“Shahrukh Khan, Shahrukh Khan!”, go the bellows of the vendors behind you, competing fervently for your attention with the strong wafts of the spices on display, the aromas of Turkish coffee & apple teas flowing from all directions and with the spectrum of the colours of lamps that hang from the ceiling. You’re baffled, taken by the deluge on your senses in the Grand Bazar of Istanbul. Far off, in another continent & yet in Turkey, in Konya, a ney (flute) plays a soulful tune and a group of dervishes dances to the tune in the sole anticipation of unison with the Beloved. As the tune reaches a climax, and the hem of the white robes of the Dervishes sways in harmony with it, you are once again baffled, at the stark contrast in the varied experiences in Turkey. Turkey is an enigma, a land where kebabs are accompanied by salads, where Anatolian rock and Sufi music are sold on the same music shelves, where Cappadocian wine and Efes beer have as much an ability to give you a hangover as the çai (pronounced ‘chai’) and Turkish kahve to help you get over it & where the coffee is not prepared in a punch but in a Cezve. If there’s one reason to visit Turkey, then it is for its culture that embodies all of this enigma. The good part is, as an Indian you can fully appreciate the treasures of an enigmatic country. (Oh, and did I tell you, if you listen closely, perhaps, you’ll also be able to appreciate a little bit of their language. Çai, meydan, peynir, dunya, don’t you already know the meanings of several such common words?)
Like the generations of Romans, Greeks and Turks before, you too land in Istanbul, every bit of which talks of history. A blue mosque, a museum, a church converted into a mosque, a bridge connecting two continents, a sea whose calm ironically expresses the tales of the swarms of civilizations and kingdoms that ruled it and the exchange that occurred at its waters. And then there’s the present. The meyhanes & bars of Beyoglu that sizzle in the evenings, the stadiums of Beskitas and Fenerbahce that roar of a football fascination unsurpassed, the trendy cafes of Sultanahmet with their hookahs and the swarm of tourists and the Dervish Houses of Galata which lend a much required serenity to this mind-boggling city. Istanbul has so much to offer it’ll not only charm you through your journey but also continue to haunt for long, even after it’s over.
But oh, what a mistake it’d be to stay back only in Istanbul. For Turkey & its culture extends far beyond. Into the caves of Cappadocia and the comfort of its charming cave hotels, in a hot air balloon flight above the Goreme valley and the views of snow-capped mountains from the flight. It extends into the monasteries perched on mountains in the Black Sea region and the valleys that straddle it. It preserves itself in the scenery of the far off town of Van and its meshur breakfast culture, Van Kahvalti, whose breakfast spread is as much a treat for the eyes as for the stomach.
Head south and you’d discover the origins of the word ‘turquoise’, in the waters of the Aegean, where, in the resort town of Fethiye, a glide above the waters will be as gratifying as a dip in the lagoon of Oludeniz. And then as you take a bus to the towns of Selcuk and Ephesus in the west, take some time off the gratis food and drinks (and ice-cream!) served, to marvel at the scenery around you. At Ephesus, the Roman ruins would take you back several centuries in time (perhaps even bring out the thespian in you!) and at Selcuk, the alfresco cafes and the vine all over them make you wonder if Greece would be anything similar. And if you can’t get rid of this curiosity, just board a Dolmus to the nearby town of Serince and where slurps of multiple fruit wines will hopefully lay your confusion to peace.
And when in Turkey, the burps can hardly be far behind the slurps. What would Turkish culture be without talking about its cuisine? The ustas of Anatolia, and Gaziantep and their kebabs, Iskendar, Testi, and the Doners in Istanbul, the stories wrapped in the vine leaves of Dolmas and Sarmas (stuffed vine leaves & vegetables), the assortment of over 100 kinds of peynirs (& you thought there was only one!), and the competing tastes of butter and syrup in a Baklava, perfected over generations of Ottoman kitchens, as it melts inside your mouth, will all give you the favouor of a culture proud of its cuisine. And even though Turkish hospitality doesn’t really let you miss home, do come back and tell your mom that you remembered her parathas each time you had a bite of the ‘Gozleme’, her chhaas with each sip of the ‘Ayran’, her shira with a scoop of the ‘helwa’. Don’t be surprised (Spoiler Alert!) if you discover cousins of your very own Jalebi and Gulab Jamun at unexpected places, even at an Otogar (Bus Station). Let the Kaymak and yogurt served with these foods remind you of your childhood days when hung curd in a cloth used to adorn the balconies of the house. And if the child in you takes over, then head to the alleys of Istiklal Caddesi in Istanbul and let it chuckle at the tantrums of the Dondurma vendor & all the fanfare that the local ice-cream comes with.
Phew! So much and we aren’t done yet. For, a nation (and a destination), and its culture are all made by the attitude of its natives. Ask a stranger for directions in Turkey and you’ll probably end up being accompanied by the good soul all the way to your destination. For once, skip the taxi and give yourself the chance to interact with these wonderful people. They’d love to know you came from Hindistan and are probably as much in love with the çai as them (Hint Hint Hint!!). Pick up a conversation with the little boy at your hotel to discover his passion for his favourite Istanbul football club and talk to the local restaurant owner in a village to learn he’s as much in love with his grandmother’s food as you. Sit in a coffee house in the smaller towns and play Okey with the old men. Come back with a thousand pictures each worth a thousand words to give you a Million reasons to smile. And as you reminisce each of them to write a post like this, play some sizzling Turkish music, like that which accompanied all your breakfasts, lunches and dinners throughout Turkey or simply play a Maris Banco to hear a baritone calling you back with an old Turkish song that goes
Nazar eyle, Nazar eyle..
Gel yanima pazar eyle..
(Look at me, O Look at me
Come to me and let’s make a lively bazar)
This post is an entry in the “Million Stories” Contest sponsored by the Turkish Embassy, India