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Bill's Turkey diary

Showroom dummies, Istanbul

Bandirma - September 21, 2000

Over the fish shop 

Here we are on our seventh day in Turkey, watching Turkish MTV in a $15 a night hotel room in the fishing port of Bandirma – a town usually notable only as the place where you get off the Istanbul ferry on your way to Izmir. Birding will bring you to some strange places.

Our arrival in Istanbul was nowhere near as steeped in culture shock as I imagined it might be. Of course, the fact that someone from our hotel was there to meet us made it all very easy. But being driven downtown in a yellow taksi with a madman at the wheel made us feel quite comfortably at home - the highway is even called Kennedy Boulevard. In fact, Istanbul has a surprisingly familiar feel. It’s like a venerable Mediterranean city with an Islamic heritage – which, no shit Sherlock, it is. (OK, so it’s on the sea of Marmara technically, but that’s just next to the Mediterranean, honest).

Here in the old city the meandering cobblestone streets are lined with haphazardly constructed Legoland  buildings, tiny shops squeezed in beneath them. Peppered among these colorful, ugly buildings are many beautiful and ancient mosques. The call to prayer rings loudly out five times a day, but Kemel Ataturk did what he set out to do, and Turkey – Istanbul at least – is remarkably Westernized.

Doreen had found the Otel Turkmen online and the rate ($25 a night) seemed about right. That was all I knew about the place, so once we’d checked in and set out for a stroll around the neighborhood, I was shocked to discover we were staying three minutes walk from the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia. When we walked out of our hotel and promptly found ourselves in the Sultan Ahmet Mosque’s immaculate courtyard I experienced almost the same sense of unreality as the time we found ourselves unexpectedly circling Dealey Plaza. Budget accommodation so near the heart of the old city is commonplace in Istanbul, but it was news to me. Yes, it’s touristy around there, but how can you downplay proximity to the Hagia Sofia? It’s impressive enough by any standard, but given its age – it was a church for 1,000 years, a mosque for 700 more, and now it’s a museum – it is a miraculous feat of construction. It certainly knocks the socks off any other church (former of otherwise) I’ve seen, that’s for sure. And it’s the central motif in one of my favorite books (Pilgermann by Russell Hoban) so forgive me if I go on, but it is a magnificent building.

What a coincidence

Not that we planned it this way – initially, at least – but Istanbul in mid-September is one of the world’s migration hotspots. How convenient. A couple of days after arriving, we found ourselves on a mountain top overlooking Istanbul from the Asian side, watching flotillas of Black Stork fly in like Klingon death cruisers. Nice to think of these stately birds arriving like clockwork every year, working on their own, independent schedule, passing above Byzantium, Constantinople, the Ottoman empire, Istanbul, whatever. Crusaders on their way to pillage for Christ would look up and see exactly the same sight as you or I would today. We fight and squabble and build and burn and the Storks just keep on doing what Storks do. Oddly reassuring, to me at least.

A couple of days later we set off for Uludag, a ski resort set atop the highest mountain in western Anatolia, right in the middle of a national park. An unlikely choice for low-budget travelers in September, but it’s another birding hotspot and the chance of nabbing a Fire-fronted Serin made it too good of an opportunity to pass up. Getting there was interesting enough (by land and sea), but as the cab pulled into what looked like a Hollywood set in the middle of construction and parked outside a hotel that was clearly closed for the season (a hotel listed in our guide book as the only one that would be open) we experienced a sense of mild trepidation. Fortunately, there was one hotel in town that was open – the Hotel Grand Yazici, the first (and probably last) four star hotel we have ever stayed in. Well, what else could we do? We’d invested thirty bucks in a cab ride to the summit (no buses running this time of year) so it made sense to stick around - ah, the twisted logic of the unrepentant birder. Actually, the rate of $67.50 a night wasn’t too bad when you consider it included three large meals a day. Not to mention satellite TV that included BBC World (hurrah!) and the priceless ability to step out of the door and into a birding wonderland. (See the birding pages for the full, blow-by-blow of our adventures with the tiny alpine dinosaurs).

Not only that, but we were even able to get online from our hotel room. No mean feat given the fact that the ‘Turkish’ phone adapter I purchased from might perhaps work in hotels built within the last year, but is unusable everywhere else. How up to date of them. At the Hotel de Posh I was finally able to make it work by brilliantly (accidentally) removing the front panel of the phone jack, thereby enabling me to jam the adapter in. Pretty smooth – never underestimate the power of positive stupidity.

