August 5, 2013

Contiki Part 1: Turkey

My first Contiki experience began by walking into a little underground hotel restaurant filled with a mix of anxious and hyperactive faces ready to be let loose on Turkey. Following a little (read lengthy) introduction by our Turkey tour guide Ahmed, we tucked into our first group meal. It wasn't long before we were all getting to know each other, finding out about each others travel plans and finding out that most people lived in Australia (all east coasters bar myself though). Being a relatively late meet up, we all trotted off to a nearby bar and got to know each other just a little bit better.

We only had one day in Istanbul so the bus set out to the city nice and early and dropped us at the Spice Markets. It was a time for raw nuts and Turkish delight and there were plenty of offers by shop owners to taste and smell. You got an idea of who was trying to rip you off pretty quickly so the buy was always pretty satisfying after a little haggle.

To the Blue Mosque next and after dropping our shoes and covering up legs and shoulders, we could slide in and admire the tremendous space that is the mosque. We checked out the Hippodrome next door and got some really interesting background on the remnants from the Ottomans and those who came before. It was pretty free form from there with free time to hop on a boat doing a similar trip to the one I did the day before. I had been waiting for this moment for the last 3 days to check out Hagia Sophia. As we were reminded many times before, Hagia Sophia was the first of a new style of domed mosque which is exemplified in the design of all mosques from the date after it's conquest by the Ottomans in 1453 by Sultan Mehmet II. At that time, it was a Byzantine church full of mosaics and frescoes depicting holy figments and since the invading Muslims did not like depictions of holy people in their mosques, they were all plastered over. While I was there, some of the frescoes and mosaics had been uncovered, really giving an idea of the history seen by this building since the year 537. What was more astounding was that by the power of faith and manpower, this colossus was built in just 5 years!

Blue mosque above and Hagia Sofia below.

A group of us went down to the Basilica Cisterns which formed one of the main water reservoirs storing water from the Byzantine aquaducts in the 6th century AD. It was amazing to see this underground hall over 100 meters long in dim lighting with a capability to hold 80,000 tonnes of water. This was certainly a highlight of Istanbul along with the Sophia.

Our first real evening out started at a funny little underground dinner hall with a stage and band. The music started as we sat down and we were barraged with both food and the sights of belly dancers and other traditional dances from around Turkey. They got the crowd in on the action, amazed with the occasional flaming knife trick and at the end they dropped the dance floor down and everyone got on the dance floor to some slightly more modern tracks.

Leaving the restaurant a bit more pumped up, a bunch of us got a lift from the tour bus to an exclusive lounge style, outdoor night club called Reina. The drinks were pretty steep but we were already bouncing around on the luminous dance floor. Bec and I took to the dance floor and got some grind on rather artfully standing on the top of a big seating arrangement, being greeted with some complimentary energy drinks by the lonely Italian guy who was watching pretty contently. The night kicked on till the early hours when we finally crammed 4 of us side by side into the back of a taxi up and down a suspicious, slightly too windy route back to the hotel.

It was a long drive that morning but soon we were passing the Dardanelles and were at ANZAC cove. Those harsh inclines and that inhospitable coast did so much to highlight the futility of that landing (however unintentional the landing location). It was possible to grasp while standing beside the graves just how well the Turks were able to defend that short, rolling stretch of land from the Galipolli coast to the Dardanelles. A little trip up to the Lone Pine memorial and we saw the majority of the ANZAC graves and the chapel used on ANZAC day every year. There were trenches scattered around that area and on the way to a massive statue of Ataturk, we saw opposing trenches less than 10 metres apart. The nature of this fighting just seemed raw and hopeless for the Australians. While it was supposed to be 'just' 10km from the beaches and over the hills to the Dardanelles guns, it was always going to be a death trap.

