Monday, September 26, 2011

Tour bus local style

According to the Rough Guide to Turkey Nemrut Dagi is ranked #2 in the 30 things "not to miss" in Turkey. Therefore, living only 100 km away from this "grandiose mountain-top sanctuary" built by Antiochus I Epiphanes at 2150 meters above sea level (app. 6500 feet), visiting it was on my "to-do" list with Eric. So, last rainy Saturday morning we walked to the tea garden in the center of town in search the tour operator. After questioning a few strangers we were escorted to a platic white table covered with a few Malatya maps and several photocopied sheets explaining the trip to Nemrut. We signed up for the tour and met our fellow backpacker-type tour companions: a retired couple from Belgium who were on 3-month holiday traveling only by hitchhiking and local bus across Georgia, Armenia, and Turkey, two female Japanese law school students on holiday from school, a female message therapist from Iowa, and a couple from Poland whose hobby is studying Middle Eastern history. The common language was a mix of English and German...a nice break for me from Turkish.
We headed to a sketchy van parked across the street. It's road worthiness:a late model Ford van with bald tires, numerous dents and scratches, fading/peeling paint, and metal roof rack to hold our gear. After scanning the tiny size of the interior and the quantiry of our travel companions we both yelled "shotgun." Well, we really didn't yell shot gun, but we pointed to the front seats and jumped in. (Claustrophia and car sickness seemed strong possibilities everywhere except the front. I was the only person to locate and use my seat belt. And, I made mental note of the 435,000 km on the odometer and hoped that the breaks had been checked recently.
After securing our gear on the van's roof, the driver took a quick break for a cigarette, hopped in, ground the gear shift lever into first, and with a honk of his horn pulled into traffic . Our first stop was the gas station. While the attendant pumped, the driver hopped out, gingerly scraped a wet parking ticket off the windshield, and threw it in the trash. Our next stop was the bakery for about 10 loaves of bread.
The quality and age of our transport was soon forgotten once we left Malatya. The scenery gradually shifted from the bald brown mountains similar to Eastern Washington to the lush green hills of the Swiss Alps. Instead of little churches dotting the hillsides and valleys, the minarets of the mosques became the village identifying markers. The road was narrow, with no shoulder or guard rails to protect us from the tight switchbacks winding us higher and higher into the mountains. We made good time as our driver passed all other vehicles whether he could see around a curve or not, politely beeping his horn as we wizzed by.
About 1 1/2 hours later the driver pulled off the road where we stopped at a little cafe for lunch. The food was nondescript but hopefully warm enough to kill any latent bacteria, and the bathrooms were across the street....(need I elaborate?) The rain, by now was pouring down, and we were in a hurry to get to Nimrut before sunset so we hopped back into the muggy, hot, fog laden van and started driving. As I was commenting to Eric that this road is very similar to the Million Dollar Highway outside of Ouray, Colorado, the driver pulled off the road to within inches of the steep edge and pulled out his cell phone. My immediate thought was that this must be the only cell phone zone, because earlier the driver had been chatting up a storm all while passing 18-Wheelers on blind curves. Anyway, after a lengthy conversation he handed the phone to me and said "hotel." Not speaking Turkish, I just said "hello" into the phone. A voice at the other end apologized but said that our van was broken and a new van would arrive in about an hour. The driver pointed to the brakes....Funny thing was that all the drive before lunch I had been watching him pump the brakes just figuring that he must have a new method to save wear and tear on the brake pads. Lo and behold the brake line had actually broken and we were lucky to be alive...
Luckily the wait passed quickly. I had a pleasant conversation getting to know the retired couple from Belgium. (For those of you who think my adventure to Turkey is brave, this couple takes the cake.) They had no itinerary, no set plans other than to start in Georgia and end in Turkey, and no predefined mode of transportation. They were fine with local buses and whoever would pick them up on the side of the road: donkey carts, tractors, cars, etc.
Our replacement van ride to our hotel located at the base of Mt. Nemrut was uneventful but the scenery was spectacular, climbing to about 6000 feet above sea level. Upon arrival at the Gunes Hotel we were told to quickly change or we would miss sunset at the top. The last 12 switchbacks of the climb were on a dirt road, rutted and steep like many of the jeep roads outside of Ouray and Telluride, Colorado. Although our "new" 15 passenger tour van had only 235,000 kilometers on the odometer, it still did not have 4-wheel drive. Not to worry. The driver seemed to know which ruts were shallow enough to keep the van from high-centering, how to shift and not throw too many rocks from under the wheels, and where the boulders were located, even in the dark...
We survived the ride, the temple was worth seeing, and pictures from my camera cannot give justice to the beauty of the sunrise and sunset.

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