Travel: A Double Portion of Turkey

You know how seasoned travelers always count on the airport taxi driver to take them for a ride to earn a few extra bucks? When flying with Turkey’s flagship carrier, Turkish Airlines (TK), it’s best to budget for the flight as well.

A few days before the trip, I went to Manage My Booking on the TK website and was confronted with a rather good offer. “Only 10,000 Turkish Liras (about 550 USD) for an upgrade to business class for all flights!” I was smart enough to know that couldn’t be an offer for two intercontinental flights. But I had two on the first leg from Mumbai to Istanbul and then to Cappadocia. TK’s business class has an excellent reputation and its lounges are also of good quality. So I decided to shell out the money.

Imagine my disappointment then, when the same offer was available at the check-in counter two days later for 449 USD, all inclusive! What’s worse is that the system did not reflect the upgrade on the connecting domestic flight. So, I didn’t get access to the famous TK lounge, I was stuck in a middle seat on the next flight and felt cheated like that.

Fortunately, this misadventure at the beginning of the trip turned out to be the only disappointment of a voyage of discovery and pleasure.

Cappadocia’s caves (above) were once used as hiding places

Cappadocia: Tourist trap!

Two days later, I woke up in a cave hotel in a town on the outskirts of a town called Urgup, near Göreme. This region of Turkey is called Cappadocia and is famous for its unique rock formations and archaeological treasures including centuries-old settlements, churches and underground cities where entire populations (mostly Christians) lived to avoid persecution.

The brochures are usually accompanied by images of hot air balloons, which take off together every morning at sunrise, fly exceptionally close to each other and descend into the valley like nowhere else on earth, to give the thrill of a view of down as well as up there.

The cave hotels reproduce the windowless houses of the underground cities of yesteryear. Most have a small window to let in light. An hour after waking up, around 5:45 a.m., I found myself sitting in a van with 13 other Russian, Spanish and Japanese tourists.

The Anitkabir is the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the leader of the Turkish War of Independence and the first President of the Republic of Turkey

Suddenly, through the car window, we saw the majestic spectacle of a hot air balloon taking off. Watching this unique aircraft unfold and prepare for flight is an experience in itself.

Each hot air balloon carries 28 passengers plus one or two crew members. Now, I must add here that any skepticism my narration this morning may display comes from my utter dislike of tourist traps. I travel to discover different people, their ideas and their cultures. Tourist towns are built to feed you what they want.

Despite my pessimism, it took me less than 10 minutes in the air to realize that it was truly a special experience. Yes, 28 people is too many, and you don’t necessarily get the best photos either. But if you are able to pause and take in the beauty you are witnessing, you will have an experience you will remember for a lifetime.

CSO Ada Ankara houses the CSO main hall, the old orchestra building, an open-air concert hall with a capacity of 10,000 and the CSO museum (nstagram/@csoadaankara)

“If you’ve ballooned and been to the Goreme Open Air Museum (a complex of churches carved out of volcanic rock in the Middle Ages), you’re done with Cappadocia,” my guide. So, I jumped in the back of a car, said goodbye to the super friendly waiters at the tourist-ready restaurants, and got ready for the four-hour drive to Ankara.

Ankara: capital of the future

Two days in Turkey for any Indian aware of what is happening in the world is enough to start drawing parallels. We are both countries rich in culture, with stories that go with it. We are democracies with different voices and points of view. In the current scenario, we are ruled by right-wing leaders, and national pride is an important part of the toolkit.

Pit stop alert!

One look at the large number of blood-red Turkish flags dotting the streets, and you’ll remember India’s Har Ghar Tiranga movement. The red on the Turkish flag may represent the sacrifice of those who shed their blood for the cause of the Turkish people. Interestingly, the flag has undergone “modernization” over the centuries. 14th century Ottoman flags still had the crescent moon – sometimes as many as three – but lacked the star. The single moon and star were “tilted” in the 20th century, when leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk defined Turkey’s blueprint as a modern, Western-oriented nation, as opposed to the more religious Arab world.

It was then that the Ottoman Turkish alphabet, a version of the Arabic script, was changed to Latin with 29 alphabets in the 1920s. A moderate version of Islam was encouraged and, visibly, costumes and clothing Western for ladies have become common.

Ankara’s many museums give you that insight, and more. The Old Quarter is the perfect place to spend a morning: the views from the fort help focus your mind, and the steel and glass buildings in the distance, and dilapidated houses closer, remind you of Old Delhi. The neighborhood’s museums are well-maintained for those who like that sort of thing, but the cafes on the cobbled streets are where you have to spend time to soak up the atmosphere.

Ankara’s old quarter is home to bustling shops, cafes and historic buildings

Atatürk’s monument, called Anitkabir (memorial tomb) is where all roads will eventually lead. The Mausoleum of the Founder of the Turkish Republic is a large building surrounded by well-kept gardens. Several times a week, a foreign dignitary visits, and those present witness security protocols in addition to the changing of the guard. A museum below offers a huge insight into the formation of the Republic of Turkey and all that guided national thought.

The only place I found more indicative of how the country thinks was in the cafes on Tunali Hilmi Street. The bustling boulevard is the bustling city center where locals and visitors meet. An afternoon of eavesdropping – too bad if you don’t understand Turkish; even heated arguments can reveal so much – is a must in Ankara.

Ankara University, one of the best in Turkey, is another place to visit, and most students here speak English.

Tuz Golu is an underrated place between Cappadocia and Ankara

A glimpse of modern Turkey can be had at the Atakule Tower, which has an observation deck with a panoramic view, several gourmet restaurants, and a chic shopping mall in the building below. If you love music, try heading to CSO Ada Ankara, an impressive concert hall with state-of-the-art equipment and design.

I took the train at Ankara station, which has been renovated to look like a modern airport, and I wondered: with all the similar complexities, if the Turkish capital can turn into an ultra-modern city of the future, reflecting glass and metal, how long could it take for the Indian capital to take on such an appearance?

Follow @JamalShaikh on Instagram and Twitter

From HT Brunch, November 5, 2022

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    Jamal Shaikh is National Editor – Brunch and New Media Initiatives at Hindustan Times. He is a well-known television host and magazine editor, who launched and edited the Indian editions of Men’s Health, Robb Report and Discovery Channel Magazine. He tweets and instagrams @jamalshaikh
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