Location: Istanbul, Turkey
Our final day of travelling (except for the long flight home) was an auspicious day in Turkey. National Youth Day occurs every 19th May, and is a national holiday. It commemorates the day in 1919 when Mustafa Kemal landed at Samsun after leaving Istanbul, and decided to disobey his Ottoman leaders to begin an uprising that lead to the Turkish War of Independence, and the Turkish nation being declared in 1923. As we drove from Safranbolu into Istanbul (a big day of over 500 kms), we saw thousands of the distinctive red Turkish flag and portraits of Ataturk draped from buildings, billboards, windows, cars, buses, service stations, offices, schools, flagpoles, even mountain tops. It was great to see a people proud of its history, independence and culture, with no political undertones.
Going south and inland from the Black Sea, we drove through some beautiful forests, with canopies so thick that very little sunlight reaches the ground. Trees grew over the road to such an extent that we drove through tunnels of green. We also drove through tunnels of rock, as several hills had been penetrated by some incredibly engineered roads. Further on, the outskirts of Istanbul seemed to go on forever, it is a huge city. Being a holiday, there were crowds of people everywhere, and most of them were enjoying a day off. Many parks had families whod set up a portable barbeque equipped with a wood fire, going by the tell-tale smoke.
We returned to the same hotel that wed left three weeks ago, having negotiated nearly 4,000 kilometres. The tour concluded with a cruise to the head of the Bosphoros River at the Black Sea, followed by lunch, and the final night dinner on the top floor of the hotel with that fabulous view. It has been a fantastic holiday, but there was one last item on our agenda before closing out this chapter. We went to the hospital where wed spent a month recovering from my motorcycle injury, and visited the orthopaedic surgeon who looked after us seven years ago. Dr Mik greeted us enthusiastically and listened intently on how the treatment had continued once wed returned to Tasmania, and how my foot looked and felt today. His kindness, interest and compassion was remarkable, but not atypical of the Turkish spirit that wed come to know.
We wont miss the cigarette smoke in its restaurants, or the Call to Prayer at 4am, but this is a wonderful place for a holiday. Whilst in the Istanbul hospital seven years ago, I had a blood transfusion and Ive always said that Ive had a little bit of Turkey in me ever since. Now I think Ill always have a little bit of Turkey in me because of the effect that this country has had on both of us. Weve been overwhelmed again by it, and will always sing its praises.
Location: Safranbolu, Turkey
In these final few days of our time away (nearly seven weeks now), we are making our way west back to Istanbul by following the Black Sea coast from Sinop. This sea is no different to the Med and Aegean, certainly not black at all, but we discovered that its not as warm after diving into it from our Sinop hotels private landing. It was cold, but at least we added another sea to the list of worldly swims. The Black Sea gets its name from its murky depths where the water has become anoxic, but at the surface its a bright blue and very clear. It was from Sinop that we left the tour seven years ago, when Barish and Yussuf drove us at 3am to Samsun airport, three hours to the east. So we had not seen any of these final few days scenery.
Driving along the coast, to our right was a vast sea, and to our left were high rolling mountains covered in thick, dense forests. The lush green foliage would usually extend right down to the waters edge, but some of the steep slopes have succumbed to gravity and collapsed, creating precipitous cliffs of bare rock. Either way, the coastline was spectacular at every turn. The road had countless twists and turns, and Mike says that this is one of the most popular motorcycling roads of all of his tours. The downside was that the bus took three times as long as the motorbikes to travel the same distance. The coastline is so mountainous that vehicles must use all of their gears going up and down while negotiating tight hairpin bends, one after the other. Poor Yussuf, but the scenery was fantastic for the passengers.
The night after Sinop was at a delightful port town called Amasra, nestled snugly into a natural harbour, and understandably popular with tourists for its beautiful scenery and water views and activities. As with so many other Turkish cities and towns, Amasra has a Roman-built wall and castle, and we have almost become blasé about walking through two-thousand year old gates and arches.
Our next night was spent at Safranbolu, about a hundred kilometres inland from the Black Sea. Again like so many Turkish places, it has an Old City with the new city built around it, and has a UNESCO World Heritage listing. Whats unique about this place are the well-preserved Ottoman houses and architecture, and we even stayed in a 400-year-old hotel converted from one of these Ottoman houses. Quite a privilege, I must say.
Safranbolu really had a special charm about it, with so many interesting little streets and laneways. Its famous for Turkish Delight, and several vendors walked about offering free samples of their wares. As the name implies, this town is also known for saffron, but there were no free samples of that, being so expensive. It was an important trading town over a thousand years ago on the Silk Road between China and Europe that lead to the interaction of cultures and people from the East and West. With only an afternoon to explore, Safranbolu begs for another visit.
Location: Amasra, Turkey
Theres something we need to talk about. In fact, the whole tour group have been discussing this since arriving in Turkey.
