Thursday, July 2

Trip to Turkey

My wife and I have just returned from a fascinating trip to Turkey. Australians know Turkey because of Gallipoli, and many thousands have visited Turkey, but have they gone past Istanbul and the Gallipoli Peninsular? We did and found it fulfilling and fascinating.

We chose Turkey rather randomly – having booked a study tour of Israel, we wanted to do something else while in the northern hemisphere, and since it is the 100 anniversary of that dreadful Gallipoli campaign (2015), Turkey was brought to our attention. So with guidance from our lovely travel agent, booked a 13 day bus trip. We had some trepidation as we had no idea of what our travelling companions would be like, nor the tour guide, or anything at all about Turkey! All this was dispelled and I would encourage anyone with time to visit.

Turkey is large, prosperous and productive. Yes it is Muslim, and this is more pronounced in the east, but the Turks proudly claim that are not Arab; “don’t mistake us for Arabs”. Islam was not in our face, although it was the culture, and yes we did wake to morning pray to call, but this is all part of the experience of being in a different culture.

Our tour started at Istanbul airport; large and crowded, but with little delay, made it through passport control and customs, with no fuss, to be met by a large and very friendly man who organised our transport to the hotel. This was a point of excitement for my wife who always wanted to be met on arrival at an airport with a sign carrying our names. This man, in no time, had organised us in finding an ATM and toilet while looking after our baggage. He also pointed out we were getting the best tour guide in Turkey. This proved perhaps true – an academic with a PhD in history, with degrees in Christian biblical history, Turkish history and archaeology. He spoke multiple languages - his English was excellent, given it was not his first or second language and he had an incredible knowledge of 3-4000 years of history including modern politics.

The trip consisted of exploring Istanbul for a few days then travelling in a clockwise direction to transverse the Gallipoli Peninsula, the east coast, the south coast, then up the centre via Cappadocia, and back to Istanbul. The coast is very beautiful, as are the mountains and the vast agricultural lands. Cappadocia has incredible unique landforms which one can take a hot air balloon to view (which we did not do, but many in the group did). For those who love Biblical history, the trip included Ephesus, Pergamum, Heliopolis, Pamphylia, the region of Cappadocia, and the region of Galatia and much more. For history buffs, Troy is fascinating as is the very sad story of the Greek Village of Kayakoy. We did not spend the entire time looking at ancient ruins; we tried swimming in the Mediterranean – a bit cold, being the end of spring (It was warmer in Tel Aviv a month later), and visiting Turkey’s capital, Ankara and other modern sites.

Aspendos amphitheater (Pamphylia)

Ephesus library

Hand made carpets with silk - even this small size takes many many months, hence real Turkish carpets are always expensive

Tulips were well known in Turkey before the Europeans fell in love with them - Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Ruins of Pergamum (Asclepion)

Of our concerns?

Our travelling companions did not turn out to be loud offish Australians or boorish Americans, but a group of lovely English speaking people; mostly Australians but included two Canadians and two South Africans (who lived in Australia), and a beautiful Singaporean, who looked after us well when we travelled home via Singapore; a total of 22-25 (depending on the section of the tour). We were all different but in some ways like-minded – and all enjoyed the immense richness of the history and culture of Turkey. Most were retired and we had a diverse set of interests, but this made having meals and busing together interesting and very enjoyable.

Toilets did not turn out to be fifthly holes in dilapidated out-buildings! Indeed many Australian public toilets would be put to shame by the cleanliness of those in Turkey. Expect to pay one (₺1) Turkish Lira (about 50c Australian) for use of public toilets – and don’t be put off paying - we found the pay toilets were always spotless; had paper, soap and a means to dry your hands, and usually had been recently cleaned.

Food was wonderful, varied and healthy. I was sick on the first day, but most likely from food eaten en-route, as the illness started before I had eaten in Turkey! The tour guide ensured we had different food each day; some days he chose for us, on other days we found our own restaurants, negotiated with the locals and ate local food – all very beautiful. Alcohol can be found and I had some very nice white wine, but it is expensive due to tax applied by the government as a price point to reduce alcoholism (and raise revenue).

