Once Upon A Time in Anatolia.

Despite having been only teaching for four weeks, and Turkish kids having three months of summer holiday before that, Allah (and the Education Minister) decided everyone deserved a week’s holiday for Kurban Bayram, one of Turkey’s numerous religious festivals. It’s the time of year where everyone deserts the usually bustling Istanbul to visit family in the provinces, and I was determined not to be stuck in the city. So despite my backpack barely having time to gather dust, Ruth and I decided to become very well acquainted with Turkey’s long distance bus network, heading for the big trio of the country’s tourist sites: Cappadocia, Pamukkale and Ephesus.

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Asides from Istanbul, one of my main reasons for wanting to come to Turkey was to see Cappadocia. Unfortunately it seems that holidays are the one thing Turkish people actually plan ahead for, so we clamber to find the last two seats on an overnight bus to Göreme. Turkish buses are surprisingly luxurious, but a bottle of wine is still needed to get us through the 12 hour trip. Fortunately Şalgam Suyu, a popular drink in Turkey, closely resembles red wine, so we empty two bottles and ignore the looks of horror on other tourists’ faces when they think we’re drinking fermented black carrot juice. The next thing we know we awake in Göreme to a spectacular sunrise dotted with hundreds of hot air balloons.

Cappadocia is a dream. A surreal dream set on Tatooine where otherworldly rock formations dot the landscape and people live in caves carved out of the side of cliffs. Despite claims to the contrary, Star Wars wasn’t filmed in Cappadocia, but it doesn’t stop us from making plenty of Wookie jokes the entire time we’re there. Because I still have the maturity of a 17 year old I was determined to go to Love Valley, home to some of the most phallic rock formations you will ever see, but are officially known by the totally innocent name of ‘fairy chimneys’. Case in point:

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On the hike back from the valley of love we meet an old man selling his wares and he forces us to sit down and drink some of his freshly squeezed orange juice. Even though it’s more brown than orange and we’re probably getting ripped off it’s OK because he has a baby puppy which is SO CUTE and the man lets me take his photo which is nice of him.

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ADORABLE KÖPEK YAVRUSU

One of the things I was determined to do in Cappadocia despite the ridiculous price tag was take a sunrise hot air balloon ride. I can safely report that it’s entirely worth the Euros because Allah Allah it’s one of the most incredible experiences of my life. After almost two months of constant noise in Istanbul, being 800 metres up in the air surrounded by nothing but hundreds of other balloons watching the sun rise over the moonscape that is Cappadocia is definitely one of those ‘holy shit I’m alive’ moments. Of course the moment of clarity doesn’t last long because the balloon is full of chattering Chinese tourists intent on boring their children with 657 shots of the same fairy chimney all from different angles. But on touchdown they present us with champagne and all in all I would say Get Yo’ Ass Down To Cappadocia and do this RIGHT NOW. I know almost everyone on the internet saw the photo I posted but here are some more for +10 jealousy points.

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The next day we decide to hire some scooters to explore some of the more far-flung sites of the region. We make our way to Avanos, one of the larger towns in the area famous for its obscene number of pottery shops, each with its very own tout yelling about why their miniature rock formations and ceramics are better than the guy next to him – even though they all look exactly the same anyway. Unfortunately there are no miniature versions of the phallic fairly chimneys, no doubt due to the impending lawsuits when a lovely gift to your aunt Marie goes horribly wrong when she mistakes it for something a little smoother while blindly grabbing it off the bedside table. Tiring of the constant harassment, we decide to explore some side streets and are rewarded when an old man beckons us in to show us his workshop. Sure enough, he tells us in his broken English that he supplies most of the town’s ceramics and proceeds to give us an excellent little demonstration, without trying to make us buy a single thing.

