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BandA’s Travel Diary

Friday, 28 Nov 2003

Location: Turkey

MapChapter 3B Continued Adventures in Turkey


Friday November 28

This morning we said our farewells to the Çavuskoy Yildirims as we headed off to see more of Turkey. Jackie and Ali decided to escort us part of our way as they particularly wanted to visit Assos, a quiet, seaside village some 50 km South of Çavuskoy. We too had been advised that it was worth a visit, so it became our first destination. We felt almost like a typical Turkish family with all the females in Shelvas–a form of dress not usually worn in cities–then on to Ayvaçik on the way to Izmir. There, Ali was going to meet his brother Jahit and together they would drive on to Izmir to visit their cousin there while Jackie and the children would return by bus to Çavuskoy.

The road into Assos was very windy, passing through very steep country covered with oaks and pines. We were interested to learn that many of the pines were harvested for pine nuts. Assos is a little fishing village. It is mentioned in The Acts of the Apostles (20:13-14) as the place where Luke met up with Paul. We did not have much time to explore the old castle, the beautiful old stone bridge and the numerous old stone buildings around the harbour. Jackie had been suffering severe withdrawal symptoms for the last three months, as she had not had a cappuccino since arriving in Turkey. Here at Assos, where they catered for tourists, she had the chance to get her fix. Ali and B kept her company. (A and the children preferred an ice cream!) Not only did the cappuccino cost an exorbitant $4.00 but it was also only lukewarm so we felt a little aggrieved. Prompted by Jackie and B, Ali complained to the waiter who apologised and said he would be happy to bring a replacement. After a lengthy delay he brought three more lukewarm cappuccinos! Anyway, we enjoyed the relaxation at the little cafe beside the lovely harbour and we all enjoyed looking over the edge and watching the fish swimming below.

It was now two weeks since we had left home and A was worried about the farm at Tanjam. There had been no rain for ten days before we left and each time we checked the Internet we found there had been negligible rain since our departure, even though there had been floods in Melbourne. From Assos he tried to ring our friends on a neighbouring farm to see how the animals were faring but, of course, the phone wouldn’t work, or, to be more accurate, would not accept reverse charge through Telecard. When we arrived at Ayvaçik, he tried again. He and Ali drove all round the town looking for a co-operative public phone which would accept our Australian Telecard, but, of course, they were all the old phones that would not connect us to Telecard Australia. Fortunately, while driving around we met the brother of Ali’s Mother who kindly invited us into his house where A was able to ring on his private phone using Telecard. He was very relieved to hear that the grass was still growing and the cows were all happy. In the meantime the rest of us, plus Jahit who joined us there, had lunch at the bus station.

Just as we were about to leave Ayvaçik someone in a 4WD called out and greeted us in English! We wondered who on earth would know us in Ayvaçik. It turned out to be TJ, our friendly manager from the hotel we stayed at in Eçeabat when we were visiting Gallipoli. He was taking a small group of tourists to visit Troy and Assos.

We farewelled Jacky and the children as they left to return to the village by bus. A was so enthusiastic in his farewells that he just about went back with them too. The bus started to drive off while he was still on board saying good-bye to the family.

From here Ali drove Jahit and us to Izmir. This road largely followed the coast along the Aegean Sea and it was a very popular tourist area. By Australian standards the beaches were largely very unattractive, being covered with pebbles rather than sand. There were numerous high-rise holiday apartments and large homes right along the coast. We were told that many of them are owned by absentee landlords who never use them, even for holidays. Apparently they are just a very safe hedge against inflation.

Here, and throughout Turkey, we were surprised to see large numbers of modern service stations, mostly without customers. Why had they built so many? Everywhere we went we were also surprised at the way all stationary vehicles had their engines running even though petrol, especially in Turkey, was not cheap.

At Izmir, Ali drove us to the very large bus terminal – over 130 “platforms”. It was good that Ali was there to guide us or we would have had great difficulty finding where we should go. Anyway, Ali took us to our bus which was going to Selçuk, the town closest to the famous Roman ruins of Ephesus where we had made a hotel reservation for that night. The road on this section of the trip was excellent, there were delightful coastal views and we even saw the Greek Island of Lemnos, the army base for the Gallipoli invasion, just off the coast.

Once again we were pleasantly surprised at the high quality of all the public buses we travelled on. The seats were comfortable, drinks and light refreshments were usually served, the bus conductors also walked round periodically with bottles of cologne for people to rub on their hands and faces (B’s tendency to hay-fever precluded our use of this facility). Despite this high standard the prices were very cheap.

On arriving at the bus terminal at Selçuk, we were approached as usual by local angels with offers of accommodation or a free taxi ride to a hotel. On telling them we were already booked in at a hotel they immediately offered, free of charge, to ring the hotel for their courtesy car to come and pick us up. This was much better than a 15-minute walk with our packs at the end of a long day, even without our “rainbow bag”, the contents of which we had left at Çavuskoy. On arriving at the hotel, Hotel Akay, A suddenly realised he had left his stick at the bus station. Our driver immediately took A back and fortunately the stick was still waiting where it had been left. This was only the first of five times that A left his stick behind but, despite this, we did eventually manage to bring it home!

There was no restaurant attached to the hotel but the hotel owner worked in with a friend who had a restaurant nearby and explained that the driver would drive us there and bring us home again. It was a delicious meal!