Today we went from one extreme to the other. From the Alpine chill of Uludag to the steamy, somewhat fishy ambiance of Bandirma - a pleasantly chilled-out backwater by comparison with Istanbul, and a whirling metropolis after the deserted Hotel Yazici, where you kept expecting to run into a pair of twins who wanted to play with you for ever, and ever, and ever

Istanbul - October 6, 2000

Glass cases – a brief tangent

Nearing the end of our time in Turkey, we’re back for our third stay at the Otel Turkmen. Last night from our balcony we watched the sun sink into western Istanbul as the sunset call to prayer rang out. The five or six mosques in the immediate neighborhood aggressively compete for air space – there’s no polite taking of turns like over by the Blue Mosque – but the more distant calls blend into one thick background tone, an atonal treat reminiscent of the monolith piece in 2001. As we sat in the twilight sipping our beers, we heard a strange cry, and saw a little owl perched on a rooftop just to our left, regarding us with yellow eyes. (Close inspection of our fieldguides revealed that its official title is the Little Owl – they must have named that one at the end of a long day). After staring at us and the surrounding area for a few minutes, the owl dove off the roof and vanished into the emerging darkness. Seeing an owl is always a special event for us, mysterious creatures of the night that they are. Let’s hope they symbolize something propitious.

After Bandirma, where I wrote the first installment of this journal, we took a ferry back to Istanbul and stayed for a few days while the weather took an unseasonably cold turn. We entertained ourselves by raptor watching from Buyuk Camlica once again, and on the rainiest day we visited the archeological museum. Now I don’t know if there’s a problem developing between me and museums, but I have to confess that I found it a bit dull there. It was more or less the same random collection of antiquities that you could find in the museums of London and New York. I suppose the fact that we blithely pinched the best stuff from countries like Turkey in the first place creates an unfair playing field – if everything had been left where it was found, they’d have the best museums in the world right here.

(I also have to add that the Tate Modern put me off the whole experience of galleries and museums in general. The problem is, with the invention of the camera and the sudden obsolescence of what western art had been all about for five hundred years, there was a magnificent flourishing of creativity until the early part of this century - which hit a brick wall with abstract art. After that there was nowhere left to go really, and for the last three quarters of the twentieth century, art has had its head firmly inserted in its posterior. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. The various movements in western art over the last seventy five years are all of great significance – to other artists and to art historians. What bothers me is the way that these objects are displayed to the rest of us, who must file past them in hushed and uncomprehending reverence. The guy who canned his own shit and sold it for its weight in gold was making a good point, having a good laugh, and earning a good few quid into the bargain. But why do we have to go to see it? I realize I sound like a philistine here, but most people can enjoy a Monet, yet very few find esthetic pleasure in a Hirst. The pieces at the Tate would have made a lot more sense if they came with a tag saying how much they had cost. Then we could think about who decides what these things are worth, and why. My favorite moment at the Tate Modern was in the room where an American artist has exhibited his work benches, covered with brushes, old coffee cups, and various other detritus. Not a bad idea. Amongst the various crap on the benches is a very new, and very British looking, Lucozade bottle – a beverage unavailable in the United States. Clearly, some undiscovered genius has made a very valid contribution to the history of modern art. I hope the Lucozade bottle continues to be enshrined with all the other important, valuable garbage for all time).

Anyway, sorry about that geographical lapse. Back to the Istanbul Archeological Museum, then.... The oldest human habitation known to be in existence, Catal Hoyuk, is right here in Turkey, and I was hoping for some insight into their day-to-day life. Why the hell they invented the city, for example. But all of that stuff is apparently in Ankara, so never mind. We had the most fun at the museum petting the relatively spoiled museum cats, who would attempt to jump on your lap while you were still standing up.

You know where you are with a birdwatcher

There’s an old joke: my analyst told me I was paranoid, so I should move to New York – everyone really would be out to get me, so then I’d be cured. Ha ha. The reason I bring up this stale confection is that Doreen and I are generally very wary of other people. Not a bad thing when you’re a tourist (with "money" written all over you, no matter how poor you think you are), and need to be on your guard at all times. But sometimes it’s a shame when a fundamental lack of trust gets in the way of meeting people and experiencing new things – part of what travel is supposed to be all about.

