My First Solo Backpacking Trip, 2005.
I’d be lying if I said my choice of degree (Ancient History) had nothing to do with Indiana Jones. I quickly ditched any notion of becoming an archaeologist once at university, but the films left their mark on my travels.
As a teenager, I would cut out pictures from tour brochures and newspapers for my travel scrapbook. This was long before Pinterest, people! A pre-bucket list bucket list.
I still have the scrapbook under my bed; alongside the cascading waterfalls secret beaches were ancient sites with the names of unfamiliar empires, so it’s no surprise there was a strong emphasis on Turkey.
Turkey is a vast country, at the crossroads of continents, of ancient empires and trade routes across land and sea.
For the budding Indiana Jones wannabe, Turkey has buckets of appeal. Or bucket-list appeal, if you prefer.
Turkey was the first place I went on family holiday. My first backpacking trip with friends was interrailing across Europe to Istanbul. So it seems only fitting that my first solo trip was in Turkey too.
It was only whilst writing this post that I realised it was 12 years ago. The photos have held up well considering it was my first ever digital camera.
Eastern Turkey is perhaps not the most obvious choice for a first solo backpacking trip, but it turned out to be the perfect thanks to the hospitality of its people, the ease of getting around, and the abundance of epic historic sites.
Actually, I didn’t plan this trip at all.
I was in Turkey visiting the Turquoise Coast with friends, and made it as far as Cappadocia before realising how close I was to a few of these epic sites (by close I mean 600km, Turkey is big). It didn’t take long for me to change my plans.
My friends left for their flight home, and then I was solo.
The blockbuster site in Turkey is Ephesus. Not only is it a popular day trip for those holidaying on the nearby coastal resorts, but it’s also one of the largest ancient sites in the eastern Mediterranean.
Dating back to the 10th century BC, Ephesus has seen Ancient Greek, Roman, Seleucid, and Byzantine rule.
It once boasted Temple of Artemis – one of the classical Seven Wonders of the World – but little remains today and the image that you’ll see on postcards is the Roman Library of Celsus.
Ephesus prospered under the Romans and at one time was the second most important city in Asia Minor after Constantinople. Apostles John and Paul are both associated with the city; John established the Christian community, and Paul lived and preached here for two years.
Ephesus eventually declined abandoned as the harbour was slowly silted up, its demise hastened by earthquakes and Arab sackings.
It’s an impressive site, but I must say that Ephesus left me unmoved. You just can’t play Indiana Jones here. There are too many tourists, guardrails, and evidence of reconstruction.
Ephesus Fortune and Glory Score: 3/10
Cappadocia, the land of beautiful horses, is famous for its rude-looking tufa fairy chimneys, and these days also for the impressively Instagrammable sight of hot-air balloons at dawn.
Fairy Chimneys and Hidey Holes
The magical lunar landscape is formed as a layer of volcanic rock called tufa is gradually eroded by water and wind, leaving harder basalt formations above.
Fun fact: Did you know these geological formations are known as hoodoos?
The soft tufa rock provided ample opportunity for carving hiding places into the rock, allowing the area’s inhabitants to take refuge from wars and persecuting forces, and leaving great examples of rock-hewn architecture.
Goreme Open Air Museum
Cappadocia was one of the first areas to embrace Christianity, right back to the 4th century when St. Basil established a monastic community here. The Open Air Museum is a complex of 11 rock-cut Byzantine churches and monasteries with some excellent frescos.
It’s one of the busiest attractions in the area so if you go then do yourself a favour and visit early or late in the day to avoid the tour buses, and spend the rest of your day hiking.
Derinkuyu Underground City
Taking hidey-holes to a whole new level is the underground city of Derinkuyu, the other must-see site in the region.
This cave-city dates back to Hittite times and could house up to 20, 000: an entire town would decamp underground in times of peril. Even the horses had underground stables.
Visiting Derinkuyu is not necessarily a pleasant experience as you’re following a long line of other tourists down small holes in the heat, but it’s worth it to marvel at how people survived down there.
These underground cities were made to withstand attacks and were still in use by Christians during the Ottoman times up until the Greek population exchange in 1923. Up to 200 underground cities have been discovered in the wider area and it looks like another one has recently been discovered. Indy ahoy!
Goreme Fortune and Glory Score: 7/10 if you can stay long enough to get away from the buses of tour groups. You never know, you might discover a new underground city on your walks!
City of the Prophets
Urfa – or by its full name, Şanlıurfa (Urfa the Glorious), is a beautiful city near the Syrian border and is traditionally the city of Abraham and as such is a place of pilgrimage for all three Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
This is where God saved Abraham from a fiery pit of doom, turning fire to water and logs to carp. The Pool of Sacred Fish now forms part of a complex with the cave of Abraham’s birth, five mosques and a castle.
Don’t try to catch the carp, though, these are sacred fish – you’ll go blind!
I found Urfa to be a peaceful and friendly city, buzzing with picnicking families and visitors from all over. It wasn’t hard to make local friends whilst smoking shisha in cafes overlooking the city. Or to find incredible kebabs.
My most exciting discovery in Urfa, though, was bal kaymak.
I’d read about a cafe selling bal kaymak in my guidebook. Clotted cream made from water buffalo milk, served with local honey and crusty bread. I’m a dairy girl so I was delighted (and I mean really really delighted) to discover this place was right underneath my hotel. It’s right up there with my best breakfasts ever.
Urfa is now a place of pilgrimage for me too.
