Bye Byzantium

I had such ambitious plans. After we left Cappadocia and flew back to Istanbul on June 1, we checked into a hotel in the heart of the old city. I’d prepared a jam-packed itinerary, figuring into those last two and a half days we could squeeze several walking tours from the eighth edition of Rick Steves’ Istanbul guidebook – rambles that would take us to dozens of sights we’d missed at the start of the trip when we were staying on the Asian side.

I was deluded. The city is so old, so stuffed with wonders large and small, ancient and contemporary, we could only gobble up a fraction of what I’d hoped to take in, let alone digest it all.

A bit like the classic Turkish breakfast — too many delicious morsels to eat it all up.
Or the choices on one of the innumerable streets full of restaurants — you wish you could try them all.

We did make it to our foremost sightseeing targets.

We devoted a big chunk of our second to last morning to visiting the Hagia Sophia, that gigantic 1500-year-old Christian cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum. Now it’s a mosque again (thanks, President Erdogan!)

We taxied out to where sections of the fabulous walls built by the Roman emperor Theodosius II still stand…

They protected the citizens from invaders for a thousand years.
They stretched for almost 12 miles.

We spent several hours walking around the so-called “new district” – starting with Taksim Square then meandering along Istiklal Street, today a crowded, buzzy pedestrian shopping street.

From high-end clothing and jewelry to cheap snacks, you find it all. Istanbul’s ice cream vendors are part-servers, part-entertainers, performing tricks with their long metal scoops I’ve never seen anywhere else.

We descended into a renovated ancient cistern, one of hundreds that once allowed Constantinople’s residents to enjoy more watery pleasures per capita than Americans consume today.

As we did these things, over and over I was reminded of what I’ve learned before in my travels: no amount of reading or looking at pictures or films can prepare you for being in certain places. All I’ll say about entering the Hagia Sophia is that I felt a bit like a dolphin. In that golden ocean of space and encapsulated history, a sort of psychic sonar made my puniness palpable. But only actually being there can trigger that magical pinging.

It’s allegedly so big Notre Dame Cathedral could fit inside it.
The Imperial Gate, once opened only for the emperor, and made of oak that supposedly came from Noah’s Ark.

Seeing Istanbul’s street dogs and cats was a similar experience. Before our trip, Steve and I watched two feature films (Kedi, about the cats, and a canine counterpart called Stray) documenting what a fixture of the city both species are. Why then did the sight of them still grab my attention; feel surprising? There they are, more of them! They’re obviously cats. And dogs. But not at all like cats and dogs where I come from. The Turkish cats and dogs saunter along…

or snooze or just hang out wherever they feel like it. They’re clearly free spirits. Nobody owns them but people everywhere feed them – communal pets in the megalopolis.

This kitten was unusually bold about requesting some of my fish scraps.
But folks seems to share enough that many of the strays need not beg for food.
Is it dog chow? Cat chow? You see little piles of both.

I had to tell myself not to romanticize them, that their lives must have rough edges. They probably die younger than do dogs and cats in my neighborhood. But they don’t look like it. They’re plump and fluffy and even the dogs act like they don’t need people.

Sometimes they allow people to pet them, but even the dogs didn’t often solicit it.

More than anything, they act like they own the place. I was jealous.

Birthday advice

To squeeze the maximum fun into your birthday, here’s a handy tip: set your alarm for 3 in the morning! This will increase the amount of time you have to celebrate. If you happen to be in Cappadocia, as I was, you can be picked up by a van that will take you to a hot-air-balloon launch site. If the weather is cooperative, as it is for more than half the year, you can clamber into a basket holding 22 people and rise above one of the weirder landscapes on earth. After the ride, you can fill the remainder of the day with other amazing activities.

It’s a good thing Tuesday (May 31) was my birthday. I’m pretty sure Steve wouldn’t have agreed to that program otherwise. He’s not 100% convinced hot air balloon rides anywhere are safe. But deeming the Turkish experience to be a birthday wish, he acceded to it and afterward acknowledged that even he liked it.

It’s very exciting to watch so many giant balloons taking shape in the dim light before dawn; to be in the thick of them as they slowly rise and jockey for air space.I had expected the major payoff of this experience to be the view of Cappadocia’s famous rock formations — towering stone columns formed by the action of wind and water on soft volcanic ash deposits and known locally as “fairy chimneys.” (They reminded us of the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon.) The views were extraordinary.But even more wondrous was the sight of so many hot air balloons in every direction.Ballooning only began here about 30 years ago, but powered by images on social media sites, it has burgeoned in the last decade or so. Our pilot Tuesday said more than 150 balloons carrying a couple thousand people now fly here more days than not.

The pilots amazingly all seemed to land on their trailers.

