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My Golden Ones: Turkey

Jonathan Campion   takes a bus ride through southern Turkey, and a journey through the region’s intricacies. Next one will with sponsored guide Cappadocia tours

The muezzin’s call to morning prayer was still floating across the streets of Kemer as I arrived at the meeting place. It was 5am, but already a dozen or so fellow tourists were waiting by the fountain in the town’s main square, for the bus that would take us 250 kilometres north-west to Pamukkale, the ancient thermal springs in the south-west of Turkey.

Like 90% of visitors to southern Turkey’s Antalya province we were all Russian-speakers. We had chosen this day to take an excursion inland – peeling our bodies from Kemer’s warm pebble beach, forsaking lunchtime plates of adana kebap at its outdoor cafés, and saving the hammocks in Paradise Tea Garden for another time. 

Everyone is still dressed for the beach – it is July and even at dawn the air is hot. As we wait, some of the tourists sit down on the kerb and rub the sleep from their eyes. Some rest their heads on a partner’s shoulders; others walk to the fruit market at the end of the street, yawning and stretching limbs.

When the bus arrives the last person to get on is a stocky lady with a round face. She is Aigul, our guide. She has black hair and Oriental eyes – we are surprised to hear her speak perfect Russian, and more surprised to be called moi zolotye – “my golden ones”. Aigul speaks cheerily about the day ahead, but soon puts down her microphone to let the Russians go back to sleep.

The sun rises above the palm trees as we leave Kemer. It lights up the Taurus Mountains on the left of the road, changing them from a purple silhouette into a series of steep, green hills. As we join the road to Antalya the bus stops every few hundred yards to pick up more holiday makers from the hotels in its affluent suburbs. By the time we reach Goynuk the bus is full, but its passengers are barely making a sound. Soon I am the only one awake.  The sea to our right was calm, shimmering as the low sun above it threw bright, pale light on to the water. It is because of mornings like this that Turkish people call the Mediterranean Ak deniz – the White Sea.

*****

The Russians arrived in Antalya about ten years ago. As soon as wages in the former Soviet Union started to rise, and visas became easier to come by, its people became more adventurous with their summer holidays. Sun-seekers abandoned Sochi and Crimea and began to explore the beaches of Egypt and Turkey instead.

 The first visitors were from Moscow and St. Petersburg, but soon tour operators opened everywhere: now Antalya’s airport receives hundreds of flights each week from Kyiv, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Barnaul, Almaty, and dozens of other towns. The Turkish temperament has helped develop a bond between the two cultures: tourists from the CIS bring money to the country, and create jobs, but the locals’ hospitality is natural more often than it is cynical.

Between hotels, on the bare earth between the mountains and the road, are rows of souvenir bazaars manned by sleepy-looking Turkish boys in sandals and dusty vests. Shopping is a vital part of all Russians’ holidays – many families spend their whole year’s savings during trips abroad – and even at 5.30am most of the stalls in each bazaar are open. I am sure that the boys, like the shopkeepers of Kemer, have taught themselves Russian in order to barter and banter with their new neighbours.

Hanging up in the bazaars are sunglasses, leather jackets, jewellery, even fur coats and hats. Every second kiosk had a sign above it in Cyrillic. Wise to their customers’ fashion-consciousness, some of the signs just carry the names of famous brands: if Armani made toothpaste it would fly off the shelves in Moscow.

*****

After Gőynűk we follow the coast until we reach Antalya city.  Antalya is low and compact. Its buildings – attractive modern apartments, restaurants, new shops – are painted with deep oranges, greens, yellows and blues, and fill the land between the Taurus Mountains and the sea. The strip next to the sea, to the right of the bus, represents all of Turkey’s hopes for a progressive, European rejuvenation: from the sports cars speeding to the beach to the sleek escalators that carry pedestrians over motorway overpasses, it feels futuristic. Clothes drying on lines between holiday apartments are the only hint of twentieth-century life.

The sign at the entrance to the city says that it is home to three million people, but each summer Antalya’s population swells to three times as many. In addition to the million or so visitors from the former Soviet Union there are tourists from Germany and Scandinavia. Many Istanbullus own second homes here. There are also guest workers from Diyarbakir and other underdeveloped towns in the far eastern corner of the country, who move to the south each summer to earn a living from Mediterranean Turkey’s enormous tourism industry.

