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A Hindostani In Istanbul

Turkey probably makes for the best maiden international voyage. And its stunning caves are not the only reason. I turned into a local, coursing through Istiklal Street, bargaining for small treasures even as the shopkeepers asked, “Hindostan?”

brunch Updated: Sep 14, 2013 17:31 IST
Yashica Dutt
Yashica Dutt
Hindustan Times

Travel heals relationships. After sharing an especially strained, albeit virginal, one with my passport, I finally realised this in Turkey, where – after missing trips to Greece, Los Angeles and South Africa – I earned my first official stamp. Making an international trip today is as commonplace as finding fans of Honey Singh, but comes with more unsolicited advice. “Photograph every moment”, “Don’t lose moments in photography, live them”, “Do as all tourists do”, “Be a local in the foreign land”, “Be prepared, plan everything”, “Just let yourself go.”

I came back from Turkey with all boxes checked and a 16GB memory card. I was a wide-eyed tourist at the church, mosque and museum of Hagia Sophia, where Islamic symbolism coexists with a stunning centuries-old fresco of Jesus Christ. I turned into a local, coursing through Istiklal Street, bargaining for small treasures even as the shopkeepers asked, “Hindostan?” I immersed myself for hours in the Museum of Innocence, based on Orhan Pamuk’s eponymous book. I ran all over Istanbul in buses, on foot, on ferries, so as to finish all the sight-seeing packed into our punishing schedule. And rued missing the famous Turkish Hamam and the hot-air balloon ride over the cave mansions of Cappadocia.

Neither here nor there: Istanbul, with one end in Asia and the other in Europe, is a mix of both worlds

Initial apprehensions about leg space were dispelled on the horizontal business -class beds of Turkish Airlines. The accented announcements became inaugural introductions to Turkey and the unremitting flow of the local aniseed flavoured drink, raki, was a virile indication of what waited on the other side of the two-and-a-half hour time difference. Instead of landing feet first into Istanbul like most tourists, we (a group of journalists) took the connecting flight to Kayseri airport, to the cave region of Cappadocia.

Underground act
We met blunt rocks that resembled tidy slices of cake, extending beyond the horizon into clear blue skies. Several volcanoes erupted many millions of years ago and their ash billowed up to create a stunning landscape that niftily adjusted itself into a series of plateaus. In between the plateaus were rocks that have managed to stand for thousands of years.

Made from volcanic deposits called tuff, they looked like giant bobs on an old sweater, or like uneven icing left to freeze over. These rocks, called Fairy Chimneys or Hoodoos, are mostly found in the Göreme valley, in the Nevsehir province of Cappadocia.

Out of this world: The cave houses of Cappadocia give it a surreal, other-world appearance

We stayed in a lovely cave hotel called the Anatolian Houses, in rooms carved out of soft tuff rock, with low-level arches and roofs so low you could touch them. Perfectly cool without air-conditioning, the tuff rock created a mild chill in the room during what was a pretty intense summer outside. It is also known to remain warm in winter.

Some of the caves have been converted into boutique hotels or private residences, but most are preserved as museums in which the Byzantine monks sought refuge in the Medieval Ages (these sanctuaries are referred to as ‘religious troglodytes’). They established settlements and cut churches out of rocks, many of which have amazing frescoes. Most of these churches lie in the Göreme Open-Air Museum and have biblical scenes depicting Mary, Jesus, Christian saints and other religious symbolism.

But what really set me wondering about the monks chipping away at the rocks were the underground cities. Used as hiding places through the ages, first from the Romans and then Muslims, the Christian monks built entire cities underground, some of which could house 10,000 people. Well-planned tunnels lead from wine cellars (Cappadocia is famous for its wine) to living rooms, soot-covered kitchens to churches, mortuaries and stables.

Party like a Turk
For many visitors to Turkey, one of the must-dos is watching a bit of belly dancing. That is often the last act for tourists at Fasil night (a kind of cultural night, with music and dance performances) at local mayherns (taverns). The show begins with whirling dervishes and moves on to a series of local dances that include a great deal of hooting, clapping, excited shouting and pulling of guests to become part of the act. Guests are encouraged to eat the cold mezze platters with Turkish dips and local cheeses and drink copiously. At least enough to participate in the revelry!

The night finishes with a stellar show of coordinated movements that is the belly dance. Every muscle in the belly, the breasts, the hip and the neck is in play.

In Pamuk Country
Istanbul is a heady city, whose dual-coach buses reminded me of the BRT corridor in Delhi. Crossing the city’s busy streets can be equally intimidating! If the street art scene is alive with government-approved graffiti, the music scene is even better. Pop-artist Ke$ha’s performance at a stadium, right next to the Hilton (our hosts), made us green with envy, while the posters announcing the concert date for a popular electronic outfit The xx sent some of us straight into fan-girl/boy mode. The first major hotel to be built in the city, the Hilton also gave us a direct view of the Strait of Bosphorus.

Circles of silence: Watching the dervishes can often turn into a serene, meditative experience

Istanbul is a tourist’s paradise, with beautiful monuments, museums and markets. There is the Topkapi Palace, the Sultan’s residence during the 400-year-old Ottoman Empire. It houses Prophet Mohammed’s beard hair and his robes. Also not to be missed is the famous Nadir Shah throne from Iran. The Blue Mosque, known to have been built by the same masons who helped construct the Taj Mahal, is a resplendent monument with cascading domes and intricate blue pottery that took decades to finish.

The Grand Bazaar, a completely covered market that runs for a few kilometres, is a masterclass in bargaining. The Spice Market will amaze even the most jaded shopper: there are olives for sale in enormous jars, cheese by the kilo, hazelnuts in big containers.

End note: The epochal Taksim Square showed no signs of the citizen-police clashes that had occurred a few days ago – except for the hordes of well-dressed policemen patrolling the area.

This trip was sponsored by Turkish Airlines. Accommodation courtesy: The Hilton, Istanbul and Anatolian Houses, Cappadocia

Fact File
* Turkish Airlines runs direct non-stop flights from New Delhi and Mumbai to Istanbul.
* April-May and September-October are the best months to visit Turkey, and offer pleasant weather.
* 1 Turkish Lira = approx 32INR. But it’s best to carry American dollars or euros with you.
* Check or visit to plan your trip.
* Getting around is easy, with a good network of buses, trams, taxis especially in cities like Istanbul

How to Turk it up
* Turkish pottery is a find, but keep a small budget aside if you want the best quality fare. And don’t carry it back, instead try to get it shipped directly. Most vendors provide the service at an extra price.
* If you choose to buy Turkish coffee and spices, ensure you don’t pick them off the display on the racks, since they tend to lose some of their freshness.
* If you go for a performance of the whirling dervishes, keep your touristy instincts in check and don’t take photos, since the camera flash could disturb them.

From HT Brunch, September 15

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First Published: Sep 14, 2013 15:37 IST