Ankara, Turkish “Bathing” & A Local Family Dinner

Monday 2nd June

Ankara is more of a routine stop en route to Cappadocia. Similar to Canberra, Ankara has the reputation of being a bit boring.  Shaggy jokes on the bus that the best thing about Ankara are the roads, because they take you back to Istanbul. It’s the next biggest city (in terms of population) after Istanbul with six million residents.  We have just one stop here which is the Atatürk Museum. This museum is purely dedicated to the father of modern Turkey; Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938, he died young due to the Turkish lifestyle and is buried here).  This is why he was a top bloke:

  • At the fall of the Ottoman Empire in WW1 he led the Turkish independence movement, becoming the first president of Turkey.
  • He was responsible for ditching Arabic and adopting the Latin alphabet, adding a few characters to suit the language.
  • Before his time illiteracy was 85% and afterwards 100% literacy.
  • He increased the social standing of women, including giving women the right to vote (before France and much of Europe).
  • Perhaps as an act of defiance against the royal rule by which the sultancy (definitely just made that word up) is passed from father to son, Atatürk deliberately chose not to bear any children, instead adopting three girls who all became pioneers or, at the very least, very successful in their fields.  One was the first female pilot in the world and the others, a scientist and an artist.
  • He is on all of the Turkish bank notes.

As we arrive at the museum we witness the changing of the guards which happens every two hours. We all snap away like crazy then spend the following hour or so trying to comprehend just how much this man achieved for Turkey. Of course he had nothing to do with the construction of this museum.  It was built in his honour after his death. I am particularly fond of the stone lions outside lining the walkway to the museum. There are 24, representative of each of the Turkish empires.

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Ataturk's symbolic tomb.  He is actually buried below, in the basement.
Ataturk’s symbolic tomb. He is actually buried below, in the basement.
12 pairs of lions carved in stone, symbolic of the 24 Turkish empires.
12 pairs of lions carved in stone, symbolic of the 24 Turkish empires.
The Turkish flag, in bloom.
The Turkish flag, in bloom.
Ataturk's face not just on one, but all the banknotes.
Ataturk’s face not just on one, but all the banknotes.

Back in the bus, we are now en route to the real destination: Cappadocia. During the bus ride we learn a little about the region. Tectonic activity means Cappadocia is renowned for its unique geographical appearance. It is a deserty area and everything is the colour of sandstone. Caves have been carved into the hillside and what look like tall phalic-like mushrooms stand erect (pun intended) on the valley floor. This particular feature is called fairy chimneys. The terrain is hard to describe in words and much easier if you have a photograph.
As I am learning, like the rest of Turkey, Cappadocia also has a very rich historical background.  Shaggy went into much more detail but from what I gather this area is most well known as being a Christian hideout during times when pagans ruled.  Ironically when the tides turned it also became a pagan hideaway.
But we haven’t got there yet.  First we stop in the middle of nowhere it seems.  Just a very small run down village in the middle of fields.  We are actually standing above one of 35 discovered underground cities.  There are estimated to be 100 in total. These cities were carved out for protection during times of war.  Civilians even kept their livestock in here, on the first level (for ease). The “city” we are exploring has four levels but only two are available for viewing; for safety reasons.  If this cave was an apartment block and I was advertising it for sale the advert would read: “Vintage homes available of varying sizes.  Unique, non-linear design. Features include great ventilation passages, two water wells and a stable temperature all year round of 13 degrees. Pets welcome”.

