Silk Road 2 – The Land of the Beautiful Horses

The name Cappadocia, derived from the ancient Hittite word ‘Katpatuka’, is commonly believed to mean ‘Land of the Beautiful Horses’.

During the Roman and Byzantine periods, Cappadocia became a refuge for early Christians and, from the 4th to the 11th century, Christianity flourished here. The Christians built churches, monasteries and underground cities.

Today, the region is best known for its amazing geological rock formations known as fairy chimneys:

Fairy chimneys

Church inside a cave

On my first day, I went to the Göreme Open-Air Museum. You can visit there an interesting legacy of rock-cut churches, chapels and monasteries. It is a common feature throughout the Silk Road to find caves with religious motifs, but these are Christian instead of Buddhist, as found further East along the route.

Underground cities

Another interesting feature of Cappadocia are its underground cities. Yes, that´s right! These are not family caves or monasteries, they are fully-fledged cities built underground. There are 37 cities open and many more not excavated, some of them hosted up to 10,000 people. The Christians built those cities to hide and defend themselves from Persian and Arabic armies, who would set off to vanquish the Christians during the 6th and 7th centuries. It is interesting to visit those cities and appreciate its massive scale and many passages. But I can´t imagine actually living in such a closed space for months, its inhabitants must not have suffered from claustrophobia!! 🙂

Hostel in Göreme

Even the hostels and hotels in Cappadocia are usually carved in rock, so that you can actually sleep in a cave. Btw, they are always called  “sth Cave Hotel”.

It is very popular among tourists in Cappadocia to take an hour trip in a hot-air balloon, from where you can see the beautiful sunrise over Cappadocia. That kind of activity clearly falls out of my budget and I didn´t have a particular interest in trying, but most people told me it was an overwhelming experience.

Instead, I went trekking through the many valleys in Cappadocia, and of course I kept finding more and more fairy chimneys and more and more caves. And, to recover from the effort, döner kebab after döner kebab, as usual in Turkey.

Wandering around İstiklal Caddesi

I was stuck in Istanbul for a few days more than I’d planned, hoping to get my Iranian visa. While there, I was staying in the modern centre of the city. Since I didn’t feel like doing a lot more sightseeing, I just kept wandering around Istanbul’s buzzing centre, particularly through the most lively and famous of all its commercial streets: Istiklal Caddesi.

Istiklal Caddesi is a pedestrian walk with a very commercial feel. No cars are allowed in Istiklal, but a single old tram line still covers the length of the street, adding to it a nostalgic and atmospheric feel.

Istiklal´s tram

Thousands – or even millions – of people flock every day to Istiklal to shop in its fancy boutiques, bookshops and art galleries, have a chat over a narghile (water pipe) in a laid-back café, or have dinner in some of the busiest restaurants in Istanbul. The crowd is quite mixed between wealthy Istanbulites and tourists. Arab tourists in particular, most of them from Saudi Arabia, come to spend their petrodollars in Istiklal.

İstiklal Caddesi is also a popular venue for all sorts of protests, marches, parades and gatherings in the city. Every day, I came across some kind of protest: women for abortion, political protesters from Azerbaijan and many others whose claims I didn’t even understand, most times only followed by a handful of people.

But on Sunday, there was a much larger parade going on: Istanbul’s gay pride. The demonstration was massive but pretty calm, by no means as crazy as it gets in Madrid. The most interesting thing, however, was seeing Arab women, who are regular shoppers in Istiklal, fully covered in their black niqabs, stare at the gay pride parade with great interest while taking tons of pictures with their mobile phones, astonished at something they had perhaps never seen before. 🙂

Gay pride in Istiklal

Istiklal is the main hub for nightlife in the city, with as many nightclubs as stunning rooftop bars. It is also the setting for the most famous Istanbul rip-off, targeting single foreign males. It works like this: “by sheer chance” you run into a Turkish guy in the street, who strikes a conversation and invites you to join him for a drink. He takes you to a nightclub and several women immediately move to your table and order drinks. Then you’re presented with a huge bill (~500 €) and scary-looking guys accompany you until you pay up. It is so common that guidebooks and hostels inform about it, so I was warned. It happened to me every day. The conversation almost always went like this: the guy says something in Turkish, like asking for directions or a light. When you don’t answer in Turkish, they say “Oh, you’re not Turkish! (forced surprise face). You look Turkish. Where you from?” Then, they ask you some questions to assess if you’re the right person for the scam: “you live here? this your first time Turkey? Come alone?.” Reassured by my answers, they mentioned their relatives in Spain or something they know about your country and, finally, suggest to go for a drink.

