April 2013

The Pisidian Adventure

Finding Hidden Gems in Western Turkey

Quick, when you think of Turkey what names come to mind?

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How about Sagalassos?  Çatal Höyük? Yenişarbademli?  Dare I ask about Midas Şehri (right)?  Or Aizanoi (below)?  No?  Well come on along and maybe the next time Turkey comes up for discussion in your household, stories and images from one of these spots will return to your mind.

We hit the trail again on March 26 – actually, we climbed onto an airplane in Houston, but we suppose that qualifies as hitting the trail in this modern age – and have now been back in Europe for over a month.  We figured you’d be wondering about us by now, and that we’d better let you know where we are and what’s happening.  By the time we got out of Texas, we could hardly wait to be back over here.  

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We flew into Athens, spent the night at the very nice Sofitel airport hotel right on the grounds, and then flew into Alexandroupolis the next morning, toting along three huge boxes.  As always, we had brought with us some favorite foods we cannot find in Europe, a whole bunch of books to supplement what we’d downloaded onto our Nook, and car stuff: oil filters, replacement front bearings, things like that.  We’d also sprung for a small new DVD player for a backup; our TV has one built-in, but it sometimes seems a little crabby.  We’d hate to have to give up watching movies in the evenings and we can’t buy anything over here due to power and Region differences.  

Our plan for this spring is to visit the rest of Turkey; we spent something over two months here last fall, but had to leave a whole lot of this huge country uninvestigated.  We want to concentrate on the eastern half, but – no surprise – you can’t just start out there.  All roads seem to begin with Istanbul, so we made a brief stop there, and then spent a few weeks seeing parts of western Turkey we’d been unable to visit last year and as it turned out, there are plenty of them.  We found ourselves delighted to be back, and in the last few weeks we’ve already seen many cool sites and museums and had some wonderful experiences with folks we’ve met along the way.  

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The Municipal Campground in Alexandroupolis had taken very good care of our little Tiger.  No one had messed with our stuff, and they’d kept a good eye on it.  Unfortunately, we had a very, very dead battery.  Some little something or other had not gotten unplugged for the winter, and had been cheerfully humming along for several months.  But the nice folks on site were used to this, got out a battery charger and plenty of cord, and soon we were up and running.

We spent two days in the campground, getting over jet-lag, getting the Tiger all charged up and raring to go, and trying to remember where stuff was and how we used to “do things”.  Also, after unpacking all those boxes we’d brought so many miles, we needed to find places to cram in all the new things.  As always, our Tiger accommodated our needs and places were indeed found for everything.

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Finally ready to depart, we wanted to immediately head back into Turkey, but first we made a quick detour into southern Bulgaria where we knew a mechanic in Harmanli who could take care of installing the new bearings and a few other little items.  A couple of days later, we were ready to hit the road again, this time to Turkey for real.  It was April 4.

Crossing into Turkey was just as easy as the last time.  We crossed at Edirne, which is the largest and busiest crossing.  We had heard it could be awful but it was the only logical choice this time.  No problem; piece of cake.  They have a brand new facility, and all the trucks went... who knows?  Somewhere else.  We were through in short order.

I wanted to go back to Istanbul to see some places we’d missed.  Rick, having sworn he’d never, never, ever drive there again, finally decided there were places he wanted to see, too, and that he was willing to do it - It’s kind of like having a second baby; no woman ever would if she really remembered the agony of the first birth.  So we went back.  

Driving in was, of course, absolutely ghastly, but ultimately we did make it back to the same spot we’d stayed at last fall, right along the Bosphorus.   It was tulip time (Istanbul has a month-long Tulip Festival in April), the sun was shining, and spring definitely was on its way.  So far so good.  However, once again we found you cannot repeat the charm of an earlier visit.  We tried, but things didn’t work out so well.  We wanted to visit the Süleymaniye complex, but it was a Friday, the main day of worship at the Turkish mosques.  Something special was going on, and we finally were told (after waiting for most of 2 hours) that it would be at least another hour before we could go in.  So we gave up on that!  And then, the one museum we really wanted to go to, the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, was closed for renovation.  Rats!  Rats!  Rats!

