Turkey Part 2 – Urfa to Istanbul

Continued from Turkey Part 1

We didn’t know much about Urfa before arriving, except that it sounded interesting enough to stop and was on our way to another item on our travel bucket list (More in a bit). However, it ended up being a real highlight of our time. While none of Eastern Anatolia is on the tourism circuit, Urfa is particularly set IMG_0352apart because it’s more of a religious pilgrimage city than anything else. Muslims believe that Abraham (Ibrahim in Islam) was born in a small cave in what is now the city center. Pilgrims come from all over to pay homage in the cave. It was nothing like Mecca or Medina (Or what I imagine them to be), but there were a fair   number of pilgrims streaming in and out of the cave, praying inside and drinking from the spring that flows from it. Neither Skylar or I can really connect with the level of devotion expressed by the pilgrims, but it is quite beautiful to watch people so overcome with emotion. Near the cave is an enormous Ottoman-era mosque that rivals anything built in Istanbul and came as a total surprise to us since we had no idea it was there. We spent a fair amount of time just sitting inside enjoying the architecture, plush carpets and air conditioning.

IMG_0326The religious character of Urfa also has a very quirky side. Near Abraham’s Cave is a large pond filled with “holy carp” (Insert joke here). I don’t remember exactly why they’re holy, but I do remember that if you catch one you’ll go blind, that you’re supposed to make a wish while you feed them and that if you happen to feed a rare white carp your wish will come true very shortly. Skylar spent a large chunk of our small change on fish food, but I haven’t heard if she’s had any success with her wishes.

Urfa also ended up being something of a culinary treat for me, Skylar watched and ate bread. When we arrived at our hotel in the late evening we were both very hungry since catching the bus meant skipping dinner. There weren’t any quick options around, but we did see one place with bright flashing lights coming out of it and we ended up having one of the most memorable evenings of our trip. Through the restaurant’s door we found a large courtyard covered in low tables and pillows, a traditional band about to begin playing and nargile being smoked by the locals assembled inside. The staff invited us in and gave us a primo table with a good view of the musicians. Just as we started eating a “show” began, as various patrons began dancing to the music (One woman even sang a few songs) and the staff began preparing something in a large pan. Neither Skylar or I could figure out what they were making except that it required latex gloves, lots of vigorous mixing, some kind of brown substance and water. Eventually the “thing” was declared ready and the head waiter began a solo dance with the large pan that involved waving it upside down over everyone’s heads followed by the head of each table placing some cash on him bellydancer-style. A few minutes later every patron received a small plate with a handful of the substance in the pan. It turned out to be an Urfa speciality, raw kebabs. Every medical professional, guidebook, website, mother, etc. will tell you that raw meat (Or even raw vegetables) is an absolute no go when traveling, but I threw caution to the wind and ate Skylar’s and my share of the bounty. I can’t say it was my favorite Turkish dish, but I wouldn’t give up the experience for anything. I didn’t get at all sick by the way.

IMG_0365Before heading to Kahta, our next destination, Skylar and I visited a small archaeological site called Gobekli Tepe. Located just outside Urfa, the site is the oldest known religious structure in the world, estimated to be around 9-12 thousand years old. To give you some perspective, Stonehenge is only 4-5 thousand years old. Not unlike Stonehenge, the site consists primarily of carved and upturned stones with carvings of various animals. I suppose one could argue that some sort of symbolism underlies the various depicted creatures, but I think they just chose stuff they thought was badass since the carvings are primarily of carnivores, scorpions and the like. I can’t say that Gobekli Tepe is in and of itself particularly charismatic, but it’s amazing to visit something that pre-dates all of civilization.

Outside of some nice scenery, the ride to Kahta had one major highlight, we got to cross the Euphrates river. As you may recall from Turkey Part 1, we got a good look at the Tigris from Diyarbakir’s city walls, but didn’t get any closer. It’s very cool to have now seen the two rivers that have played such an important part in the history of the world and to see that the Fertile Crescent is indeed as fertile as my high school textbook said it is. Frankly, Kahta is kind of a nothing town with little to distinguish it as a place to visit, except that it’s the main jumping off point for visits to Nemrut Dagi, one of the coolest places ever.

