HEADING BACK TO THE WEST
Sivas, Amasya, Ankara and BursaAugust 22-28
From Cappadocia, we really wanted to head to the far northeastern corner of the country to see the mountain regions along the Black Sea coast near the border of Georgia and Iran. Unfortunately, we found ourselves running out of time after Urgup. We had only six days left before we had to be in Istanbul, our final Turkish destination. As we've said before, Turkey is a big, big country, and we would not be able to make it all the way to the eastern frontier with enough time to double all the way back to Istanbul. Faced with this sad fact, we decided to take a shorter trip to a closer region in the northeast before heading back west. We took a bus to Sivas, the first of Turkey's big eastern cities, before beginning a five-day 850km journey west to Istanbul. What follows is a quick overview of the places we visited along the way.
Interesting Modern City of the East
From Urgup, we headed to Sivas, first stopping for a bus change in the city of Kayseri. Kayseri appeared to be an unattractive, modern city, with the usual concrete sprawl. It's also, like Konya, considered to be one of Turkey's most conservative cities. This was apparent in the way everybody was dressed -- lots of headscarves and long skirts. We ended up having to spend an hour in the Kayseri otogar (main bus station) before our bus to Sivas departed. It was during this brief experience that we determined that Kayseri's otogar qualifies as the dirtiest, ugliest, smokiest bus staion we've had to endure on our entire trip thus far! Thankfully, our bus left on time and we were out of Kayseri in no time...
The Young and the Traditional, or "Someday soon, you can dress just like Mommy!"
Speaking of smoke...the Turks smoke just about as much, or possibly even more, than the Greeks do. Taking a look around anywhere where people are gathered is adequate proof: if somebody has a hand free, they're probably holding a cigarette in it. Most men smoke, and a good number of women do, too. Sitting in an enclosed public place like a bus station is asking for a good dose of second-hand smoke like you wouldn't believe. No wonder so many elderly here are always hacking and coughing -- the lung cancer rate must be incredibly high here! Chronic smoke is the one and only thing that really gets on our nerves here in Turkey. We're looking forward to eventually getting somewhere where there is less second-hand smoke, and hope we don't chronically damage our lungs in the meantime! But enough of our anti-smoking diatribe, let's get on to Sivas...
Sivas (pop. 230,000) is the farthest east we made it in Turkey, about two-thirds of the way across the country from Istanbul. Sivas marks the beginning of Eastern Anatolia. Despite this, it's a very modern city -- more women are dressed in jeans, skirts and pants like back home than are clad in traditional garb. This just goes to show that even in Eastern Turkey, it doesn't pay to generalize about any particular places. Each city and town has its own character. We would have loved to have traveled further east to see what surprises the places there hold.
...and a Close-up Detail
The center of Sivas is filled with beautiful old Seljuk architecture from the 13th century. The Seljuks were known for their intricately-detailed construction work, especially on facades and portals. Some beautiful examples of their intricate tile and stonework can be seen in Sivas' old Seljuk buildings, which include the Cifte Minare Medrese's twin minarets, an old medical school, and the Ulu Cami (Great Mosque).
The Twin Minarets of the Cifte Minare Medrese
We knew we were really off the beaten path when we went into shops and restaurants here. Literally nobody spoke any English! Of course, we were always treated with traditional Turkish friendliness even as we stumbled our way through with our limited Turkish vocabulary and a lot of hand gestures. Sivas was really surprisingly pleasant; we could have spent another day here, but of course we were running out of time, so we had to move on to...
A Very Pleasant Mountain TownWe love quiet mountain towns. It doesn't matter where we go (Turkey, Thailand, Mexico...), the mountain towns always provide a relaxing getaway from the overcrowded beach areas and busy big cities. Knowing the rest of our Turkish experience was going to be in big cities as soon as we hit the capital of Ankara, we wanted to find one last small, genuine town to spend a few days in before going back to Big City life. We did our research and found Amasya (ah-MAHS-yah), a town of about 60,000 people located about 200km northwest of Sivas. It's actually not that far from the Black Sea, which lies some 100km to the north.
The dry, rolling hills of the Anatolian plateau at last gave way to green mountains as we approached Amasya by (of course) bus. Amasya has an absolutely beautiful location, in what is essentially a river canyon between tall, rocky mountains. On the mountain face to the north of town, huge Pontic tombs are carved into the cliff face. The tombs aren't unlike the Lycian tombs we saw in Dalyan. The tombs here aren't as ornate and detailed as those in Dalyan, but they're much larger, and very impressive when lit up at night by the violent-colored floodlights which are turned on at dusk.
Amasya Town, Viewed from above
Another of the many unique qualities of the town is its large stock of well-preserved Ottoman houses from the 18th and 19th century. Amasya is one of the few towns in all of Turkey that has done a good job of preserving its Ottoman architectural legacy. Nearly all of the buildings on the north bank of the river are beautiful examples of old Ottoman homes. The government has helped fund the restoration of these architectural treasures, which might have otherwise been torn down to be replaced by more modern, "efficient" concrete structures. Luckily, many of the building owners have taken up the government's offer and are restoring the Ottoman homes to their former glory. Some of the homes have actually been converted into family-run pensions. You can stay in a real, traditionally-decorated Ottoman home in Amasya, as we did.