After the ride, Steve and I napped for a few hours and ate breakfast back at our hotel, built in a renovated cave house. For millennia, humans have been carving churches and monasteries and dwelling places into the soft gray stone that makes up most of the Cappadocian terrain. Some were carved into the fairy chimneys; others into the hillsides.

Some of the churches contain beautiful frescoes and carvings.

An enterprising 34-year-old local named Ramazan Ilgezdi a few years ago converted one of those private homes into the hotel where we stayed.

A view from the terrace outside our room.

Before doing that, Ramazon worked for years as a master ceramicist. During the pandemic, he also got his credentials to guide tourists. So it was Ramazan who drove Steve and me around for several hours after breakfast to some of the area highlights.

I won’t try to describe all we saw and did, just the one that left us slack-jawed: our visit to one of Cappadocia’s underground cities. More than 30 that have been found throughout Anatolia. Begun by the Hittites around 3000 BC, these subterranean marvels enabled women and children to hide out while their menfolk were fending off invaders — a bit like bomb shelters, but incomparably more sophisticated than anything any American ever dreamed of during the 50s. The one we visited (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) extended down seven levels, a vast labyrinth that experts think accommodated between 5,000 and 30,000 people and included a mind-boggling array of elements necessary to support months-long stays: areas for storing food and livestock…

Note the hitching post carved out of this cave wall.

… areas for cooking and wine-making and accessing clean water, worshipping and processing wastes, honoring the dead, communicating with the floors above or below one.

Here’s Ramazon next to one of the living rooms.
Claustrophobes would not be happy.

The underground refugees protected all this with an ingenious system of giant stone disks that could be rolled into place, behind which a single plucky woman with a spear could hold off a marauding horde.

Here’s one of the doors, on display in front of the entrance to the city. Note the spear-sticking hole in the center of it.

For my birthday dinner, we ate in a restaurant specializing in Turkish “ravioli.” It was delicious, like most of what we consumed. But what I remember most about that evening was our pre-dinner outing to a restored caravansary.

The old Silk Road ran through Cappadocia, down what’s now the unprepossessing strip of highway you see in this photo:

Back in the 1200s, however, traders with their camel trains followed this route to bring spices and other goods from India to Istanbul (from whence all the merchandise could be carried onward into Europe.) Along the way they stopped in caravanseries — lodgings usually built around a courtyard where the caravans could stop to rest. One of them outside the town of Avanos in Cappadocia has been beautifully restored and hosts nightly demonstrations of the whirling dervish religious ceremony.

Dervishes, also known as Mevlevis, are Sufi Muslims who follow the teachings of the 13th century Persian poet and mystic, Rumi. Their ritualistic whirling surely ranks among the most beautiful meditative practices. What Steve and I witnessed Tuesday night may have been part show, but it nonetheless felt solemn and serious. The dervishes entered, wrapped in black cloaks that symbolize death; the tall hats they wear represent the dancers’ tombstones. Someone chanted verses of the Koran, then after a while, the men shed their gloomy outer gear to reveal pristine white jackets and full skirts. To plaintive music produced on a stringed instrument, a wooden pipe, and drums, they slowly began to twirl, skirts undulating out around them in waves. One by one, their arms floated upward, above faces soft with ecstasy.

What it all meant from a theological perspective, I can’t say. But it seemed somehow symbolic of my day, of this whole trip: a dizzying whirlwind that spun me up with happiness.

Trans Caucasian

I’m starting this post aboard the Eastern Express, the Turkish train that runs all the way from Turkey’s capital to Kars, near the Armenian border in the east. Travel constraints forced us to take the train westward. We flew from Ankara to Kars Friday morning (5/27) and had a couple of hours that afternoon to explore the town and its citadel on our own.

Lounging on the grass below the castle seemed to be a very popular local pastime.

All day Saturday we were driven around the surrounding area by a masterful guide, Celil Ersözoglu. The whole side trip reminded me it isn’t always true, as the adage claims, that the point of travel is “not the destination but the journey.”

Kars became one of our destinations in Turkey in part because Fodor’s Essential Turkey lists “Exploring Ancient Ani” as #4 on its list of 25 “Ultimate [Turkish] Experiences,” A thousand years ago Ani, 26 miles east of Kars, ranked along with Istanbul, Baghdad, and Horasan (between Afghanistan and Iran) as the most important stops along the Silk Road. Some 150,000 people lived there, and over the centuries they built beautiful places of worship and a massive palace, all encircled by a double set of thick stone walls. Earthquakes and invasions destroyed the place long ago, but what remains has an eerie beauty.

Some of the structures, like these, were built before Christ — perhaps thousands of years BC. A huge area remains to be excavated.

