Turkey, Beyond the Coast

This was my first visit to Turkey and I had heard a lot about its beautiful Aegean Coast. I didn’t see it; nor did I see the pulsing city of Istanbul. Definitely two good reasons to return soon to this beautiful and interesting country. Instead, I was introduced to Turkey from the inside, through a week of exploring the hills, mountains and inland lakes in Denizli province by bike. This bit of Turkey is removed from the tourist throng with quiet farms, tiny villages, serene lakes and arid, uninhabited mountainous areas.

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Six of us, accompanied by two Turkish guides, spent our days encouraging each other up hot and tiring hills, chasing each other on exhilarating downhills and sharing tea en route….lots of tea.

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I knew we were away from the tourist fray after our first day of riding. On arriving at the hotel in Acipayam, the gates were locked and the hotel staff of one was nowhere to be seen. We found him down the road at the [only] other hotel in town, scrounging beer for our arrival. We were the first guests since October. The eight dusty, thirsty guests eagerly shared (and appreciated) the four bottles he was able to negotiate, while the open windows in our rooms cleared the scent of mothballs from the air.

That night I learned that my phone alarm was redundant in Turkey. Every village has a 5 am Arabic call to prayer projected through loudspeakers that adorn the spires of each village mosque and which can be heard for many kilometres. This sonic symbol of Islam occurs 5 times a day and has since the 1930s. With more than one mosque in a village, or when villages are close together, the singing calls overlap. Often beginning a few minutes apart, the result sounds like a campfire round of Row, Row, Row Your Boat. Drifting off again, while usually successful, only lasts until day break when the village roosters begin and the feral dogs start to fight. And so with no chance of anyone oversleeping, we would meet for breakfast….and tea. Tea number one.
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Drinking glasses of hot tea with each cycling break (tea, numbers 2 to 5) on 30°C days seemed odd at first. Unexpectedly though, by the end of the week, I found myself scanning the main square in each village we entered, looking for the old boys playing their daily game of Okey, a Turkish tile game, or just watching the world go by. Finding them meant that trays full of small glasses of black tea and sugar cubes would be close by to ready us for the next leg of the day’s journey.

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We rode along the white shores of turquoise Lake Salda, one of the clearest lakes in the world and the deepest lake in Turkey. The white sand comes from water filtering through magnesium-rich rocks similar to those found on Mars. The waters were once thought to have youth-restoring, healing properties.

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We spent a night at Lake Bafa which used to be a gulf of the Aegean Sea until alluvium building up at the mouth closed the gap.

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And we rode uphill for a looong time so that we could ride downhill to Koyegiz Lake for…yes, more tea, as well as age-reducing sulphur infused mud baths. That day we also made our way by boat to Dalyan, our final stop.

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One day we found time after riding to walk up Pamukkale, meaning Cotton Castle. It is a massive travertine (limestone) deposit created by mineral-rich waters that surface there. For thousands of years people have come to bathe in the carbonate-laden terraces of water for, of course, their healing and youth-restoring properties. Ruins of the ancient city of Hierapolis, dating from the 2nd century AD, overlook the baths.

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And of course we couldn’t miss the breathtaking, ancient Greek city of Ephesus with its many fountains, inhabited from the 10th century BC through the Roman period and into the late 14th century AD.

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After dinner and more tea, the evenings belonged to beer, G&Ts and anise-flavoured Raki. Better than the restorative properties of lakes, fountains, water terraces and mud baths, these elixirs relaxed tired muscles, soothed one rider’s pain after a tumble from the bike and were useful for randomly toasting food, sunsets and successful hill climbs. They comprised a major food group for David who managed two beers, two Raki and four gin and tonic’s nightly without any visible effects. One night these liquids markedly improved our intelligence to the point that we could eloquently (at least in our minds) debate the answer to life, the universe and everything. Unfortunately, this was short-lived as our guide was bitten by a scorpion mid-sentence. When the tattoo on his arm muscle began to twitch and the pain began to travel, he rushed off to hospital for an antidote injection. The next morning, amid crowing roosters and barking dogs, with some of us a little worse for wear, we refueled with tea and climbed on our bikes (including the bitten guide) for another day of riding.

I left hoping to return one day to see more of Turkey and also hoping that the mineral waters I encountered have left me looking decades younger. I know better but I am a marketing company’s dream customer. Simple words like youth restoring and I’m hooked. Pathetic. Moreover, should it be true, only my feet will look younger.

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