Trip Start Sep 29, 2006
36Trip End Ongoing
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My goal for this trip was to see Gaziantep, Urfa, Mount Nemrut, and Mardin. I was quoted 280 lira for a Nemrut tour on Monday and service to Urfa on Tuesday, where I would also receive a short tour. I declined and decided to make my own way into East Turkey.
Istanbul to Gaziantep:
My service bus from Istanbul to Istanbul's main bus station (called the 'Buyuk Otogar') left Taksim Square, European Istanbul's main thoroughfair, at 5:00. I boarded the bus and got to the transfer station in 20 minutes. Upon showing the serviceman my ticket, he said, "You took the wrong service bus."
"I did?" I asked dumbly.
"Yes," he replied. "But don't worry, we will help you."
He asked me if I would like him to call me a taxi to ensure that I made my bus on time. I told him I would like to avoid paying for a 15-20 lira ride, if at all possible. He understood and, after conferring with some coworkers, decided that there would probably not be a Sunday evening rush hour to get stuck in. Sure enough, the service bus came and I ended up getting to my bus 45 minutes early.
I left Istanbul at 7 p.m. I was seated next to a Turkish medical student from Adana named Ibrahim. He spoke worse English than I spoke Turkish, so we conversed in Turkish for most of the 14 hour ride. Luckily he was a very talkative person, since my end of the conversational deal was weak, and he didn't seem to mind overly much if I was following or not (or even paying attention at some points!). However, this was to be a precursor of things to come.
I arrived in Gaziantep a little after 9 a.m. on Monday the 14th. I didn't have a hotel or a travel guide, but I did have meticulous notes taken from Internet websites (note: if you are ever stuck on going to Gaziantep, a guidebook would be a good idea).
I got onto the first bus headed into town. On the way I asked the driver and passengers if we were headed toward the city center (Sehir Merkezine). We were. I asked the whereabouts of the Teacher House (Ogretmen Evi), reportedly the cheapest game in town at 15-20 lira for a night. We were headed towards it, too.
A very helpful passenger named Sevgi offered to take me to the Teacher House. I followed her. She bought me tea in the hotel's garden, and after asking at the front desk we found that there were no vacancies.
Sevgi dropped me at another hotel nearby and we parted ways. The desk worker quoted me a price of 50 YTL (about $37), and after my reflexive and unbridled look of skepticism, the price instantly dropped to 40 YTL. I asked to see the room, and it was a 30 lira dive at best. I asked for 30, the man said no, and I kept on keeping on.
I checked a couple other 50 and 60 lira establishments (that didn't include breakfast!) before I tripped across the inconspicuous Hotel Buyuk Ali (Hotel Big Ali), a nice little 6-story pension-style (like a hostel but without hostel-style rooms) hotel.
Another helpful woman, a German-born lady who spoke English and had lived in Turkey for 4 years, gave me a single room with double beds, a bathroom, cable tv, and breakfast included for 25 lira. So now, from a room with a view of Antep Castle up on the hill, I struck out into the city.
Unfortunately, all my good luck stopped here.
Upon advice from the lady at the hotel, who I hoped would have good taste in historical places after 3 years in Ankara and 1 year in Gaziantep, I walked across a big nice park to the Ulu Camii (Mosque). The mosque was built in 1990 and it was nothing special. I left and walked across the street, only to bump into Sevgi again.
I said hello. She asked me where I was going and I said Antep Castle. She offered to accompany me. I didn't really want company, as I wanted to compose my own camera shots without someone staring over my shoulder and to be alone with my thoughts and observations, but I didn't want to be rude. That was my first mistake of the day.
Sevgi proved to be quite clingy and made several attempts to be touchy-feely, as some Turkish people are wont to do but to which I am not accustomed.
After an hour and a half of this I told her that I was bored with Gaziantep and that I was going to leave for Urfa immediately. She was crestfallen. She thought that we could spend the day together. I said that it was better for me to go, and now. Even so, she ended up dragging me out for another tea on the pretext of allowing me to take pictures of a "traditional Turkish restaurant". I had already been there and photographed it, as it was right next to the Ulu Camii, so I declined the photo op.
I paid for the tea and we separated once again. I headed off for the bazaar quarter of the city center. The bazaar was extensive, although it was not noticably more exciting than Istanbul's bazaars, and I hadn't come all this way to shop for the same designer clothes I see in Istanbul every week. I grabbed a kebab and a lahmacun (traditional Turkish pizza), both of which my friends told me is "famous" in Gaziantep. I remain skeptical.