Which brings me to the International Fraternity of Birdwatchers. (And you thought the Illuminati secretly ran the world. Shows how much you know). Whatever godforsaken swamp you might find yourself in, wherever on earth you’re peering myopically through binoculars at an unidentifiable bird, you can be sure of one thing - sooner or later you’ll see another birdwatcher, no matter how remote the spot. Which is a good thing, because then they can tell you what the unidentifiable bird is.

Another good thing about this: to my knowledge, no birder has ever done physical harm or ripped-off another birder. Irritated, bored, exasperated - yes. But anything serious? Never. You know you’re OK when you see another anorak-clad nimrod squinting through a scope in force nine gale. Which explains why, soon after meeting Kari – a Finnish birder living in Istanbul, and an all-round good guy – we unhesitatingly took him up on his offer to drive us to some inaccessible birding locations the next weekend. Too paranoid to open the front door in New York, but happily hop into a car with a complete stranger in a foreign country? Sure! The International Fraternity of Birdwatchers says it’s OK – and it is. This is not to say that you encounter such random acts of generosity from birdwatchers all the time. Kari is an exceptionally nice guy, as well as a champion birder.

Which is how we ended up more or less in the middle of nowhere, also known as central Anatolia. We had a great time birding, of course, but it was also fascinating to see these little villages where people where living more or less the same way as they have done for centuries. What they made of us I have no idea, but they were polite enough to leave us alone while we stared at dots on the horizon.

The coolest guy in the world

Another good thing about Turkey: there’s a certain amount of latitude in most things that’s completely antithetical to the northern European approach to life. When we stopped at the motorway service station and asked if the bus to Konya stopped there, their response was not to answer, quite truthfully, that it did not, and to leave it at that. Instead, we were introduced to the coolest guy in the world.

This bald-headed, unsmiling guy was nattily attired in a blazer, but had a natural sense of style that would have made him look sharp in a T shirt and Bermuda shorts. The way he chain-smoked at a pace that would have made Humphrey Bogart blanch accentuated his aura of cool – we all know, deep down, that smoking makes you cool – but it was his face that made the deepest impression. Any country with a history as rich as Turkey’s is bound to have an interesting ethnic mix. Who knew Ankara was originally founded by wandering Celts? And although most people here look, well, Turkish, you often see faces that could come from northern France, the Black Sea republics, or Arabia. This man, however, had the face of one of the fierce horsemen of the steppes. Although the Turks were one of many Turkic people who came west and beat the crap out of everyone they met – think Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun – you don’t see this type of face too often, at least in the western half of the country. The blood of conquerors flowed through his veins, although he didn’t seem to mind running a service station in the middle of nowhere.

The coolest guy in the world calmly called the main office and arranged for the Konya bus to make an unscheduled stop to pick us up. Even better, once we got on the bus, we realized that it was going to stop in the nearby town of Kulu anyway – but everyone at the service station was so nice they wouldn’t have dreamed of telling us to just catch the bus there. Extraordinary.

The reason we found ourselves here in the first place is, obviously, birding. Instead of driving back to Istanbul with Kari, we decided to hop a bus and head south to the Mediterranean, so that we could check out the famous Goksu Delta. (Famous to birdwatchers, anyway). That’s how we found ourselves trying to head for Konya, a place we randomly decided to spend the night on our way south. It looked like a handy half-way point. Interestingly, it’s the nearest city to Catal Hoyuk, the oldest known town in the world. Unfortunately, as you know, all the artifacts that were found there have been carted away, so we didn’t bother to go. Perhaps we should have, but I’ve found that it’s hard to get the desired frission of ancient times from staring at a grass covered hillock with a sign on it. Without the use of certain revered religious substances, anyway.

Shotguns and sparrowhawks

The Lonely Planet mentioned one place – the Lades Hotel – as being birder-friendly, so that’s where we went, and got a great room with a view of the Mediterranean for under $30 a night. The manager hooked us up with taksi transport to the Goksu Delta, so we were well in. When we got there, there was even a hide for us to cower from the heat of the sun while spying on unsuspecting Purple Gallinules.