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We did enjoy wandering the city and spent a lovely time in the Grand Bazaar.  And Istanbul is a good place to take care of business.  We renewed the SIM card for our internet dongle and put 3 months more time on it.  And I tried to get some status info on our HSG sticker.

The HSG toll road sticker still had some money on it from last year, but we didn’t know how much.  It’s impossible to tell simply by going through a toll-booth.  Sometimes they ignore you; sometimes they tell you how much you’ve just been charged; and sometimes – our personal favorite – sirens and beepers go off and you expect to be pulled over by the jandarma.  But it never happens and ultimately you just drive on.  The skinny on finding out what’s left on your sticker is to go to the place where you bought it.  For us, that’s the PTT (post office).  So one day in Istanbul I took the top sheet of our info and headed off to the big PTT there – a couple of miles away I guess.  Put the paperwork in my hip pocket.  Somewhere along the way, it seems that someone decided they needed it more than I did.  Got to the PTT; no papers; turned around and walked all the way back.  Mutter, mutter.

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Tried again a couple of days later, by taking the rest of the papers, and the Tiger, to another PTT, in another town.  They tried to help, but we’d bought the sticker at a PTT that had a bank attached, the one we were at now didn’t – and you get the picture.  We had to find a PTT with a bank.  Third time was a charm.  Found PTT with bank.  Nice folks.  They couldn’t read the writing on the paperwork we had (geez -- it was in Turkish).  But…they could come out to the truck (in pouring rain, mind you) and read the tag on our windshield.  Got the info, went back in and looked up our account, and told us we still had over 20TL worth on our tag.  Easy, peasy.  (Hah!)

After two days in Istanbul, we looked at each other and said, enuff, let’s go; and we left.  Unfortunately, it was a Saturday afternoon, and the whole city was a complete zoo.  (Security was heightened, and clumps of black cars with tinted windows went by from time to time; we figure someone important was in town; this along with the regular mob of people who jam the roads.)  It took absolutely forever to get ourselves onto the road out of the area, but after that we were home free.  We crossed over the Golden Horn, then the big bridge over the Bosphorus and, after a couple of hours, rounded the end of the Sea of Marmara and headed south toward Iznik.

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For early April, the weather was just fine.  We’d been concerned because April is pretty early to be on the road over here, even in southern Europe; but there were lots of wildflowers, trees with new leaves, and warm valleys.  Iznik was interesting, with its history of marvelous tiles and Roman ruins.  Unfortunately, the museum, which has an excellent tile collection, was closed for renovation, so we poked around for a couple of hours, then moved on.

Our general plan for April was to move south to see those places we’d been unable to visit last fall, and then turn our noses towards the east.  Our first major target was the Roman ruins at Aphrodisias, which we found to be well worth detouring for. The site is very evocative and in a lovely setting.  We had a great time wandering among the columns and friezes, surrounded by yellow wildflowers and poplars just beginning to leaf out.  Our guidebook had said that this site would rival Ephesus in knocking your socks off (for all you folks who were shocked that we were skipping Ephesus), and we were not disappointed -- besides, we were there almost totally by ourselves in this beautiful, isolated spot, and the attached museum is also very nice.  A great visit! 

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Next we were off to Sagalassos, a large, really neat Pisidian site high in the mountains; a fun thing is that it is still under excavation.  We stopped in the nearby city of Burdur first.  Their museum has these incredible statues that were found at Sagalassos, and we spent a lot of time getting to know them.   But the cool deal is that later, when you get up the mountain and are climbing all around, you come around a corner and there some of the statues are, excellent replicas, in the setting where they belong. This is the second Turkish site we’ve visited that is being actively reconstructed as opposed to being just preserved.  They showed pictures of how it looked before they began, and the difference was remarkable.  We were so glad we’d visited the museum first.  This ongoing excavation continues to uncover really great stuff; if you’re in the area (not far from Isparta) you really must visit. 