Initially we had planned to arrive at Selçuk by lunch and “do” Ephesus that afternoon, then go on to Pammukale, near Denizle, for a day before heading to Goreme in Cappadocia, which is in the centre of Turkey (see map below). Partly because we had detoured to Assos and partly because of the big distances being travelled, we decided to cut out our visit to Pammukale and go directly from Selçuk to Goreme. This was a very long 14-hour trip and the only feasible bus left at 1530 in the afternoon arriving at our destination 0400 the next morning. On the way to our restaurant our driver took us back to the bus station to make reservations for the trip to Goreme the following day.


Saturday November 29
Although it was almost the start of winter and we had been warned many time before we left that it would be cold, breakfast was served on the rooftop of our hotel in pleasant sunshine. B enjoyed the fresh fruit, boiled egg, cucumber, tomato, olives, croissants, jam and butter. A likes a more conservative breakfast. (Whisper, porridge!)

Tradition has it that St John the apostle and evangelist went to Ephesus where he established his church. Moreover tradition also has it that, following Christ’s direction from the cross: “Son, here is your Mother”, Mary also went to Ephesus with John where, in the fullness of time, she died. Accordingly, at Ephesus there are the ruins of a very large basilica and monastery, dedicated to St John, which overlooked us as we had breakfast on our rooftop dining area and, closer to the ancient city of Ephesus, is the site of Mary’s home, Meryemana.

After breakfast we were driven by the hotel car to Meryemana. In many ways it was reminiscent of Lourdes, with crutches etc left behind by cured pilgrims. It was in a lovely, leafy setting and there were numerous pilgrims, almost all Muslims. On a plaque on the wall are a number of quotations from the Koran praising Mary the Mother of Jesus. It comes as a surprise to many that Mary gets more mention in the Koran than in the Gospels. One would like to think that this common link through Mary might be the bridge to bring Christians and Muslims closer together. An interesting feature here was the custom of pilgrims placing a small piece of white cloth (or plastic) on a wall—there were hundreds of these pieces. We asked what was the significance of this practice and were told that someone did it initially (perhaps by accident) and everyone else though it was therefore the right thing to do! We saw this same custom at other places of pilgrimage.

From here our driver took us to the famous Roman ruins of Ephesus. He explained that he would leave us at the top gate and we could wend our way through the city to the lower gate. On the way we were rather touched when he told us how much he enjoyed driving us and that for him we were “his Mama and Papa”!! Let us add he was a 50 something man! It is surprising how many times in our travels we have been adopted as parents.



The well preserved main street of Roman Ephesus

Ephesus in its heyday must have been a source of great pride to its inhabitants. Even in its ruined state the dignity of the buildings and the beauty of the town shone through. It was a very gracious city and it was not hard to picture it as Paul saw it during his visits there. Its wealthy citizens must have found Paul’s teaching unsettling so it is not surprising that the silversmiths wanted to dispose of him for destroying their trade (Acts 19:23-41). We looked with interest at the areas specifically connected to Paul’s story. In fact, we began to feel we were walking a little in the steps of St Paul—Assos, Ephesus and later Damascus.

Here, at Ephesus, we met the story of the Seven Sleepers. Legend has it that c.250, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Decius, seven young Christians were immured in a cave for refusing to worship the Emperor. Instead of dying, they fell asleep. 200 years later they awoke and went into the town to see their friends. Surprisingly they could not find them. However, they were taken to visit the current emperor, Theodosius II, whose wavering faith was restored and the youths then returned to their cave to sleep again. Their feast day is/was July 27th. We came across this story again in Syria.

We spent about 4 hours wandering around the city then rejoined our chauffeur at the lower gate. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at the Temple of Diana/Artemis and heard an echo of the crowd shouting, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” which they had done for 2 hours almost 2,000 years ago. We also made a quick stop at the Basilica of St John but did not go in.

We had been most impressed by the service we had been receiving from the hotel management by way of transport all around the place. In fact we thought it rather incredible that this would be included gratis when we were paying only $20 for bed and breakfast for the two of us. We discovered our doubts were correct as, when we were settling our account, our driver gently let us know that we owed him $32 for his services. We were more than happy with this charge, as he had been most co-operative in driving us everywhere, including taking us back to the bus station where we were to catch the bus to Goreme in Cappadocia for the next stage of our journey.

While filling in the short time waiting for the bus we strolled round the modern town of Selçuk and did a little shopping. Before we left home Tracy had put in an order for some “real Turkish Delight” for Stephen, so we found and bought some here. (It was very heavy!)

The trip to Goreme was due to be a long trip–14 hours–1530–0530. Actually it took 16 hours because of two delays. At about 2000 we stopped at a town only to be told that there was a “traffic delay” down the road and we would be held up for 30 minutes. Later on in the night, about 0300, we were again delayed for some two hours, this time due to some mechanical problem with the bus. At least there were free clean toilets at this bus station and we filled in the time playing cards and enjoying a free cup of coffee.



Our itinerary through Turkey

On the bus we again met a number of local angels. One lady offered us sweets while a young student, who was studying to be a tourist guide, offered us “pastry sticks”. She had a little English and was glad of the opportunity to practise it on us. Neither the driver or conductor had any English but, as usual, we got by.


Sunday November 30

Finally we arrived at Nevşevir, which was some 20 km west of our destination of Goreme, at about 0530. When leaving Selçuk we had been told that on arriving at Nevşevir we should go to one of the bus agencies and tell them “George from Selçuk sent us” and they would put us on a courtesy bus that would take us on to Goreme. Strangely enough everything went as planned, within 15 minutes of our arrival we were on our way in the courtesy bus with three Japanese Tourists and finally arrived at our destination at 0630.

