Turkey Backpackers

An article by Ian Sewell -- www.ianandwendy.com

Turkey Backpackers

Cheap to get around, extremely generous people, not too busy

Transportation system daunting at first

The Bottom Line
Extremely easy to backpack around, and it is a great alternative to a tour group. You see more, and get a real taste of the country.

In August 2002, my wife and I backpacked around Turkey for 9 days. During this time we visited Kusadasi/ Ephsesus, Pammukale, Goreme and Cappadocia, Ankara, and Istanbul. We were never part of a tour group, we backpacked and arranged all our own travel.

Getting there
We visited Turkey after one week in Greece. We arrived by ferry from Samos. We started that day in Mikonos, and planned to go from Mikonos to Samos to Turkey. Getting information on the trip was nearly impossible from Greece - relations aren't terribly good. The 6am ferry arrived at 9:30am in Mikonos - it certainly didn't bode well for the rest of the journey. By the time we hit Samos we were 4.5 hours late for the ferry to Turkey which, fortunately, was waiting for us. After going through customs in Samos (complete and utter chaos), we packed into the ferry and headed to Turkey. Upon our arrival, we had to buy a very expensive visa ($60) (for Canadians - Americans don't need a visa), and we finally entered the country.

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The most obvious thing that will strike you upon entering the country is "Good lord, are those MILLIONS?" The Turkish Lira currently holds the dubious distinction of being the least valuable currency in the world. As I write this, there are 1.7 million turkish lira to the US dollar. Welcome to conversion hell. They have not re-valued the currency since they are still struggling to control the 30% yearly inflation.

SIDEBAR: At the beginning of 2005 the Turkish Lira was re-valued, so 1,000,000 TL (old Turkish Lira) now equals 1 YTL (new Turkish Lira). The exchange rate is currently (August '05) around 2.4 YTL = £1
The best approximation I could come up with was to lop off 6 decimal places and divide by two. You will find that very often people will discuss prices in terms of number of millions.

The paper currency is very confusing, plan on spending your first spare time in Turkey studying it. Memorize the colours, don't bother trying to count the 0's. There are no commas. 10000000 and 10000000 look very similar when you're staring at a shopkeeper and he's looking impatient as he has a lineup of customers behind him. We were always worried about mistakenly paying with a 10 million note and getting change for a 1 million note, but that never happened. When we did hand over the wrong note, they would always correct us.

Health and Safety
We never felt threatened - even when we were completely lost in the slums of Ankara. We took the usual traveller precautions of not prominently displaying a wallet or expensive jewelery, and this was sufficient.

Turkey doesn't require immunizations, although it is recommended to be up to date on your MMR and Hep. A. Drinking the tap water is not recommended. Bottled water is everywhere and cheap (although make sure you dont get ripped off - walking 10 feet down the road can save you 50%). We chose to brush our teeth with bottled water, as well. (we never realized just how much water you use brushing your teeth!)
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We couldn't decide whether or not to eat non boiled fruits and vegetables. Since my wife is vegetarian, this was a bit of a problem. In guidebook recommended restaurants, we did end up eating uncooked fruits and vegetables. My wife did end up getting slightly stomach sick. I maintain to this day however that if she had been drinking alchohol like I had been with every meal, she would not have gotten sick!

The People
Turks are some of the most generous people we have met in the world. Day after day we were astounded by how truly kind these people are. Every time we were lost, someone would immediately offer to walk us to where were trying to go - not just direct us - and there was no strings attached, no attempt to get us into a carpet shop. People seemed very happy to see us. Tourism is apparently way down since 9/11 - even a lot of the cruise boats aren't stopping in at Istanbul and Kusadasi.

It's also interesting to note that they were extremely kind to us despite not being part of a tour group, and despite being dressed like poor students. We felt their generosity was never motivated by a financial desire - it's just how they treat visitors to their country.