Our Australian Governments official travel advice for Turkey is to exercise extreme caution and reconsider your need to travel. So, lets be clear
we are under the watchful eye of some very experienced locals on this tour. Barish, Yussuf and Aberdin have travelled this country for many years, and they know it like its their home town. Even so, we have wandered through some very crowded places, such as the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, and been surrounded by thousands of people, any one of whom may have wanted to hurt us.
We have never felt threatened or frightened by any place, situation or individual whilst being in Turkey. There is a constant police presence on the streets of every city weve visited. They are always armed, with either a pistol on their belt or a semi-automatic weapon draped over their shoulder. This does not bother us at all, in fact quite the opposite it conveys a sense of reassurance.
The tour group all agree that our Governments travel warning is not warranted for this country. In fact, it is doing the will of the terrorists, who want to spread fear and create hardship in this wonderful land. The Turks dont deserve to have their tourist industry turned away by the over-reaction of foreign governments. Of course there is trouble in the extreme south-east near the Syrian border, but we are a thousand miles away from there, both geographically and symbolically.
Were also being told that Australia expects another terrorist attack, similar to the Lindt Café siege, at some time in the future. Accordingly, the travel warning for Australia should be to exercise extreme caution and reconsider your need to travel. Does that mean we cannot return home?
We say - dont let the terrorists win, come and see this fabulous place, and experience the sights, the people, the culture, the food, the friendship. It is no more dangerous than anywhere else in the world. The other day we stopped for morning tea at a tiny village called Agaccami. The café had a group of men sitting on its verandah. They beckoned me over, sat me in a chair, and I had to shake the hand of every one of ten of them. They asked where I was from. They were fascinated about Australia, and particularly Tasmania, and we had a good chat. Only thing was, they knew no English, and I knew no Turkish, but the conversation was between friends, kindred spirits, ordinary people just wishing to learn about the world we live in. As we were leaving, the café owner refused to take any payment for the 15 cups of tea. You dont charge friends.
Thats the Turkey that awaits you.
Location: Corum, Turkey
Much of this trip is unfinished business, and perhaps the most important business item on this agenda was the hot air balloon ride over the fairy chimneys of Cappodocia that I missed seven years ago. The whole group eagerly signed up for the once-in-a-lifetime experience, despite the 4am start. The balloon company picked us up at 4:15, bussed us to the airfield and gave us breakfast, although I think I was too excited to eat much at all. As we finished, and were about to head to the take-off area, the announcement was made that the wind had come up, and the aviation authorities had cancelled all flights for that morning. "Devastated" was an understatement.
Anyway, life, and this journey, goes on. As we continued to head north towards the Black Sea, we stopped for the night in a large city called Corum, and on the way we were treated to more evidence of another ancient civilisation. This time it was the Hittites, who inhabited much of eastern Turkey and the Middle East from around 17th century BC to 12th century BC. They are famous for coming up with, supposedly, the very first Peace Treaty, which they made with the Egyptians. Written in stone, it is now in an Istanbul museum. Their capital was the city of Hattusa, and although it is in ruins, there exists some remarkable examples of their culture and stone building skills. Again, being able-bodied this time allowed me to explore Hattusa properly.
We visited two open-air temples that were used by Hittites to worship their many hundreds of Gods, some of whom had been represented in rock carvings. These temples were simply narrow crevices in a rock canyon, and as we roamed them, with Barishs expert commentary, we could hear a thunder storm brewing not far away. Being alone in this ancient and sacred place, with sound effects coming from the heavens, it had an eerie ambience.
Apart from rock foundations indicating where Hattusas buildings once stood, the most fascinating part of the city is its ramparts that used to protect the inner city. Some gates still exist in these walls, most famously the Lion Gate, with two lions carved in solid stone protecting the entrance. To actually touch the handiwork of a stonemason from 3,000 years ago was a solemn experience. A long tunnel still exists beneath this wall of stone and earth, lined with very carefully placed rocks to ensure the tunnel does not collapse. The fact that its still standing after 30 centuries, safe enough for us to walk through, is testament to the building skill of these people.
Very little is known of the Hittite civilisation, including its own unique language, Barish told us that there is only one person, a woman, who can understand this language, and she is 106 years old. Makes you think
Location: Cappodocia, Turkey
Cappodocia is surely one of the most unique and interesting regions anywhere in the world. This time I was abled-bodied enough to actually see it. The geological anomaly that created this place is due to three volcanoes, now extinct, that form a triangle surrounding this highland plain, which is itself over 1,000 metres above sea level. Eons of volcanic activity has deposited layers of ash over the area, but the resultant rock is soft enough to be easily eroded and chiselled. The erosion is from centuries of weather, wind and rain, while the chiselling is from centuries of civilisations that have built underground cities into the hills. The erosion has shaped rock creations that can look like liquid thats been frozen in time or some kind of natural pornography, and many of these rock formations have windows and doors carved into their facades.
