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A less touristy road through southwest Turkey

Our Turkish joyride was over. The 14 unsuspecting travelers in our tour group were driving into the dusty cloud of the southeast.

We had started in Istanbul, then made our way down through the southwest coast with its beautiful beaches and British vacation towns, then on through the Fairy Chimneys of Cappadocia, and now, into the dust. The eight-hour bus ride took us through an endless desert with occasional communist-style buildings. Dull would be an understatement.

We were deposited in a town called Kahta. It seemed desolate, scruffy, and did I mention – dusty? Unimpressed, I asked Mustafa, our tour guide, “Why are we here?”

“To climb Mount Nemrut,” he replied. Obviously I hadn’t done my homework. We went as a group for dinner to the only restaurant open past 10 pm. The few local Turkish men hanging out in the restaurant looked at us as if we were from Mars.

The next morning we gathered into the bus that took us 40 km up to Mount Nemrut. We were told to bring raincoats and warm clothing because the peak can get quite chilly. It was a beautiful 27˚C outside, and we were in the middle of the desert. I couldn’t imagine chilly weather anywhere in the vicinity so I skimped a bit on the warm clothing. I looked out the window of our bus as we drove by dusty little houses with goats and chickens running freely and realized I was a long long way from California.

Toppled heads on Mount Nemrut

We were dropped off about a mile or so from the peak. I was starting to feel the chill. There was a narrow rocky path that led up to the top of the mountain. As we started our little trek up it started to drizzle. At 26 I was the youngest in our group. I was also the slowest, with the fear of slipping down those rocks as the drizzle slowly turned into rain, then hail. My sneakers were soaking through, my jeans were getting drenched, and the three layers I wore underneath my raincoat were somehow getting soaked as well. I stopped for a moment to take in the beautiful vastness of the desert mountains as the hail bounced off my head. I chugged along.

“Don’t fall Molly! Don’t fall!” was all I could think. The 2,150-meter mountain has a tomb on the summit dating to the 1st century BCE. In 62 BCE King Antiochus I built his tomb accompanied by 8-9 foot tall statues. One of the statues is meant to be the king, and the others are Greek, Armenian and Persian gods, which the king thought of as his relatives. The statues were once seated, but earthquakes have toppled the heads. The 2-meter-high heads lay scattered around the site. They have become a symbol of Turkey and are eastern Turkey’s main attraction. I was the last to leave the summit. I stood atop by myself to soak in the greatness of this site with huge heads looking out into mountains below. Shivering, and standing my ground against the winds, I made my way down the slippery path. I should have brought warmer clothes.

A view of Urfa

We dried off and hopped back into the bus. A few hours later we arrived in Urfa. Located close to the Syrian border, it is known as the birthplace of Abraham (according to Muslim tradition). After another bland meal of lentil soup and pita bread, we ventured through the traffic-filled noisy, dusty, crowded, Middle Eastern streets. People stared at us as we walked. “I don’t like this place,” I said to Mustafa as we were trying to make our way through the crowds. “They are just curious,” he replied. “Tourists are rare around here.”

I stared at the people who were staring at our group and me. The looks in their eyes were not like those of the men in Istanbul – hungry for a date with a western girl. The looks were of wonder and curiosity at the rare spectacle of tourists in their town. We made our way through the old bazaar, a chaotic yet organized smorgasbord of merchants selling everything from produce and teas to silks, pots and carpets. This was no tourist trap like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. This was where the locals hustled and bustled. The women scurried by, draped in their black chadors, and the men in the traditional Turkish baggy pants (MC Hammer style). Mustafa warned us girls not to stay out past sunset since women walking around at that time are considered prostitutes.

Pool of the Sacred Fish

A young boy of about 10 took an interest in our tour group and had convinced Mustafa to show and explain to us the story of the Pool of the Sacred Fish. Abraham destroyed the pagan gods, and it angered the Assyrian King Nimrod. As punishment, King Nimrod ordered Abraham to be thrown into a blazing fire with hot coals. As Abraham was in midair God turned the fire into water and the coals into fish. The pool is now filled with sacred carp fish that thrash frantically around when given food by tourists.

We walked along the courtyard near the pool to the Hazreti Ibrahim Halilullah (the prophet Abraham’s birthplace). We took off our shoes, covered our heads and walked through a small tunnel to the cave. The Muslim women praying in the cave resembled the Jewish women praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Passionate.

We were being followed and stared at continuously. They were almost like the paparazzi in Los Angeles, though without the cameras. I started to enjoy all this attention. A couple of men approached me and two other women in our group just for a picture. A young girl of about 16 walked right up to me, smiled and reached out her hand to greet me. She gave me an enthusiastic “Hello!” and her eyes were wide with excitement. I looked over to Mustafa with confusion. “She just wants to practice her English with you,” he said. A couple of teenaged boys approached me while I was emailing my mother in an Internet café just to tell me I was beautiful.

This is why I travel. It’s not to lounge on the beautiful beaches, or party in foreign clubs (well, maybe to some small extent it is), but mostly it’s to take the road less traveled, to push my limits, to challenge my views and emotions, to enter one way and leave another. Practicing English with the young wide-eyed girl in Urfa was the highlight of my Turkish experience.

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