When we were at Eçeabat (Gallipoli) TJ had recommended to us some good and cheap accommodation at “The Shoestring Cave Pension” so we had made a reservation there. It turned out to be a very interesting choice in that it had recently been constructed by excavating into the local rock. It was not unlike Coober Pedy. We had one small window but there were no chairs, table, hooks, light shades and unfortunately very little heating. Since Goreme is about 1200m above sea level and we experienced our first frost here, we missed the heating. For some strange reason they did not turn on the heating till about 2100 when it was already time to go to bed. None the less it was an interesting experience and the staff were very pleasant and co-operative.

After a welcome breakfast we spent the rest of the morning catching up on the sleep we missed on the bus.

We estimated that we would have seen no more than a dozen foreign tourists in the town – one of the most popular tourist curiosities in Turkey. Its popularity as a tourist destination meant that the shopkeepers had quite good English. Obviously, before September 11 and especially in summer, there would have been hundreds if not thousands of tourists. Because it was a major tourist centre all the shopkeepers had quite good English. Despite the number of carpet shops and the dearth of tourists we escaped carpetless from our encounters. Local women were again noticeably absent. During our stay in Goreme we saw only one woman either serving in shops or generally visible. We bought quite a few post cards to send back home to friends and family. Perhaps you were one of the recipients!!

A was impressed with the vehicles passing through the town centre. Many of these were tractors. We take it for granted that we will see cars parked in our streets but here it was not unusual to see vehicles such as trailers, tractors and seeding drills more often than cars. This was typical throughout our travels. Nearly always farmers lived in the towns and villages and travelled out to their farmlets, rather than living on their farms as in Australia and coming into town for shopping, schooling, social life, etc. We assumed this was a carryover from times when there was need for the greater security, from bandits or in time of war, provided by a town or village.

We made arrangements for a tour of the area for the following day and checked out buses available the day after to take us on the next stage of our journey to Sanliurfa in the South East of Turkey. There were many bus agents in the town and the first few we enquired from all told us the only buses to Sanliurfa were overnight buses. Naturally we wanted to travel through the day to see the countryside so we were very disappointed until, by chance, B saw another agency with a daytime bus leaving at 0900 in the morning–just what we wanted. Naturally the other agencies didn’t want us to find out about that bus!

They have what they call an “Open Air Museum” in Goreme. This provides conducted tours around many of the old cave dwellings and cave churches, monasteries, etc. These are decorated with frescoes, mosaics, carvings, etc. It was interesting and typical that while we were “queuing” up to make enquiries at the ticket office to the Museum, some local people just tried to push their way in front of us. We were becoming a bit hardened by now to this sort of behaviour and the flourishing of A’s walking stick proved an effective deterrent!

As there were some 300 cave churches in the area, and untold cave dwellings, we decided not to bother with this official museum and instead just roamed, clambered and scrambled around the nearby hills that were also full of caves.



Our pony-shaped rock formation

The whole area is like something out of a fairy tale. Because a layer of harder rock originally covered the softer tuff, weathering has caused some very strange rock formations. As the water seeped through cracks in the rock the softer rock was washed away so you would see formations like giant mushrooms—columns of soft rock capped by hard rock that formed a protective umbrella for the column below. The hard rock also was weathered into fantastic shapes. We found one that looked like a pony standing on a ridge at the top of a hill we climbed. It was a real tour of exploration because, as we climbed higher, we were confronted by more and more choices of route many of which proved to be dead ends when we were confronted by steep crevasses opening before us. We certainly enjoyed our energetic afternoon but were glad when we found a way down to cultivated land in the valley below.

After this we were glad to return to our own “cold cave” for a well-earned rest. Fortunately there was a brazier burning in the “lounge/dining” area so we soon made our way there. That area provided, beside the welcome heat, a long table and benches, a raised divan area covered in mats and cushions, and a small library. There, too, we met our few fellow guests.

To the left of the entrance to this area was a small two burner stove (outdoors!) and, further to the left, we could see a refrigerator. From this unpromising beginning we were presented with gourmet meals—3 course for dinner in the evening as well as a cooked breakfast.

We tried to phone our Servas Host in Mardin with whom we planned to stay later in the week but alas our phone card would not work on the public phone (Surprise, surprise!). Back at our pension the manager kindly rang through to Sanliurfa to make a hotel reservation for us for the following night on our way to Mardin and also contacted our Servas Host to confirm our time of arrival. He passed on to us the vague arrangement that we should meet him at the Mobil Service Station in the “New City” of Mardin when we arrived. We were impressed that not only did our pension manager make these arrangements for us but would not accept any charge for it. In return we took some of his cards to leave at the hotel in Sanliurfa where we were to stay. We had already given him some cards from our friendly TJ in Eçhabat, the guy who had recommended this place to us in the first place.


Monday December 1


For today we had booked into an organised tour, the only organised tour of our holiday, apart from Gallipoli. On the way we had a short stop at the Valley of the Pigeons. We were on the ridge looking down into this valley with more weird formations and, as he talked to us, our guide was standing right on the edge of the rim. Every so often he would move his position and we could hardly concentrate on what he was telling us as we had visions of him plunging into the valley below. We did, however, learn that the valley was so named because the cave dwellers there had also carved pigeon lofts into the columns and had made lattice-like entrances just big enough for the birds. Once a year the inhabitants would climb up to their own lofts and remove the birds’ droppings to use as fertiliser. Now that people no longer live in the caves the practice has been discontinued and artificial fertiliser has replaced the pigeon manure.