Amazingly enough, the features of Cappodocia could be epitomised by our hotel thats been built into the side of a hill in the lovely little town of Urgup. Our room was encased in stone, with one wall being the actual rock of the hill itself. Such large, thick, stone walls make for a perfectly quiet space, great for sleeping and keeping an ambient temperature. The hotel was spread over several floors, the top floor giving a fantastic panorama in all directions, like all the hilltops in the region would also do.
At the very bottom of the hotel are several doors, most of them lead to accommodation rooms, but one door does not. It enters a tunnel thats been chiselled out of the rock, just wide and high enough to walk through. A few metres down, after taking a 90-degee turn, it enters a room, again chiselled out of rock, with shelves specially carved to hold several hundred wine bottles for aging. The perfect wine cellar. The tunnel then continues from this room for several more metres, with motion-activated lights strategically placed. Daylight appears in the distance, and the tunnel eventually opens onto a veranda thats been chiselled into the side of the hill. The view from this veranda looks out over the township of Urgup from about a hundred metres above, and is totally unexpected as you emerge from the tunnel. Youve just walked through a hill of solid rock. Simply extraordinary.
There are countless tunnels, houses, even cities, carved into the rocky hills throughout the Cappodocia region. Dating from about the 6th century AD, some of these houses are still inhabited, while others have collapsed due to the ravages of time. Underground living was commonplace here over the centuries, and theres no need to pay an entrance fee to see a museum. You can explore a centuries old underground house by simply walking around any of the towns. And then there are the weird fairy chimneys in the appropriately called Love Valley. Its hard to imagine nature coming up with anything more obscene or pornographic than these rock formations.
I dont think its possible to adequately describe in words or pictures the moonscape that is Cappadocia. I think tour participant Nick said it well - Just tell everyone to get on a plane, get over here and see it for themselves.
Location: Silifke, Turkey
In my minds eye theres a corner in southern Turkey where things changed seven years ago. Its in my minds eye because the collision with the truck knocked me unconscious and Ive had to rely on other peoples recollection and a few photos to recreate the scene. Yesterday we drove through that same area, and I learned a lot, most importantly that this infamous corner will have to remain in my minds eye.
The road follows the Med coastline from Antalya to Silifke, with the Mediterranean an ever-present vista to our right. Once past the large town of Alanya, Barish starts giving us commentary on the events of that day seven years ago. Bozyazi is another sizable town, and roadworks begin to appear. Several small villages like Telefki, Yenikas and Soguksu passed by as the roadworks picked up intensity, with gangs of men operating large trucks and diggers removing chunks of mountainside to enable the new road to progress with minimum corners and level gradients. On some occasions they havent cut into the side of the hill, theyve actually cut right through it, and they havent just dug one tunnel, they've dug two, to enable a double carriageway in both directions. These are massive earthworks, to create some beautifully smooth roads.
In Aydincik (pronounced "Aiden-chick"), we passed its hospital, and Barish pointed out the emergency entrance. Thats where we first bought you after the accident, that happened about 8 to 10 kilometres further on. I didnt realise that I'd come backwards to the first hospital. As the road ascended out of Aydincik into more hills, we could sometimes see the old road below us, and wed watch as it disappeared under tonnes of newly deposited rocks and earth created by the new road.
Eventually Barish asked Yusuf to pull over and stop. We got out and walked along the roads edge to view a corner of the old road that had escaped the advance of progress. It lay about ten metres below us. Barish doesnt know if thats the actual corner or not, but its probably not because it's heading down the hill, and the accident occurred on the crest of the hill. Looking up the hill, it was obvious that the majority of the old road, and my corner, no longer exists.
Further on is Silifke, and hospital #2. They didnt have the facilities to operate on me (although they would do now, with a brand new hospital since being built), and I was taken on to Mercin further along the coast to hospital #3 for the operation to correct my foot. Our tour, however, does not go that far, and we stopped for the night just past Silifke at a little place called Kiskalesi.
Outside our hotels back door is a beach onto the Med, and about 300 metres offshore is a castle, built on a little island about a thousand years ago. Ive always had vague memories of seeing this castle in the early morning light as we arrived at the same hotel at 5am after being discharged from the Mercin hospital. After checking in, the group went for a swim in the sea, and I decided to test my aquatic skills and swim out to the castle and back. I did it, and felt like Id conquered a little self-imposed challenge. Mike shook my hand, saying Id joined a small elite group from his tours to have swum it.
The rest of the tour will be new for us, and we will eagerly embrace it. The past is now buried under tonnes of rock and earthworks, and my swim proves that life goes on, theres still more world to explore, and Im glad to still be here to do it.