Saturday, July 21, 2012

Discovering Turkey Part 1

After reading in the EatingAsia blog about Turkey, the culture, history, and food, I've recently become fascinated with traveling around that region. Luckily, a few months ago, one of my Turkish INSEAD classmates invited me and another classmate to go exploring in Cappadocia, a place I had never heard about. I realized that I really didn't know much about the region. Growing up, most people study about Istanbul, maybe you hear abit about Ephesus, but after this trip, I learned that there's so much to see in Turkey, and that it's really felt like discovering a new place and country.

After getting the invitation from Erdem (my classmate), my first place to look was to study the wikipedia entry on Cappadocia. After seeing the pictures, I was totally hooked on going, and what better way than to go with a Turkish classmate that knows his way around.

Getting there was a bit complicated - I had to get to Ankara, in central Turkey, and then meet with my classmates, then drive another 2-3 hours into the Cappadocia region. I took the red-eye from Amsterdam on Turkish airlines to Istanbul.... and it's always a good sign when they call your name before boarding, because I got an free upgrade (!!) on the AMS-IST segment. That's the 2nd time it's happened to me on Turkish Airlines and particularly nice when you're taking the red-eye. It's more like US domestic coach, but they just block the middle seat and you have nicer meals. And I could at least get some sleep, since we left AMS around midnight, and the flight was 3.5 hours long.

"first" class seats on TK, with middle seat blocked

TK's meals, both in F and Y, are always tasty

Once arriving to IST at 3am, I had a 4-5 hour layover, since I wanted to take the same morning segment from IST-Ankara as my Turkish friends. Made my way into the TK lounge, and surprisingly, walked in without anybody checking my credentials. I somewhat knew that my Star Alliance silver status didn't include lounge entry on partners, but thought I'd try to sneak in with my F boarding pass, and nobody checked. That was nice - since I could actually sleep for a bit. But, I actually ran into a problem when exiting the lounge. Apparently, in IST, one can depart directly from the lounge to a bus that takes you to your gate. I didn't know this, so when I left the lounge and asked them how to get to my gate, they told me "there's a bus from here, just go back into the lounge". But, I couldn't get back into the lounge because I didn't have a Star Alliance Gold status, so I had to walk to the terminal. (no big loss, but a bit funny...)

I met my friends in IST in the morning, and then we ran into a bit of problems as TK was undergoing a strike, and our flight to Ankara was running a bit late, but not too bad, 30 mins or so. After arriving in Ankara, we immediately rented a car, and started our long drive to Cappadocia.

The landscape in that part of Turkey was really striking - a rocky, huge expanse, dry looking, but you'll see some farmers and goats/lamb herders. The highway is well-maintained, but fairly empty except for some big freight trucks and small passenger cars. However, there's still a bit of an "eastern" mentality as you get further out from the major areas, as my classmate was always stopping to ask for directions, and people would tell you directions to a nearest landmark, and you'd have to re-ask once arriving at that landmark.

A few interesting sights: an older Turkish lady, all covered up, but still working in the fields, gave me the impression that these were really hard working people. And, on the side of the road, you'll see these merchants, selling nuts and other dried fruit. Interesting fact - the hazelnut that you often see in chocolates, is actually originally Turkish .

And - my other "sign" of an eastern mentality, was how people thought of food. It really reminded me of traveling throughout Singapore / Malaysia, where everybody had an opinion of food, and could tell you where to go. After buying a few dried fruits and nuts from this roadside vendor, my friend asked where we should get lunch, and got a recommendation down the road. When we arrived, it was just a small roadside restaurant, with indoor and outdoor seating, and the food was really great. Turkish "quick-service" restaurants typically have a few set dishes pre-prepared: some type of kofte (elongated meatball), vegetables (usually peppers, eggplant, zuchhini, etc), rice pilaf, and of course bread.
Turkish roadside restaurant

That's where I was first introduced to izmir kofte, incredibly tasty beef/lamb kofte in a tomato sauce. And this was generally true of most of the restaurants that we went to throughout Turkey - all of them had great food, everything seemed freshly prepared, there's a lot of care to have fresh vegetables along side the dish. Also, I didn't yet notice any mass commercialization, even in the large cities. And of course, meals were very affordable, a nice dinner might be EUR15 or so, but typical good dinner might be EUR10.

Izmir Kofte

And after a few hours more driving, we finally arrived in Cappadocia. It was an incredible view, an old town, completely cut out of rock. You would see this huge plain, with these "stone hills", and evidence that people have carved out cave homes from them, and have lived there for centuries. It was almost like seeing something out of Smurfs! We had booked a fantastic hotel, Hotel Ahbap Konagi, run by a French / Turkish couple. They've renovated a number of rooms that had a fantastic view of the hills / caves on their outdoor terrace.

View of the Cappadocia area

On our first night there, we sat outside on the terrace, talking about old times in the dark, with a view of the hills, and sounds of Turkish music from the nearby houses. It was one of those "moments" when you realize you're in a new, strange place, and there's a sense of wonder, that you can't believe you're actually there. And I was, completely amazed, and so glad that my Turkish friend had invited me to this place, someplace I'd never heard of before!
View from our hotel at night