We caught a ferry over to the continental Asian side of Turkey and meandered towards a secluded beach side resort just out of Cannakale. We got to the beach and pool as soon as possible and after a good round of pool volleyball, it was time for dinner. While we wanted to head out to the pub, it seemed pretty quiet so after a couple of rounds of table tennis, the night closed with a little beach side party arranged by a friend recently dubbed Mama Contiki. It was great to have almost the whole group of 40 down by the water just chilling out together. Us stragglers finished with a dimly lit midnight swim as part of a soon to be established nightly dare club.

Today would be a solid day of driving, living on a lonesome diet of grapes i bought earlier, leftover from the beach party. There were no good lunch locations so most resorted to a place that did toasted sandwiches some time around the middle of the day. Eventually, we rolled into Troy, the site of new fewer than 9 cities rebuilt over each other and starting from 2920BC. Of course the Troy we think of was the 7th city associated with the Trojan war, some time in the 12-14th centuries BC. It was fun to see the little innovations in things like wall design, happening for the first times, making these places so admirable in their time.

[[more photos to come when I get some proper wifi]]

Next was the Asklepieon or mental hospital far below the Acropolis (high city) in Pergamum. Founded in the 4th century BC, it was one of the original and best known centres for healing in the ancient world. The role of water in old Greek towns also became apparent with heaps of fountains and channels for water still visible with the old Lithium rich spring water still trickling around the sophisticated network. We went down a dark enclosed passage which was part of what seemed like a very ceremonial and meditative healing process. It had a well preserved library and theatre for a good 2000 people too so of course I had to try a little musical interlude while I was there!

There was a little Onyx mill nearby which we went to after to see the crafting of this local stone. A man with a lave showed us how to turn and polish the stone and we were told about the different qualities of stone for monuments and the typical depths of the Onyx grades. It was a pretty impressive place with jewelry as well as the sculpted stone pieces. We eventually got into Izmir, got settled, had a pretty average dinner (they served a plate of grapes for desert which wasn't too welcome after grazing on my leftovers for the majority of the day...) then got ready to go out on the town. It was an interesting exercise in bar salesmanship as our tour guide tried to negotiate some good rates before we sat down. While he managed to shave off a couple of lira off the drinks, when people got to the bar they managed to pull a blinder and use imported spirits rather than local, avoiding the deal and charging more. After the first drink we got our act together and figured out we could get a 75cl glass of beer for less than the special 50cl beer price. We were set from there but another lesson learned. To the sole clubbing aisle in Izmir and we brought the party to the clubs on the early side of the night. It wasn't long before the rest of the street reacted to our choice and then the club got busy. I found myself being a body shot table and soon after we were all pretty lively on the dance floor, bouncing under the sound of a proper unregulated Turkish sound system. Another shonky taxi ride home, 4 in the back and we had some hours till the bus the next morning (I suggest finding out the likely fare and getting your driver to agree to if before you leave on your way home).

Who would have thought it but we all seemed to be pretty drawn in by the Turkish carpet house visit the next morning. They showed us all of the steps of grabbing the silk strand ends from the cocoons and pilling them into long, wet and very strong threads. We learned about thread counts, wool and cotton bases and the Turkish double knot. With a glass of cold apple tea in most of our hands, we sat down as our very charismatic host brought out carpet after carpet for us to see. There was wool on cotton, wool on wool, silk on silk with every different colour and geometry imaginable. Even though Turkish carpets weren't really on most of our shopping lists before, it seemed that most of us were making silent vows to work, buy a house and come back to Turkey to bring these treasures back to a place of your own. Back on the bus...

We made it to the Pamukkale mineral ponds after an awesome lunch in a Turkish wedding lunch celebration place and were immediately stunned by the sight. The whiteness of these ponds was just so pure and the water with this light tinge of blue that just made it so surreal. This was a whole hill-side that had been preserved (after some pretty terrible mis-management which almost destroyed the site 10 years prior) to allow for tourist consumption. We passed on swimming among some roman ruins in the spring water and moved off enjoy our beautiful resort for the evening.