Our first major stop was to see the underground city at Derinkoyu. Over the past 1500 years there have been regular wars and persecutions of one sort or another and the locals have made the most of the soft but stable sandstone rock in the area, not only to build cave homes at the surface but also to build large underground cities where they could hide and live for six months at a time. For us it was rather reminiscent of the tunnels we saw at Chu Chi in Vietnam where they had their kitchens, schools, hospitals, etc., all underground. There are many of these complexes but in the one we visited there were eight levels with well-designed and spacious stairways and passages. They had designed it so that there was good ventilation throughout and special precautions were taken so that smoke from heating or cooking would not be seen from above by their enemies. In contrast to the local environment, the temperature only fluctuates from only 4 to 16oC through the year.

The complex was last used at the time of the war of independence in the early 1920’s when, in return for independence, 150,000 Turks in the Balkans (part of the old Ottoman Empire) were forcibly repatriated to Turkey and all the Christians (450,000) from rural Turkey (with the exception of the Armenians) were forcibly deported to Europe. As a result of this “religious cleansing” there are no Christians left in rural Turkey and virtually none even in Istanbul. It was rather sad to see in this town a large, old Orthodox Church which had not been used for 80 years and was falling into disrepair.

Our next stop was again at a high spot where we looked down into the beautiful Ilhara River Valley It looked lovely from above and, after we had climbed down the steep cliff, we were able to enjoy it at close hand during a two-hour walk beside the river. . A & Tracy had done this walk back in 1996 but it was one that you could repeat many times. Although it was at the end of a very dry autumn there was plenty of water in the river and it was a truly refreshing. A almost discovered how refreshing it was literally as, at one stage, the path went through a narrow low crack in the rock and he couldn’t fit. In going round the rocky outcrop he almost went paddling. At the end the walk we were treated to a typical Turkish meal of fish, tomatoes and greens, Turkish bread, yoghurt, fresh fruit, etc. It was very pleasant sitting at tables beside the river, looking across to the old stone town and watching a young girl bring her cows across the old stone bridge so they could drink from the river. One didn’t want to return home and provided us with some amusement. A boy on a donkey came across and wanted to show us his village, no doubt for a fee. We declined as our group was about to head off.

As we passed from one site of interest to another we passed through fairly flat and rich, but rather dry, agricultural country. There is however a certain amount of irrigation from artesian wells. We were told that thanks to the research initiative of a foreign female researcher they had dramatically increased potato yields though the use of fertilizers and improved varieties. As a result the area is now more prosperous than most, with unusually nice new homes on the farms themselves. Both here and elsewhere in Turkey, except for the occasional rows of poplars, there were very few trees along the roadsides, in the fields or around homes in either villages or towns. Another general observation was the very high reliance – almost universal – on solar hot water systems.

In the course of the day we passed through a weird area of strange geological formations which was used as a backdrop to one of the Star Wars films. We also saw some particularly strange rock formations called “Fairy Chimneys” which have resulted from selective erosion over the millennia due to the odd resistant rock at their apex.

Our last stop was a pottery factory at Avanos where we saw (and even bought) some souvenirs. Part of the visit included a very interesting demonstration of a potter at work and we were offered the opportunity to try our hand too. Only one of our group accepted the offer.


Tuesday December 2

This frosty morning we left Goreme on a 0930 bus heading first for Kayseri (see map), a large town some 30 km from Goreme, and then in a South-easterly direction to Sanliurfa, close to the Syrian border.

The country we passed through on the first half of the trip was very bleak, dry treeless country with apparently poor soils growing crops of cereals and vines interspersed with frequent extinct volcanoes. The vines were not trellised but planted on individual mounds. On the second half of the trip we passed into very stony hilly country. Frequently this was bare of nearly all vegetation but there were relatively small areas of native forests of pine, spruce and cypress. Associated with these there were a number of timber milling villages. This was the only area in the middle East we saw any appreciable area of forest.

Most of the way there was an excellent four-lane road. Only for the last few miles into Sanliurfa was there a toll, the only one we experienced on the trip. As elsewhere, the country roads were excessively illuminated with “street lights”, at least compared with what we have been accustomed to in Australia. It would seem that semi-trailers, let alone B-doubles, are not permitted in Turkey, as we saw none on our travels. Despite the generally very good roads we were surprised to see so many truck wrecks on the side of the road, many of them wrecked petrol tankers bringing oil inform Iraq. It is a long drive and apparently many of the drivers simply fall asleep. We were told that there were an average of 20 people killed a day on roads in Turkey –over 700 during our 2-week visit to Turkey. Many people have asked us if we were worried about the dangers of terrorists etc in the Middle East but clearly there was a greater danger of being killed on the roads!

Earlier in our visit to Turkey when we mentioned we were planning to visit Mardin in the far South east of Turkey, we were warned many times about the problems we would encounter. “It will be very cold there.” “You probably won’t be able to drive over the mountains because of the snow.” “Even if you get there you probably will get snowed in.” Etc”. Well, "Where fools step in, angels fear to tread". This section of the trip passed through the highest elevation we were to experience and although it was early winter the snow level only just reached road level and we never saw any snow on the road. About two weeks later we leant that Turkey had had very bad snowfalls and had we been travelling two weeks later we may well have been in trouble. We were also warned that this was dangerous country, the heart of the Kurdish population, to be visiting because of the ongoing armed struggle of the Kurds over the last decade or so, during which thousands had been killed. More of that later!

