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Diary of a Trip to Turkey

Saturday, April 3, 1999

Dear Friends and Family,

Here is the story of the good part of the week -- a two-and-a-half day tour of Antalya on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. The story is a bit long-winded, but think of it this way, if you were here in person, you'd have to hear and see even more.

First, let's set the background for how this trip happened. Marianne had Spring Break this week so we HAD to "go somewhere". Unfortunately, I really have no vacation time so the trip would have to be quick. And we wanted WARM -- or at least warmer than we have had for the last six months of Winter. (Yes, the cold really did start in early October, almost six full months ago.) So, "warm" meant south, "quick" meant within a couple or three hours flying, and the combination meant Turkey.

However, when we checked the U.S., and British Consulates, both warned against travel to Turkey. Dissidents from a Kurdish group called the PKK have promised to disrupt tourism to make their point. Prudence would have had us stay home but if we were completely prudent, we wouldn't have just spent the Winter in Ukraine. The lure of warm beaches and wonderful rug shopping outweighed the risk of bombs.

The fact that the U.S. (NATO) was effectively at war with one of Ukraine's "Slavic Brethren countries" was also contributing to our uncertainty. Maybe they wouldn't let us Yankee Imperialist Aggressors back in if we left. But then again, beaches, rugs, and the prospect of good seafood were a powerful force. We left Wednesday at noon.



We suspected it would not be a busy flight from Kyiv to Istanbul and it wasn't. We flew a small jet on Turkish Airlines with about 25 of the 80 or so seats filled. It was a nice two-hour flight since we had space to spread out and, most importantly, we were on vacation!

At Istanbul airport, we had to connect to a flight to Antalya, another hour away. The transit lounge is quite nice and there were TV screens and English public address announcements for all the flights. It was almost like changing planes in Toledo. Almost. We studied the Departure screen and went to the appropriate security passage. The PA announcements confirmed we were at the right place, but nothing happened. "Final Boarding" showed up on the screen and was announced but still it was impossible to get into the waiting area because the inspection guard would not let us pass. I asked at the Turkish Airlines information booth and the agent simply said, "Wait. The announcements are all automatic and they are often wrong."

So we waited - Marianne and I and one young Ukrainian lady who was looking as worried as we were. Twenty minutes after the "last call", we heard our names announced and suddenly we were hustled past the gate guard, down some stairs and out to a bus that immediately sped off with just us three on board. We were put on a plane, which we were assured was indeed the flight to Antalya and that we were in fact the only international passengers on this 737-400. Three people and a couple hundred seats - like a private jet! But soon a few dozen "domestic" passengers boarded "our" plane - pretty empty but not quite a private flying carpet.

An hour after this, we landed at Antalya and taxied up to the domestic terminal. Again, we were separated from the other passengers and given a bus ride - over to the international terminal. On the way there, our bus caught up with a little truck that had our bags on it so everyone stopped and we were handed our bags. Unusual but more convenient than waiting by some baggage belt. The Antalya Turkey International Terminal was very impressive. Large. Modern. And empty - except for the three passengers from Kyiv. We lined up and bought $45 visas and then lined up and went through Immigration. Ten minutes flat -- it was great. On the way out to the curb, we walked through a terminal big enough for hundreds or even thousands of passengers. Our footsteps echoed off the marble floors and soaring windows.

(The story behind this emptiness turned out to be a combination of factors. First, the tourist warnings from various countries really has cut down the tourist traffic. Second, the season was at it's lowest point of the year - not winter and not yet summer. Third, tourism out of Ukraine and Russia has almost disappeared due to our local economic problems. Finally, most "European" flights arrive in the morning or afternoon whereas we landed in the evening.)



It turned out that trip activities split into touring, eating and shopping. Come to think of it, this may be the universal format for vacation travel. So that's how we'll divide the picture-portion of the diary.



Antalya is a very old harbor and "old city" engulfed by a huge new resort city. The old harbor is surrounded by a wall and there is another wall around the inland side of much of the old city. We were told that 10 or 15 years ago, there were a few tens of thousands of inhabitants but now there are a million full-time residents and summer can find several million people in town on a busy weekend. We were glad it was off-season!

