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Natural Wonder Turned Tourism Horror Story

August 1-2

We left our comfortable place in Selcuk for the three-hour ride inland to Pamukkale at around 9:30 in the morning. We should have known we were going to be in for "one of those days" when we saw that there were only other tourists on the bus -- no locals, not even any Turkish tourists. Just foreigners.

The Amazing Travertines at Pamukkale

The Amazing Travertines at Pamukkale

Pamukkale is famous for one thing -- the snow-white calcium travertines which spill down the ridge directly above the town proper. The travertines are the result of thousands of years of calcium deposits left behind by the water flowing from a mineral spring at the top of the ridge. We'd seen many pictures of the travertines and their beautiful, scalloped-shaped pools filled with opaque blue water and looked forward to seeing them for ourselves. Some friends of ours that had visited Pamukkale several years ago raved about the place. We knew that since then, the pools had been closed to human traffic due to wear and tear, and that because we were arriving in the middle of high season there would be big crowds, but our expectations were high nonetheless. Nothing could have prepared us for the mess we were about to see...

First of all, as soon as our bus pulled up to its stop in the middle of town, a real mob of hotel and pension touts rushed the vehicle. They practically assaulted each and every passenger as we exited the bus, arms waving frantically with color brochures and business cards. Even when we said we had a reservation already (we didn't), they persisted, demanding to know where our reservation was. We figured if we told them, we'd get some story like "that hotel burned down last week, try ours instead."

After checking in to a reasonable place, we had a quick lunch at a nearby restaurant and headed for the travertine ridge. All the way down the street, vendors yelled at us automatically as if preprogrammed to do so whenever a tourist was sighted -- "Hello, we have excellent lunch!", "Hello, we have rooms, pansiyon!", "Come see my carpets?!" There was no escaping it -- we were in tourist hell, and we hadn't even made it to the travertines yet!!

There is a long pedestrian walkway which cuts straight up the face of the calcium-white ridge. You take off your shoes and walk barefoot through the water running down the mineralized slope. This part was actually kind of fun, even though there were hundreds of people doing the same thing right along with us. But when we reached the top, we were very disappointed -- none of the upper travertines had any water in them! It was all pure white calcium. Although the government was wise enough to close off the travertine pools to direct foot traffic, it seems they are also willing to divert nearly all of the mineral water to town to feed the many swimming pools there for the summer tourists! They only allow the water to flow over the travertines during the winter when, of course, nobody is here to see them anyway. Why would they do that? We would rather have the sight of the beautiful natural pools over an artificial hotel swimming pool any day! Wouldn't everybody?

After the disappointment of the travertines, we thought perhaps another nearby site we had read about might still have some natural beautiy to it. This was the "Sacred Pool" in the ruins of the Roman spa town of Heiropolis, situated at the top of the ridge above the travertines. Wrong again. As we approached the entrance, we realized we were moving even further into the realm of the overdeveloped tourist frenzy. Dozens of giant tour buses weaved around the giant parking lot in front of the "Sacred Pool" entrance. We walked through the entryway and found ourselves in a sea of bodies, all of them partying down like it was an on-location shot for MTV Spring Break. In the pool itself lie actual ruins of Roman columns which had fallen into the pool centuries ago. On top of these columns sat fat, sunburned European tourists. All around the pool tacky ice cream stands and bars blasted rock music as people danced around and dove in to the "Sacred Pool." A long time ago, this must have been an amazing site, with the deep green water surrounding the ancient Roman ruins. Now, it's just sickening.

Utterly depressed, we made our way back down the ridge amid the hordes of tourists and returned to town, where we holed up in our pension until we could get the hell out of there the next day. We've seen this kind of environment before. It almost always occurs in fairly isolated locations where there is a single tourist draw, and where tourism has popped up almost overnight. The tourists come only to see that single thing, often on day trips, and care little to really interact with or get to know the local people. Consequently, the locals begin to see the tourists only as dumb foreigners with lots of cash, and in no time a hassling, money-grubbing subculture takes over. This in turn makes the ugly tourists become even uglier, creating a vicious feedback cycle which simply worsens over time. Left unchecked by either local government or the common sense of the population and a place like Pamukkale emerges in no time. We've seen this in other places, like Lake Batur in Bali and Chaweng Beach on Koh Samui, Thailand. Luckily, these completely out-of-control beasts are a rarity, even in busy places like Bali and coastal Turkey. We hope not to have many experiences like this during the rest of our year abroad.

