feeling of foreignness, while leaving me shortly after landing, came back again and again in a way that almost no other country has done to me before. 

Diving in

A collage of Istanbul TurkeyThe joys of Turkey have already been summed up in countless travel blogs. Anyone who has read up on the country knows the fame of Istanbul's bustling markets, Turkey's odd but delicious Euro-Asian-Middle-Eastern food, and the potentially awkward experience at a public bathhouse.

All of these things were true. The markets were full of life, the food was some of the best I've ever had, and the bathhouse was a deeply relaxing, one-of-a-kind experience. To read the description is to rob the experiences of justice, for only by going to visit the country, immersing yourself in the local environment, and letting the strangeness wash over you can you truly understand what makes the Anatolian Peninsula so diverse and interesting. Though I think that's true for more places, I feel it's especially true for Turkey. That said, it's because there are so many websites that can offer information about sightseeing that I'm going to pass on the particulars of sites and focus more on the ideas that drove my curiosity throughout the trip. 

Ideas of a place: hidden in plain sight

Many destinations exist merely as eye candy. Pristine stretches of sandy beach in the Caribbean, rolling tongues of grassy hills in Ireland, and scaping mountain vistas in Switzerland all demand awe at their beauty. Their depth of color, peculiarity of pattern, and unimaginable size grant us a look into the eyes of nature's elegance and intellect. 

Some places, though, inspire something deeper in our minds. Maybe the same places I listed above are what drive your intellectual curiosity. Maybe it is sandy beaches that cause you to reflect on the vastness of the world and our tiny spot in it. That's true for me as well, but natural scenery affects my emotions more than my intellect; marval, not intrigue, guide my experience.

Inside Hagia SophiaCities, on the other hand, forcibly ply my mind from dormancy and command it to search for answers. "How did they build a 180-foot-tall building almost 2,000 years ago?!" This kind of question doesn't just captivate my mind and lock it onto a single point, but forces it to expand into architecture, society, organization, religion, engineering, and history. It's the fact that it raises a question--and a question with a decent chance of finding an answer--that makes it so valuable to me. Turkey, more so than many other countries during my recent visits, made me ask a lot of questions. 

Feeding the Inquisitor 

There is simply too much historical, cultural, and religious information floating around out there for me to give you a comprehensive overlook at the kinds of topics that Turkey made me interested in. Because of that (and to save you from boredom), I'd like to just simply share some of the thoughts that my mind kept coming back to during my trip. I hope that you will make it to Turkey someday, and if you do, I hope that some of my interest in these questions have rubbed off on you.

Istanbul

Sultanahmet MosqueIstanbul sits on at the crossroads of Europe and Asia (literally). One part (Karaköy) is in Europe, while the other part (Kadiköy) is located in Asia. You could travel from Europe to Asia and back in 10 minutes, all without ever leaving the city. Despite being situated on two continents, Istanbul is predominantly Muslim--a trait not shared by either continent. The resulting mix that developed from this is exquisite.

Galata TowerSleeping in Europe with plans for a day trip to Asia, I'm woken by the adhan (the Muslim call to prayer, which is blasted from loudspeakers all around the city, alerting people that it's time to pray). I peel back the curtains of my modern European room, looking out towards the 3 largest mosques in the distance. Meandering my way downstairs and out to the streets, I grab a French pastry and Asian tea before starting my day. 

Curiosities: How did Islam reach Turkey? How does being in both Europe and Asia affect Turkey today? Historically? Linguistically? What does it mean for its future? How does Turkey remain secular despite overwhelming support for Islam? Is it successful? How do the people see themselves? Their system of government? Are they proud of the mix? Do they even know it's there? Is Turkey's food really a combination, or is it it something wholly different? Do the European and Asian sides "feel" different? Do people identify with one over the other, or is it basically non-existent?

Ephesus ruins

Ephesus

Escaping the crowds of Istanbul, I made my way to Ephesus. Formerly a city belonging to ancient Greece, it was built more than 12,000 years ago. Eventually (in 129 BC) the city changed hands and was ruled under the Roman Republic. Notably, Ephesus was built near the Temple of Artemis--one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World--and was one of the seven churches of Asia that are cited in the Book of Revelation. 

Ephesus has an undeniably European feel. Thick Corinthian pillars speak volumes about its origin. Yet, standing there and knowing that I'm still inside Turkey gave me an odd feeling. Of course, I know that history is littered with the expansion of empires. And yes, of course I know that, when things come to an end as they always do, buildings are left behind in the wake of their contraction. Buildings, unlike people, are not so easy to pick up and move! But something about this ancient European ruin, the grandeur of Muslim mosques in Istanbul, and the familiarity of being in a modern country, all conspired to thrust the conspicuous contrasts of Turkey into plain view.

Curiosities: Turkey's history...all of it. Who are the natives of the Anatolian Peninsula? Who were the first to establish civilizations there? Which was the first empire to try to conquer its areas? Why did Greek rule give way to Roman? How does that affect the genealogy of modern Turks? Why and how did those religions end up being so completely supplanted by Islam? Why has Ephesus fallen into disrepair? How did they construct these buildings so long ago? How do they build so high? How can the ceilings stay standing? Who were the last to inhabit it? Are there any lasting Greek or Roman influences on modern Turkey's political system? Do people admire or hate the Europeans who came to conquer centuries ago? Ambivalent? What other countries have such a mix?

Pamukkale

Blue water in Pamukkale

With so much talk of buildings and empires, I wanted to end on a more relaxing note. In fact, "relaxing" is exactly what I wanted to talk about.

Pamukkale is located a few hours east of Ephesus by train. While the ancient ruins of Hierapolis are a popular site in the area, the real attraction is the mineral hot springs perched along the white mountainsides. 

I love to taste all aspects of a place. I love to dine (read: binge) on local foods and learn (read: clumsily memorize) a few phrases in the local language. One other thing I go out of my way to experience is a country's local "culture of relaxation." In modern China, people like to play mahjong and drink tea. In Switzerland, hiking in the mountains is a popular pastime. In Turkey, bathhouses and hot springs are perfect ways to soak up some of the local relaxation culture. 

Though many parts of Pamukkale were closed off to the public in order to protect the unique topography and color, some areas remained open. While the things that make Turkey distinct and unique had stood out in my mind for the preceding week, it was standing in the waters of Pamukkale that I thought about how people the world over have so much in common. Despite what the news would have you think, I meet friendly people everywhere I go. Regardless of how different our jobs our, people are hustling to make a living. No matter how wide that gulf that separates our lives, people still value family, friends, and enjoyment. Work is admirable, but relaxation is divine!

Standing in the reflective pools of Pamukkale, I thought about how people of all countries take time to relax with loved ones, collect themselves, reflect on their pasts and futures, and prepare for the tough roads ahead. Standing there looking out onto the the flat hills below, my mind gradually brought to silence, I only had one question: "How do I get more of this?"

The travel adventure never ends...