The entrance to an old, old, underground world
The entrance to an old, old, underground world
Down, down, down we go
Down, down, down we go
First group photo of the trip! Hope they get better from here
First group photo of the trip! Hope they get better from here
Token, been here, did that snap
Token, been here, did that snap
Gypsies, that rather hounded us for money, trying to make a buck selling dolls
Gypsies, that rather hounded us for money, trying to make a buck selling dolls

After we have had our caving experience we are back on the bus with 40 minutes until we arrive in Cappadocia.  On the outskirts of town we have the opportunity to partake in a favourite Turkish pastime, public bathing. Public washing is probably more appropriate.  This has been the subject of much discussion in our group. Shaggy started off by calling this process a bath and a massage, which sounded appealing to most. Then he conceded that really it was more of a scrubbing and that most locals went nude, given only a pashmina to cover themselves. After that he was under interrogation: Did we have to be nude? If so exactly how many people are going to be viewing? Did women scrub women and who scrubbed the men?
Well, here’s how it played out. Me and four other girls couldn’t deny our curiosity. Two of the guys were also game but they were in completely separate quarters and yes they were scrubbed down by another man.
We are allocated lockers and find our “pashminas” inside, actually more like two teatowels sewn together. We also find some very stylish hot pink slip on rubber shoes, not dissimilar to crocs.
We all opt to keep our bikinis on. Totally would have been game to get nude but no one else was and I didn’t want to be known as the weird naked girl. Well, not on the second day at least.  Wrapped in our over-sized teatowels, we take our seats (wooden benches in an open space) for phase one: facial mud mask and apple tea drinking. The mud is pretty cold but just about as nice as mud gets. Phase two (after washing our mud mask off in a basin) is sauna. This 15 minutes also passes by without anything too remarkable happening. Phase three is where it all starts getting very personal. We are led into an octagonal room where everything is made form marble except the wooden benches that frame it. There is a big basin at the end of each of the benches. In the middle of the room is an octagonal slab raised about 50cm off the ground.  Lying around the perimeter of the slab are two tiny Asian women that look to be smaller than the length of my arm. They are absolutely starkers, as have been all of the other women that we have snatched glimpses of in varying stages of the scrub down process.  I think the worst part is that for a while we just have to sit on the bench and wait for a staff member to become available. I smile thinking about the contrast to the beauty salons in Australia. Forget the bright, clinical rooms with soothing music and a chatty beautician asking you how your day was.  In here it smells of damp, the lighting is minimal (did I mention that we are underground?), the only sound is the friendly chit chat, and later on singing, of the staff and I’m definitely questioning how sanitary the whole thing is. The Turkish women that are doing the cleaning are 40 plus and all shapes and sizes.  Most of their bodies are also on display as they’re wearing short black crop tops and some kind of underwear, also black.  As we are waiting, pretending to avert our eyes but wanting to watch at the same time, one of the of the Turkish women on her short journey from the basin to her scrubee carrying a full bowl of water spontaneously throws half the contents on the five of us waiting.  We all laugh, especially the scrubbers who are delighted at our surprise.  I instantly relax (a fraction).  Kate and Juliet are called to the scrubbing slab and their cleaning begins.  I am up next.  The smallest scrubber takes me by the wrist and leads me to my section of the slab. As soon as I stand up, she peers up at me and says “very tall”. I agree with a nervous laugh. But then I can see why this is relevant. The slab space I have been allocated was previously filled by a miniature person (seriously why is everony so SMALL?!) that might be big enough to take my head to my bum only.  No problem through, a staff member simply picks up the end of the oversized teatowel that Juliet is lying on and drags her further around the slab. Again, laughs all around. Eventually I am lying face down on my teatowel, on the slab. A few bowls of warm water are splashed over me then the scrubbing begins. The ladies are wearing a kind of exfoliating mitt in one of their hands. Starting at my toes (yes I couldn’t control the ticklish giggles) I get a good old scrub down. And it’s not gentle either. She works her way up my legs, gets to my bum and gives me a wedgie, jamming each side of my bikini bottoms right up my arse crack so that she can scrub as much skin as she can get her mitt on. Although slightly taken aback I just roll with it. She gets to my bikini back and (do I detect a sight tsk?) hastily unclips the catch and continues her work. When instructed I roll onto my back and manage to keep my bikini top more or less intact. Again she starts at my feet. Up and up and up. I know it’s going to happen before it does. She gets to my chest and throws away the bikini top without batting an eyelash. It lies next to my head, awkwardly still attached at the neck. EVERYTHING is scrubbed. Vigorously.
