Sunday, 28 September 2014

Turkish Delight: Konyaaa


A Miniature depicting Konya
Statue of a Whirling Dervish

After spending a boring day in Ankara, which consisted of lazing around in the apartment all day and visiting Golbasi park in the evening, I was ready to visit Konya. The only saving grace of the Boring day was my Turkish Friend Yiğit, who showed up after his work at the airport traffic control. Yiğit was a volunteer for the program that brought me to Ankara last year. He was one of the most interesting people from my trip. He has majored in Political Science and tried three times to land a job at the Turkish Foreign Ministry.The exam has multiple steps and one has to pass written exams as well as multiple interviews to be finally selected. Yiğit was terribly unlucky as he had once reached the final interview but was deemed unsuccessful by the interviewer. To quote Yiğit, They are not looking for just any diplomats, they are looking for Henry Kissingers.
Among the many gems shared by Yiğit that night, a few are worth mentioning.
On the topic of Turkish foreign policy and ambitions towards a local hegemony
“We [Turkey] cannot actually become a superpower, despite our apparent attempts to do so, we are just too lazy to be a superpower”.
On the topic of Turkish people trying other languages, “Turkish people don’t usually know how to appropriately express themselves in English, which is why they flail and swing their arms like a shadow boxer when speaking English”.

He had participated in Anti-AK party protests after Gezi and SOMA and he regaled us with stories of how Beşiktaş fans trolled the Riot police and how a Tennis Player in Ankara used to to hurl the Tear Gas canisters back at the police using his racquet. I asked him about CHP, the main opposition party in Turkey. He was of the view that CHP felt content with their role as opposition. They are rich, have a support and patronage network and are not too bothered with the nuisance of governing. In 2014, mayoral elections,a CHP candidate lost in Ankara due to massive rigging but the party didn’t capitalize on this issue and chose to remain inside their cocoon.

We discussed my plan to get back to Istanbul and then to take a plane to Cappadokia. He advised me to book a plane ticket, instead of taking the bus, as the price-difference wasn’t too huge and it would save me time as well. As he left, I looked up websites of different local airlines on the inter-web and chose Pegasus’s flight. The only issue was that my credit card was not valid for online transactions and I had to get that authorized by the bank in Pakistan. It was time for Suhoor in Pakistan, so I called my parents in Pakistan who got the card activated for online transactions and the deed was done. I was supposed to fly at 9.20 am to Istanbul, the caveat being that the flight was to land at Sabiha Gokcan airport while my Cappadokia flight was to leave from Ataturk Airport at 1:20 pm. I left the details to the future and took a good nights’ sleep.

My Pakistani friend and I left for Ankara-gar an hour before our train was scheduled to leave for Konya. I discovered that Ankara’s train station was established in 1937 and it connected Ankara with Antalya, Eskisehir, Konya and Sivas in the eastern part of Turkey. As we embarked upon the train, it was the first time outside of an airport that our luggage was scanned by a machine. In Pakistan, every major government/private building has scanners and people who pat you down for security purposes. The train journey was smooth and without incident. I discovered that speed on the screens was shown as Kilometers/s. I initially thought it was Kilometer/second, but my friend corrected me that the “s” denoted “Saat” (which means hour in Türkçe). I spent the two-hour journey reading Elif Shafak’s ‘Forty Rules of Love’ (Its Türkçe version is called ‘Aşk’) while my friend dozed off.    

From Konya-gar, we took the tram to reach Mevlana, the site of Mevlana Rumi’s shrine. I must confess that I am not a very spiritual person and I was not exactly moved by the experience at Mevlana. I went there as a curious tourist and was delighted to see history and historical items being preserved in the leafy Anatolian town of Konya.I was disappointed when my friend informed me that Whirling Dervishes only performed on Saturdays and we won’t be able to witness a live performance during our short visit. Following the visit to Mevlana, we walked to the nearby Bazaar and looked for a good place to eat some Etli Ekmek(Pizza-like dish which originated in Konya). Despite being a vegetarian, I indulged in the ritual to mark the occasion. The Ekmek felt bland as we were not given any sauces with it, and I improvised by using some lemon juice and spices as a spread for the Ekmek.