Now, perhaps you may ask, “Pisidia” as in “Pisidian Adventure”?  Yes indeed, we could not resist this little play on words.  The Pisidians were not actually a separate people, they were simply the folks who lived in the region know for a time by that name.  The original folks who were called Pisidians were actually Luwians, you know, related to the Hittites…  Well, that’s probably more than we need to know about that.  Anyway, Sagalassos became a fairly major city in the Roman Empire and was an important place for a long, long time until finally leveled by an earthquake in about 590 AD.

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Starting to move east now, we headed for the lake district -- Eğidir and Beyşehir being the two lakes in question.  It was very pretty here, although we now were above 4,000 feet and it was rather cold at night.  But the apple trees are in bloom and it’s a lovely area.  We took the roads around the lakes and stopped often to enjoy the view.  We spent one night at a small ruin near the shores of Beyşehir Gölü, and that led us to an incredible adventure.

In the morning, we checked our email, and found we had a message from Ahmet, who was a teacher at a school in nearby Yenişarbademli.  He had seen our truck, noted our website and wrote to say he wanted to meet us, wanted us to visit his school and it was important that we come.  So we did.  And what a great experience.  We spent the whole morning there, talking to two of the classes, taking tea with the principal and some of the teachers, exchanging tremendous hugs with the kids (mostly the girls -- the boys were generally much too macho for such things) before we left, and then being taken to lunch at a local restaurant with a group of teachers.  

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Ahmet spoke pretty good English, but most of the translating that morning had been done by the English teacher, Serdar, who worked very hard keeping us all involved and understanding what was going on.  

The children were wonderful.  They started out very shy and reserved, but by the time we left they were very involved in asking questions and wanting their picture taken with us.  We had two invitations to spend the night but pled commitments elsewhere.  We have sent loads of pictures to the school, and have heard that the kids are now working much harder on their English lessons.  It was a great experience for all of us, and we are expected to return to the school again if we are ever in the area.  An amazing day.

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After lunch, Ahmet took us back to his home, where he changed out of his “teaching” clothes, and we went hiking in the nearby mountains with him.  (After having more tea and another entire meal, of delicious bread, yoghurt, cheese and some lovely helva).  We went hiking in the nearby Kıziıdağ Milli Parkı, a beautiful area with some interesting ruins.  The town is actively working on attracting eco-tourism into the area, and we learned that a prestigious trek was going to be held here in May. 

We would have enjoyed staying longer, but we really did have a commitment elsewhere -- in Konya.  We were meeting up with some friends we’d not seen in almost a year.  Toni and Berit live in Hamburg, Germany, but we’d first met them at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southern Arizona -- two years ago.  They had come to our campsite to borrow a can opener; of such events are friendships made!  

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Toni and Berit had planned a two-week vacation in southern Turkey, and we managed to get together in Konya, home of the Mevlâna Dervishes.  Cool deal for us; there is a free municipal campground in Konya -- with electricity, water and dump, and even showers.  All in all, we stayed for 5 nights; it was great, although very cold.  Konya is at about 4,000 feet.  The campground is on the east side of town, not too far from all the places you want to visit.  We very much enjoyed Konya, and the old part of the city has some really lovely buildings and museums.  A highlight for us was the tile museum – housed in a wonderful old building with the most wonderful exhibits of tiles on display -- a delight.  We visited the Mevlâna complex, and it was interesting; however, this is a major pilgrimage site in the Muslim world, and the entire area was crammed full of folks.  But still worthwhile.

Toni and Berit had to go after a few days, but we stayed on for a bit longer.  We took the truck into the city one day, finding a good otogar in which to leave the Tiger not far from the old town.  We did some shopping and puttering around, and that was the day we went to the barber, a great experience.  We normally take care of each other’s hair, having had some ghastly haircuts in our first years on the road; but Toni had gotten one the first night of our visit and this fellow did such a thorough job of it that we decided to take the plunge ourselves.