We arrived in Sanliurfa in the late afternoon. Sanliurfa used to be simply called Urfa but in recent times, in order to promote tourism, it has been renamed Sanliurfa which means something like “Glorious Urfa”. Well the bus station at which we arrived was probably the dirtiest we had so far experienced on our holiday. Before going to our hotel we made enquiries about buses the next day on to Mardin some three hours drive further east. Here we could find no one with even poor English and it was with the greatest difficulty that we learnt that there was only one bus and that was scheduled for 1400 the next afternoon. We then got a taxi to our hotel.

While we were waiting to depart we were interested to see a big crowd of young men supported by a couple of others with big drums. On enquiring what all the fuss was about we were told they were giving a hearty send off to some of their friends who were going of on National Service. A little later we saw a youth being led off in handcuffs whom we suspected of being a draft dodger.

The hotel we chose was the one “recommended” by the lonely planet Guide Bok for budget tourists. It was interesting that the guidebook said it was clean and reasonably priced “but you will find that the staff are not very friendly”. In this they were very accurate. This was one of the few places where we did not receive a really warm welcome. The cold reception was aggravated by the fact that B had acquired a very nasty cold from Jemal our Grandson, when we had visited the family at Çavuskoy.

To add to our woes the hotel did not serve dinner so we had to head out into the street to find a restaurant. Easier said than done in the dark, cold street which seemed miles from shops and people. Halfway down our long street we saw a fairly unpromising café on the other side and crossed hopefully-it had been a long day and we were tired and hungry. They looked surprised to have customers and had nothing to offer except shiskabob so we reluctantly sat down. Eventually we were presented with a plate each. On the plate was a very lonely stick of meat. They didn’t even have any bread or a hot drink. Most unusual in Turkey! We headed back to our room that was, fortunately, warm and clean.


Wednesday December 3

Breakfast next morning was not much better. We arrived in the dining room and saw people eating omelettes or scrambled eggs so we tried to tell the waiter we would like that. Either he was really dumb or we were very bad actors because instead of bringing us a plate of freshly cooked eggs he took a half-eaten meal off another table and offered that to us. We had to content ourselves with bread and jam. Not a good way to start a very energetic day!

The major attraction of Sanliurfa to local tourists is that it is refuted to be have been the birthplace of Abraham. The Bible refers to Abraham coming from “Ur of the Chaldeans” which according to our geography is somewhere in present day Iraq – nowhere near Sanliurfa. We have read since that Abraham simply passed through Sanliurfa on his route from Chaldea to Canaan. Any way after breakfast, even though B had her awful cold we went for a stroll down the centre of Sanliurfa. While B bought some cold tablets at a chemist , A found the Post Office. There he posted a bundle of postcards to friends back home. It was only after he had bought the stamps and posted the cards that he realised that the PO man had charged only $0.60 each rather than the $1 we had paid elsewhere. We decided that he had misunderstood the destination of the cards and he thought they were going to Austria rather than Australia, despite being shown one of the cards. We were worried that all the effort we had put into writing the cards might have gone to waste but we were glad to learn on our return home that they had indeed arrived safely.

We then headed on to the very attractive gardens surrounding the mosque and cave reputed to be Abraham’s birthplace. It was a lovely sunny day and there were many local pilgrims. Associated with this complex were several extensive fishponds in which there were large numbers of fish which were regularly fed by the numerous pilgrims. Thanks to this generous feeding and that fact that tradition had it that you would go blind if you caught the fish, they were truly very large.


After wandering round the gardens, along the pools, past an open air café, and past numerous attractive buildings we eventually found the entrance to the cave. Here we were separated as men and women had separate entrances, removed our shoes and moved into separate halves of the shrine. Everywhere were notices reminding visitors that this was a sacred place and due respect must be shown.

In the women’s half there were about 8 robed women standing or kneeling in prayer before a low cave. Their demeanour was certainly very devout. After praying a while and reflecting on the role of Abraham in the three religions “of the Book” B rejoined A who had seen the cave from the men’s side. We were relieved to safely recover our shoes at the entrance, as we each had only one pair with us on our trip.

Together we left the complex, wandered out the gates and found ourselves in a busy street market. By this time we were feeling hungry so we started looking for food before heading for the bus station.

Normally in Turkey we found numerous little corner stores where you could buy bread, bananas, etc. This day we were singularly unsuccessful. We found plenty of chemist shops (Eczane) and numerous jewellers loaded with gold jewellery and trinkets but we had the greatest difficulty finding a food shop. Once again we were saved by kind guardian angel in the form of a shop assistant who, when we explained our dilemma, led us down the street to a suitable shop.

As usual there were comparatively few women to be seen in the crowded streets, though there were plenty in the area around the Shrine of Abraham. Those we saw all wore head scarves and shelvas or were completely covered in black from head to toe with only eyes showing. At the bus station it seemed that B was the only female there. The Kurdish men, for we were now in Kurdish territory, wore, what seemed to us, very funny baggy long johns and flowing headscarves. The day was quite warm, in fact it was too warm to wear our jackets, which surprised us as we had also been warned about the extremely cold weather in Eastern Turkey.

Now that we knew our way round Sanliurfa we caught a dolmus back to the otogar (bus station) for the princely sum of $0.50 each compared with $5.00 for the taxi on our arrival.