Urfa Fortune and Glory Score: 7/10 If fortune was dairy and glory was sugar then this place is right on the money.
People of the Stars
The main reason I was in Urfa was actually to get to Harran. One of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements on earth – people have been living here for 6000 years. I got there on a dusty minibus from Urfa, shared with quite a few chickens.
Situated at an important crossroad of trade routes, Harran flourished under Roman, Byzantine, and particularly Arab rule. It became a seat of learning, passing classical works from West to East, and was the site of one of the first Islamic universities.
Also, here the Roman general Crassus had molten gold poured into his mouth after his defeat by the Parthians – what a way to go!
The tall square tower you see in the photo above is the astrological tower, built on the Assyrian temple to moon-god Sin, and part of the ruins of the university.
Harran was eventually sacked by the Mongols, with semi-nomadic Arabs sticking around.
Today Harran is known for its distinctive beehive houses built from mud. These were actually used for cool storage and animal shelter rather than human habitation.
Harran Fortune and Glory Score: 8/10 The power of Indy is strong here, with its links to the occult.
The City of Whirling Dervishes
I briefly made it to Konya where I was excited to see the Mevlana Museum, the final resting place of the Sufi mystic Rumi. But — exhausted from all the night buses — I spent most of my time asleep. So I don’t remember much of it, nor do I have any photos. So let’s skip over that.
Any illusions I had of myself of a great adventurer were punctured in Egirdir, where I had a mini meltdown. This was the first part of my trip where I felt truly alone. I arrived tired and paranoid about missing the bus stop as I had no idea how it was pronounced (it’s “eh-yer-dir”).
My Rough Guide described Egirdir as:
“an astonishingly beautiful setting . . . between the Toros mountains and Turkey’s second largest freshwater setting . . . a wonderfully relaxing place to stay”
With swimmable waters and apple orchards supposedly in bloom, it seemed just the ticket after the arid east.
It was not to be. The activities were out of my price range, my accommodation was unfriendly, and pretty soon I hadn’t spoken to anyone in days.
I developed a budget anxiety and spent three days eating nothing but bread and PopKeks, watching mosquitoes dance around the lake.
After a few days, I realised I didn’t have to stay in this place out of stubbornness until I enjoyed it. I was free to leave anytime I liked.
I know now that you travel for long enough then spells like this are inevitable.
But at the time I was freaked out! What if I didn’t enjoy travelling on my own after all? If it had been my last stop in Turkey then it might well have put me off solo travel for a while.
Thankfully there was one more stop to go.
I’ll admit I only stopped there because it was a convenient pit stop on the way back to the beach, where there would be familiar things like other backpackers, alcohol, and discotheques.
I assumed Pamukkale would be an overpriced over-busy tourist trap–which it is, to an extent–but it ended up being one of the highlights of my trip.
This seems to be a recurring theme for me. Don’t judge a place by the guidebook description. It’s possible to have an amazing (or awful) experience anywhere. The description was obviously not written by a fan:
“the village has acquired a rash of discos, carpet shops, hustlers… and wretched restaurants…”
Luck was on my side this time. I headed to the nearest hotel and found a cheap en-suite single room. Behold! Unicorns exist!
The hotel was used by the popular hop-on-hop-off bus service for one night every three days and completely empty in between. I had the run of the place and was adopted by the family that ran the hotel.
Mountain of small deep-fried fish appeared for dinner, and I was assigned a plate of chillis to eat in order to sweat out the cold I’d developed. Grandad and I bonded over our hacking coughs.
I ended up staying much longer than my intended overnight stop. My happiest memories of Turkey are of losing at backgammon (it’s a great way to learn the Turkish numbers), listening to stories about conscription-dodging, drinking endless amounts of Cappy, and speeding around the historic site on the back of a motorbike with a guy called Crazy.
The travertines —the cotton castles–of Pamukkale are interesting enough; chalk deposits formed by water from hot springs. Great for geology nerds and holiday snaps. If possible, it’s well worth staying to watch the colours change as the sun goes down.
But for history buffs, the real gem of Pamukkale is the adjoined ancient town of Hierapolis which developed alongside the therapeutic waters. If you visit at the end of the day after the buses have gone it’s wonderfully evocative, comparatively empty, and has a massive necropolis and some great views. Much more enjoyable than Ephesus!
Hierapolis Fortune and Glory score: 7/10 Because massive necropolis.
THE REAL TREASURE
Turkey is an excellent destination for some epic historic adventuring. In such a large country, getting there is half the fun.
Solo travel so often seems to be about independence, about the rhythm of survival – finding food, a roof over your head, how to get from A to B. About going out into the big wide world and navigating unfamiliar territory on your own. Finding company when you’re going crazy.
It involves making yourself vulnerable, which is why it can be scary.
Once you put yourself out there in a strange land, you soon realise your dependence on other people.
And there are few better places for this than Turkey, where the real treasure is its people and long tradition of hospitality.
And bal kaymak.
Mind you, I still can’t help myself. My scrapbook now takes the form of a Trello board and has an even longer list of secret beaches, cascading waterfalls, and epic historic wonders.
But stay tuned for one more – my trip to the summit of Nemrut Dagi, which deserves a post of its own!
Of course, the political landscape has changed over the past decade. Currently, the FCO advises against but essential travel to the area around Urfa. Sadface.
For more nuanced travel advice I recommend checking out Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Turkey board for information on safety in the region.
Any other Turkey travel fans here? Have you been to the east? Do you get the Raiders of the Lost Ark theme in your head within 100m of an ancient site?