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Travelling through Turkey

Roger Short Travel Scholarships Report – Hugh Moorhead

Between 17 August and 05 September Louis Grandjouan and I travelled through Turkey, Georgia and Armenia as Roger Short scholars. Here is my journal of this trip.

Istanbul 17-20 August

Our trip started with two days and three nights in Istanbul, by some way the largest city in Turkey. A very pleasant day was spent in Sultanahmet, the city’s most famous area, which is home to famous sights such as the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar, among others.

The beauty and history of these sights is well known. The Hagia represents an excellent example of the influence that several cultures have wielded on the city, having served as both an Orthodox and (briefly) Roman Catholic cathedral and latterly as a mosque. The huge Topkapi palace gave a striking impression of the vast power that the Ottoman Sultans must have held. Although we didn’t visit the inner Harem as much of it was being renovated, the mystique which these rulers must have held was evident from the Palace’s layout, as access to each successive courtyard was harder and harder to obtain, with the most exclusive and final courtyard being the sole domain of the Sultan and his immediate family. Another example of the aloofness with which some Sultans acted was the hole through which they eavesdropped on the proceedings of the Royal Council. Their opulence and extravagance was obvious from the way in which individual buildings existed with functions as varied as storing the Sultan’s turbans and acting as a circumcision theatre. The Grand Bazaar, meanwhile, provided an example of the ancient fusing with the modern, as the 15th century walls and ceilings now encircle a vast array of modern, air-conditioned shops, selling all manner of goods from gold and jewels to ‘genuine fake’ football shirts.

In the remainder of our time we managed to wonder several of the cities other neighbourhoods. This included spending time on the ‘Asian’ side of the city, following a ferry trip across the Bosphorus which provided stunning views of the city (the plethora of cargo ships lurking just beyond indicated the city’s importance as a trade hub). One interesting trend that I had read about before travelling was that Erdogan supporters tend to be moustachioed, and such men seemed to be in far greater abundance on this side of the Bosphorus. We also wondered beyond Taksim Square (with no protests fortunately taking place on that particular day) up towards the opulent district of Besiktas, whose streets were lined with all the higher end western fashion houses, something which served as a reminder of the ‘East meets West’ nature of the city. A visit to the more bohemian area of Cihangir was made one evening, a welcome change to the bars and clubs of the Beyoglu area.

Istanbul’s recent troubles have not escaped the notice of the British press, with the two major bombings of the past six months, as well as July’s failed coup and the government’s disturbing reaction to it being most notable. Whilst the city was clearly functioning as usual, and people were evidently getting on with their lives, we did not quite find the warm Turkish welcome that we had hoped for, for while those we spoke to were polite and helpful, there were few smiles, very possibly an indication of a troubled people who worry for their country’s future. Our hostel was running at a fraction of full capacity, despite it being peak season, while the Sultanahmet area was devoid of Western tourists, both of which suggest that tourism in the city has taken a dive.

Cappadocia 20-23 August

Following a tedious morning’s travel, we arrived in the Goreme National Park for a few days’ sightseeing and exploring in Cappadocia. The beautiful rock formations which make the area so stunningly beautiful are the result of volcanic rock activity that an Earth Scientist would be better off explaining. Those who have inhabited the region over the past couple of millennia have made extensive use of this soft rock, for they have fashioned numerous dwellings within them. These include ‘underground churches’, which the early Christians built around the 4th and 5th centuries, best exhibited at the Goreme Open Air Museum, which contains some stunning frescoes, many of Christ the Pantocrator (‘ruler of all’); there are also ‘rock castles’, such as in the village of Uchisar, large rocks rising above ground level in which whole communities used to live, some as recently as 80 years ago; finally ‘underground cities’, the most extensively excavated of which can be found at Derinkyu, and although only a fraction of this has thus far been excavated, the city extends eight levels deep. These cities were used by early Christians, who used to hide in them when hostile troops were in the vicinity.

We were also able to squeeze in a daytrip to the foothills of the Taurus mountains, where we did a very pleasant hike, as well as walk along the Ihlara Valley, a canyon which appears pretty much out of nowhere and which is more verdant than the rest of the region owing to the river running along its base.  We were both struck not only by the beauty of the region, but also by its geological diversity. I am enticed by the prospect of going back one day during the winter, as I suspect the scenery would be even more stunning.

Transit 23-24 Aug

We experienced the delights of a night bus from Kayseri to Trabzon and the clientele who make use of such transport, including one extremely friendly man who showed us numerous photos of himself in a nurse’s outfit and found it utterly hilarious that the three of us all had iPhones, celebrating this by taking selfies with Louis asleep in the background. A three hour minibus from Trabzon to the Georgian border along the Black Sea Coast gave us a brief insight into life along this coast, with the more tropical climate being particularly noticeable. Turkey is clearly a country of great diversity containing much to explore and marvel at, but one constant of our time there was the ubiquity of Turkish flags, which are absolutely everywhere, which is apparently a relatively recent development, as if fervent nationalism is the solution to the problems which beset the country, or at least a way of avoiding suspicion.

Batumi 24-27 August

Before we could reach Batumi, the self-styled ‘Las Vegas of Georgia’, we had to negotiate border control.  My experience of border controls asides those at airports is not extensive, but the ruckus that was taking place here was appalling. Turks and Westerners were prioritised ahead of Georgians, who were left to scrum their way through the section of the queue in 30 degree hear,  while the police presence amounted to a grand total of three and bags were not checked, meaning anyone could have wondered along and blown both themselves and hundreds of others up. Moreover, no-one adhered to any of the signs, from those prohibiting smoking to those directing Turks and non-Turks into separate queues.