We congregated around the pools and tried out thermal baths, sipped cocktails in the pools and baths then readied for the expansive dinner on offer. With white tables set for us, we swanned up to the buffet and just as well we showed up when we did because then the Russians descended! Swarms of tour bus hardened Russians streamed onto the scene, heads down and on a mission to get to the hot food as fast as inhumanly possible. Second course was chore as pushy tourists would edge right up against you in an attempt to shave off that half a second to get the potatoes from Bain-marie to their piled-high plates. One kid behind me went so far as to resort to the poaching the meat sauce sans spices from an industrial dish before it had been mixed under head with the penne not more than a metre ahead of me.

We closed the night with a session of truth by the hammocks with our slightly stronger home mixed drinks. We learned a little more about each other under the wonderful coercive power of the group and as more and more people disappeared to bed a few of us found our way through an unlocked door into one of the thermal ponds, holding silence as the few silhouettes passed under the lights outside.

Ephysus was a big and ancient city for 250,000 inhabitants complete with 25,000 person theatre and the 3rd biggest library of the ancient world. At its height in 100AD it was thought to house up to half a million people making it the largest city in Roman Asia at the time. In fact, the only popular Turkish beer ‘Efes’ was named after this place, so suitably, it was chock a block full of tourists to a much greater extent than we’d seen before. Motifs like the Medusa and the snake in medicine made more sense with some more mythology of the area and we eventually made it out. We got out of the heat and got taken to an authentic Turkish bath.

We got corralled out of the bus, through the elaborate lobby and up the stairs to the change rooms where they attempted to get a couple of couples into private booths before shunting everyone else into the big room behind where we all wondered a bit what was happening. Eventually someone drew a curtain between the sexes and we were shown a couple of lockers for possessions so it became a bit more obvious what to do. There was a little confusion as to whether nude was ok but it became pretty clear that they offered the tourist version so we kept bathers on and headed to the bath room. It was a big marble octagon inside, some 8 metres wide and with a solid 4m wide, knee high table in the centre. The heat was pretty mild but over time we could splash down with water mixed in broad bowls. Of course some of us got a little creative with the cold water and some people got a little surprised when the icy splashes came over a shoulder. A few of us went next door into the sauna to try and heat up a bit more and we saw the big hairy Turkish men go back and forth with towels, soap and big buckets. One of the seedier guys flashed a couple of girls through the glass door on his way past much to their dismay. It wasn't till we went back into the bath room that we found that the same guy would be the chief cleaner. They weren't really sure about this guy with the massive beer gut giving them a fully body rub down. It wasn't till he filled his soapy bag with air and pushed out a glistening cloud of foam that the worries started to die down and we started to get a little more excited. It was a two station process with the first being the exfoliation. Everyone found the dead tan from the last week rubbing off and down through the shower drain between stations. The foamy rub down closed the process, feeling silky smooth and glowing. It was a good time!

The resort was beautiful with views all the way down the bay to the port where we would be embarking the following day. After a beautiful dinner, washing away some bad tastes from some of the previous days, we all got ready for our last night out on land. It was a pretty big one, with few photos and limited memories but it all started with the bus out to the bars at around 11pm, negotiating the drinks rate and then sticking to it. I almost got charged double at one point but stuck to it and there was no problem. Throughout the trip we had a corny Turkish song which got played at the start of each day in the bus and became associated with hangovers and the general haze of morning bus rides. It came on and before we knew it, just about all the girls were up on the bar dancing to it. It must have been a good quarter hour before they came down again and soon we were taking over the bar with Bec and another serving drinks with the tenders and with more cocktails rolling out, it was a pretty good night. Eventually a bunch of us tried out some of the other joints down the road. All pretty similar in format but slowly but surely we ground to a halt with Mama Contiki sensibly getting a Giros before we all crammed into a taxi once more, back to the hotel.

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