One thing you notice in Turkey – there are unfinished buildings everywhere. Really, everywhere. Outside Ankara there are miles and miles of half-built tower blocks, but it’s a phenomenon that strikes you wherever you go. Sometimes people run out of money half way through construction, but there is also apparently a weird law which says that you can’t apply for permission to build until you’ve already started to build – at which point permission can be denied. Who knows. Anyway, on our second day down south, we were birding a vast, open area of the delta, with fallow fields on one side and a large lake on the other. Not much going on for several miles, but right in the middle were three unfinished buildings, each in turn less finished than the last. As we got closer, we noticed some English writing in the wall. "Go Away" it said, and, as an afterthought "I will fuck your god". Why anyone other than a local or a birdwatcher would be there in the first place I don’t know, but at this point we thought it might be a good idea to move on and investigate the Flamingos a bit further away.

As we birded away the morning, an occasional motorbike would drive by. We noticed that some of them also carried shotguns, and later we saw hunters striding through the fields and heard the crack of their guns. I began to regret the earth-tones of my outfit, guaranteed not to alarm our feathered friends. Some of the motorbikes heading back to the village would carry two men but no shotgun, and upon one of these I seemed to see a chicken. Well, why not? A motorbike is as reasonable method of conveying a chicken as any other.

I was, however, disabused of this notion when one of the bikes pulled up and a man who bore more than a passing resemblance to Yellowhat (in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) got off to say Merhaba. Perched on his wrist was a tethered Sparrowhawk, and his friend held a sack of pitifully peeping Quail. These two had been hunting by the age-old method of falconry (or, to be precise, accipitery - but let’s not be picky). He and I spoke about the same amount of German, but managed to have a nice chat regardless. We admired his hawk, but had a harder time admiring his dinner. Doreen later said we should have tried to buy the Quail back so we could set them free (and add a bird to our lifelist in the process), but at the time we were a little nonplused, and merely waved goodbye. I know I could have whipped out my phrase book and made an impassioned speech on behalf of vegetarianism, but I was, after all, compelled to obey the Prime Directive.

Either on the buses or

As a part of contemporary mythology, America’s Greyhound buses are a thing of the past. Once upon a time they were stuffed with pale English poets, desperately scribbling their definitive Greyhound poems. Now, apart from an occasional, overly optimistic advertising campaign, they barely touch on the popular consciousness. When our friend Liz took one to South Carolina, it was such a novelty that it became the central topic of conversation one night, as well as a rich source of humor.

In Turkey, things are different. The highways are good and the buses are clean, comfortable, and cheap. They appear to lack drooling psychopaths and come equipped with stewards who ply you with complementary mineral water, coffee, cake and cologne. So Doreen decided that the best plan of action for us would be to travel from Tasucu to Istanbul directly, on an all-night bus ride that was supposed to take about fourteen hours. Never having succumbed to the allure of the Greyhound, I was initially skeptical, thinking that it might be a better idea to stop-off somewhere in the middle; but Doreen argued her case persuasively, and the all nighter was decided upon. The price could hardly be argued with - $18 each for a distance of, er, a long way. Several hundred kilometers anyway, whatever they might be.

Unfortunately, in addition to their many advantages, Turkish buses also provide music. Not so bad when the music being played is traditional in nature (whatever "traditional" really means – "not western sounding" might be the best definition I have). When the selections being played fall under the genre of Turkish Rock, however, the results can be very distressing.

French Rock might be just plain bad, but Turkish Rock manages to be a whole lot worse. The copycat acts here aren’t particularly awful, simply pale imitations of whatever western band they happen to be imitating. It’s when a fusion of traditional Turkish and western music is attempted that things get really ugly, combining the worst elements of both styles - histrionic vocals fighting against appallingly flatulent guitar solos that would make Nigel Tufnel blush. It’s a shame, because most of the music you hear in Turkey is lovely. (It’s also almost exclusively Turkish – the only remotely western tunes we’ve heard have been cover versions. You’ll be half listening to an odd sounding version of Cecilia, when it will suddenly break into a Turkish rap section). And if you think I’m complaining about all this too much, you’re probably right. But then, you didn’t just listen to eight hours of Turkish Rock, interrupted only by a showing of Lethal Weapon 4 - in Turkish. Thank god it was dubbed and I didn’t have to listen to the dialogue.


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