Early Thursday morning we were wakened by the prayer call from a nearby minaret and we started touring by looking out the back window of the hotel to the snow covered mountains. We had not expected such mountains -- nor such high density housing. It's easy to see how the place could hold a few million people on a big weekend.

After this, we started our half-hour stroll into the old city. The first landmark we ran into was this tower fortress that looked down on the harbor below. The contrast between the modern, beach-town shops and condos and this 2,000-year-old tower and wall was fascinating. The wall itself runs along the bluff over the harbor so the view from here is spectacular. There is a rough staircase (what do you expect after a couple millennia of foot traffic) down to the harbor which almost did Marianne in. Apparently handrails and equal spacing on steps were not required by the Romans who had the place built.

Down in the harbor, we got our first real taste of Turkish hard-sell hawkers. Several boats were lined up against the seawall and every crew tried to convince us to join their excursion. They tried sales pitches in Turkish, German, English or a mixture. We usually answered in a mixture of English, Marianne's German and our Russian ("nyet, nyet, nyet, dah"). We continued this language medley for the whole trip.

Anyway, the boat trip sounded like a good idea but it literally cost millions of Turkish liras even after a "special discount for being first customer". We "negotiated" the price from seven to four million for the two of us - and later discovered that was the fare any of the boats would charge anyone, anytime. We put our heads together and determined this was a bit over ten bucks. A great deal because we could sit and rest our weary feet. It turned out to be a fun ride. We went out of the harbor and along the coast for about 30 minutes. The shore is all a rock bluff, maybe 100 feet high so it seemed like we were off some deserted island -- except when we caught sight of our hotel and dozens of the hotels and condos. The goal of the trip was "the waterfall" and it was worth the ten dollars.

Back on land we wandered the streets and alleys of the old city. Once we got accustomed to hawkers every few feet, it was fun. The old wall goes around much of the area and it serves as a continuous reminder of how long this place has been settled and how long hawkers have been calling customers into their shops. "Hadrian's Gate", built about 160 BC (restored last in the 1950's) l was built to honor the power of Rome and was guarded by two towers. Back home in Kyiv, we have become accustomed to our view of the thousand-year-old church next door -- but this gate is twice that old.

At a more human level, the old city is filled with ancient (or at least old) homes. Some have been renewed and serve as houses, shops, or small hotels or "pensyons". Some still need work. But restored or not, seeing these buildings forced history to become real and it was easy to imagine wandering through a neighborhood of wealthy merchants of centuries passed.



All was not history and learning. We had to eat of course and we discovered that our hotel included breakfast and dinner. For our first night, the hotel dinner worked out great because we were tired, the streets were rainy and even this cafeteria-like atmosphere seemed exotic. The guests and the food were mostly Turkish so we knew we were in a new land - even at a hotel buffet dinner.

One our most interesting meals was in a "food court" where each of a half-dozen restaurants offered a collection of authentic dishes. Again there were hawkers and one successfully lured us in. Actually, his food was the trick. You can see the normal "gyro" stack of beef turning on vertical spit in front of a wood fire and coals. That was Marianne's choice. In front were two fires with simmering meat from which I chose a leg of lamb. We added some normal salads and veggies and had a feast fit for a sultan. All this while we sat overlooking the hustle and bustle of downtown Antalya.

In the most spectacular setting we tried, we had coffee in a small restaurant overlooking the harbor that is literally hung from the middle of the old wall. The entrance is through the wall and then the view of the boats and the Mediterranean was unbeatable.

There were also street vendors for various snacks. Early in the morning, young boys walked around with huge pans of "bagels" on their heads. One kid actually gave us one free when he learned we were Americans. He was Kurd and, in very broken English, he thanked us for the US intervention on Kurdish behalf. The bread was good and the thanks seemed genuine -- not exactly the Kurdish dissident treatment we had been warned about.

Down by the harbor, there were also outdoor juice bars whose bright colors made a great accent to the massive brown stone walls. And the juice was refreshing after a full day of touring and shopping.