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The reason we’re in Avanos though is not for the pottery. I’d heard of something a little more left-field and we are not disappointed when we arrive at Chez Galip. Appearing to be just another ceramics store from the outside, indoors is actually one of the world’s largest collection of women’s hair. Let’s just let that sink in for a moment. It looked a little something like this:

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Apparently in the seventies ol’ Galip Bey was a bit of a womaniser and had a saucy romantic encounter with a hanım who knew the power of nostalgia, leaving him a lock of hair to remember her by when it came time to part ways. Of course nothing is more natural than cutting off a piece of you and leaving it for a complete stranger, so other women started doing it too until the store amassed over 16,000 hair samples, each complete with a name and contact details. Find a hair type you particularly enjoy? Why not call the lady up and tell her so! As much as leaving a part of you for someone is lovely in theory, the whole thing was SUPER CREEPY and I couldn’t stop thinking of this:

Creepy Thin man
(Yes, that was a Charlie’s Angels reference, sorry not sorry)

You could spend years exploring Cappadocia, but another night bus beckons, and we are whisked away through pouring rain to another ridiculous land formation (I’m beginning to sense a theme here) that is Pamukkale. We arrive in the sleepy village just before dawn, although it quickly becomes apparent that not much changes once the sun is up. Eventually we’re able to check into our hotel, a little family-run pension where the taps are falling out of the sink and the pool looks like this:

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This is the one time where hashtag no filter definitely applies.

The weather is miserable and it can’t be more than 10 degrees, but I optimistically pack my swimmers and we make for the travertines that give Pamukkale its name – it literally translates to ‘cotton castle’. There is a super scientific explanation as to why one side of one hill in all of Turkey decided to turn white Michael Jackson style, but basically it’s just a bunch of hot springs transporting calcium carbonate which eventually hardens when it meets the cold air of the outside world. The effect is a snow-like landscape, which usually leads to pictures along the lines of ‘LOL look at me I’m standing in snow in T-shirt and shorts’, except that it while we’re there it actually feels like it could be snowing.

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The lack of sunlight means the sheer whiteness of it all is a little dulled, but it still makes for some interesting textures with the stormy sky.

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That night we eat dinner at possibly the only Korean/Japanese/Australian restaurant in the country (a testament to the types of tourists Pamukkale receives) and lament on the sorry state of the town. Unfortunately the tour companies that shuffle DSLR-wielding tourists through the site leave almost as soon as they arrive, meaning the town of Pamukkale itself is suffering. It’s a sorry state of affairs and reminds me how tourism at all costs isn’t always a good thing. But the groups don’t know what they’re missing out on: across the road from our restaurant is the optimistically-named Fun Pub, completely empty save for the boy sitting dejectedly out the front trying to lure the few tourists brave enough to stay overnight. We decide to take the first bus to Selçuk, home of the ruins of Ephesus.

We arrive in Selçuk slightly later than planned due to an unexpected stop where the bus driver decided a gas station would be an excellent place to clean all the carpets on the bus with a high pressure hose. On the dolmuş to Ephesus a boy with two pigeons in a shoebox casually starts to sticky tape their wings together, all while his mother looks on with a blithe smile. I get that animal cruelty isn’t exactly uncommon in this country but I read somewhere that the way kids are allowed to treat animals here leads to how they treat women later on in life. I don’t know about that generalisation (and pretty blatant racial stereotyping) but all I can think of is that boy sticky taping women’s arms together and keeping them in cardboard boxes when he grows up. Watch out, ladies.

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The ruins of Ephesus are pretty impressive really, full of columns and cats and inscriptions that we couldn’t understand but I assume said “late return of your library books will result in hanging”. The library is by far the most impressive part, even though a lot of it was actually reconstructed not that long ago by the ever-enterprising Germans. Should ancient ruins be restored so tourists can pay 25TL to walk around taking photos of things they know nothing about just so they can put it on Instagram and remind their friends how worldly they are? I don’t know, but I’m pretty certain ancient monuments shouldn’t be turned into ‘Cubistic Modern Architectural Collages’ (actual words on the sign) like this one:

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Having seen enough ruins to last a lifetime, we turn to leave. The post-holiday blues are already starting to kick in, and a mere 16 hours later our bus crosses continents and we’re back in Europe. Thankfully the novelty of Istanbul hasn’t worn off yet so as our bus plies through the early morning fog I start looking forward to being back in the city again. Although that feeling doesn’t last too long when we end up in a 5km traffic jam consisting of nothing but long distance buses on the way into the Otogar. Only in Istanbul. İyi bayramlar, indeed.

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