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Published: December 31st 2008
2008 was a memorable year for me. Some of the highlights: struggling to become bilingual, plenty of interesting travel (including a complete crossing of Turkey with my mom), lots of friends getting married and having babies, the election, and - last but certainly not least - falling in love. It was also the first year of my life that I've spent completely outside of the USA.
It was also a dramatic year back home to watch from abroad. New York State's first black and blind governor came to power after a sleazy scandal ended Spitzer's reign. Americans finally started to appreciate the serious implications of their dependence on fossil fuels… to some extent. An incredible presidential election ended in a victory for a candidate unlike any other I've ever known: someone who many people actually feel confident and enthusiastic about.
At the same time, President Elect Obama will be starting his first term under less-than-enviable circumstances. The American economy, in case you haven't heard, is suffering from a bit of a hiccup at the moment. Wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine remain problematic to say the very least. The current Washington regime has treated its eight year stint like
a bumper car ride at an amusement park. It looks to me as though Obama’s first months will be a period of triage, attempting to recover from nearly a decade of shameful and destructive misleadership. 2008 has been quite a year, indeed. Part of me feels like I will soon be returning home to a post-apocalyptic hellscape.
But, our new president - probably largely because he is juxtaposed next to our current president - seems to have the virtues of Gandhi, the power of Batman, and the wisdom of Yoda, all neatly fused into a handsome package. So everything will be just fine, unless maybe it won't be, in which case, well, we're in for a rough ride. Time will tell. Good luck to Obama and to us all as we work for a better future in these delicate times.
Back to the task at hand, wrapping up my year:
***IF YOU DON'T WANT TO HEAR ABOUT ANKARA, SCROLL DOWN AND I'LL TELL YOU WHEN TO STOP***
In January, I arrived in Ankara to find it as cold and blanketed in snow as it has recently become once again. My expectations for the city were low
based on the glimpse of it I got over the course of a few days in 2004. Unfortunately, in terms of the city itself, I cannot say that even those expectations have been exceeded over the course of past year.
(In Ankara's defense, I suppose I could've tried harder to find what redeeming qualities it may have. Instead, I was often quick to hop a bus out of town whenever time permitted).
This does not in any way imply that I did not have a fabulous time here. Indeed, I've forged some brilliant friendships here with some wonderful people, many of whom also have little love for the unfortunate urban blunder that is Ankara - and some of those are even Ankara natives.
Why is Ankara so blah?
It is, after all, a bustling, cosmopolitan capital city, filled with universities and educated young people. Double Boston's population and it still wouldn't match that of Ankara and within a decade it will be more teeming than Moscow or London. I love the excitement of big cities, but perhaps in this case the swarms of people are part of the problem. Such a large population needs an appropriate living
all day, everyday
environment in which to function and interact - a space conducive to social development, inspiring creativity and happiness. Soviet-era housing block architects would find most of Ankara depressing.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's moving of the Turkish capital to Ankara from İstanbul was a strategically brilliant move (strategic brilliance, I firmly believe, was a very strong character trait of Atatürk's, a man with many very strong character traits...). I will skip over including a Turkish history lesson here, but certainly if it wasn't for Ankara, Turkey would quite likely not be here today. The Greeks got verrrry close to taking it, but they were pushed back.
When the modern Turkish Republic was established in 1923, Ankara had about 30,000 citizens (a city a little smaller than Morgantown, WV). This means a lot of building has taken place over the past 85 years. I feel it's safe to say that 99% of it was done quickly and cheaply, with little attention paid to the thoughtful development of the urban space. A friend said to me a few days ago that "you can't walk anywhere in Ankara." Compared to other Turkish cities, this is largely true. By American standards, it's probably really
not that bad.
Ankara does have wide, traffic-filled streets and the overwhelming theme is that the pedestrian is always wrong. There are two (count 'em, two) completely inadequate metro lines in Ankara. Metro stops have been built near my campus and at (at least) 5 other places along the way heading towards downtown, obviously quite some time ago. The lines that service those stops are not ready yet, so the stops sit and decay, unused. They will open "next year," which, as I understand, has been the case for many years. So, I and many others will continue to wait out in the cold for buses that are slow to arrive, spending 90 minutes sometimes for trips that should take 15 or 20.