Built by King Antiochos I Theos of Commagene, Nemrut Dagi (Mt. Nemrut) is a IMG_0430collection of giant statues of himself and various gods perched at the very tippy top of the namesake 7,000 ft. mountain. Watching the sun set/rise on the statues, which are in various states of ruin, is one of the iconic images of Turkey. We didn’t have enough time to visit during our first trip to Turkey in 2012, so we made sure to fit it in this time. The mountain is also the highest in the immediate region meaning you have unobstructed views in all directions for miles and miles. Generally speaking, you have to arrange a package tour to visit the mountain and most of the tour operators are notorious for ripping off unsuspecting tourists. Skylar and I went in geared for a bargaining showdown and were not disappointed by the outrageous initial offer from the proprietor of our chosen hotel/tour company. It took probably 10 minutes or so of HARD bargaining, including our signature fake walk out to find a better deal, but we got to a price that worked for everyone that included a sunset tour, a sunrise tour, and a night’s stay in an en suite double room, but no meals except breakfast and payment in cash. I think we did better than we realized because another traveler on our tour was visibly upset when he heard how much less we paid compared to what he was charged.

Our time on Nemrut Dagi was pure magic. We were treated to spectacular sunsets and sunrises and traveling in the shoulder tourism season (September) meant that we had the statues completely to ourselves at different times. King Antiochos conveniently built a set of statues on the East and West sides of the mountain so there’s always something covered in beautiful light. It’s more of a pictures, not words kind of a destination:

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From Kahta we made our way to our final destination in Eastern Anatolia, Gaziantep. This large city has a wonderful museum devoted to the most stunning mosaics I’ve ever seen… But we came for the baklava. Gaziantep is famous for having the best baklava in Turkey, which means it has the best baklava in the world. I won’t entertain arguments for the baklava of any other region (Don’t get me started on the BS that is Greek baklava.); Gaziantep is simply the best. No contest whatsoever. Not even elsewhere in Turkey. Here’s what the best looks like, notice that it is made with pistachios, NOT walnuts:

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We only had about 36 hours in Gaziantep and the plan was to visit as many of the top rated baklava shops as we could until we were sick. The amount we ate in that short amount of time could easily be measured in pounds and we got onto an evening flight to Istanbul in full-on sugar comas and with visibly distended bellies.

You can read elsewhere about the wonderful landmarks in Istanbul, but our week was devoted solely to travel business. We had just one week to obtain travel visas to both Uzbekistan and Iran, so the pressure was on. First up was the Uzbek visa, which research had suggested could be obtained in a single day (If they like you) or two weeks (If they don’t like you). We arrived early at the consulate since it’s only open for three hours, three days a week and hoped we’d be seen before the end of business for the day. I approached the front desk with our paperwork and had our first encounter with the charms of Central Asia’s remnant Soviet bureaucracy AKA I got nowhere. We sweated it out for a few minutes, not sure of what to do before deciding that Skylar might have better luck. All I can say is that batting eyelashes can cut diamonds. We were whisked to the front of the line, submitted our paperwork, sent to a nearby bank to pay the diplomatic fees and told to return in a few hours to pick up our visas.

The visiting the Iranian consulate was actually an incredibly smooth process and we received perfectly courteous treatment from the consulate staff (“Ah, USA!!”) despite being citizens of The Great Satan, the first of many surprises regarding Iran. However, we couldn’t retrieve our passports for three days, which meant we had plenty of time to get horribly sick with food poisoning. I have a theory about eating overseas that the easiest place to get poisoned is at places geared towards tourists. They don’t have any accountability to repeat customers since most people will only have one meal there, whereas local places can only survive with repeat business. Afterall, you can’t poison your customers on a regular basis and stay in business very long! In Istanbul, it was the overpriced döner near the Aya Sofia that got me sick, not the $1 fish sandwich from a busy street vendor near the Galata Bridge. Skylar’s downfall was a vegetarian pide (Turkish pizza) that had been sitting out a bit too long and got her much sicker than I ever was. We were pretty much confined to bed for two days, but felt well enough to venture out again by the third. Our Iranian visas were ready exactly as described and we literally jumped for joy when we saw them in our passports (After walking an appropriate distance from the consulate).

This was Skylar’s and my third visit to Istanbul, so we didn’t feel any particular pressure to visit specific landmarks. Instead, we were content to just wander the streets and to start getting to areas less frequented by tourists. The city is famed for residing in both Europe and Asia, but very few tourists actually visit Istanbul’s Asian side. A short ferry ride took us to Kadikoy, where we got see what Istanbul is like when storefronts are dedicated to serving locals, not tourists, and had a truly epic Turkish breakfast for only about $10.

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The next day we stayed on the European side, but ventured north of the main tourism zones in Sultanahmet and Beyoglu to Ortakoy, so that we could try a peculiar Istanbul snack. Istanbul and Ortakoy in particular is home to the mother IMG_0517of all baked potatoes. Imagine a giant baked potato where the insides have been whipped by hand with copious amounts of soft cheese, butter and salt and then piled high with a dozen different toppings of your choosing, including more potato. it’s called Kumpir and it’s surprisingly delicious.

Later that day, technically the next, we hopped on a midnight flight to a destination that would truly be an adventure and easily the highlight of our entire trip so far: Iran.

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