It's a heavily subsidised way of getting people into the colder parts of the country in the low season. As it turned out, it was much, much colder than anticipated. It was supposed to be rather like April in England during the day and Jan in Scotland at night. But it was much colder than that, minus ten or more (less?) most days and minus 20 at night.
It was spectacularly good. The tour guide was a boring pain in the arse, and a few of our travelling companions were dreary, ossified, sheep-like 'old people', made to seem drearier still by comparison with the lively and cheerful folk of the same age. Despite the coach party aspect, this felt like the first proper travelling I have done since Sri Lanka. It was immensely interesting and inspiring.
We started in Antalya on the Med, in an eerily quiet but comfortable resort hotel where we had the first of many delicious buffet dinners, with glorious salads and surprisingly good bread and bowls of fresh herbs, and hardly any olives at dinner and loads of them for breakfast. The fact that they cater mostly for Germans in the summer months was plain. Dishes were labelled in German, which I would sometimes maliciously mis-translate as 'liver' for fussy, whingeing Brits. There were also a lot of curious non-pork, sausage-like products that were vaguely Soylent Greeny.
This was the view of the cold, sparkling Med from my bed on the first morning.
We didn't get a double bed that night (sometimes we got two giant doubles) and we didn't have the heating on that night or any other. Andrew was very cold that night because he is too stupid to operate a bed, and climbed under the thin quilt and on top of the luxuriously thick duvet. He's a potential Darwin award candidate, really.
Our first jaunt was to the Roman ampitheatre, viaduct and reconstructed bridge at Aspendos, a Greco-Roman city in what the Romans would have called Pamphyria. This is part of what remains of one of the gateways of the aqueduct.
And this is another part of it. I was horribly touristy and gawped at the lady pulling up her trouser leg, as I realised that the traditional criss-cross, baggy trousers with gathered ankles have no inside leg seam. I thought this might be draughty, but grasped how practical they are when I realised most of the toilets in rural places are squat jobs. That was also when it occurred to me they'd be much handier for a tuppenny upright than a skirt or sari.
It was coldish, but the sky was as glorious as it looks, and even the leafless trees were brilliantly full of birds. Over lunch - deliciously grilled trout - we saw a kingfisher. He was longer-bodied, and a much more pastelly orange and turquoise than his British counterpart, but had a less ostentatious hat.
The scenery was glorious. There were orange and lemon trees everywhere, and we even picked some oranges here, which I made into marmalade when we got back. This is the view over the orange groves to the Taurus mountains.
We drove up into those mountains the next day, following the increasingly snowy Silk Route, and were supposed go through to the highest, narrowest mountain pass, which is over 1800km above sea level. But were turned back by the miltary police at 1200km, due to the raging blizzard above us. This meant we had to retrace our route back down to the Med, drive 40km along it and go through another pass. This was an additional eight hour journey, when we had been not much more than an hour away from our final destination. It was the only grotty bit of the trip, because we spent the whole day on the coach, really, apart from a drab lunch.
Eventually we made it across the frozen, light pollution-free Anatolian plain, and to a ludicrously luxurious high rise hotel, the only high building in the town of Konya. It was a hair-raising drive for our poor driver and those who, like me, were awake and looking out of the window and could see the very few cars on the road skidding around us, but thankfully all the coffin-dodger types were snoring.
This is a pic I took driving on the same route the next day, when we were pretty much the only vehicle on the road, apart from a crashed coach, deep in a snow, that we passed en route.
It was bleak but beatiful, and there were thousands of birds, especially flocks and flocks of sparrows and finches and other assorted little brown and green and red jobs, and giant bruisers of corvids and at least three different raptors (there may have been four; I banged my head hard on the coach window trying to establish that).
For miles the only sign of human control was the power cables, though I was strangely touched to see a long track of straight, steady human footprints next to the road, and beside them the wildly far-looping prints of a clearly very excited dog. It was almost as though his gleeful barks were still echoing in the air above. There were other prints, too, of wild cats and wolves. There were massive stretches with no sign of human habitation, then little vineyards where the wintry vines were reduced to black, gnarled stumps like the twisted skeletons of burned and dwarvish witches, and lacy apple trees adorned with glistening balls where the mistletoe held the snow, precariously.
We spent two nights and two days in Goreme, the centre of a huge UNESCO World Heritage site, travelling about and marvelling at the unearthly gorgeousness of the landscape. I hate to mention it, but know it will impress those of you in the cheap seats to know that some of Star Wars was flimed here.
At most of the places we stopped there were women with rough market stalls or little squares of fabric on the ground selling local crafts and pomegranate juice and lovely mulled wine, and men touting from proper shops and covered stalls. I haggled vigorously with all the men I bought stuff from, but Wardy and I both overpaid the women.