Celil made a valiant effort to explain all the history to us, but it was hopeless. I’ve retained almost nothing of the head-spinning chronicle of sieges and occupations and battles, though I can tell you geopolitical tensions still simmer here today. Celil pointed out the Russian barracks and guard towers glowering in the near distance, in Armenia.

The bloody politics should have been depressing. But I was too elated by the weather. Just days before, fierce winds and snow had pummeled the area. Yet we strolled the site in t-shirts under sunny skies. Far in the distance, clouds partially obscured the volcanic Mt. Ararat, the site where Noah’s Ark came aground, according to the book of Genesis. At 16,850 feet it towers over the other nearby snow-covered mountains — part of a range known as the Trans-Caucasus. The Greater Caucasus mountains in Georgia are even higher.

This is NOT Mt. Ararat — just one of its shorter neighbors.

It was hard to believe folks call this part of Turkey “Little Siberia” because of its winters in which temperatures plunge to 40 degrees below zero. Summers are broiling. With wildflowers swaying in the gentle breeze, to me it felt like a paradise.

I also was thrilled to find myself on a section of the map I’ve rarely looked at and don’t well understand. Armenia was close enough to hit with a pebble tossed across the river. In the photo above, Turkey’s neighbor lies on the other side of that gorge.

Here’s a better view of Armenia on the left; Turkey on the right. The gorge is actually an earthquake fault, one that separates two tectonic plates. Those and others in the area are what pushed up the mountains and created the volcanoes.

The former Soviet state of Georgia lay maybe 50 miles to the north, with Iran not much farther to the southeast. Hillsides in every direction were green but barren; invaders and armies and freezing settlers long ago chopped down every single tree. Now it’s good pastureland, if you know how to deal with the packs of ravenous wolves who routinely prey on the livestock (and sometimes humans). But Celil said local shepherds, armed with their stout sticks and massive Caucasian herding dogs, shrug off the danger.

After surveying Ani’s ruins, we drove back toward Kars, but then Celil headed for a cobalt body of water about an hour to the north. Lake Cildir has become increasingly popular with tourists from the western part of Turkey, he explained. To my astonishment, he said 3,000 such visitors had flooded into Kars every day this past winter, eager to sample the frosty diversions. The lake freezes so solidly you can drive on it. Visitors ice-fish; they zoom around in cozy sledges.

No hint of any of that the day we visited.

We saw barely a soul on our visit Saturday, except at the roadside restaurant where we stopped for a late lunch. After that, Steve and I hiked for a bit in a beautiful canyon harboring a lonely castle, then Celil chauffeured us back to town.

It would have been nice to hike all the way to the castle, but the sun was starting to go down.

We had to be on the train for an 8 am departure Sunday morning. A special tourist train also makes the same journey over these rails but it only runs a few times a week, and the schedules didn’t work for us. If they had, that choice might have been more comfortable than our ordinary passenger train. The tourist train’s WiFi might have been working, unlike ours. It might have had a real dining car, unlike the club car on ours, which offered little more than candy bars, stale-looking sandwiches, Nescafé and tea.

We had brought our own bread and cheese, so this was lunch. And dinner.
Celil had helped us buy the cheese the night before. That’s a daunting task in Kars, which has dozens of cheese shops featuring close to 40 local cheeses. With all those cows and goats and sheep roaming the surrounding grassland, Kars has become one of the world’s foremost cheese making centers.

For about $65, I was able to book all four seats in a sleeping compartment on the non-touristic train. It was reasonably clean. As always, I enjoyed being able to lie in my berth and take in the lush panorama rolling by. Because we rode on this train, I now know that a huge stretch of eastern Turkey consists of rolling wooded hills intercut with swift-running rivers. Most of what we saw from our window seemed as devoid of people as the American West.

This part reminded us of the Virgin River Valley in southern Nevada.

I would have been thoroughly satisfied if the train operators had just told us up front we would reach Kayseri (the gateway to Cappadocia, our next destination) at 5 am, and that the conductor would alert us a few minutes before arrival. The motion and long stops probably would have occasionally jolted me awake. But with my eyeshades on and perhaps a sleeping pill sedating me, I would have gotten a decent amount of sleep.

Alas, the timetable said the train gets to Kayseri at 2:37 am. Celil had warned us it never makes it that early. But who knew when it would arrive? Since I’d arranged for a taxi to meet us upon arrival, this all resulted in a fretful, fractured night. Around 9:30 pm we found a conductor, and with the aid of Google Translate, asked him to predict our arrival time. He consulted some electronic device and said it would between 3 and 4, then amended that to indicate probably closer to 4. We set our alarms for 3:30 — but didn’t actually reach the station until a few minutes after 5.

Still we connected with our taxi driver and got to Cappadocia about an hour later — in time to see all the hot air balloons hovering over the magical landscape. A good omen.