For the man, you start with a hair trim, very short, then a shave, then a hair washing, then more trimming and removal of all sorts of hair you didn’t even know you had, then a neck rub -- all finished off with some lovely smelly stuff; oh, and he lit a long taper and singed the ends of tiny hairs on the ears and neck.  For me, everything but the shave and taper, thank you!

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We did not have a chance to see the Dervishes in performance.  We were experiencing electrical problems at the time, and had a dead battery that took forever to rejuvenate.  But, with our friends, we did visit an important archeological site near Konya, Çatal Höyük.  This was such an interesting place.  It’s an ongoing investigation of two mounds, housing some of the remains of one of the world’s oldest civilizations, dating back to 6800 BC.  It’s a very low-key place, not glamorous at all, with a small visitor’s center discussing what they’ve unearthed.  Then you are free to go take a look for yourself (but you have to stay on the path, of course).  Much of the investigations concern a look at some of man’s earliest attempts at developing a community.  It was very educational and a truly significant dig.  

And one afternoon an interesting rig pulled into our Konya campground – Allison and Richard, a young couple from South Africa.  They were on an extended journey from Cape Town to London.  They had driven in their rig up the eastern side of Africa and had taken ship from Port Said, Egypt to Iskenderun, a Turkish port at the eastern end of the Mediterranean.  We spent a lovely and lively evening and morning with them, comparing notes and getting very excited about the possibility of shipping our Tiger to southern Africa.  They were experiencing a bit of culture shock, having spent the last many months mostly in the middle of nowhere and now inserting themselves back into a far more mainstream way of life here in Turkey.  Simple coincidence; the crossing of paths; new friends are made. 

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Finally getting our act together, we pulled away from Konya and made our way back down out of the mountains, ending up in Adana; near the coast, where it was nice and warm.  We researched and found the local Chevrolet dealership – Onatça Chevrolet.   Our electrical problems were driving us nuts, and becoming increasingly difficult to cope with.  These folks were just great. The service writer was a lovely young woman named Pinar who spoke a fair amount of English, and the technician was a young fellow who was not at all intimidated by our American truck; precisely the combination we needed to find, and just what was lacking in several other attempts in various countries where we’ve tried to address this problem.

They spent a couple of hours diagnosing and fixing our problem (finding a bad connection of course), then sent us on our way -- all without charging us a penny.  We love them to bits.  We’ve had no further problems (it is now two weeks later) and feel like we’ve gained a new lease on life. To paraphrase some French friends who once said about their own vehicle after getting some problems taken care of, “Our Tiger has rediscovered her youth”.   Onatça Rules!!

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Our experience at the Chevy dealership is only one of many that illustrates the particular charm of the Turkish people.  Everywhere we’ve gone we’ve been welcomed, offered tea (or an entire meal), a place to stay for the night, or even asked if they could take us and show us around their town.  iPhones are everywhere, and we are asked to let them take their picture with us, or could we take a picture of them with our camera.  We like to ask if they have email (and in the cities universally the answer is yes), then we can promise to send them the pictures just taken.  When we are parked out in the countryside for the night, it’s not at all unusual to have someone knock on the door during the course of the evening.  They’ve not come to pester us; they are making sure we are okay, wouldn’t we rather stay at their home, or come and share a meal, and are we having any problems.  Their sense of hospitality is unsurpassed, and we love the Turkish people dearly. 

We took one more drive up into the mountains, to the Karatepe Arslantaş Milli  Parkı, to see the remains of a Hittite summer palace.  The stone reliefs at the entrance were as nice as any we’ve seen anywhere, certainly worth the drive, and the view from the terrace was lovely, over a lake and very lush countryside.  A nice day.  

