Travelling in Turkey: My Love Hate Relationship With No Resolution

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.

Travelling in Turkey

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.

Travelling in Turkey

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.

Travelling in Turkey, Istanbul Ferry

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 cracking the shits 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 its 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.

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.

Travelling in Turkey

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.

Travelling in Turkey

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.

Travelling in Turkey

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.

Traveling in Turkey

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

Comments

  1. says

    I’ve only ever been to Marmaris, which was so overrun with tourists that it felt totally out of touch with what Turkey might really be like. I can totally understand what you’re saying about the sexism thing though. My friend had the constant attentions of a guy working in one of the bars – until she refused his offer of ‘going in the toilets so he could show her a good time’. He refused to serve us drinks after that.

    Having said that, I’d love to explore Turkey some more, away from the tourist traps and sun loungers! I guess from what you’re saying it might just be better to do it as a pair…

    • says

      Sounds like the ‘Turkish Tantrum’ you got there! I loved the Kurdistan region and the mountains but yes… a travelling pair does shift the attention to a different form.

  2. Lucy says

    A very brave article and a refreshing change to hear someone say they wouldn’t go back somewhere instead of the ubiquitous response of ‘it was amazing’ when someone comes back from a country. I didn’t feel this in Turkey (maybe because I went around with a Turkish male), but I did in Morocco. I went there with a girlfriend and it was incredible how the mood could suddenly change. We were hassled one day to eat at a restaurant and eventually we had to say we just weren’t interested, only to have the guys who work there shout ‘racists’ at us really loudly in a busy street. My friend was spat at. I was threatened with a whip! Having said that I was shocked by the behaviour of fellow westerners more – so inappropriate. Being a female traveller is so hard at times. I love Morocco but when I go back I will be going with a man. Is that sad? Maybe, but I want to be able to relax and enjoy my time there.

    • says

      Thank you. I always joke about the ‘amazing’ response. Sometimes it’s far from it (of course small parts of it can be) but I am always 100% honest on here and my style will never change.

      Where did you travel to with your male friend? And what an IDEAL companion to have while in Turkey! And no, it’s no sad that you want to return to Morocco with a male. I’ve heard MANY a thing about Morocco in relation to the hassle also. It appears to be an underlying problem in many areas of this part of the world unfortunately. And such a shame considering the incredible landscape and rich history to be shared, which can all be so quickly ruined by human attitude.

  3. says

    Wow, thanks for your honest account of your trip. I can only imagine how frustrating as an independent female traveller to feel like you need a male with you to make things easier. How did you find it in comparison to other Middle Eastern areas? Do you think it is the clash of the east and west that causes the issue?

    • says

      I never had any issues in Israel and Palestine. None. Not even odd staring. Only bluntness with is an Israeli thing, but nothing horrible! I will update you on that after I have been to Iran and Jordan.

      I certainly think the East/West merging causes complications for sure. We are two very different outlooks and while some merging of cultures is beautiful the issues that relate to the men isn’t.

  4. Steph Fehr says

    Great post Becki! Those Turkish tantrums make a good story once you are out of the situation and when you have someone to giggle and eat doritos with in a locked cabin, but being alone and dealing with them surely would have a more dark connotation. I think you explained the sentiments wonderfully :)

  5. says

    Unfortunately, you are not the first solo female I’ve heard had problems in western Turkey, which really disheartens me so much because of all the places we’ve been to in the world, that region holds my heart. (Of course, traveling with my hubby would make a world of difference.) We left just one week before the worst of the protests began in Istanbul, and it hurts me to read how much it has changed with the political undercurrents coursing through. Change is due there, I believe, and that is always a painful route.

    • says

      I’m sure if I was with a man it would have made a huge difference, and there are odd spots I’ve taken positive memories from. I think huge change is coming (although it will be violent and messy since that is the only way it seems to go these days) but hopefully, in time, it will level out and Turkey can continue to grow without these frictions.

  6. says

    Loved this post. I spent a month working in Olympos but it was my only real stop in Turkey. After just that stint of time I thought I would really be drawn to explore more of Turkey but in all honesty I was kind of indifferent about the rest. I spent a long period of time in rural morocco so I was imagining most of the country to be more like that and then found it to be extremely modern-esk everywhere. I just couldn’t put my finger on the vibe there.

    • says

      I hear you. I kept going to each place hoping there would be that huge WOW moment and there wasn’t. Except parts of Kurdistan which were very different and beautiful. On the West coast I could tell you spots I enjoyed, but nowhere that I feel in love with.

  7. says

    I’m so happy you were honest about your experiences in Turkey; I’ve never been but had a similar response to Morocco (as with comments above) and I always feels slightly embarrassed about it. It feels wrong to think you wouldn’t like to go back, but when you are constantly hassled and made to feel uncomfortable (i think this goes for guys as well in this case) it does make it unappealing!

    I love your writing by the way, I appreciated how you wove the history so well in to this post.

    Ellie

  8. says

    Wow great article! Living in England all I seem to hear about Turkey is the English holiday destination sections, which sound like exactly the kinds of places I want to avoid. But I love the way you’ve brought together every corner of the country, really well collected and useful!
    Also, your photographs are beautiful!

  9. Jerusalemite says

    Indeed, that’s the biggest problem of the Muslim societies..
    I think that problem gets worse when there is a lot of western influence on a traditional society and a lot of contact between westerners and locals, I mean tourists. We have the same problem here, with the difference between the Jewish and the Arab-Muslim culture, and that causes many time problems. such as bad attitude from arab men towards Jewish girls (and western women/ tourists) – and then they say that we are racists.
    from another aspect – when depressing and hiding half of your population, you can’t develop and grow.

