Turkey: First steps on the Silk Road

Overland on the Silk Road

One of the inspirations for this trip was our mutual desire to travel along the Silk Road, the network of trade routes that connected China with Rome for much of the first millennium AD. Places with names like Samarkand and Kashgar enticed us with visions of blue tiled domes and crumbling mud brick walls. A trip over the Pamir Highway, a high-altitude road through the jagged peaks of Tajikistan, was also a top priority. A three-week trip to Central Asia in 2013, where we attended a friend’s wedding in Kazakhstan and backpacked in the Tien Shan range in Kyrgyzstan, had already given us a taste of the region’s famous hospitality and stunning scenery.

As we made progress with our itinerary planning, we learned two key facts that nudged us towards an overland itinerary from Turkey to China, roughly following the Silk Road via Iran and Central Asia. The first was that Americans were allowed to visit Iran, and the second was that there is a weekly train, the Trans-Asya Express, that runs from Ankara to Tehran. As we are big fans of train travel, and wanted to visit Iran, we designed the beginning of our itinerary around the May 20 departure of the Trans-Asya Express from Ankara.

After visiting friends and family in England, we started our Silk Road trip with a flight from London to Istanbul. If possible, we won’t travel by air again until we depart China for Southeast Asia. Our plan is to travel through Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Xinjiang province in China by a combination of bus, train, ferry, 4WD, and our own feet. The Silk Road and overland section of our trip will end in Urumqi in western China, where we’ll board a flight to Bangkok in late September to start the Southeast Asia chapter of our trip.

I’m posting this from our hotel in Nukus, Uzbekistan, our third country that we’ve reached overland since leaving Turkey. We took a train from Turkey to Iran, all manner of transportation through Iran including hitching a lift with a trucker, and a 4WD through Turkmenistan, crossing the border with Uzbekistan earlier today. Posts about these adventures are in the pipeline.

A Glimpse of Turkey

Turkey is a huge country with varied landscapes, sights, and cities. As we researched Turkey, we realized that we could never hope to experience all that it has to offer in one trip. Out of all the Silk Road countries on our itinerary, Turkey would be the easiest to visit on a short vacation in the future. Due to time constraints, we limited our stops in Turkey to a week in Istanbul plus a short visit to Ankara before boarding the train to Iran.

Rooftop. Istanbul
Sunset from a rooftop near the Suleyman Mosque in Istanbul.

So much has been written about Istanbul that it’s not worth repeating here. There were a few impressions that stood out for us and that gave us some important reminders for how to design our trip going forward. One was that the sights we enjoyed the most were the smaller, less famous ones. Everyone should see the Hagia Sofia once, but for awe-inspiring gold mosaics, the less-known Chora Church is unbeatable. The Great Palace Mosaic Museum, just steps away from the Blue Mosque, was almost deserted when we went. It consists of two large rooms with late antique mosaics showing classical gods and charming scenes of rural life. Of all the art we saw, it was the most human and accessible, giving some insight into the urban nobles’ desire for an idealized rural life. The best Ottoman tile work was in the royal tombs to the side of Hagia Sofia: free to enter, with few people, but stunning.

Up the wall. Ottoman tiles, Istanbul.
Tile work in the Aya Sofya tombs

On the other hand, the famous Topkapi Palace was a disappointment. The steep admission fee would have been a waste of money if it hadn’t been included in our museum pass. It’s essentially the Turkish equivalent of Versailles, with only a few rooms open, long lines, and unimpressive grounds.

Medusa's indignity. Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
Another interesting if crowded sight was the Basilica Cistern. You can walk through an early Byzantine subterranean water storage tank. Imagine that Constantinople had so many ancient columns and statues that they were used as building blocks, like this Medusa’s head.

Another impression was that the street life in local neighborhoods can be more interesting than the tourist attractions. Most Istanbul hotels are in one of two areas: Sultanahmet, the historic core with most of the famous sights, or Beyoglu, the modern nightlife area across the Golden Horn. We opted to avoid both areas and stayed at the Lotus Hotel in the bustling Fatih neighborhood 2km west of Sultanahmet. This was one of the best decisions we made in Istanbul, as it let us experience some of Istanbul’s local life: as the sun sets, old men chat outside cafes blaring the football match, children play in the street, and the call to prayer is broadcast in stereo from at least five surrounding mosques. Staying at this hotel also gave us inexpensive eating options: a chicken kebab dinner with bulgur and tomatoes, freshly cooked in a kiln in the friendly hole-in-the-wall down the street, cost about $4, compared to $10 or more in Sultanahmet.

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A cute coffee shop between our hotel and the Chora Church. I’m having Turkish coffee with vanilla.