Our train was supposed to leave at 6 pm and we were done with Mevlana by 2 pm. There were four hours to kill, so we walked across town, found a green spot to rest and saw some old mosques. From the Bazaar, I got some Pişmanye, a sweet which is similar to “Pateesa” in Pakistan. We found a graveyard of Indian soldiers who were part of British Army in WWI but switched sides and fought alongside the Turks. I discovered that parking at Mevlana was free for the first one hour and one had to pay certain amount afterwards. Konya is a small city and we walked across the city center to reach Konya-gar by 4 pm. My friend dozed off again while I busied myself with reading some articles off the internet. On the return-leg of our journey, my friend, who is doing his Masters Degree in Soil Sciences, talked about difference in agricultural practices between Pakistan and Turkey. He comes from a land-owning family and has studied agriculture in Pakistan so it was an enriching experience listening to him.
We were really tired by the time we reached the apartment but it was a day well-spent.   

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Turkish Delight: Road to the Capital



Fret not where the road will take you. Do not go with the flow. Be the Flow. Elif Shafak

I have this weird habit of not planning about things when abroad. Back home, I plan every single detail possible but as soon as I step into foreign territory, I am without much planning. In the last three years, I have visited two countries (US in 2012, Turkey in 2013 and 2014) and I didn’t plan much in either of those trips. The US trip was pre-arranged by an organization so the lack of planning was not a problem. The first Turkey visit was also pre-arranged (or at least its Ankara leg) so there was not much I could do about it. The second trip to Turkey was my first foreign tour without a conference/program and I was supposed to be completely on my own. I did get my hotel booked online and learnt some basic Turkce phrases, but that was it. My only plan was to spend time in Istanbul and to visit Konya with my friend in Ankara. The plan to visit Cappadokia was a last-minute impulse buy and I had not thought it out well. Anyhow, I got the ticket on Sunday evening for a 10 am bus to Ankara.

Istanbul's Otogar evoked mixed memories in my head. I had visited the place last year on the very first day that I was in Istanbul. I had enjoyed a very good ride from there to Ankara. I had endured a disastrous journey on my way back and had reached the place at 5 a.m. I vowed to make my experience better than my previous one. On Monday morning, after an early breakfast, I checked-out of my hotel almost two hours before the time of my departure. 

Using the Karakoy-Bagçilar line and then the Aksaray-Airport line, I reached Otogar in almost 40 minutes from my hotel in Sultanahmet. I got out of the central area and failed to locate the "Metro" bus service centre initially. Then I asked one of the ticket-guys who guided me to the Other side of Otogar. I had apparently ventured onto the wrong side. Upon reaching the right spot, I was disappointed to find very few seats in the station itself. I stopped outside the place and waited to get a vacant seat. 

I got a seat after about 10 minutes and hopped on the relevant bus at 10 am. It takes almost 1.5 hours for the bus to leave Istanbul as it stops at different small stations. I had good memories of the last time that I travelled in the 'Metro' company's bus. The seats were spacious and there was Wi-Fi throughout the journey. This time, my seat was the same but Wi-Fi was terrible. I sat along a Turkish guy who slept for most of the journey. It felt different this time. Maybe I had forgotten it due to my excitement of last year but the journey was tooo damn long and the seat wasn’t as comfortable as I expected it.

I tried listening to a football-themed podcast that I like. Then I started Elif Shafak's book, which I felt was quite interesting. There was a little girl sitting across the aisle from me who was very active and naughty and smiled back whenever I smiled at her. 

As we approached the city of Ankara, my friend called and asked about my whereabouts. He and I used to be roommates in a boarding school when we were in the 7th grade. Since then, I had graduated from medical school while he had acquired a bachelor’s degree from an Agriculture University. He was pursuing a Masters Degree in Soil Sciences from Ankara University and had been living in Turkey for the last 8 months, learning the language. He could speak Turkce fluently and had helped me learn the basics. Upon reaching the Ankara Otogar, I waited for him to arrive. Meanwhile, I wanted to get some dollars changed but there was apparently no Doviz at the station. I didn’t know what a money-changer was called in Turkce so I decided to ask the lady present at “Information Center” of Otogar. She probably didn’t understand English and thus pointed me in the wrong direction. I later found out that there was NO Doviz at the station. My friend arrived and we took the tram to Ulus from where we rode a bus to Atakule(Ataturk Tower). I was amazed to know that Cinnah Cadessi was named after the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah/Cinnah. We moved to a flat near Cankaya Cadessi, the road which evoked beautiful memories from the previous year.