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We spent a great day in Gaziantep visiting the incredible museum that houses the amazing mosaics recovered from the nearby ruins at Zeugma (they were saved just before a dam flooded the area).  We went to the wrong museum first, then had to try and find the right place (Europe 2013 update notwithstanding, Emily, our Garmin GPS, doesn’t really know Turkey all that well.)  Gaziantep is built on very, very steep hills and we found ourselves going right up and over the top of one, then down the equally steep other side, then winding our way around and eventually ending up in the right spot.  Gotta love those Turks!  We could have spent days at this really special museum.  We’ve never seen mosaics like this; wait’ll you check out the photos.  Clearly not a hidden gem, Gaziantep is on everyone’s list for this part of Turkey, but this museum is nothing short of astounding in the quality of its mosaics and the manner in which they are displayed.  Wow!

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Leaving Gaziantep behind, we stayed in the south and moved east along the motorways just north of the Syrian border (no, not all that close).  We even spent a couple of nights in rest areas along the way.  They’ve been surprisingly fine.  The first time we were visited by the security guard, who would have been happy to accept a bit of whiskey or some cigarettes in exchange for his keeping an eye on us for the night (we were unable to provide these items, but didn’t suffer for it), the second time not even being approached.  It was surprisingly quiet at night, even surrounded by huge trucks; only in the United States do the truckers have the arrogance to keep their engines running all night long…diesel here is costing us between $8.50-9.25 per gallon so the trucks pull up, park and immediately shut down.  Good thing, because it’s gotten quite hot – up to 95℉ during the day, so our windows are open.

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Leaving the border area, we began moving back up into the mountains, specifically to the Nemrut Dağı area.  This is a lovely national park surrounding the amazing peak that has at its very tip-top the remains of a temple complex constructed by Antiochus I in the first century B.C.  What you get to see are huge heads that have come tumbling down from the bodies they were originally perched on.  The setting is quite amazing, the walk to get there fairly strenuous (but we both persevered and conquered the mountain), and the statues really something.  And the views from the top were spectacular.  We got up there late in the afternoon, but it was clear and pretty - and there was still plenty of snow on the ground, late in April.  We were lucky in that we fell in with a group of Turkish men who were happy to show us the way through the snow, and help us a little when these old fogies needed an extra hand.   The road up to the top is quite steep (at least a 15% grade), but La Tortuga took it in her stride – rediscovered youth and all.

There were several other interesting sites to be visited in the area, and it made sense to try and see them all at the same time.   Along the way to the mountain we stopped to check out an unusual Roman Bridge (Cendere Köprüsü) and spent a long while at Arsameia, another ancient site.  We got our muscles ready for the big climb at Nemrut Dağı by hiking up to the top of Arsameia, where there is a fantastic larger than life relief of Antiochus shaking hands with Hercules (very nude and very gorgeous, I might add).  When you leave Arsameia there is a gnarly unpaved road that goes straight up the mountain, over it, and joins the regular road to the top of Nemrut.  Pretty cool.  We enjoyed it a lot.  We could tell that La Tortuga enjoyed it as well.

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The adventures at Nemrut Dağı take a lot out of you; all the way to the top you end up at just over 7,000 feet.  Most tour groups seem to be heading for a dawn or dusk experience, so the sunset groups were arriving as we left a bit after 5:00 -- there were oodles of them.  We mostly had the place to ourselves, mid-afternoon.  We drove some distance back down the mountains, then settled ourselves beside a stream for the night. It’s still warm and sunny, and we have a lovely view.  I’m eating locally-grown pistachios.  Life is good.

Well, gotta go.  In the morning we’ll catch the ferry across the huge Ataturk Baraji (the lake behind the dam), and plop ourselves down in eastern Turkey where we know other adventures await.  On Donner, on Blitzen… wait, that’s another tale altogether. 

Rick and Kathy and…the Amazing – Incredible – Rejuvenated Tiger!!!

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© Rick & Kathy Howe 2001-2018