Finally, by the time we had spent a week in Istanbul, we realized that we just don’t like to spend a lot of time in big cities. Istanbul is a beautiful, historic city, but it’s also enormous, crowded, and polluted. It was a relief for me when our bus left the sprawling city and meandered through the green fields and villages of Anatolia. As our trip progresses, we’ll include some stops in big cities to see unmissable sights or make transportation connections, but we’ll make sure we spend most of our time in small towns or in the mountains.

Introducing the Design Think Travel Country Index, and Turkey Summary

For the rest of our trip, we’ll rate each country by the metrics that are important to us. These metrics reflect our taste—for example, we don’t tend to go to bars or clubs, so we won’t rate each country’s nightlife! On the other hand, I’m a coffee addict, so the quality and availability of tea and coffee in a particular country is important.

Average daily cost
The amount in US dollars that we spent in the country, including food, accommodation, in-country transport, sights, souvenirs, and incidental expenses, divided by the number of nights spent in the country. International flights, which we’ll add to a separate bucket, aren’t included. We are hoping to keep daily costs at or below US$100, although we know that will be much more in some countries like Iran and Turkmenistan due to the requirement to have a guide.

Visa cost
The cost of visas, entry cards, registration, and other bureaucratic fees.

Availability and quality of fresh fruit and veg
Is fresh produce widely available, tasty, and safe to eat?

Availability and quality of coffee and tea
Can you get a cup of espresso or proper filter coffee? Barring that, is instant coffee widely available, and what is the tea like?

Hassle/harassment factor (1 being the least hassle, 10 being unbearable)
Taxi, mister? Shoe shine? How prevalent and persistent are the touts, souvenir sellers, taxi drivers, and con artists trying to extract your money? And how pervasive is sexual harassment of female travelers?

Interactions with locals
Are local people friendly and interested in conversations with travelers? How much of a language barrier is there?

Touristy factor
Are there more tour groups than locals? Are the crowds too thick to enjoy the destination?

Local transport
Does public transportation go where you want to go, and is it comfortable, affordable, and easy to use?

Scenic beauty/outdoors activities
Does the country have natural beauty, and is it easy to get outdoors for hiking and other activities?

Here’s how Turkey stacks up.

Daily cost: US$89
Less than we expected. Despite the relatively high cost of accommodation in Istanbul ($57 for a budget double), we kept it cheap by self-catering, eating street food, buying a museum pass, and foregoing expensive activities (no hammams or dervish performances). A two-day train journey with no opportunities to buy anything except meals also helped keep costs down.

Visa cost: $20 per person e-visa purchased online in advance.

Fruit and veg: 9/10
Turkey is one of the few countries in the world that grows all of its own food, so the produce is fresh and local. Hygiene standards are high and salads and unpeeled fruit are safe to eat. In Istanbul, you’re never far from a juice stand selling freshly squeezed orange and pomegranate juice for $3 or less.

Caffeine: 10/10
Turkish coffee! Strong black tea is served everywhere for $0.50, and refills flow quickly. American-style espresso drinks are also available in Istanbul.

Hassle/harassment: 4/10
There are many touts in Sultanahmet, but they aren’t too persistent or annoying compared to India or Nepal. We dodged a shoeshine scam near the Chora church in Istanbul. Sexual harassment was surprisingly nonexistent. Based on my experiences in Morocco, the only other Mediterranean Muslim country I’ve visited, I expected constant harassment but found the men to be respectful.

Interactions with locals: 6/10
Turks are friendly people but opportunities for real interaction in tourist-heavy Istanbul are few. The exception was Vural, the genuinely warm, welcoming and personable owner of our hotel.

Touristy: 9/10
Istanbul is one of the most visited destinations in the world, and it shows. The crowds and tour groups around the Hagia Sofia and Topkapi are unlike anywhere else; I would give Istanbul a 15/10 on the tourist factor. Ankara had relatively few tourists.

Blue Mosque melee
Crowds in the Blue Mosque

Local transport: 9/10
Bus and metro services cover every inch of Istanbul, although we walked everywhere. A ride across the Bosphorus on a commuter ferry is a fun way to visit Asia for an hour. Our bus from Istanbul to Ankara took 6 hours, included refreshments and in-seat TV, and only cost $20 including a shuttle from the ticket office near our hotel to the bus station.

Nature: 6/10
This rating is a bit unfair since we only visited big cities in Turkey and didn’t get the chance to do any outdoor activities. We would consider returning to hike the Lycian Way or enjoy the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts. The countryside of eastern Turkey viewed from the train and ferry was beautiful, especially the second day.

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