We might come back to Pamukkale one day if the government makes good on its promise to clean up the place and allow the travertines to repair themselves. But that probably won't be for a long, long time.


Sprawling Resort Catering to Cruise Ships and the Party Crowd

August 2-4

Spying on Ship

Spying on a huge ship in the harborfont

Kusadasi ("Koosh-ah-dah-suh") was once a small fishing town. With the tourism boom of the past two decades, this has all changed. A port serving the massive cruise ships which ply the Greek Isles and the western Turkish coast now brings thousands of day-trippers here from sea. It also sees a fair number of overland tourists who, like us, stop in town to see what the buzz is all about. Near the harbor, overpriced shops and stalls selling everything from cheap tourist-quality souvenirs to boxed Turkish Delight candy to brand-name beach apparel are sandwiched between English-style pubs and fast food joints. These places exist solely to separate the recently-docked cruise ship passengers, unaware of the real prices in Turkey, from their money. But while Kusadasi is definitely touristy, it manages to pull this off without leaving you with the "God, I've got to get out of here" feeling the way Pamukkale does. For one thing, Kusadasi doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is -- a noisy, sprawling oceanside party town with little to do that doesn't involve fun in sun and sea. If you can find a quiet place to stay near the water, away from the nighttime bar and disco noise, it's actually a fun place to spend a couple of days.

We were fortunate to stumble upon Hassan, the young owner of a comfortable, cheap, perfectly-located hotel, as we got off the bus in town (actually, he found us...he was looking for customers). We got an excellent, comfortable room at his place, the Hotel Liman, with a full-on view of the harbor and waterfront from our balcony. As we checked in, we couldn't help but notice the monster ship which was docked before us. It was one of those huge super-cruise ships. Its name was the "Grand Princess," we remember reading about the feat of engineering it took to build this ship just before we left home. The thing was gargantuan -- we counted 17 stories of decks, and it had to be a couple hundred meters long. We got some cheap entertainment from sitting on our hotel's rooftop terrace and watching mega-ships like this one cruise in and out of port over our two-day stay here. How they can park these things in harbors like this is beyond us.

Kusadasi was the first of a few Turkish mega-resort towns we were to visit along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. After two nights there, we were on to...


Partying Down in Turkey's Nuclear-Powered Resort Town

August 4-6

A few hours south of Kusadasi, on a spectacular stretch of coast, lies pretty Bodrum. People come to Bodrum for a lot of reasons, but for one reason more than any other: to party their asses off. There are discos here like you've never seen before, including the gargantuan, incredibly loud Halicarnus, renowned throughout the Mediterranean as one of the biggest and best. (No, we never went to the Halicarnus, but we heard a lot about it while we were in town).

Bodrum Harbor

View of Bodrum harbor from the castle

Like its northern neighbor Kusadasi, Bodrum's growth has exploded in the past several years. But unlike Kusadasi, Bodrum's growth has been controlled by zoning and building codes that keep the place clean and pretty-looking despite the masses that descend upon the town every summer. Bodrum is situated on the Bodrum Peninsula, an area of stunning beauty with emerald green, pine-clad hills surrounded by dozens of picturesque, impossibly blue bays and coves. The town also has a beautiful yacht harbor built next to an old Crusader castle which makes the waterfront area absolutely picture perfect. In the hills above the harbor there are hundreds of bright white "sugar cube" houses, somewhat reminiscent of the Greek Isles.