As usual we arrived at the otogar about an hour early for our 1400 bus. A Kurdish man (Aziz Kizgin ) who had quite good English befriended us. Earlier in our trip we had been told, and the Guide Book seemed to confirm it, that the only realistic place to cross into Syria (which we were planning to do on leaving Turkey) was to cross near Aleppo, a hundred km or so West of Sanliurfa. On this basis, after visiting Mardin for our two nights we would have to double back some 400 km to cross into Syria. We were heartened now to hear Aziz tell us there was no trouble crossing into Syria from Sanliurfa, so we would not have nearly as far to double back after visiting Mardin.
He told us the reason Eastern Turkey was so poor was because Kurdish families had such large families. He had 7 brothers and 7 sisters. We later learnt that the Servas Host whom we were to meet in Mardin, also a Kurd, was one of 18 children, though from two marriages.

1400 arrived but no sign of our scheduled bus. Initially Aziz told us the agents just told us 1400 as that was the time that suited us and the bus could come any old time. When 1500 arrived and no sign of the bus our friend told us that as likely as not there would be no bus, as all Turks were liars! He also added that all Arabs were dirty and later we had some occasion to see why he came to this conclusion. By this stage B thought we might be staying an unscheduled extra day in Sanliurfa. Each time a bus arrived at the otogar our hopes rose, but Aziz would immediately say: “No, this isn’t it”. How he knew which bus was which we could not fathom, as there were no destination signs on the buses. At 1530 yet another bus drove into the station and immediately he exclaimed “Here it is!” and sure enough he was right.

We gave him a cheery farewell as he had been yet another friendly angel. This time a Kurdish one! He remained at the otogar for another bus from which he was going to welcome some tourists as he ran a pension and this was a good way to find clients. The long wait had not been without its rewards despite the dirty station, the lack of any eating places, and the fact that there were no seats to sit on outside. One had the choice of sitting inside which was dirty and reeked of smoke from all the heavy smokers or standing outside where one had more chance of moving out of the way of the smokers. Mr Aziz was a great talker and had helped pass the time.

After the long wait we were glad to be on our way. Despite the addition of Sanli (Glorious) to the original name of Urfa we were not too sorry to be leaving thanks to the dirty bus station, the unfriendly hotel staff, the poor meal we experienced, the awful cold B had and finally the long wait for the late bus. But at least it all added to our experiences.

As mentioned earlier we had received a vague message from our Servas Host that he would meet us at the Mobil Service Station in the “New City” in Mardin. By the time we arrived in Mardin it was dark (the sun set there just before 1600) so we were peering out the window looking for the Otogar. Suddenly the bus stopped and someone indicated we had arrived in Mardin. There was no Otogar and no sign of a Mobil Service Station. We had just stopped on the side of the road in the town. There were a few locals standing on the pavement so another Kurdish angel rescued us, asked where we wanted to go, and took us into his little shop across a busy divided road. Fortunately we had the mobile phone number of our host so our angel trotted off to another nearby shop where they had a semi-public phone, rang our host and told him where we were. Within another 15 minutes Resat Guzel arrived in his car to pick us up and drive us to his home.

We were rather amused on the way home to see Resat park his car for 5 minutes right on the corner of an major intersection while he went into a shop to buy some bread. Just next door to his apartment building was the Mobil Service Station where Resat had a good friend and that was where the arrangement had been to meet him. Resat is a primary school teacher and his wife Neriman is a Nursing Instructor. Together with their two children, Aysel and Fatos they live on the fourth floor (no lift) of a Government owned apartment building for which they paid the low rent of $100 a month. The apartment had a small kitchen/dining room, a lounge and, we think, one bedroom. There was only a squat toilet and although there was a shower room there was insufficient hot water from the communal solar hot water system for regular showers so the family go once a week to the local Hamam (Turkish Bath). Resat had quite good English but his wife much less. It was interesting that although Nerima works longer hours and deals with more advanced students she gets paid less than Resat.

We received a warm welcome from the family and after tea (they fed us more than we could manage so we saved some for breakfast the following morning) they invited a friend and his wife (he was a psychologist) together with two of their five daughters to meet us. They told us all about the local scene and particularly about the ”Kurdish Problem” over the past decade or so. The situation is better now with the use of Kurdish language, songs, dance, etc., being permitted–unlike in the past. They told us of many of the horrors from the army in the recent past. It was not unusual for villagers who had, at gunpoint, harboured the PKK terrorists to then be slaughtered by the army for supporting terrorists. He told many stories of brutality and described how Kurdish fighters would be taken up in a helicopter and pushed out. Ali, our son-in-law, who had done some of his military service in Mardin some years earlier, told us that they had been kept under strict control. Brutality against the locals was forbidden.

The only ethnic Turks in Mardin are short-term Government officials, the majority being Kurds. There is, however, a substantial number of “Arabs”, presumably of Syrian origin, who are immediately recognised by the locals due to difference in dress and, of course, language. As we learnt in Sanliurfa, the Kurds do not like the Arabs.

The morning before our arrival there had apparently been a car bomb blast in which 5 soldiers had been killed. Bombs seemed to follow us wherever we went, but really at no time did we feel in danger. The reality of the situation was brought home when we compared the risks of being killed in road accident with injury from bombs, etc.

On this first night we also learned that schools often have two separate sessions in a day (0700–1200 and 1200–1700) to maximise utilization of buildings. The area is very poor but the children are picked up in buses to take them to school. There is a TV University but, as this is considered second rate, a degree from there doesn’t help much in getting a job. We were told there was 50% unemployment and jobs were hard to come by. Incidentally, despite this, we were surprised to see throughout Turkey that satellite dishes (mostly rusty) were much more common than our traditional TV antennae.