I think I get a few more buckets of water thrown over me before the bubbles come out. Having watched previous scrubbees getting bubbled I had been looking forward to this bit. I’m not quite sure what kind of soap is used but my scrubber dunks a light cloth bag into a bucket. When she pulls it out she swings it back and forth. She collapses it onto my back and it is suddenly a foamy mountain. For the most part this nearly relaxing, I think I even close my eyes at one point. However it is still very vigorous. My legs are bent and pummelled with fists, my back gets slapped, there are fingers in hair and at one point I’m sure my shoulder blades will break under this woman’s hands (I’ve swapped scrubbers by this stage and now I have a woman about twice the size of me).
I have one last bucket tipped over me and then I am done. After a quick shower (you can forget complimentary shampoo and extra fluffy towels) phase four sees us all a bit “did that just happen?” in a rather murky pool swapping stories about what our bodies have endured. I think we are all a little confused and confronted. Was it relaxing? No. Am I glad i did it? Yes. Would I recommend it? Definitely.
Back on the bus we have a short drive to the cave home of a local family for dinner.  We remove our shoes and sit cross legged around a table on the ground.  As we are getting used to, the first course is the cold dips and bread along with sarma, a traditional food that is wrapped in leaves.  That’s an extremely vague description but the fillings can vary, usually a minced meat, and so can the leaves, usually from grapes, cabbages or chard (thanks Wikipedia).  Next we have two different soups, a lentil one which I l o v e d, probably some of the best soup I have ever had, and a bean soup. Out comes the main meal which is chicken and rice. Very plain (and very Turkish) but still tasty. For pudding we are served semolina – I had never had this before, a kind of dense, oaty but smooth room-temperature, orangey coloured thing (wikipedia definition: the coarse, purified wheat middlings of durum wheat used in making pasta, breakfast cereals etc) – and Turkish icecream made from goats milk.  It is a killer combo with the textures and tastes very complimentary. I also take this opportunity to try raki. Let’s just say I’m glad I split a glass with a friend. Raki is a clear spirit but when mixed with water, as it always is, a chemical reaction causes it to turn milky in colour. In taste, very similar to zambooka; very licoricey, very potent.
Our host is a rotund man (every man over 30 that I have met so far except Kamil can be described in this way) in his late 40s.  His wife has done all of the cooking for us and their family help out with the serving and clearing.  After dinner, the tables are cleared away and the music comes on.
Our host leads the way showing us his moves. We mimmick his swaying body and clicking fingers, grooving to the unfamiliar but merry music.  A young man also joins in and they dance together. This is another difference between Turkish and Western culture. My boyfriend wouldn’t be caught dead dancing with his best mate in the middle of a group of people, especially sober and with a bunch of strange girls. When I was in Istanbul I saw many men walking arm in arm and hand in hand down the street. Perhaps it is the religious aspect that creates this sense of brotherhood. Whatever it is, it’s miles away from the covert culture that is so profound in our part of the world that makes men feel uncomfortable being this close to one another.  And remember the male to male scrub down? That just would not fly in Australia or NZ. This has now got me thinking about gay Muslims. So far as I can see this would be swept so far under the prayer rug it just absolutely would not be talked about.  But this probably deserves a novel all of its own and I don’t think I want to open that can of worms right now.
Back in the present, the mood is relaxed and everyone is enjoying themselves, with most happy to take the piss out of themselves on the dance floor. Our hosts bring out some wooden spoons and teach us to hold them in a particular way so that we are banging them together in the palm of one hand. We also give the limbo a crack before calling it a very fun night. We drive a short while and check in to Hotel Atinyazi.

Feeding time. YARM!
Feeding time. YARM!
Me and Lu - we are all about that SOUP
Lu and me – we are all about that SOUP
Our charming host and his son or son in law perhaps, teaching us some Turkish flow.
Our charming host and his son or son in law perhaps, teaching us some Turkish flow.

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