I spend a lot of time on campus though. Besides the hassles involved with actually getting to other parts of the city, there's never really very much on the other end. Ankara is in desperate need of artists, city planners, a beautification movement, and some TLC in a wide range of ways.
Shopping malls, brutal winters, and trafik canavarları ("traffic monsters") will be the lasting impressions I retain of Ankara.
Ulus, the tiny
heart of the older part of Ankara is overwhelmed with gecekondu (squatter settlements), sleaze, and crime. If you need to find cheap clothing or household items, the Bit Bazaar ("Lice Market") could be a reason to go to Ulus. Unfortunately, it's where the excellent Ethnography Museum and mediocre Citadel are located - arguably two of the better sites the city has to offer - for those tourists not informed enough to skip the city altogether. I've never set foot in Ulus at night and I'm told that it's not a very wise idea to do so.
Kızılay has a large pedestrian area. If you love busy crowds, this is the place to go. There are lots of restaurants of all different price ranges, a handful of good bookstores, and variety of things to watch people doing on the streets. For me, it gets boring fairly quickly.
There are some very nice university campuses in Ankara. Hacettepe has two locations. The Sıhhıye campus (downtown) is known for its excellent medical program and the Beytepe campus (southwest of the city center, where I stay) has all the other departments. Beytepe is hilly, muddy, and full of construction - not so
different from my home university in Geneseo, NY.
ODTÜ and Bilkent Universities are near Beytepe, and have lovely campuses that I’ve spent some time wandering around. There are several other universities in the city that I haven’t seen.
This leaves Anıt Kabir, Atatürk's impressive mausoleum. I've not seen its equal. It is a handsome, massive structure of tan-colored stone, and, in my opinion, a very appropriate tribute to a very great man.
***OK, THAT'S ENOUGH ABOUT ANKARA***
Now, for the good stuff...
This year has had so many highlights; I don't know where to begin. Most of what I'll mention here I've written about in previous entries, so feel free to drop what you're doing and go back and re-read all of them.
The troglodyte wonderland that is Kapadokya will always have a special place in my heart, so I'll start there. I'm almost slightly embarrassed to say that I paid my third and forth visits to this remarkable region this year (once in the winter, and again in the summer, with my mom), since many of my Turkish friends have never made it there. I'm such a spoiled traveler.
if it was good enough for the Hittites, Persians, Romans, Byzantine Christians, Ottomans, Turks, and Kurds, then it's good enough for me. I've heard that the Badlands are a fair comparison landscape-wise, to Kapadokya. What the badlands don't have are tens of thousands of handmade cave houses, dozens of underground cities (you have to see these to believe it...), and cultures influenced by 4,000 or so years of history.
Kapadokya is incredibly touristy, but for many good reasons. With what it has to offer, it is unlike anywhere else on earth. People come for all sorts of reasons: they study Byzantine art history, they heard it's one of the finest places on earth to ride in a hot air balloon (and the prices reflect that), they found a certain Turkish football player on a Korean team to be especially dashing, their package tour included it, or their friends showed them pictures of their trip there (I'm in this group). I keep returning for some of the most picturesque hikes/bike rides on earth and because I've been befriended by some fabulous people who run a lovely guesthouse.
What I discovered this year is that getting off the beaten path
Hasankeyf has just won another small victory. Austrian money for the İlisu Dam has been pulled out in response to some vocal activists. Still, it is only a temporary victory and new investors will likely be found at some point in the future. The gorgeous historical city's days are numbered...
is still entirely possible in Kapadokya. Göreme - Times Square of Kapadokya - was essentially a ghost town last January. It was also frigid, but had an amazingly different overall feel to it than it does in the summer. My mother and I made our way to Ortahisar for a few hours in July and did not notice another tourist anywhere in the lovely town. Kapadokya is thankfully huge and has many towns that few people have the time to visit. It would take a really long time to thoroughly exhaust it…
What a sad year it was for poor, little, quirky Georgia. I'm pleased that I was able to spend a few short days there earlier in the year before the war started. It seems more and more likely that President Saakashvili did in some way provoke the Russians - if he doesn’t get the economy kicking soon, his days may be numbered, which is what Moscow wanted. I believe both sides were guilty. And there was no excuse for the brutal force that Russia used on that struggling country. Good luck, Georgia.