One of Amasya's Beautiful Restored Ottoman Homes
We had another one of those amazing, unexpected experiences with one of the locals here in Amasya. One night while at dinner, a man seated with some friends at the table next to us struck up a conversation. He was a very nice and intelligent man named Lemi. By now we were used to these kinds of introductions; everybody in Turkey is very interested in finding out where visitors are from, where they're going, how they like the country, etc.. But most people talk for a bit and then move on. Lemi was different; he was really interested in talking with us at length about our travels not only here in Turkey but elsewhere in the world as well. It turns out that he is the town pediatrician and one of Amasya's most distinguished citizens (this was later confirmed as walked through the streets with him and practically everybody we passed greeted him). Lemi invited us up to his home in the hills for an after-dinner drink and more conversation. Knowing that this is Turkey and, unlike at home in the States, this was a perfectly legitimate and safe proposition, we gladly accepted. He drove us up the tall mountain south of town in his Mercedes, where his marvelous summer home sits perched on the mountainside. When we arrived, we were amazed by its location. The house has an unbelievable view of the town below, including the Pontic tombs, all aglow in purple artificial light. There we also met his lovely wife, Serap, who is also a doctor in town. They've lived in Amasya for 19 years and have a son in medical school in Istanbul. Serap actually lived for a year in Sacramento, California, as a foreign exchange student some time ago. On their porch high in the hills, we sat and sipped raki (the national drink) while enjoying some great conversation. We talked mostly of our mutual love of travel, but also about a lot of other things. By midnight, we were tired and, knowing that both Lemi and Serap had to work in the morning, asked to be returned to town. Lemi loaded us up in their other car and drove us down the mountain, dropping us right at our pension's doorstep. Here in Turkey, you never know where a random conversation will lead! We hope someday Lemi and Serap's travels will bring them back to Northern California, where we can return the favor with a visit to our own house.
Turkey's Busy Modern CapitalMany people think Istanbul is the capital of Turkey. But this distinction actually belongs to Ankara, a city further east which lies in the heart of Anatolia, and indeed the heart of the country. Istanbul is still Turkey's largest city, and without a doubt it remains the country's cultural capital, but the government runs things from Ankara. We came here mainly because the city provided a convenient stopover on our long, long journey from Amasya to the west coast. In fact, there isn't much of interest to hold a visitor in Ankara. It's a very modern city that wasn't much of anything until Ataturk declared it to be the new capitol of the Republic in 1922. In the 80 years since, Ankara has grown from a sleepy town of 30,000 to a thriving metropolis of 3 million -- an hundredfold increase in less than one century!
Ankara isn't a pretty city. Since it was built almost from scratch only recently, there aren't many old, historic buildings, just a lot of tall, ugly concrete things. But, this being the nation's capital, there are actually a few interesting things to see here. These include the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations (which we didn't have time to see) and the Ataturk Mausoleum (which we did get to see). An imposing, spectacular piece of modern architecture in its own right, the Mausoleum is where the legendary founder of the Turkish Republic is laid to rest. Also onsite is an interesting museum filled with memorabilia and personal items that belonged to the man, including a small collection of US-made Lincoln automobiles. The Mausoleum is a fitting tribute to an amazing man to whom modern Turkey owes so much.
From Ankara, we took our final long bus ride across Central Anatolia to the western city of Bursa...
The Ottoman Empire's First CapitalOh, how happy we were to get the 6-hour bus ride from Ankara to Bursa out of the way! At long last, we had completed our "circuit" of western Turkey; a major undertaking which comprised 21 bus rides covering some 3,800km (2400 miles) over the course of our 5 week visit! It probably goes without saying that, as comfortable as Turkish buses can be, we were fairly sick of them by the time we got to Ankara. But, alas, we had made it to Bursa. After a two night stay here, all we would need to do is endure an hour bus ride followed by an hour-long ferry ride to get to Istanbul. Whew, what a journey!
As our bus pulled into Bursa, the skies open up for the first time since we had arrived in Turkey. It poured buckets for several hours after our arrival in the city; a pleasant change from the dry and hot Anatolian interior we had just left. Thanks to the help of a local Turk who hopped in our taxi with us, we were able to find the town center and a good hotel in the midst of the downpour, without getting too soaked.
Bursa is big (over 1 million people live here), but it's a pleasant place despite its size. It's an important place to the Turks; it has a very long history and it was the first capital of the Ottoman empire. We were happy to be back in a western city where we weren't constantly stared at by the locals. (Not that people in the East meant any harm by staring at us foreigners, but it did wear a little thin after a while...) This being a university town, there is a large population of young people in Bursa. Clothing and fashion styles are much more European here and Bursa sees a fair number of foreigners, so we actually blended in pretty well here.
Ladies by a mosque fountain
Most of the sights of Bursa are within walking distance of the city center, where we stayed. You can see most of the interesting places in one day, which is what we did. The most impressive of Bursa's many old buildings is the Yesil Cami ("Green Mosque"), a beautiful mosque from the 15th century. Another of the famous mosques is the Sultan Emir Cami, around which lies a huge cemetery with many old Ottoman-style gravestones.
Old Ottoman tombstones, Bursa
After a brief two-night stay in Bursa, we took a bus and then a ferry to our final Turkish destination...beautiful, intriguing historical city of Istanbul!
Back to Turkey pg 9 On to Turkey pg 11!
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