I have been to capitals of three countries, Pakistan, Turkey and United States. While all of them are wonderfully planned, they share that one trait which is universal to capitals: They are really boring places to be. Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, is known as ‘Islamabad the beautiful’ and it indeed is very lovely(If straight roads and greenery is your thing). It is also incredibly boring. Washington DC at least has some good museums to while away one’s time. Ankara had none of these. No greenery, not much natural beauty and no wonderful museums either.

My friend had arranged for us to live at a Pakistani diplomat’s flat in a residential neighborhood. On our way to the apartment, we stopped to buy some shopping at a grocery store where we got some vegetables and bread(Ekmek) for dinner. I was surprised to find the way people got their vegetables. In Pakistan, when you go to buy vegetables/fruits, you ask for a particular item and the shopkeeper provides you with that item in the required quantity. In Turkey, there are no shopkeepers to put the items in your basket, there are disposable shopping bags. You can choose the vegetables you want and weigh them at the store, paying for them at a separate counter. This way, you can choose the vegetables of your choice(size, shape etc) and it is not left to the whims of the shopkeeper.

It was during that walk that I discovered “Bim” stores. They are like utility stores where one can buy items of daily use in bulk form, at subsidized prices. I was incredibly tired upon reaching the apartment so I unpacked hurriedly and called home to inform them of my arrival in the city. My friend had to visit his dorm so he left me in peace. After the necessary updates on Facebook and browsing through twitter, I sat down with the young Pakistani diplomat. He had been stationed in Ankara to learn Turkce and was being posted to Istanbul in a few days. We talked about my interest in International relations and he told me about the workings of Pakistan’s Foreign Service. We sat down for dinner and he told me about the Turkish claim of having the most diverse cuisine in the world(and how it was not exactly true). He also told me of the special kind of Ekmek(a bulky one) that was available only during the month of Ramadan. My friend arrived from his dorm and we talked about the plans for next two days. We had to go to konya and we had a spare day. I had already seen Ankara’s main attractions(Ataturk’s musoleum,Cankaya Cadessi, remains of old city) so there were few options left. I was also supposed to see a Turkish friend of mine whom I had met last year.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Turkish Delight: The Wandering Prince

One of the Princes' Islands

Horse-cart station at Buyukada

Fatih's Tourist Police


I had reserved a whole day during the trip for visiting Prince's island. In all the Top-10 lists of places that must be visited in Istanbul, Princes’ Islands are placed near the top end. Many people that I met in Turkiye were of the opinion that the islands are a world in themselves, distinct from Istanbul and probably the best thing about it. A Pakistani friend who lives in Ankara these days told me that he felt the most peaceful in Istanbul while visiting those islands.

Walking through hippodrome, I saw some tourists taking pictures with the ‘tourist police’. I was amazed at the efficiency levels of Turkish municipalities especially when it came to cleaning up. Thousands of people descended upon hippodrome during Ramadan daily but there was no sign of trash come next morning. The tram from Sultanahmet took me to Kabataş from where I hopped on a ship towards Prince's island. It took us almost an hour to reach the place, as we traveled through the Bosphorus and Sea of Marmara. I didn't find many English-speakers on the ship but I had gotten used to this situation by then. The most memorable moments during the journey were the showmanship and performance of the Captain of ship. He demonstrated little tricks using citrus fruits and urged the passengers to applaud him. Most people on the ship were families out for a day-trip and picnic.

The Prince Islands are an archipelago off the coast of Istanbul, in the Sea of Marmara. They consist of four large islands, Büyükada(Big İsland), Heybeliada, Burgazada and Kınalıada and many smaller islands. I disembarked the ship at Büyükada. 

The first thing that got my attention at the island itself, was a huge flag of Fenerbahçe football club(current champions of the Turkish league). I had no idea what to do after reaching the place so I roamed around to assess the situation. I found a horse-cart station where one can hire a horse-cart with a driver who takes one across the island. The short-tour was supposed to cost 70 (yetmish) Liras, which I thought was a bit expensive. I found a cheaper and healthier alternative nearby. There were multiple shops that let one borrow a bike at the rate of 5 Lira per hour. I have loved riding a bicycle ever since I was a child. I used to roam around my city on a bicycle and have a few scars to show for my efforts. 