When we finally did buy a carpet in Istanbul, we had a great conversation for about an hour after we'd made the purchase with the owner of the shop. One of the points he really tried to make us understand about the decline in tourism was that tourists are scared of Muslim countries, but in reality, Turkey is a country of widespread religious freedom and acceptance. Attaturk did wonders for this country in terms of personal freedoms.

Don't be surprised by the stares or the lack of smiles you might see. We found the Turks a lot less outwardly friendly then Americans, but break through their shell, and you will be rewarded with a big wide smile. At first, we were certain that none of them liked us and were unfriendly, but realized that this is simply a difference in culture. I suspect that they see Americans and Canadians with their constant "Walmart" smiles as being "fake".

Smoking is everywhere. There is just no escape from it. It's a shame - the government strongly encourages tobacco use (they used to have a monopoly). You will not see women smoking in public, but beware the restroom :)

One of my favourite examples of this difference in culture happened in Cappadocia. We went on a sunset guided hike offered by the hotel. Although it was aimed at a group, we were the only ones who signed up - never mind, we got our own personal guide! For a 3 hour guided hike (with taxi ride there and back) we had to pay $10 US each. When it came to tipping, we had no idea what was appropriate - the normal 15 or 20% we would leave seemed almost insulting. So we left $5 for the two of us - a 25% tip. Our guide accepted this and thanked us, but didn't even smile. Had we just insulted him? Was it too much? Was it too little? We had no idea. He checked us out of the hotel the following day, and after we had settled up and were on our way, he came running back to us with a bottle of local wine in hand. He gave us the wine, and we finally got a big smile out of him. So I guess the tip wasn't so insulting after all!

Local Customs
Clothing: All of our guidebooks seemed to disagree on what was appropriate wear, so here are our observations. I was ok in shorts/tshirt almost everywhere we went in Turkey. Only in ultra-conservative Konya did I feel it was necessary to wear long pants (this is where combination/zipper pants came in very handy). In the mosques, I took off my shoes and "recombined" to wearing pants. Shorts are not ok inside a mosque. My wife wore skirts most of the time. There was absolutely no women in shorts except for some disrepectful tourists. Inside mosques, she wore a headscarf (the more touristy mosques handed these out at the entrance) and covered her shoulders. In large tourist sites (like Ephesus), women can probably get away with wearing shorts.

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The Turks were effusively grateful for the respect we were showing. Such small things - putting on my pant legs, and her putting on her headscarf - earned us top tourist marks in their books. The smiles and approving nods were constant evidence of this. We were shocked when we saw some tourists taking off their headscarves as soon as they were past the officials at the entrance. This is their place of worship, the least we can do is respect their customs.

Tipping: We never quite figured it out here. At restaurants, we varied between our standard 15% if we liked it, and 0 if we didn't. Our guidebook said to round up. At Mosques, it's customary to make a small donation ($1) when you leave. We never tipped bus drivers (intercity or intracity), nor was it expected.

Getting Around in Turkey
We got around using public transportation. This worked well most of time, except when we wanted to get a bit funky in where we were going.

Inside the towns, privately-run dolmus (minibus) ferry locals and tourists around. The way these things work is that you look for a bus with your destination written on the front. They do not run on a set schedule, and will stop wherever, whenever to pick people up. Once you get on, clamber to the first available seat. (Our guidebook recommended trying to keep men and women apart, but that never seemed to matter on any of the buses we got on). To find out the price, some minibuses (in tourist areas) will have the prices printed on a sign attached somewhere at the front. Otherwise you just ask. Don't worry, you'll be able to afford it. Then, you pass your money to the driver (via the other passengers) and state your destination. You might be asked to pass on money for other people too. Then, somehow, the driver will make change while driving at crazy speeds and looking everywhere for any other passengers. On some dolmus, there will be another guy sitting up front who will help the driver collect fares.

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The dolmus system seems pretty chaotic at first, but it works well if you are not in a huge rush to get somewhere for a certain time. And it's very, very cheap. I believe we always paid local price, no one tried to rip us off because of the cameras strapped around our necks.