Resat gave us advice as to the places of interest to visit in the old city of Mardin for the following day. He also confirmed for us that there would be no trouble crossing into Syria at Nusaybin only a few miles south of Mardin. We were reassured of the accuracy of their statement when we learned that Nerima came from Nusaybin so they knew the area well.

As usual, our hosts were very good to us and despite their small apartment were happy to cater for us. We slept on mattresses on the floor of the lounge room.


Thursday December 4

Both Resat and Nerima had to go off to work at about 0800 and there was a lady who came in to baby-sit until Aysel went off to school and when she would do the cleaning. However it was not appropriate, and her husband would not approve, if she were in the house with A, a male, so he had to leave before she arrived. B stayed a little longer to tidy up and make sure we had everything needed for the day.

As with so many cities in the Old World so in Mardin there is the old city and the new city. The New City was fairly bleak. Medium rise (4 - 10 storey) apartments, set on bare ground, dominated the landscape. Inside, the apartments were well designed and comfortable. Resat and his family lived in the New City. Today we had decided to explore the old city which, according to Resat, had many buildings of historic interest.

As we started to head for the old city which we assumed was “just down the road” B looked up to the top of a nearby mountain and said: “Look at that beautiful castle. Just as well we don’t have to go there. What a climb that would be!” Yes, you guessed it, although we didn’t realise it, that was where we were heading.

Actually, we found it a pleasant walk as we had no packs to burden us. We stopped to look at two points of interest that caught our attention as we went on our way. The first was a very large depot with dozens of tractors and trailers all loaded, or being loaded, with bags of charcoal. Although some homes had gas, many homes, especially the poorer ones, relied on charcoal for heating and cooking. The government actually supplies this charcoal free, or at least at greatly subsidised rates, to the poor.

A bit further on, as we commenced our climb, we passed the early morning livestock sales at the side of the road, but downhill from us so we had a grandstand view. There were no pens but each farmer had his little herd of goats huddled together to be sold. As we continued our climb we were fascinated to see a young lad “shepherding” his little herd of goats towards their new home. Some managed to find some greenery on the bare hillside while others walked happily along the top of the retaining wall at the side of the road. They seemed to be amazingly co-operative as they wound their way along the main road, past the buildings that began to line the road, and down side streets.

Not only this morning but wherever we went we were surprised that the locals immediately knew we were tourists and regularly asked us where we were from and went out of their way to be friendly. We thought we could blend into the local scene but whether it was our clothing, our complexion, the colour of our hair or our height, we were immediately spotted.

The main thoroughfare in the Old City was a very narrow street, really wide enough for only one vehicle, especially considering the number of pedestrians and donkeys sharing the road too. As we proceeded along it we discovered that, despite this, cars were trying to travel in both directions. There were large numbers of armed police and soldiers in flak jackets in the bustling market town but we saw no signs at all of unrest. The biggest hassle was the young kids that wanted to show us around. Because most kids go to school in either morning or afternoon they have plenty of spare time to wander the streets and, given we were probably the only tourists in the town, we had a job getting rid of them. We must admit that, at one stage, they did come in useful. We were told that there was a Christian Church in the town which we were interested to see as we had not seen a single sign of current Christian activity since arriving in Turkey. A couple of street urchins led us up and down lots of back alleys (Yes, we were wondering whether we would ever get back to Australia in one piece) and finally we arrived at the church. We would have had great difficulty finding it without their help. It was a Syrian Orthodox Church and like all Orthodox churches decorated very ornately. Later, we were helped find another building but, this time, our guides were well-dressed and well-spoken secondary school boys.




The busy market scene in Mardin

There were dozens of shops but very rarely did we see any customers in them and usually there were two or more attendants waiting for a customer to appear. The open market was a different matter as it was bustling with activity. All the way along the long, winding main street we kept asking if there was an Internet Café. With help from a shop owner’s boy we eventually found it and collected and sent lots of e-mails. We learnt about the horrific flooding in Melbourne and how Tracy’s street was a river feet deep.

As you may have gathered from the earlier comments on the main street this was a town totally unsuited to cars. The side streets were steep, narrow and winding so it was not surprising that we saw more donkeys here than anywhere else on our travels. They seemed to be a major means of transport for both personnel and goods.

Because the buildings were jammed together and rising up the steep mountainside we had difficulty locating some of the places of historic interest but, as well as the church we found two others. The first was the Post Office. The office part was pretty unprepossessing but the building itself had been a magnificent Caravanserai. Surprisingly it was two storey and had a beautiful double carved stone staircase. Upstairs, the entrances to what now seemed to be apartments were also beautifully carved. As the building was on the high side of the main road it was possible to look from it down the mountain to the plain below and, of course, the New Town.

Our second success was reaching the Madrasa, built in 1385 as an Islamic school for boys. The success was not so much in finding it as in climbing the very steep path up to it. By this stage we were almost at the top of the mountain and only the castle loomed above us, as we discovered when we reached the top level of the Madrasa.

After our climb we stood in the street looking up to the double door entrance to the Madrasa where a guard stood. Above the door was a beautifully carved arch. As we were admiring this from below the guard indicated that we were welcome to enter so, bravely, we climbed the dozen or so steps and went in. Everything was grey stone, including the floors and inner walls.

