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.

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