So, upon our first glimpse of Bodrum as our bus descended into town, we were quite excited about the possibilities of a stay here. But we made a real strategic error when it came to selecting a place to stay. As we exited the bus, the usual assortment of pension and hotel hawkers waited for us. The first guy had a nice-looking place at the right price, but it was also right in the middle of the noisy eastern section of town -- an area we had heard we should avoid if we wanted to get any sleep at night. So we passed on that offer. The next guy had what seemed to us to be a much better offer -- a room in a nice place with a swimming pool "right on the beach," in "a quiet part of town," about "two kilometers west" of town center. Hearing the word "west" was key. We had read that the western part of town was the place to be, quiet but still close enough to the action. So, we took the fellow up on his offer and hopped in his car to go take a look at the place. Well, "two kilometers" turned out to be more like five, and in fact we ended up not being in Bodrum at all, but in nearby Gumbet. Gumbet is a horror of overdevelopment. As a consequence of Bodrum town's tight zoning laws, the formerly beautiful areas around it (like Gumbet) have seen wholesale, uncontrolled development in recent years. Gumbet is now package tourist hell, full of shoddy concrete buildings and low-quality "international" restaurants catering almost exclusively to the British and the Dutch on package vacations. You will not see any Turkish-language signs or menus here; it's all for foreign consumption. Everything is in English and English only. But it was too late for us. We had already come all this way, and didn't want to double back to Bodrum to try and find another place in the heat of the day. So, we decided we would stay in Gumbet for two nights and take the 10-minute minibus ride into Bodrum when we wanted to go there.

With the Boys

Hanging out with Salih (right) and Mehmet

Fortunately, our little hotel was actually quite pleasant despite its location in noisy, ugly Gumbet. This was largely due to the presence of the owner, Salih, a very friendly, Turkish-born, Australian-raised guy about our own age. Salih made us feel right at home with his funny combination of an Aussie accent and Turkish sense of hospitality. He kind of reminded us of a good old Californian boy, as well, with his surfer looks and Quiksilver beachwear. His workers, about a half dozen young Turkish guys, we very friendly as well. We spent much of our time in the area not in Bodrum as we had expected, but here at our hotel, hanging out with the staff on the "entertainment deck," which included a nice swimming pool with a view, a shady sitting area, a bar, and a billiards table. At night, it was hard to sleep because of the noise from the many discos just down the hill, below our hotel. Faced with that fact, we decided when in Bodrum, the best policy is if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. We just partied with Salih and the gang and stayed up late, never going to sleep before 2:00am.

Bodrum Castle

The castle at sunset

When we did make it to Bodrum, we were impressed by the town's sights. Not only is its natural setting beautiful, but there are also some amazing historical sights to take in. The most impressive is the Castle of St. Peter, built in the 15th century by the Crusaders on a hill adjacent to the harbor. When the Crusaders weren't busy persecuting non-Christians in the area, they were hanging out in this spectacular castle. Today, the castle is well-preserved and open to visitors. There are several museums inside its walls, including a reconstruction of a 7th century Roman ship and the oldest shipwreck ever discovered, dating from about 1025 AD. This is the kind of castle you imagine in your childhood, complete with huge fortified ramparts, giant gates and towers, and even a real dungeon where people were jailed and tortured by those lovable Crusaders! There are fine views of Bodrum and its pretty harbor from the castle's tall ramparts.

Another major sight we visited in Bodrum is the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, another of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This huge tomb was built by the wife of King Mausolus of Caria sometime after his death in 353 BC. Actually, there isn't much to see here since earthquakes and pillagers long ago took their toll on the original building, said to be some 55m (165ft) tall in its heyday. Now there's just a big rectangular hole in the ground with a few segments of what once must have been huge marble columns laying around the grounds. And yes, in case you're wondering, this is where the word mausoleum originated. Another fascinating piece of history right here in Turkey...

Bodrum Harbor

Typical crowd on Bodrum's main street

Walking around in Bodrum at night is good fun -- the crowd, all dressed up and ready to hit the late-night disco scene makes for some interesting people watching opportunities. The streets get so packed by late afternoon that it's actually hard to walk down the sidewalk. You just kind of have to shuffle along like you're one of the herd, or you might get trampled. We would love to see what this town looks like outside of high season. Must be quite a place to be in March or October!

But one can only take so much noise in the party zone before needing to seek out more peaceful environs. When we hit the wall, that's when we headed out of town and discovered Dalyan, a quiet little town about four hours south of noisy, nuclear-powered Bodrum...

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