On a particular day, it was kind of funny because I had this same conversation with three different guys and always the guy would say he had some relatives in Sabadell (a city in Catalunya). I thought it was funny that they always mentioned a largely unknown city like Sabadell, probably to make the story plausible. When the third young guy on the day said he had a cousin in Catalunya, I interrupted: “Let me guess. In Sabadell?” “yes! Sabadell, how you know?” I was laughing and told him that everybody says Sabadell, and that they could probably say other cities in Spain, if only for a change, like Toledo, Sevilla, Valladolid, etc. “Be creative!” :-). He was roaring with laughter, shook my hand and said “I only knew two cities Spain. Thank you for teaching me more cities”. An hour later, on my way back through Istiklak I heard “Hello! Hello!” I turned and saw the second and third young guys I had met that day, with another friend. They were greeting me and laughing. I ran into those kids almost every day since in Istiklal, and they always laughed and greeted me very nicely. 🙂

Silk Road 1 – Istanbul

Let’s get started with Season 2!! I flew from Madrid to Istanbul excited about setting off for my dream journey along the Silk Road. A little bit of context first.

What is known today as the Silk Road was never a single route but rather an intricate network of smaller trade paths between the Occident and the Orient. Therefore, setting a start/finish point doesn’t make much sense. But I have to start somewhere, don’t I? 🙂 Istanbul probably makes the best choice. Owing to its strategic location straddling Europe and Asia, Istanbul has come to symbolise the route’s western terminus, the gateway to Europe for traders carrying products from the Far East. The Chinese would point out this is the end of the Silk Road, since silk flowed westwards; for Europeans travellers, however, it is more of a beginning as they head towards the less-known Orient.

Istanbul has it all: a modern and lively metropolis, a rich history of a city previously known as Byzantium and Constantinople and a strategic position between Europe and Asia and in the only sea route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. It is the symbolic bridge between Eastern and Western civilisations.

Bridge connecting Europe and Asia

Hagia Sophia is a testament to Istanbul’s rich history. It served as a cathedral during the Byzantine Empire, later as a mosque under Ottoman rule and was secularised and opened as a museum in the 1930’s as part of the efforts by Atatürk to create a modern and westernized Turkish nation-state. The interior is breathtaking, one of the most impressive religious buildings I’ve ever seen. You can clearly distinguish Christian and Islamic elements mixed together in this massive construction.

Just a short walk from Hagia Sophia lies Sultan Ahmed Mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque, which is still working as such. It is almost equally as amazing, and more beautiful from the outside.

That Turks are skilled traders is well known. Actually, they will try to sell you whatever best suits them, even if you ask for something else – and sometimes successfully. If you enter a shop to buy a T-shirt you may well end up with a pair of shoes, after a few cups of tea… 🙂  So my first experience in a Silk Road bazaar was in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, a buzzing market built in the fifteenth century.

Grand Bazaar

Silk products in the Grand Bazaar

In the Grand Bazaar I spotted several shops advertising pure silk products. Would the silk have come from China? 🙂 I don’t think it works like that these days, but certainly this was a cool detail to start with a Silk Road trip.

There are 28 caravanserais (or Han, as it is called in Turkey) inside the bazaar itself. Those are places where Silk Road traders used to rest, more info in posts to come.

Istanbul was my starting point for travelling around Turkey: Izmir, Selçuk (Ephesus), Bodrum, Pamukkale, Antalya, Konya, Cappadocia, Ankara and back to Istanbul. I’ll keep you posted.