  10. says

    Really insightful post, Becki. I only spent time in Istanbul in Turkey, so I definitely haven’t had enough experience there to come to a conclusion about it. But I’m certainly familiar with the “Turkish Tantrum” from having a few close Turkish friends in grad school!

  11. says

    I didn’t have any trouble with the Turkish men although I was travelling with a male friend. Egypt was the one country for me where it was relentless – in Luxor I wanted to explore by myself but as soon as I stepped outside the hotel gates I was swarmed by local men hassling me. I have heard that Morocco can be quite bad for it as well.

  12. says

    Having read many posts on Turkey, I have to say I warmed to your style of writing. You have summed up the country perfectly. Warts and all! I have traveled round Turkey with my ex-husband and the experiences become vastly different once a male presence is there. Am I put off by traveling alone? Not really, I have kind of got used to the hassle now and it just seems to go over my head.

  13. says

    It´s so great to read how honest you are about your trips. I can´t imagina how frustrated it is to travel as a solo female. For us guys it´s a lot easier. Love your blog Becki.

  14. says

    Great read Bec. I only have two weeks in Turkey but will spend most of it on the east now. After 2 months in the UK, France and Italy, I’m craving for something a little different.

  15. says

    Wow! Thanks for your honesty about how brutal the harassment there can be. It is difficult traveling as a solo female in some countries. Thanks for this post letting me know that this is one of them. Safe travels!

  16. says

    Great post. I haven’t been to Turkey yet, but as a solo traveller I also get how some countries can just be so frustrating and exhausting that you’re ready to leave regardless of the many good experiences.

  17. says

    I plan on doing a tour if I go to Turkey.

    I feel like however I say this it’s going to get backlash and sound racist but I will start it off with, until you’ve lived in an area where the culture isn’t ‘Westernised’ then you don’t know. It’s all well and good giving people the benefit of the doubt, but when some culture’s are so different in their treatment of women then you really do need to keep your head down. It may be normal for you at home to wear a vest top and hot pants, but in their culture that means you’re ‘game’.

    I lived in the Canary Islands for 4 years, beautiful yes, touristy yes, but when you’re a local and you know all the African expats who’s culture is way different to yours… you kind of get a feel for what it would be like in say, Morocco or Turkey. I was very lucky with who some of my friends were, I was protected by them simply because I made the effort to get to know their culture and respect it. At work during Ramadan we didn’t take lunch breaks as our friends couldn’t eat. I wore long skirts, and covered my shoulders (and on some particularly days wore a headscarf to show respect). We’d swap shifts so that we would cover their religious ceremonies and they would cover ours (Christmas for us, for example).

    • says

      I don’t think that is racist at all – you make good points. I’ve lived in non-westernised countries too, and you have to adapt your entire outlook otherwise it attracts attention and potentially trouble if you think your western habits and culture are invincible.

  18. says

    [ Sorry for my bad English ]
    Nice post… I have read other female solo travelers’ stories to of being sexually harassed and other bad things Turkish men do.

    Its sad that most of the men in conservative societies see western women as some sort of prostitute who will offer everything for free. Its a shame… I believe that progress of a nation is not only how much they have invested in infrastructure of country etc….instead the very first step towards progress is to treat fellow human beings (regardless of sex) with respect.

    I think this behavior in conservative societies is mostly because of sexual oppression of people by culture/religion.

  19. says

    Really honest post! I only traveled in Turkey once, with my mom, so I think that helped with the perception. But I still got hit on and catcalled constantly. I really loved Turkey and want to return but accounts like these make me rethink it. Totally get the Turkish tantrum, too after having dated one. Wow!

  20. Lois says

    Hi Becki
    I really enjoyed this post! You really hit the nail on the head with the term Turkish tantrum! It made me laugh. I travelled parts of Turkey briefly this year with my partner. I was spared much of the hassle as I was with a man but I could still see it around me. I think your writing is written from a unique and very fair perspective and you really have a way with words which is a breathe of fresh air as there is such a flood of travel blogs and sites these days. This is my new favourite blog site! Do you have any tips on finding your own voice /writing style as a writer? Is there one country you have a special place in your heart for out of all of those you’ve visited?

    • says

      Thank you. It’s hard to say exactly how to find your own voice. You just…have it. Mine is drawn from an inherent love of history and sociology and a passion of analysing and challenging perceptions. It just all came together with this.

      My favourite places are Burma, Cambodia and Nepal in Asia; Israel and Palestine in the Middle East; Germany and Greece in Europe. Hard to pick just one.

  21. Eileen says

    Wow, I’ve been living in Turkey for a long time and reading this felt as if you were travelling in another country! I was surprised as I came to this article through one of your Asian articles where your entire tone about the vicissitudes of travel is a whole lot different. You must’ve got really unlucky to have only these negative experiences to recount in Turkey. Most foreigners I know, solo men AND women, travel with only minor problems and a score of positive stories to tell. While I agree with the male tantrum, I don’t think it’s unique to Turkey. I’ve travelled extensively as a solo female the world over and quickly developed strategies to avoid these situations in the first place (such as not wearing clothing that may suggest an openness to male friendship in that culture). I felt the need to write as I think this article doesn’t do justice to a country I’m in love with and readers may need a second opinion too.

    • says

      You can’t love everywhere, and in my article I actually outline the parts of Turkey I actually like. Hence the East West breakdown. Most foreigners I know have sadly had similar stories to mine (the ones who travel out of the havens of beach holidays). However, like anywhere, places I adore have not been favourable to others. We are all different. But as an adventurous solo female traveller, I had issues here and I lived in Istanbul, rather than just being there for a brief visit. And I dress appropriately – it’s nothing to do with that. While that is a useful mechanism, it doesn’t solve differences of culture and the clashes that can occur with that.

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