Water on tap that is potable (i.e. drinkable) is rare, and something Australians take for granted. As with most of the world, the water from the taps in Turkey could not be guaranteed to be safe to drink, so Turks drink bottled water. The cheapest method is to by six packs of 1.5L or larger bottles from supermarkets or service stations. I found I could purchase 9L for about $4.50 - cheaper than home!

Hotels were all well-appointed and clean with the only complaint, which is not limited to Turkish hotels, being the pillows were not always comfortable. Even in Canberra where I travel regularly, the hotel appears not to be able to provide a pillow that supports the head in the correct position. There is clearly a difference between a European five star hotel in Ankara and a five star Turkish hotel in a rural region (as there is between Sydney and Mildura); and so is the price! Only one hotel appeared to price excessively, including for internet access, water and use of the pool and gym. 

Internet was available in every hotel with various levels of connectivity; however, I would take the tablet or phone and wander about the hotel until I found a hot-spot when things were slow. The download speeds were all good, but the upload speeds were usually poor, but no worse than most Australian hotel internet services (which I find overpriced and slow – I cannot see why Australian city hotels cannot provide free internet, when many of the country motels can!)

ATM’s were in abundance; indeed it appeared that Turks were in love with ATM’s. In Marmaris (south coast) we found eight together in an ‘ATM kiosk’ – one for each of the banks in the area! However, it appeared that cash rather than card was the way Turk’s did business, so we rarely used cards to pay for goods, except for extra’s on checking out of hotels, and more upmarket restaurants. The ATM’s were in English and easy to operate.

We would not recommend taking cash but use a travel card (which for us was cheaper than credit or debit card). In Australia, at least, cash is expensive, especially for more exotic currencies like the Turkish Lira. Cash exchange bureaus, including banks, have very poor exchange rates and exorbitant fees. There are ATM’s at the airport and the bank provided good exchange rates on a travel-card (we used Commonwealth Bank) which has $3.50 surcharge on withdrawal (so we did fairly large withdrawal each time) and no charge when purchasing items, and no fees to load the card – which we could do via internet.

Shopping is not a high priority for either my wife or me. Like many countries in this area, shopping means bargaining, which takes practice – so be prepared. Apparently Australians suck at bargaining and are good for business in Turkey! One thing we did find was the prices in the rural regions and smaller cities are better than in the Grand Bazaar or large cities – so if travelling, don’t leave it until you return to Istanbul to fly home, to buy your souvenirs. We also had to watch out for what currency was being displayed or being bargained. Their trick was to bargain in Euros (which sounds cheap at 3 Lira to each Euro), which on acceptance is converted to Turkish Lira at inflated exchange rates. We would demand to bargain in Lira, because the exchange rate offered by our bank was always better than the street sellers!

Safety was never a concern other than at a level one has when in large cities – be alert not alarmed. Unlike Paris where I was pick-pocketed, nothing untoward happened, nor did it ever look like something bad was going to happen. We did lots of walking, both day and night, and always felt safe. The most dangerous thing was crossing roads in Istanbul which has 18 million people and a huge number of cars! The only serious trepidation was getting lost in the narrow streets of Istanbul while jet lagged and without a proper map! It didn’t happen. A trick I learnt was to photograph street signs on the phone camera – so it was easy to look back to find the right street (street names in Turkey are in Latin lettering, but of course the language is Turkish, which is complete different from English or any European language).

Would we go back? 

Yes we would, but we have a vast number of other places we have not visited, so it would not be high on our agenda. That said, we have lots more to explore in Turkey including Istanbul, so perhaps on trips to and from Europe we might drop off again in Turkey and explore more – next time the eastern & norther sides. Turkish Airlines fly Singapore – Istanbul which is very convenient for Australians, and we found Turkish Airlines clean and efficient, unlike Istanbul Airport were we had to change gates four times before the right gate was announced – but this is all part of the experience of the trip.