My plans to travel in Turkey were put into full force at the end of last year after returning from Israel and the Palestinian Territories. I wanted to start digging deeper into the Middle East. Turkey, one of the greatest Empires of all time, a ‘cradle of civilisation’ and nestled right bang in the middle of Europe and my beloved Asia, was to be a natural starting point on a new journey that would eventually lead to Iran.
Being the biggest landmass in the entire region, Turkey would be no easy or rapid feat and I knew that from the onset. Not one to reside in resort towns, choosing a relaxing break on the Western coast wasn’t going to happen, and nor was I simply going to end it at the central stop of Cappadocia. A huge part of what makes up Turkey lies in the Kurdistan region (which to locals would be referred to as South Turkey, Southern Anatolia or “Why do you want to go there?”) and the mountainous North.
It was the lure of the untouched east and the valleys of the north that kept me in the country for nearly three months, but leaving Turkey was like finally dumping someone you’ve had long-standing emotional issues with. Travelling in Turkey is like dating an asshole you can’t help but like. And we all know how hard that scenario is.
Being able to articulate my thoughts for Turkey hasn’t been an easy task and it’s the main reason this post as been so long in production. Nothing extreme or life threatening actually happened, instead I was hit by a multitude of cultural setbacks that came in waves. Catching my breath momentarily, I would then be swept right back into the current that somehow keeps people in the country, before the next onslaught began.
How to Solve a Problem Like Modern Turkey
Turkey first lures you with its rich history. From tales of Biblical times, to the arrival of the Romans and the Byzantine Empire, to the dominance and vast growth of the Ottomans, it’s always been a place of takeover, turbulence and great change. You’ll find it in ruins and churches and opulent mosques. You’ll feel it within the walls of magnificent structure and wrapped in the bustle of cultural custom.
Its more recent power struggle, which saw the formation of a ‘modern republic’ after WW1 under the revolutionary Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, marked Turkey out as different from its emerging Arab nation peers. It became a fast modernising and more secular Muslim country. Turkey became a more conservative and relaxed hub of Islam compared to anywhere else in the Middle East. It is, today, also considered the safest.
Yet, my issue with Turkey is not about safety (because I never, ever felt that threatened) but about outlook and perception. The East/West tug of war here is apparent, making the country a mish mash of ideals – where the West coast is coated with a European sheen and where the East shifts to a more conservative society.
Travelling in the West
I spent a month living in Istanbul, using it as a work base. There are beautiful things to see and do in Istanbul, like the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern underground water system and simple pleasures like crossing the Bosphorus on a ferry to reach the more local and vibrant ‘Asia Side’. A fellow blogger and expat showed me the ropes, the great places to eat breakfast and the cool bars to hang out in at night where obscure bands would play. Istanbul was a city of discovery and juxtapositions, of Middle Eastern exquisiteness and edgy modernity.
Yet by living in Istanbul you begin to get sucked into its dark and complicated persona. An undercurrent of attitude runs parallel to its charm. The political hotbed of unrest chooses this city to rear it ugly head, like the May Day riots I got caught up in, the (now annual) Gezi protests or the fight against any form of tragedy, such as the SOMA mining deaths. It’s here that you’ll soon see the other side to people not getting their way when all you once saw was consistent hospitality the Turks so pride themselves on. Cheeky hassle no longer becomes a joke, the emergence of a political rage becomes a part of your planning and you feel more distant to locals than you did when you first arrived.
“You can’t learn to love Istanbul until you have learnt to hate it” said my expat friend with honesty. I learnt to hate it, yet had to force myself to leave.
I headed South to Gallipoli and the ruins of Troy, using Çanakkale as my base. It was a sweet little town, without much to do except wander, shop and eat (as in the case with many Turkish towns). Yet it’s so small that out of the high season of Anzac Day, any foreign woman stands out. My friend and I were snapped on mobile phones, with stares and giggles and catcalls, and when alone I was followed to my guesthouse in what was a one-hour strategic operation that started when I was eating lunch as a family run café. My guesthouse owner said it was ‘normal’. An expat said it was a ‘rite of passage’ most foreign women go through in Turkey. I was left outraged and vulnerable, snapping at any local who chose to follow me around when in my next stops of Selcuk and Ephesus.