The intercity bus system is also pretty intimidating at first, but once you figure it out, it's pretty manageable. There is no government run system here either - it's a mess of competing companies at the 'otogar' (bus terminal). The otogar is usually located somewhere outside the downtown area with frequent dolmus' running there. As soon as you step foot in the otogar, you will surely be approached by a "runner" from one of the companies. These runners will try to persuade you that their price is the best, their schedule is the best, etc. Depending on where you are, they can be pretty persistent. Denizli was by far the worst we experienced.

If you manage to shake off the runners, congratulations - we never could. They will lead you to their company, where you can find times, prices etc. Then, you have to go window to window if you want to try to find the best time or price. There is no central ticket office that knows all of the bus companies schedules and prices - you have to find them all out yourself, which can get pretty challenging when their English isn't the best. It took us a while to get used to this system.

Forget booking tickets for other cities in advance - even for different legs of the same trip. If you want to get from A to B with no stops in between and you're already at point A, you're in good shape. If you want to book for tomorrow to get from B to C, good luck. Anything complicated can get difficult without speaking Turkish. One thing we never tried was a travel agency, perhaps they could have bought tickets for us.

We tried to stick to the bus companies that were recommended to us (Nevtur, Pamukkale, ...). They were all extremely clean, comfortable, and safe. In fact, we never saw any buses that we wouldn't get on. We didn't take any night buses, for reasons of security, and also because we wanted to see the scenery.

Bus protocol is pretty strange. There is a 'steward' who walks up and down the aisle serving tea, coffee, coke, biscuits, wet towels, and spray-perfume. There are no restrooms on the bus, so they stop every few hours for usually 20 to 30 minutes. However, all of the rest stops we stopped at impeccably clean restrooms - you might have to pay a dime to get in, but these were no American freeway gas station affairs! The women's usually had a split of squat and normal toilets, by the way. The more reputable companies will give the drivers more breaks.

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Another important thing no guide book mentioned about the bus: BE QUIET! And I mean, LIBRARY quiet! We got yelled at a few times for this. The Turks in general are a pretty loud and talkative people, but when they get on a bus, it's like they're mourning a funeral. Not a word is spoken - even for a 10 hour daylight bus trip. At one point we struck up a conversation with a Spanish guy on the row beside us. Big mistake. This was before we had figured out the "silence at all times" rule. One of the other passengers on the bus motioned to the steward, they exchanged some words in Turkish, and then the steward came over and told us to please be quiet! What a very odd experience. My wife and I at one point dug out our Travel Scrabble board, to the complete bewilderment of our fellow passengers. An Italian man on a bus we took had his cellphone ring. Half the bus glared at him immediately, and then he answered the call and started a conversation, the steward high-tailed it over to him and pointed frantically to the "no cell phone" sign at the front of the bus.

Be warned that the buses don't go anywhere that fast. They seem to be pegged to a speed limit of about 89 km/h, and as soon as they go over, the bus beeps menacingly at the driver. Everyone else on the road was doing a pretty decent clip however!

Arrival times were pretty exact, and so were departure times. I have some great video footage of all the buses in one otogar pulling out at precisely 9 am - about 40 of them all at once. It looked like some sort of strange dance. Even the Swiss would be jealous of how on-time these buses are.

The otogars in the larger city are very, very big. These are some of the largest bus stations in the world. We ran into very few foreigners, even though it was peak tourist season. I think almost everybody takes a guided tour - despite how easy it is (and how CHEAP) to travel this country unguided.

Every bus we travelled on was modern, had very comfortable seats, and the temperature was good - not American-shopping-mall cold, but a pleasent temperature, even when it was 110 outside.

Taxis : We only took one taxi, in Ankara, and it was a good experience. The normal warnings about making sure the meter is on, it's set for daytime, etc. apply here though.

Trains:The trains are very slow, from all accounts. We never took one. Buses are simply THE way to get around in Turkey.

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