I visited Vardzia, which was a bit of an adventure to get
to, but well worth the effort. The ancient city, carved into the face of a cliff is still a functioning and friendly monastery. The "hotel" in the village is itself a bit of an adventure - and I assure you that I have the absolute lowest of standards concerning where I'm willing to sleep. I met an old man by the monastery entrance who spoke some Turkish, but other than that found myself in linguistic limbo for the most part. The caves certainly hold their own against Kapadokya.
I would've liked to have spent a few more days wandering north a bit, but time did not allow it. As far as I can tell, Georgia is a really interesting little country that has suffered far too many decades of aggression from Russia. The culture is highly developed and I can't really compare it to anything. It's not European. It's not Asian. It's not Turkish. & it’s definitely not Russian. I recommend checking it out...
Right before Georgia, I spent a day at the magnificent ruins of Ani, an ancient capital of Armenia. The spectacular site has easily made my top-five list of places in Turkey, if I had
such a list. Like most places I suppose, photos and stories cannot really convey just how breathtaking it is. Should you find yourself in Turkey's northeast, missing it would be a crime. Kars is the logical base for the visit and the city is not nearly as dreary and creepy as Orhan Pamuk's Snow makes it out to be.
Southeastern Turkey is swarming with PKK terrorists and violent extremists who are not happy unless something is blowing up... or at least that's what the Turkish news says. And the Western media too, to some extent. Hahahahahahahahaha! Nonsense!
I took my mom there and she found it as charming as I do.
We started in Doğubeyazıt, which is about as far as we could go without Iranian visas. We drank tea and chatted for hours with a carpet seller who actually wanted nothing more than to drink tea and chat with us. The İshak Paşa Palace was stunning - I don't think I'll have enough adjectives to make it through this whole entry. Doğubeyazıt - two thumbs up!
Van and Tatvan were pleasant enough stops on our way to another all-time favorite of
mine. Perhaps the fact that Hasankeyf faces imminent destruction, when the Tigris River is eventually dammed up, makes me appreciate more just how precious it is. Beautiful landscape, ancient treasures in every direction, and a very welcoming population of Kurds and Arabs makes Hasankeyf a highlight for all who make the effort of going far enough to visit it. Were it located in western Turkey, its single, 7-room hotel would likely be a hundred hotels and a discussion of its destruction would be unthinkable. Please, read up on Hasankeyf and go there. Help save Hasankeyf! Thank you.
I wish I had had months to spend there - talk about a misunderstood country! I've used the words "charming" and "lovely" a lot already, but they totally apply here. Aleppo felt like my first real introduction to the Middle East. The old souq (bazaar) was sizzling with activity and a timeless feel. The massive citadel looks out over the 8,000-year-old city. My friend Jen and I quickly fell in love with the local food and the brilliant fresh juice stands that seemed to be just about everywhere we turned.
The rest of our time there was a blur
of delightful surprises. We explored the finest castle I’ve ever seen after a pleasant day in Hama, a city (like most places in this part of the world) that was simply dripping with history. It was not, however, dripping with much flowing water, and its murky, nearly-dried-up river was unable to turn the massive, ancient water wheels which are symbols of the place. The importance of water to the region and the implications of Turkey’s upstream dam projects which will lesson Syria’s supplies were on my mind.
Damascus seems to have matured with age as if it were a fine wine. It oozes antiquity in the best of possible ways. We made the most of our time there, supplementing traditional tour book activities with a visit to a fire department (Jen wanted souvenir t-shirt, but we were either not understood, or they didn’t have one) and a fair bit of getting lost down the endless exquisite alleyways of the old city.
Palmyra was our last stop in Syria worth mentioning here. The scale of the ancient city was immense and its handsome remains hint at what a grand place it must have been in its day. It is
awe-inspiring nearly to an Angkor Wat degree. Efes, though it is beautiful and fascinating, is merely a children’s menu version of the feast that is Palmyra. I was quite blown away - and we were literally sandblasted one night, while trying to make the most of the full moon over the site with our cameras. It was a tough lesson in just how fierce the desert can be.
