Sunday, April 20, 2008

Istanbul, not Constantinople

It's been a while since my last post. Over a month, in fact. So much for my New Year's resolution. I've got an excuse that covers two weeks of that particular blogging black hole, though - I was in Turkey on holiday over the start of April and though I brought my crackberry with, it's not that convenient for writing blog postings.

I found Turkey to be a place of contradictions - everything there seems to be split into two: European and Asian Istanbul, Secular and Islamic, Old and New, Doner and Sis. I had a great time there. You can tell you're having a good time on holiday when you forget about work and your life at home, which I managed to do for a large part of the time I was away. In fact, when I did think about work it was like I was thinking about a particularly elusive dream from the night before.

Anyway, like I usually do with my postings about holidays, I'm going to write you a list of things that I will remember from Turkey:
  • The kebap - I've never seen such a prevalent national food as the kebap. It's not just for tourists - everyone seems to eat them and in Istanbul there's a kebap stall on every corner. And I'm not exaggerating. Australians and Turks share a lot - including war time experience and a love of lamb. I respect that.
  • The Aya Sofya - A candidate for the most impressive building I have ever seen, the Aya Sofya mosque started life as a Christian church built during the Byzantine era. When the Arabs later came through Turkey they were so impressed with its construction that they turned it into a mosque, and adopted its domed design into other mosques world-wide. The building is dominated by a central domed room with a ceiling that is 80m tall and has no obvious columns or other supports holding it up (except for a massive tower of scaffolding, which is an obvious modern addition). Walking inside that room for the first time takes your breath away, and to think it was built 1500 years ago is truly mind-boggling. I could have stayed in there all day if it wasn't for all the other tourists and their flash photography.
  • The Gallipoli peninsula - The Australian "pilgrimage" to Gallipoli (Gelibolu to the Turks) has grown in popularity over the last couple of years and I joined the herd in heading over that way. Luckily, I arrived a few weeks before Anzac Day, so was able to enjoy exploring the site in relative peace and quiet. It was a moving experience, but I won't lie and say I was overwhelmed by it. The thing that struck me was how small the place was. Anzac Cove was tiny and it's hard to imagine 20,000 soldiers landing there on 25 April 1915. The Nek too was such a tiny piece of land - two tennis courts in size, our guide told us, with the Australian and Turkish trenches not much more than 50m apart. Strategically important, maybe, but it's really depressing to think of so many people suffering and dying for two tennis courts worth of ground.
  • Ataturk - The father of the Turks, Mustafa Kemal as he was formerly known, led the Turkish defence at Gallipoli and then went on to mould post-war Turkey to his vision with more power and effect than perhaps any other world leader in the 20th century. I didn't know much about father Turk before arriving in Turkey, but everything I learned about him there I liked. His energy and vision in modernising post-war Turkey was quite something and Turks today still seem to appreciate his leadership in a very personal way. The reverence in which he is held may be justified, but I have to admit I do not like the laws that prohibit criticism of father Turk. It seems to me that it is not something that the man himself would ever have approved of.
  • The Turkish coastline - Turkey is a stunningly beautiful place - one of the main reasons I went there was to check out the Aegean coastline, but I wasn't expecting it to be quite as beautiful as it was. Driving in the bus down from Selcuk to Fethiye was an amazing experience - every turn on the highway reveals another panoramic view across green mountainsides to the sparkling Aegean sea. A serious rival for the Great Ocean Road as the greatest coastline drive I've been on.
  • Reality television - Turks have clearly embraced the concept of reality television. From Turkish pop idol, which is even trashier and more glitzy than the American, Australian and British versions combined, to the kickboxing knockout competition being filmed at the hostel I stayed at in Olympos, it seems like Turks can't get enough of reality. The kickboxing concept was a great one: (1) take a random selection of young, relatively athletic men from rural Turkey and Azerbaijan; (2) teach them the gentle and noble art of kickboxing over an intense period of training at various "exotic" locations (e.g. Olympos); and (3) watch them beat each other senseless live on TV. Great stuff. A couple of Turkish girls at the hostel suggested to me that the contestants on the show were all "muganda" (peasants) and I should tell them that. I declined the offer, politely.
  • Mehmet, the security guard - Mehmet worked night shift at the place where I stayed at Olympos. He was a very talkative and gentle guy who seemed to spend more time around the campfire and drinking free soft drinks than performing any security role, but he was a good source of conversation. The most memorable talk I had with him revolved around a large group of Australian tourists that were meant to be arriving the day after I left Olympos. Mehmet wanted to know how to speak to the Australian girls in the group, because he wanted a girlfriend and wasn't keen on Turkish girls. He told me that he did not have much experience with girls, as he was Kurdish and in the community he grew up in, he wasn't allowed to mix with girls and, until he was 17, had no idea what sex was. He told me that his lack of experience made him very nervous when trying to talk to girls and they could always sense that, so he'd had no real success with them to date. But he was hoping little by little, by getting tips from other men, he might improve. Despite me telling him that I was no expert on the topic, he insisted on taking notes during our conversation. So the Australian girls that arrived after me can expect Mehmet to give them plenty of compliments on what they're wearing and to ask lots of questions about where they're from and where they're travelling to. After we finished talking about girls, Mehmet told me about his previous career in the army. He was a sniper for two years and can take a man out with a rifle at 800m. Apparently, in order to kill, you have to hit them in the head or chest. A hit in the legs, according to Mehmet, will not kill and, therefore, is no good. Mehmet's credentials as a security guard are excellent.

I could go on, but this list is already too long. I may add some photos to this posting in a couple of days, but in the meantime you can check out some photos I added to my facebook page.