Thursday, December 30, 2010

Things To Do In Turkey Whilst Waiting For Your Visa

It looks like when the guy at the Iranian consulate in Istanbul told me that the visa application process would be easier if my family initiated proceedings in Tehran, he was being economical with the truth. It would be easier for him, meaning less paperwork, but far more complicated, more time-consuming, and more fraught with uncertainty for me. I learnt this from a Dutch-Iranian couple who were also waiting for a visa at the Ankara embassy, and who had already applied, and been rejected, a couple of times already, who were in pretty much the same boat as me. As I waited for the visa juggernaut to come to town, to retain my sanity, and to relieve Can from me squatting his laptop, I've taken a couple of trips from Ankara (having already seen all there is to see in the city itself).

The tomb complex of Rumi in Konya.

My first trip was to the town of Konya, just across the high, windswept Anatolian plain from Ankara. It used to be the capital of the Anatolian Seljuk kingdom some 800 years ago, but little is left of that erstwhile splendour except for a few mosques and the tomb of a certain Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī, known in the west simply as Rumi. Rumi was the founder of the Mevlevi Order of Dervishes, more commonly known as Whirling Dervishes due to their trance-like spinning rituals that can last for hours. Rumi is claimed by Turks (he lived most of his life in Konya), Iranians (he wrote in Persian and his family was from Persia) and Tajiks (his birthplace is in modern Tajikistan), something Rumi would probably not have cared for, being a great advocate of loving your fellow man and finding common humanity and love despite differences. So, although his poems and texts were originally religious in nature, they have transcended Sufism and even religion and found a worldwide audience who have found a universal message in his elegant verses. And now his mausoleum has become a pilgrimage spot for many, where religious and secular brush shoulders, united in their respect for a great and good man, and in their thin, blue protective galoshes as they squeek past the tomb.

My other stop was Göreme in Cappadocia. The town with its surrounding landscape of so-called fairy chimneys is one of the main tourist sights in Turkey, and for good reason too. The oddly shaped rock formations, created by different layers of rocks, water, wind and many years create a magical landscape that is fun to explore, with new treasures around every corner. The rock structures would have been enough to keep me entertained for a long time, but for millenia people have been using the handy shapes, and soft lower rock, to carve out houses within them. Some of these houses are freestanding and up to 20m tall, some are more humble, and others still delve into cliffsides. Some are abandoned, some are old churches showing the long Christian presence in the area, but many are still inhabited by local families and farmers and many others have been turned into hotels and guesthouses (although now with indoor plumbing). The town of Göreme is slap bang in the centre of the fairy chimney wonderland, and since it only has a population of just over 2000 it was the first place on my trip that was geared entirely to tourists: half the buildings are hotels, hostels or guesthouses, with the other half either being restaurants, travel agents or souvenir shops. It has been a strange characteristic of my trip so far that I haven't actually had much contact with other travellers. That was to change here. Upon arrival I wandered around to try and find the best accommodation deal. The prices in my guidebook were half of the prices I was being quoted. Inflation's a bitch! Eventually I settled on a hostel that offered a bed plus breakfast for €7. I knew it was the best deal because the place was full of Koreans and Japanese, and if there's one thing I've learnt whilst travelling, it's that they always know where the cheapest accommodation is to be found. It was surreal to see all the staples of backpackerdom again: visitor guestbooks, lounge for hanging out, menu with obligatory muesli and fruit salad with yoghurt (though, surprisingly, no banana pancakes, but a range of ramen options instead for the Oriental clientele) and cramped dorms. None of that, and not even the snow on my last day, could dampen my enthusiasm, as I explored the various little valleys, each linked by centuries-old meandering footpaths. A truly enchanting place and one of the few that I wouldn't hesitate to go straight back to as there are a myriad nooks and crannies begging to be discovered.

Row of fairy chimneys with houses carved into them.

And a final word from one of Rumi's beautiful, timeless quatrains:
Where kindness is, who cares for peace or war?
Where goodness acts, who hears prayer or quarrel?
When a man's accepted, who cares where he's from?
Surrender, yield; if not, your pride's a stone.
Translated by Zara Houshmand.

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