Everywhere (outside Antalya) there were far more men than women out of doors and all the women wore headscarves. There is no requirement or expectation or even mild insinuation that tourists (unlike local Coptic/ Orthodox Christian women) should do so. I did have an odd experience when we stopped for a rest break, and a busload of men poured into the cafe. One pushed past me and then stepped back, looked me up and down, and up again, and scowled contemptuously at the clearly offensive scruffy bun my hair was twisted into. I walked back to where Andrew was standing, and when the man came back past, he looked at the two of us, made a blessing-like gesture with his hands, and a bow of evident apology that looked keenly-felt. I think he had assumed from my colouring that I was a loose and scandalous Turkish woman, and then realised I was an apparently perfectly acceptable tourist. When I was on my own some of the male shopkeepers etc managed to be both horribly obsequious and horribly sleazy at the same time. I'm inured to the latter but find the former really difficult to deal with. One of the things I loved about Sri Lanka was the courtesy and dignity in social and commercial transactions; sellers sold hard, but only beggars actually bent and pleaded.
Some of these 'fairy chimneys' are still used as homes. We saw a whole undergound village, used by its inhabitants to escape invasion and worse; ancient underground Christian churches (St George is a local boy), and all sorts of peculiar natural glories. The modernish houses in villages nearby, with their snow-covered steeply angled rooves and satellite dishes looked very Western, reminscent of ones I've seen in Germany and Northern France, especially when you drive towards a village from the north, and can't see the solar panels and water heaters on them. Then, they look very European and 19th century, and the minarets look oddly space-age in their midst. When you get closer you can see these houses stand next to mud brick, square-roofed huts with layers of lean-tos built on like an extended,precarious house of cards, with no evidence of modern conveniences:
These houses, constantly being shored up, are built in exactly the same way as stone age ones excavated nearby. There is a strong and frequent sense, in Cappadokia, of previous ages pressing through to the present; the past is no mere ghost here. There were also some gloriously foreign and unlikely everyday objects that I liked almost as much as the proper sights. Just look at this Ottoman Aga / hostess trolley hybrid:
The Goreme valley is the idea climate for hot air ballooning, and we were gifted this spectacle with our unfeasibly early breakfast on the last morning there:
The delays to our itinerary meant I didn't go up in one; I couldn't face the 4.15 start, the cost and my trepidation. But they look lovely. I made up for it by having two magnificent massages.
This is Andrew, looking a bit Beatle-ish in the snow. You can play 'spot the ball' with the snowball he threw (it missed!). We had great fun fooling about in it. The snow sparkles magically, partly reflecting the blueness of the sky, partly because there is so little pollution in the water. It is hard to mould into snowmen because it is so cold it becomes solid ice if you squash it (the miss was deliberate).
I learnt quite a bit from our tiresome guide - or at least could weave his witterings into my existing knowledge - about the Hittites and early Christians and Selchuks and Ottomans. What I knew knothing much about were the Sufis, and visiting a Dervish centre was a bit of a revelation. I will definitely incorporate them into something I do at school to demonstrate the liberal, contemplative and joyful face of Islam; the celebration of music and body and love and even wine. I will probably give them some poems by Rumi and see if they can guess the culture and age of them. I bet they won't; he's like a lovely mixture of Donne, Catullus and Emily Dickinson. We went to his shrine at the mosque in Konya and were royally pissed off that we got less than an hour there, but three hours in the carpet cooperative (where I did buy a tiny cotton carpet with flying room for only one large-bottomed passenger). It was the first time I had been inside a mosque:
It was not quite what I was expecting, really. I feel quite at home in Anglican cathedrals that used to be Catholic, but the Catholic ones feel very foreign to me; when I go into them in Italy or France I suddenly feel less European and more English, even as I am marvelling at their beauty. This felt less alien, which was surprising, and the lack of images and icons makes it seem contemporary-er, somehow. We had to wear thin disposable plastic galoshes, rather than take our shoes off, and the sussuration of all those lumbering tourist feet on the flagstones sounded like sinister, whispered prayers.
On the journey back we realised just how hair-raising that narrow mountain pass - with less than a yard's clearance on either side of the coach, and one side a sheer drop and the other a dense forest - would have been in a blinding blizzard. It reminded me of a sort of frontier town version of Switzerland:
I took that pic at about 1600km above sea level. The 1800km section we'd passed through just before was all snow and shadows and being inside cotton-wool clouds, and I was too busy being thrilled by it to attempt a photo. Only 200m lower, everything was softer and damper and a bit like Scotland:
A couple of hours later we were back by the Med and another resort hotel complex; confusingly modern when we arrived in the dark and bewildering tropical in the morning light:
We skipped the early start and the tour on the last full day, and bunked off with the sweet young London-dwelling Columbian couple we made friends with, and bimbled gently around lovely rainy Antalya. It was a bit of a culture shock to be somewhere so modern-feeling, with girls swarming about in clingy leggings, swishing their loose hair, and coffee bars and bars and fancy restaurants and proper shops and a lovely pub. It's a very pretty place:
We also had the only hotel room that had elements of Turkishness in its decor, with traditionally-patterned fabric and tiles. The others were all comnfortable, even luxurious, but the one in Antalya was very pretty. It was depressing to have to leave it for an early flight. The journey home was a bit more cramped and cloudy and tiring than the one there. On the way over where we swooped over the Alps in clear blue light, and I took this photo, which I love and is now my screen-saver:
We did have reservations about the organisation of the trip; I'd have preferred some slightly later starts, and more scope for independent bimbling, but the price was amazing. I shall definitely do another of their trips, perhaps next year, and explore the other end of the Mediterranean coast and inland from Troy.