In Antalya, a female friend joined me and when you are in a pair it makes things easier. Hassle becomes more light-hearted, although it still exists, yet we were still faced with local men becoming seemingly angry if we didn’t want to go with them to a club or engage in lengthy conversation. In the hippy chill-out of Olympus, where we met two young and westernised Turks, it soon turned sour when one realized he wasn’t going to get any sex that night. Aside from that we enjoyed the ruins of Termessos and met plenty of locals who wanted nothing more than to engage in smiles and conversation.
The presence of western women complicates things. The influence of European trends complicates things.
Local men can avoid parts of age-old custom and tradition that hold them back and formality is easily washed over in the hope that something more will come of it. If it doesn’t, it results in something I call the “Turkish Tantrum”, where the smiles soon turn into a childish fall out. On the other end of the scale, some western women come here and act inappropriately, even those small moments – like when the ice cream vendor tells you he will drop the price if you give him a kiss. Progressive secular Turkey is growing, yet it still grates with underlining Islamic traditions.
It’s a vicious cycle that perpetuates a cycle of harassment and acceptable bad behaviour, and while not on any level of sexual assault (itself a very serious crime here), it is extremely frustrating and off-putting. Many of my female friends have since told me they would never return to Turkey without a male companion. For the very first time in all of my travels as an independent, strong-willed and confident female, I felt the same.
But I wasn’t going to give up. Turkey has its good parts.
Travelling in the East
Cappadocia was the cure to all previous evils, a hiking haven in a sea of marshmallow hills and fairy chimney valleys. I dubbed it ‘Non-Turkey’ since it was so unlike the Western region. The vibe was relaxed, the people more relaxed in their interaction and the landscape more varied.
I then hopped over to Gaziantep to begin a 10-day stint through the Kurdistan region (with two expats in tow) watching an incredible sunrise from Mount Nemrut, experiencing a homestay in Sanlirufa (Urfa), strolling the narrow streets of Mardin overlooking the plains of Syria, and giving support to the small yet historic town Hasenkayf soon to be flooded for the purpose of a dam before visiting the contested ground of Ani, the former ancient capital of Armenia.
Maybe I felt an affinity to this entire area – it too ousted by a progressive yet skewed Turkey (this region being know for its political clashes with the current government in the call for independence).
Maybe the local people felt an affinity with me (being different and an outsider) and thus more welcoming. In the more conservative arena, I felt more at ease, and I was not expecting that.
Choosing to end the main part of my trip by hiding myself away in a wooden hut in the village of Ayder off the Black Sea coast was a soothing but symbolic end. There’s a quote that states: “Every mountain top is within reach if you just keep climbing.”
I guess that’s how I feel about Turkey – a place I tried to conquer with all my might, reaching its highest points in both elevation and beauty, yet still finding it completely out of reach.
I just know I won’t be returning anytime soon.
Things To Note:
- Despite my frustrations with other aspects of life, travelling around Turkey is not difficult given its great transport infrastructure. My main go-to site was Go Euro, which would map out the cheapest and quickest flight routes (I planned and booked my entry to Turkey from Germany via this tool). However, I ended up busing around the entire country (apart from an internal flight after a brief trip to Greece)
- Every town has a bus ticket office (Metro being the main company) with the majority of tickets being around the 50 Lire ($25) mark. Most tickets offices will organise a transfer to the main bus stations, which takes the hassle out of getting there
- My trek in the Kackar mountains was organised through Natura Lodge guesthouse in the Ayder valley region of Northern Turkey. Prices are negotiable depending on numbers of people and exact route of trekking preferred
- My best source of information in more obscure and remote towns was Wikitravel which gave honest accounts and highlighted the best places for solo female travellers