I got a bicycle on rent and start pedaling on a random road. It was easy at the start but I was faced with a dilemma within a few minutes. The road was not horizontal in character, in fact, it had an ascent.It was not like the plain streets and alleys of my city. While biking upstream, my bicycle almost gave in. I have never used the gears on a bike and have no idea how they function. As a result, i was exhausted within 10 minutes of starting my Island adventure. 

I opted to walk along the bike until i had little energy or motivation left for it. I was panting for air, sweaty and very thirsty. The return journey went very smoothly because I didn't have to pedal and used only the breaks to control my ride. I went back to the bicycle store and a guy there urged me to try again. I took a different route during my second attempt and spent almost an hour cycling around the place.During this ride,a guy asked me for directions in Türkçe to whom I replied that I don't understand Türkçe, in Türkçe (Türkçe Bilmiyorum)  :P 

Büyükada is a primarily residential area visited by people who want to enjoy picnic. There's a small beach-like place as well where I found people swimming and sun-bathing. The horse-carts run wildly on the road and bikers are at a risk of getting trampled by the horse-carts. 

I had to wait for almost half an hour to board the ship back to Kabatas. At the station, I saw an Arab guy wearing a stupid T-shirt which said, "No means Yes"(I found it stupid because it was a polar opposite of feminist slogan "No means No"). The ship that brought us back, stopped at all the small islands en route. It reminded of the old, rotting public buses in Pakistan that stop after every five minutes, irrespective of space for passengers. Some passengers tempted the seagulls during our voyage and the birds kept flying close to the ship, looking for bread crumbs. I talked to an Englishman on the ship who was a frequent visitor to Istanbul. He recommended that I should read "Forty rules of love" by Elif Shafak as I was going to visit Konya. I found two senior citizens sitting side by

Later on, I spent some fun time with Meltem, Furkan and Özge. I confided in them that I had not had a proper Turkish meal since I landed because of what happened last year(I coughed for almost a month and a friend of mine got terribly sick). They encouraged me to try the dishes so I asked them about Iskander, Piyaz and Simit. Özge told me about her fondness of waffles(from Mado), irrespective of flavors and that she liked watching different people(and that,according to her,was the reason why she chose to do volunteer work). Furkan revealed his love for history, and how he was learning Italian to be able to understand historical documents. We also discussed political prospects of Fatih's mayor, Mustafa Demir(whose whole family is into the profession of dentistry). Furkan and Özge were of the view that Fatihullah Gülen(Pennsylvania-based Turkish preacher who has established schools all over the world and was a former ally of the AK party) was a "traitor". Meltem confessed her fondness for dystopian novels including "1984" by George Orwell and "A brave new world" by Aldous Huxley. 

We encountered a guy from Konya who was studying Sharia'h at the university and knew about Pakistan. He could understand English but had trouble in talking the language(a common problem for many Turkish students that I met during my stay). He told me that he was more interested in Arabic than in English. Afterwards, we had an unpleasant experience with a middle aged man who tried to shame me for not fasting, and pooh-poohed the volunteers when they told him to keep his opinions to himself.  

I was supposed to travel to Ankara the next day and I wanted to get the ticket beforehand. I decided to use the tramvay to go to Otogar. Boarded the tram from Sultanahmet and got off at Aksaray, walked a bit till the İstasyanu and got on the tram for Airport. It dropped me off en route at the Otogar. During the ride, I saw a girl checking Facebook, zooming in on the picture of a guy and looking at the girls in the background. It was so "girlish" that I almost broke into a chuckle, but restrained myself somehow. Got off at the Otogar, got the ticket and took the return tram to Aksaray. Walked from the station to YousufPaşa and went to Karakoy and from there to Taksim. 

I had seen books by Elik Shafak at a chic bookstore in Isteklal Street and I got a copy of it. I felt very hungry after my exertions during the day and had initially planned to find some Piyaz as appetizer and then to have a meal from Fat-burger. I chanced upon a shop in Isteklal that had an open salad bar, so i decided to skip Peyaz and to enjoy some salad(Salata) of my own liking. After enjoying salad i was moving towards Fatburger when I saw a shop titled "Patato"( In Türkçe  the word for 'potato' is ‘Patates’). I ventured in and found a dish called Patso, which was basically french fries in a panini bun with ketchup and mayonnaise as topping. I decided to give it a try. It was not a princely meal but it was enough to satiate my hunger. 

On my way back, i encountered a few people selling Che-guevara merchandise and some Turkish magazines. I also saw an office-building owned by the Turkish Communist party,located right next to a mosque :P .