Gemma and Svenne’s wedding finally brought me to England for the first time. I found the country to be comically similar to what I had expected it would be like - another first for me in traveling. I was only there for a handful of days and the trip was all about visiting dear friends and not at all about sightseeing. Still, I managed to get a brief introduction to Liverpool, Sheffield, and England’s cultural epicenter, Formby.
I weathered the language barrier like a professional and made it safely back to İstanbul unscathed. (From what I hear, the newlyweds are properly settled into their life together in Norway and enjoying the holiday season with visits to a “winter cabin” that I hope is very cozy inside. Norway +
winter does not sound very appealing to me, but Gemma seems to be quite content with it. Greetings Svenne and good luck with your Norwegian, Gemma!)
Mick and Kat and Mark and Wendy were also in attendance at the wedding. Both of their families have grown in recent weeks, with the arrivals of Griffin and Lula, respectively. Season’s greetings to you all! Hi to Kev, Sazz, and Stuart too! I can’t wait till we all find ourselves in the same place once again. The 7 in “G7” is becoming ever more in need of a revision. Miss you guys.
I’ll say it again, apart from the warm weather and gorgeous blue water, the Bodrum peninsula is not really my kind of place. But, Pınar, a dear friend who originally sparked my interest in Turkey half a decade ago, traveled all the way from West Virginia and a celebration was in order. We skipped the booming night club scene (with cocktails priced in Euros, not Lira), and shared a few beers on the beach instead. Pınar’s family gave me a very warm welcome and it was a great way to close out the summer.
entry is chronologically scattered and I’m leaving out a lot of good stuff - Safranbolu, the Balkans, and a number of other places that I don’t have time to reflect upon again. I’m running out of year!
İstanbul has been for me this year what Bangkok was in 2004-05: a city I’m constantly passing through, a place for meeting up with friends, and as foreign as it is, a place that feels more and more like home as I get to know it better. İstanbul and I have become far more intimate though than I ever was with Bangkok. Instead of weeks and weeks, I’ve spent months and months there now, and despite its exhausting challenges, I think it remains my favorite city on earth.
To my delight, a number of old friends and my mom made their way to the city this year, as well as many, many new friends. I enjoyed playing tour guide and the size and diversity of the city guaranteed that I never got bored showing people around - on that note, I myself still haven’t seen many of the city’s major sites. Matt arrived in August and we were housemates for a
month at Sercan’s and Jaki’s.
What is it about İstanbul that I’m so captivated by? It has the complexity and energy of New York City, yet at a more relaxed pace. Its dramatic geography is merged with daily life like no other place on earth - the epicenter where two great seas and two great continents all come crashing together, with millions of people racing between it all. The food! İstanbul is a playground of outstanding eating opportunities and occasionally some of them even fell within my budget. The history - I didn’t even know that I had any interest in history before coming to İstanbul, where learning a few things about the Ottomans or the Byzantines is inevitable.
The cobblestoned alleyways, men with fortune-telling rabbits, the cellist on İstiklal Caddesi at 3:00 AM, the fish sandwiches cooked on boats that are constantly rocking back and forth on the Golden Horn, the rooftops in Üsküdar, the protests in Taksim Square, the midyeci serving stuffed mussels cooked to perfection on the streets, the ferryboat rides, the stuffed waffles in Bebek, late nights in Beyoğlu, the epic celebrations following football games, the clicking of dice on backgammon boards, the bookshops
Stone bridge and Sabancı Merkez Camii
in Galatasaray, the stencil graffiti on the walls of buildings in Cihangır, the Aya Sofya (my favorite building on earth), the Galata Bridge, mountaineering in Belgrade forest, breakfasts and Japanese food with Doro, fresh produce markets, live music, and about a zillion other things work together to shape my warm images of the great city.
That’s really about all I have time for right now. The loveliest woman in Ankara is waiting for me, so I must be on my way… I’m sorry for leaving out so much, but a year is a lot to summarize, after all.
Happy New Year!
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