Some migrants arrive from Central Asia, like Aigul, and the Kyrgyz shopkeeper in Kemer who told me stories of Bishkek each morning while slicing his Turkish Delight. Their language skills are in great demand in Turkey: Central Asians spent their childhood being forced to speak Russian in Soviet schools, but their mother tongues are close to Turkish. Aigul spends her days explaining a foreign culture to tourists whose country once repressed her own.

On the bus’s left is the residential part of Antalya. Dozens of brand new mosques flashed past the bus’s windows, each with a pencil-shaped minaret in one of their corners. Each district contains the same ingredients (a few blocks of apartments, one or two roads lined with palm trees and shops, and one mosque), but every building is designed and painted differently.

Only the minarets are the same in each quarterThese thin, cream-coloured towers have a dark blue tip, and three balconies at varying heights – narrow platforms from where the muezzin sings the adhan (call to prayer). The towers define the landscape, rising from the colourful streets like candles on a birthday cake. Minarets, Aigul explained, are status symbols in Turkish towns: mosques have only one to begin with, before others are added when the community collects enough money to build them. The more minarets, they say, the more prosperous the neighbourhood.

*****

The bus leaves Antalya and moves inland. Soon the buildings disappear and we arrive on the steppe. The road became rough; the pale morning sky darkened into an oversaturated Middle Eastern blue. We pass a quarry where men in diggers are shrouded in clouds of chalk. On my fourth day in the country, they were the first Turks I saw who were not working in the tourism industry.

The landscape is light brown and uneven, like a piece of Turkish pide bread, and rises up on the horizon, miles away, to form low hills. Dry bushes punctuate the plains – besides the bumpy road that we are travelling along there are no signs of civilisation. We travel slowly and silently for two hours through the barrenness before we reach another settlement. Most of the Golden Ones were still sleeping when the bus parked in the shade of a 20 foot-high model giraffe at our breakfast stop, a roadside diner in the small town of Sőrgűt,

Although located in the wilderness the diner is very much on the tourist trail: the waiters speak Russian, and there are even blinchiki on the buffet table. As the tourists wake up again they introduce themselves to the others on their table. There are several families from Moscow, a girl from Kazakhstan, and a middle-aged couple from Odessa (who, on the long way home, would sing Ukrainian folk songs to keep our spirits up).

As we pull out of Sőrgűt, Aigul whets our appetite for Pamukkale. Its name means ‘Cotton Castle’, describing what the top of the hill where the thermal springs are located looks like from a distance. It is the colour of cotton because of the layers of travertines – dozens of bright white basins formed from calcium carbonate, which are filled with warm water whose minerals are said to have cleansing and healing powers. Pamukkale is also home to Cleopatra’s Pool, a basin full of hot thermal water that for centuries has given health to those who bathe in it. Pamukkale has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1988 and is one of the most visited places in Turkey.

As we move further across the steppe the road gets rougher. The plains give way to undulating hills. The land is parched but not inhospitable – some areas look like they had once been farmed. We pass deserted stone cottages; I wondered whether their owners had moved to Antalya, or the large town of Denizli further north.

When we see civilisation again it is shaded with the pastel colours of the Turkish countryside, not the gloss of Antalya. Houses have red tiles on their roofs; the tips of minarets are turquoise or silver. Two women in billowing clothes and bright headscarves are walking towards the village of Alaattin, and in the village, the boys in vests and sandals are selling watermelons by the roadside, not souvenirs.

We stretch our legs again when the bus stops in Alaattin to refuel. The view over the dusty terrain is impressive but not beautiful. The landscape is blurred by a heat haze. In a yard next to the petrol pumps, scruffy brown puppies mooch around a pen. A Russian boy takes a camera with a huge zoom lens out of his rucksack to photograph parrots on a telephone line. I step away from the group to soak up the isolation, until the Golden Ones are ordered back on to the bus. Even outside the bus, the tourist trail is only ever two metres wide.

*****

At 10am, five hours after leaving Kemer, we make an unannounced detour – to a carpet factory, tucked behind a hill near the top of a shallow valley. The detour is organised on a simple but devilish principle: the factory pays for tour buses’ fuel, meaning day-long excursions from Kemer to Pamukkale cost less than a cup of coffee in St. Petersburg. In return, the tour guides bring hundreds of tourists to the factory every week (“Our driver needs to rest, my golden ones, so let’s have a look at some traditional Turkish crafts…”), and leave them to explore rooms full of expensive carpets – which, of course, can be bought, wrapped and flown abroad by the time we leave.