After an exhausting morning and afternoon, I gave up on the historical places. The museum was closed, the oldest mosque in town was closed for extensive reconstruction, and the other places of interest were too spread out to be easily accessible. Since I was travelling on the cheap I didn't want to take taxis to see mosques that I was pretty sure weren't going to be that exciting. Instead, I grabbed a coffee at the Coffee Haus, right next to the Ogretmen Evi, the only real coffee game in town, and prepared to coast through my evening.
But just as I had given up, I decided that since it was only 3 o'clock I may as well try and squeeze one more touristic drop out of this apparent tourist wasteland. I asked the cafe waiter where I could find the Boyaci Camii, which is the oldest mosque in Gaziantep, and which I wanted to see for its Egyptian architectural influence (it was built by the Egyptian Mamluks in 1357).
The waiter referred me to his friend who, much to my chagrin, was a very keen on practicing his English (the last thing I wanted at this point was another Sevgi). His name was Ali, and it turned out he was a talkative, enthusiastic guy. He had just graduated from Gaziantep University at the age of 27, which isn't out of the ordinary in Turkey, and had plans to join members of his family in San Francisco. Although his English consisted mostly of spouting off names of films and actors, and his vocabulary rotated around words related to movies and music, he was interesting enough. Ali offered to show me some sights, and I decided to take a chance.
He took me to a small museum right next to the Teacher House. It was a museum dedicated to the 1921 fight for Turkish independence, with a special dedication to Karayilan, the most famous soldier of that war.
Then we wound our way to Boyaci Camii, whose Egyptian-style minaret still stood proudly above the mosque, but not much else besides remained.
The mosque was being torn up, torn down, and renovated.
Since that site was fruitless, Ali shoed me to a few of Antep's famous foods, the most notable of which is the pistachio, in Turkish known as the 'Antep Fistik' (literally means the Antep Nut).
I was pretty wiped out by this point, and although Ali wanted me to join him at Gaziantep University for a visit, I declined. I went back to the hotel room and relaxed. Gaziantep was a bust, of sorts, but at least I visited and learned for myself. It also helped me to piece together some missing pieces of the Turkish sociopolitical puzzle.
Politics and Culture:
Gaziantep is the sixth largest city in Turkey, and a very poor one at that. I stayed in the city center, by no means the poorest part of town, but was warned not to travel alone around Antep Castle or to go very far beyond the bazaar quarter. "Gaziantep can be a very dangerous place," said Ali. "The people are very poor so they steal, take drugs, sell drugs, and fight. Not bad people, but very poor. Every day there are 3 murders," intimating the method with a sharp thrust of the hand.
And I saw what he meant. The family bustle and buzz petered out in the bazaar area, the family restaurants emptied out early (around 6 p.m.), and the park near the museum-- "the third longest in the world after Central Park and one in Canada," Ali told me proudly--filled with hobos and drug-addicts, poorly dressed and unshaven (which is an appearance at odds with the normal Turk, who is usually clean-cut and well-dressed), with a red-eyed look of just having woken from an alcohol-induced stupor. The families of mothers and children, again, were nowhere to be seen.
But if you were to find them, you would discover the religiously conservative heart of Turkey that voted for the religiously devout AK Party and its Prime Minister Recep Tayyid Erdogan, whose picture is everywhere on billboards in the East. Only young women went with their hair uncovered, and then not many. It was no coincidence that of the 2 people who approached me, one was an uncovered woman, the other a man enamored with American culture. "But please don't say to people you are American," said Ali. "It can be dangerous to you. Not British, either, since they are also in Iraq. Say you are Canadian or Australian. It will be better for you." Ever since, I have been Jerry from Canada (although strangely, half of the people I meet don't know what or where Canada is, even though the Turkish word for Canada is Kanada...)!
Travel Tips for Gaziantep:
If you really want to go, and I don't especially recommend it, the buses are clearly marked and go from the main bus terminal to the city center and back. The round-trip is about 20 minutes. It's a 45 lira, 14 hour ticket from Istanbul to Gaziantep on the Express bus. It's a 10 lira, 3 hour ticket from Gaziantep to Urfa. Ask for a seat assignment before boarding the bus to avoid uncomfortable confusion with the locals.
They showed Waterworld the whole way from Gaziantep to Urfa. Verily, it's no better in Turkish than it was in English!
Where I stayed
Hotel Buyuk Ali