When we left San Jose we had to leave behind most of our oriental carpets and we've missed the look and feel under foot they gave our home. So here we were in a land of carpets. And plenty of people to sell them to us. Now, we are not exactly novices in purchasing rugs but we have no doubt that these guys are better at taking our money than we are at getting a bargain on their products. But we went to Turkey for a rug and so we just waded in.

Our first stop was at a shop called "Lady's Hand Kilims". Nice sound to it and a wonderful collection of flat-woven kilims. Marianne sipped tea with the owner as they sat in the morning sun. He warned us of the various pitfalls of buying rugs in the dozens of shops nearby. His harshest warning was to avoid tours of local rugs "factories" where the prices would be inflated and the rugs often not genuine Turkish. Nice stories, good tea, valid advice -- but did we buy from him? No. Maybe next time.

I actually think it was easier buying here than in San Francisco. The business is very competitive and every merchant knows a buyer will walk away from an uncomfortable situation. We had a decent idea of prices in the States and we didn't expect huge discounts from that. In today's international world, it's pretty unusual for there to be large differences in goods which have a market in the US.

Eventually, we weakened. At the "Karavan" rug store, we were shown dozens of rugs -- and offered cups of Turkish coffee and glasses of sweet tea and "apple tea". We went from their small store to their big store across the street. We listened in English and then Marianne shifted to German. (One of the owners had studied in Vienna like many others who at one time or another had lived in Germany or Austria.)

Finally, I saw a nice "Turkmen" hung on the wall back at the small store and we both loved it. Ironically, we knew this type of rug originally came from Afghanistan but was now being made by refugee communities in far eastern Turkey. So we had settled on a rug that was not really Turkish but rather from that part of the world where boundaries are all artificial and people have been displaced by war for centuries.

Marianne was in charge of getting an appropriate price. We had talked about what the rug would cost in San Francisco so when they said $40 per square foot we countered that we could get it at home for half that. This may or may not be true but it was certainly plausible -- and that's all that counts. Now the big boss came in and we all agreed we would make our best and final offer. We offered a couple hundred less than we figured we would end up at -- and they didn't flinch. We knew we had the rug at an OK price -- and we were sure it was OK business for them as well since we had no doubts about who the expert businessmen were in this room.

The best part was that we could now walk past all the other rugs stores. We could concentrate on the small souvenirs -- or so I thought. In a corner of the old town, near the Mosque, we wandered into Rose Leders (Leathers). Everything in this shop was high style and definitely not the plain black leather coats we had seen before - in both Antalya and Kyiv. As soon as Marianne tried on a blue lamb leather coat I knew we had another purchase. It is decorated with a Miro reproduction and is like "wearing art". (I got that from their brochure.)

Besides, the owner charmed us while minor alterations were made upstairs. Again, there seemed to be a genuine friendliness here. He said he likes working with Americans because they are more patient with his English than the British are and much friendlier than Germans although most of his foreign customers are Germans in fact. He made us promise to e-mail him before we come again and he would see that we get good accommodations in one of the small hotels in the old city. When we asked for lunch recommendations he walked us up to the "food court" saying the restaurants near the store were too high priced (right) and better for just sipping coffee (right again).



The trip back was uneventful except for the fact that the flight for Istanbul left at 6:05 AM so we were up at 4:00. This time, the Antalya airport was full of people boarding one of several flights. Istanbul was similarly busy so we now know that the busy time for Turkish (international) airports is from six to ten in the morning.

By a bit after noon, we were back at Borispol airport in Kyiv and we even had a completely uneventful passage through Immigration and Customs. Yurii was waiting for us when we emerged and even the weather was cooperating as it was sunny and almost warm. The fact was that it had been warmer in Kyiv than in Antalya while we were traveling. But scattered snow is forecast for Sunday night!

Would I recommend Antalya, Turkey? Absolutely. Maybe not in peak tourist season when it has to be a real zoo but in this off-season it was delightful. Different? Sure, but that's what we're out here seeking.

Take care and Happy Easter.

John and Marianne



























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Originally mailed April 3, 1999. Reformatted June 3, 2001.

This page created on a Macintosh using PhotoPage by John A. Vink.