Batumi, once we reached it, proved to be a most extraordinary city. A trip up a cable-car to a viewpoint revealed that behind the glitzy hotels and shops which front the boulevard, the remainder of the city lives in far poorer conditions. There were several bizarre buildings, including one which had a Ferris Wheel built into its side, intended by one government to be a university, before being sold off by its successor to a hotel company. Despite ultimately proving to be one of Georgia’s more expensive places, Batumi initially seemed very cheap in the aftermath of Turkey, and so plenty of eating and drinking was done. In the evenings there was plenty of entertainment to be found, with street dancers and arcades complementing the predictable array of beach bars and clubs.

Tbilisi 27-29 August

The journey from Batumi to Tbilisi provided our first encounter with a Mashrutka. These are essentially minibuses which, throughout the Caucuses, provide the service that the likes of Stagecoach and National Express do in the UK. Having reported to Batumi bus station, essentially a small car park, we were shoved in the back of a Mashrutka for a six hour journey to Tbilisi along single carriageway roads (cue plenty of aggressive overtaking), made less comfortable by both the absence of seatbelts and the fact that the occasional swerve was needed to get out of the way of a cow, for Georgians seem happy to allow these beasts to wander as they please.

Tbilisi is a rapidly modernising city, as is evident from a stroll down Rustaveli, its main street. Georgian flags are not as ubiquitous here as Turkish ones were in Istanbul, but a quick stroll in Freedom Square gives a strong impression of Georgian patriotism, not least because of the column in the middle of the square which has atop it a statue of St. George slaying the dragon (although apparently Georgia is not so called on account of him). There were several notable churches to explore, as well as the Narikala Fortress. We took a funiculaire, apparently a popular setting for scenes in old Soviet films, up to the top of a hill, which gave us some idea of the city’s considerable size- only London in the UK has a greater population. Whilst in the city we were also able to sample plenty of Georgian food and wine, with Khachapuri (bread with melted cheese in the middle) proving a particular favourite.

Svaneti 29 August-2 September

Bright and early on Monday morning we found ourselves transported to a bizarre airfield-cum-hotel complex just outside of Tbilisi, where we boarded a 15 seat Vanilla Sky plane for the hour long flight to Mestia, the chief town of the mountainous region of Svaneti. Until about 10-15 years ago, Svaneti, due to its inaccessibility, was essentially left to run itself by the Georgian government, until someone had the idea that the area’s outstanding natural beauty could draw tourists to Georgia from all over, at which point the army was sent in to straighten them out.

These days there are plenty of tourists, many of them Israeli, who hike and climb around this region of the Caucasus Mountains, even if the food remains basic and the roads poor. Louis and I went on several hikes of varying difficulties, the highlights being the one up to the Ushba Glacier, which involved walking through a verdant forest and encountering several beautiful waterfalls (the ice cold water meant that swimming was, sadly, not an option). On another day we hired some horses and a guide and enjoyed a bumpy ride for a few hours up to a local viewpoint, during which our guide spent most of his time shouting down his mobile phone in Georgian, although we did not know why. The area is becoming an increasingly popular tourist attraction; its great beauty makes it well worth a visit before it almost inevitably becomes saturated.

Transit 2-3 September

After a return flight on our teeny tiny plane to Tbilisi, we promptly headed to the main railway station (boasting just 5 platforms) to catch our night train to Yerevan. The train took 9 hours, stopped frequently and trundled along at a rather slow pace. We shared a compartment with a patriotic Armenian, who practically shook us awake early the following morning to show us Mt. Ararat, a mountain which is symbolic for the Armenians despite lying in present day Turkey, as well as giving us a T-Shirt whose legend demanded justice and recognition of the killings of Armenians by Turks during the First World War as genocide.

Yerevan 3-5 September

The final leg of our journey was a weekend in Yerevan, a bizarre city. The centre is rather modern, with wide boulevards and plenty of parkland, yet feels neither Soviet, European nor Arab, and so has a vibe all of its own. We visited the Soviet Cascade, essentially a giant set of steps, which took about 30 years to construct and is now adorned with an extraordinarily bizarre collection of modern art. A visit was also paid to the Mother Georgia museum, which patriotically portrays on Armenia’s fight for independence and also its recent conflicts with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The most sobering moment on our trip however was the trip to the Armenian Genocide Museum, which depicts the events of the first two decades of the 20th Century in which c. 1 million Armenians were put to death by the Young Turk government; these events are recognised as genocide by very few countries, but one suspects that if Armenia had the international clout and strategic importance of present day Turkey, they would be universally recognised as such. The cuisine in Armenia is centred around barbecued meats, and so proved very popular with both of us.

Return Journey 5 September

We were fortunate enough to have a few hours between our flights into and out of Istanbul, and used this time to visit Victoria Short, who very kindly took us for breakfast and showed us around her beautiful apartment. She was able to provide us with an invaluable perspective on the current political situation in Turkey and its effects, which rounded off the whole trip nicely.

The whole trip was a wonderful experience, and I feel like I have learned a great deal about the region. I would like to thank Victoria and the Roger Short benefactors for their generosity in making this trip possible.

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