Aigul leaves us with the factory’s owner, a man in his forties with fiery eyes and a grey polo shirt wrapped snugly around a pot belly. He too spoke in the flawless, accented Russian of Central Asia, talking boisterously in a voice that filled the large wood-panelled rooms. He starts our tour on the ground floor, where carpets are sewn by hand by a dozen young women working nimbly on low desks. We learn that some carpets take years to make. Sewing them is such a slow task because looking at the intricate patterns for more than four hours each day can harm the girls’ eyesight.

In the next room we assemble around a large wooden object that, to our untutored eyes, is part table football set, part harp, and part guillotine. It spins strands of silk hundreds of metres long, from which the carpets are sewn after they are dyed. On a stage at the front of the room an elderly lady sits cross-legged with a ball of coloured cotton in each hand, and observes us with an ethereal smile, like a praying Sufi.

We go upstairs to where the carpets are stored. The floor has a dozen rooms that are each the size of a large bedroom. Rolled-up carpets rest against all of their walls. Some are stacked on top of each other in the middle of the floor. Other rugs are hung on the walls, as art. Out of their usual context – with no furniture or TV set to distract – they look sumptuous: their patterns are mesmeric (surely taken from Turkish culture) and their colours are taken from Turkey herself. The group of us assume poses like schoolchildren at an art exhibition, awed at a decadence that we don’t understand.

The factory’s owner catches up with us and leads us into a large, empty hall. When he starts to talk about the price of the carpets we learn that many cost more than most families earn in a year. He then dispatched his workers to all corners of the factory in search of twenty carpets. The men returned with them slung over their shoulders. They walked like farmers carrying bales of hay, but at their boss’s command threw the rugs into the centre of the room with the panache of circus entertainers. The carpets unravelled in mid-air, landing on the floor in unison with a flash of colour and a plush thud. The man told us to take off our footwear – thirty pairs of flip-flops – and walk barefoot over each of the carpets. They felt soothing.After another half an hour we would have been able to tell a $1000 design from a $25,000 one using only the soles of our feet, but once more we are summoned to the bus.

*****

We are now in Turkey’s Aegean region, which was once part of ancient Persia before becoming an outpost of the Greek, Roman and Byzantine empires. There are ruined amphitheatres in the area and towns maintain a second, Greek name. Pamukkale is also Hierapolis, and Denizli, the nearest town to the thermal springs, is Laodicea.

Aigul prepares us for Denizli as we reach the city walls. From the top of a valley we can peer down on all of its low, sprawling districts, which spread colourfully across many hills. It is an expanding place: as Antalya has adopted workers from remote areas of the country, so Turks have also moved to Denizli to work in its growing textile industry. Its fabrics (as well as the tradition of rearing impressive roosters) make the town famous within southern Europe.

From our glimpse of Denizli through the bus’s windows there are no traces of its Greek past. The architecture is eastern (designed with the flair of its Ottoman and contemporary Turkish inhabitants). Denizli’s mosques are placed close together, several to a district, and some have three or four minarets – a hint that the town’s money is spent on the needs of its inhabitants, not its visitors as is true on the coast.

When we get to the town’s central streets Aigul explains that Denizli is a modern centre for conservative Islam. The people on the street wear Moslem dress, and many women are fully wrapped in jet black burqas. It is an arresting sight but is not shocking: the spring in their step, and the shopping bags in their hands full of bright clothes, suggests freedom. The women chat happily with friends as they walk.

At mid-day we finally reach our destination As we approach Pamukkale its ‘Cotton Castle’ is just a white splotch at the top of a valley like any other – but when we get to the travertines their beauty is astounding.  It is like a ski slope made of hot salt. We join tourists from France, Sweden, Britain (and some Turkish travellers too) in stripping off and paddling in the basins’ perfect water. The view of Denizli province is extraordinary.

Slowed by the excursion and exhausting roads it has taken us eight hours to travel the 250 kilometres from Kemer. Aigul’s Golden Ones are tarnished by sweat and dust. But as we rest in Cleopatra’s Pool – sinking our heads beneath the hot water to feel the minerals fizz over our eyeballs – I feel better for having taken the road to Pamukkale.

> More of Jonathan Campion’s writing and photography can be found on his blog “MY EUROPE”, at His articles have been published in the Guardian newspaper’s travel section and in the book “The Expeditioner’s Guide to the World”.