As we wandered along we found courtyards and niches with fountains. We would have stopped on this level as we didn’t know if it was acceptable to go through the occasional narrow doorway we saw but two women, local tourists, beckoned to us to follow them up a narrow stone staircase to the next level, then up again. We came out on to the large flat roof which had openings to the courtyards below, and the tops of its domes curving at each end. The views were magnificent! Below we looked down on to the town and the plain below but, as we were much higher than the Caravanserai the view was much, much better. When we dragged ourselves away from this view and looked the other way we found ourselves gazing up a sheer rock face to the Castle above. Only one thing worried us–there were no guardrails round the edge of the roof. It would have been a long way down!

There were a few people on the roof–two soldiers photographing each other, the two women who led us up there, and two younger girls, late teens, also taking photographs. We photographed the two of them on their camera and they returned the compliment for us.

By now, hunger was beginning to set in so, once more, we went in search of food. There were plenty of shops full of sticky sweet cakes, etc., but cafés were hard to find so it was quite late when we ate. After that we wandered through the covered market which was a covered alley below the main street and ran almost as far as the main street, then it was time to wend our way home.

Since tomorrow was Dec 4 (or at least we thought it was but only realised our mistake 5 months later!), A wanted to buy a birthday cake to celebrate B’s birthday. Earlier in the day we had passed a cake shop but now, on the way home, there was no sign of any cake shops. We did find a rather up-market supermarket but no birthday cakes or any cakes at all until we finally found what we thought was at least a cake of sorts, all wrapped up. When we got home and presented it to Neriman she opened it only to find it was just a cake mix. Fortunately Resat knew where there was a cake shop nearby and he drove A there so we were able to celebrate B’s birthday that evening with the family. As was appropriate there was a single candle on the cake.

The family also kindly gave B a birthday gift, two in fact.

After tea we watched a number of home videos depicting a wedding celebration in Neriman’s home village and their beach holiday at the home of Resat’s brother in Antalya, on the Mediterranean coast. Despite his large family (18 children) and the fact that his parents were farmers they have all done well. B was a little amused that Resat said his father had to work hard to care for all the children, but didn’t mention how hard his mother had to work!

Just before we were about to go to bed we heard (yet another) big blast quite close nearby. We didn’t get round to learning what had happened but Resat just took it in his stride. Apparently it wasn’t the first blast he had heard!


Friday December 5

Resat and Neriman had given us detailed instructions about the crossing into Syria from the Turkish town of Nusaybin to the Syrian town of El Qamlichli. The crossing was only about 30 km from Mardin and Resat kindly offered to drive us to where the bus would depart. He had, though, first to go to his school which started classes at 0730 and he would then slip out at the first break to take us to the bus stop. This suited us as we enjoy visiting schools.

Resat had a mixed class of some 30-40 boys and girls, grade 3, though there were more boys than girls and this applied especially in secondary school. Often the girls have to stay home and work making carpets where they could earn $3 a day for their family. They were a very cheerful group of kids and presumably happy to have some strange visitors descend on them. There was one very disadvantaged boy, an orphan, whom the school had taken under its wing and Resat was personally helping financially.

School uniforms were “compulsory’ but apparently this was not enforced. Resat did not seem at all worried about leaving his class alone for 15 minutes or so while we went with him to the staff room to meet some other teachers who, of course, had also left their classes. After 40 minutes the kids were due for a recess and apparently went home for 20 minutes for “morning tea”. During this break Resat drove us the short distance to where we were to catch the dolmus to Nusaybin on the Syrian border. There we said our farewells.

B found the visit to the school especially interesting because, although there was a pleasant atmosphere, there was little evidence of teaching or preparation for teaching. Earlier Resat had commented that he understood Australians were lazy workers so the contrast in teaching approaches was enlightening. In fairness to Resat, however, we must add that he was often at school till around 1600 coaching sport, etc.

We had apparently just missed a dolmus because we had to wait an hour for the next one to fill up with passengers. While we were waiting in a simple waiting room we, and other passengers, were provided with free tea. Not being tea drinkers we preferred to go without.

It was about a one-hour trip to the border and it was interesting to drive for quite a way beside the barbed wire border fence on the other side of which was a railway line. Every 500m or so there was a watchtower on the Syrian side but they did not seem to be manned. When the Ottoman Empire was carved up after the First World War they arbitrarily chose the existing railway line as the new border between Syria and Turkey. Because of this artificial border there are a large number of Arabs on the Turkish side and many Kurds on the Syrian side.

On arriving in Nusaybin we were dropped on the side of the road in the centre of the little town, not having any idea where we had to go to find the crossing into Syria. Fortunately we had one important word in Kurdish namely “Suria” and each time we enquired a friendly local pointed the right direction for us. It was only a walk of 500m or so.

Once there we discovered the reason why we had been told you couldn’t cross the border here. Buses or cars cannot cross here, but it is quite OK to walk across

On arriving at the border we were accosted by a young soldier, presumably working for customs, who wanted to search through our packs, etc. These were all locked so we had to get out our keys and started to unlock the packs. As soon as we had done so apparently the soldier was convinced of our bona fides and told us to go on our way. A bit further on we had another peremptory passport check. Finally there was the Turkish Immigration Office where a friendly official with quite good English told us he hoped we had a good visit to Turkey and wished us bon voyage, but not before he extracted $10 from each of us as a parting gesture. We did get a receipt for the money so it was all above board. A bit further on there was a big wire fence with a little gate in it and we were on the threshold of Syria.