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Soviet Bloc Party

19 September, 2008 (23:50) | Travelogue

A cat perches in a ruined wall in Ankara, staring as some stray dogs further down the hill.
For more feline photos of Turkey, click here.

“This reminds me a lot of Eastern Europe,” I comment to Matt as another vintage car spills down the busy streets of Ankara. The capital of Turkey wasn’t really supposed to be a destination in our journey, but with Egypt ruled out due to issues with the Cyprian border, we’ve got time to spare. Soon enough, we’ll journey onward to Cappadocia and its incredible old world cities dug into the ground. For now, though, Ankara feels like a piece of the former Soviet bloc even if the USSR’s influence didn’t actually reach here.

“Why do you say that?” Matt asks.

“Well, so many things seem indicative of Eastern European culture: the babushkas, the old 80s cars, the styles and faces… though I’ve never actually been to Eastern Europe that I remember.”

“Aha!” says Matt, smiling. “I actually feel the same way, but it’s all based on movies, video games, and the general picture of Eastern Europe propagated in the media.”

“Yeah, same here. I mean, Bern seemed Eastern European, but I guess I’m basing this more on my experiences with the Eastern European communities in America than on any actual experience. Still, there’s all the Soviet style architecture and imagery.” As if on cue, a statue of a miner appears as we round the corner. We laugh.

All day, we’ve been wandering the streets of Ankara, searching for sites that no longer seem to exist. Tourist Information had a sign saying it moved, but the new address was devoid of anything remotely resembling Tourist Information. The Roman baths have disappeared among the back alleys, military bases, and shanties of Ataturk Boulevard. The Temple of Julius and Augustus is merely a pair of walls carefully being excavated next to a beautiful mosque. We’ve searched for many locations, finding only those sights we weren’t intending on seeing. Yet it seems as though we’re content here.

Shifting from Istanbul to Ankara was a big change. The number of English speakers seems to have dwindled. Checking into our hotel, we had an Iraqi and an Iranian translating for us. “It’s a dreadfully difficult language,” the Iraqi commented to me.

Matt and I have been arguing about how certain accented letters are pronounced. Matt correctly identified ç and ş as being “ch” and “sh” respectively, though the ç is also sometimes used as “er-juh.” We’re still unclear about the difference between ı and i, though it seems the latter is supposed to be ee. Matt seemed pretty adamant that ü should be said “er,” though the book seems to imply it’s “ew” while a ö is said “er.” A complete mystery to us is ğ, which is usually transliterated as a lingual stop. It’s a miracle we communicate at all, let alone survive the strings of Turkish unleashed at us when we ask a question in English.

Ankara is a sprawling city that runs the gamut from the rolling hillsides to the stark communist style buildings, the verdant greenery to the harsh cement exterior. The winding roads loop back and forth, easily losing us in their meandering. Yet we’re happy to wander, seeing corners of the town we didn’t expect to. This afternoon, we walked passed a man preparing wool outside a small cottage. Ankara used to be known as Angora, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this wool was destined for angora sweaters.

We settle down at one of the chain restaurants. It’s called Semple Sarayi. The menu has pictures, which is a key for us. We’ve been consisting on a diet almost wholly made up of kebaps, kebap sandwiches, and pide, the local variant of pizza which is long, thin and spiced deliciously. Going from not eating meat in India to subsisting mostly on meat and bread is a chore in itself, but trying to find something different hasn’t been easy. Every corner seems to have a kebap or pide place, and most of the restaurants offering other options are surprisingly expensive, running 12-15 TYL a dish ($8.50-12) as a base. Semple Sarayi has kebaps and pide, but we point at the menu and butcher the names like good Americans.

“No more,” the cook says to me when I try and order my casserole looking dish.

“No more?” I say sadly. He unleashes a string of Turkish at me, pointing at the girl behind register and the menu the behind her. My item is covered up. It’s apparent that at this time of night, the choices are limited. Limited choices include what Matt wants, so I order a second.

Our book says the word for two is “iki,” but everyone seems to say “doh” to us, so I’ve been using that. It seems to work fine and everyone understands. My lira are as good as the next Turk’s.

Despite our best efforts, our dinner is a fancier form of kebaps. It’s tasty and, like everything else, comes with a delicious cucumber and tomato salad, but it’s obviously not something different. We’ll need to work on that.

The street is just beginning to fill with stalls as we began to amble back toward our hotel. People have pulled cars alongside, connecting car batteries to large flood lights. Steps down the pedestrian mall have been divided into two thin columns around a large row of shoes and shawls. Bootleg DVDs and CDs are being sold right alongside Looney Tunes boxer shorts. There seems to a wealth of Taz, but they’re out of Bugs except for the group shots. It’s nearing eleven at night and things are just beginning on the streets of Ankara.

“I bet these guys were set up someplace more profitable during the day,” I ponder aloud.

“Like some tourist site?” Matt asks, a hint of irony in his voice.

“If they could find one, I meant.” I’m not sure we’ve actually been able to find a tourist site in town. Even our visit to Ankara Castle found the place devoid of other people save for a small group taking a few photos. Still, the views were captivating, the atmosphere nice, and the sense of solitude something we’ve not had much of.

Matt’s taken to sitting silently, our conversations fewer and more pointed these days. Sometimes, it worries me, though I know he’s merely trying to take it all in. Any one of the places we’ve visited could be an adventure in itself. Stringing them all together like this is daunting and nearly unfathomable. Still, we continue to run into people who are traveling for 6 months or a year. Perhaps it’s our hectic pace, but neither of us can imagine keeping up traveling like this for that long.

We pass the Hittite Monument, a solid stone visage of antlers and bestial bodies surrounded by a giant laurel. It’s hard to make out in this light. By the time we’re within a few blocks of our hotel, the streets are empty and the stores all closed up. Today, the back alleys were a bustling market of old electronics and porn shops. Several vintage cameras, possibly collector’s items in the US, sat there dormant and dusty on the tables. We passed tables of CDs and tapes.

“You want cassette deck for your car?” I mockingly asked in a thick Russian accent. “How about car for your cassette deck? I sell you both. Excellent price!”

“You want porno for your wife?” Matt mimicked. “How about wife for your porno?” I was amused, but surprised. Just the other day, as we were leaving Istanbul, Matt informed me that he had a vulgar thought, but then refused to share on principle. Either Ankara has made him looser or I was totally underestimating the level of his vulgarity.

We stop by the last corner store open near our hotel and pick up a couple bottles of su (water) and a pack of Tuklus, the greatest cookie known to man. They taste a little like almonds, except they crumble in your mouth to reveal a delicious core of chocolate custard. I would liken it to an orgasm in my mouth, but I hear they’re warmer, saltier and far less delicious unless you’ve acquired the taste. We’ve eaten five packs in five days. Of cookies that is. Not orgasms.

Tomorrow, we wake up early and catch a bus to Göreme, the heart of Cappadocia. The guide book says that Ankara doesn’t have much to offer, but more so than Istanbul and probably more so than Cappadocia, Ankara feels like Turkey. Where it may lack the cosmopolitan charms of the city formerly known as Constantinople, it fills in with a distinctly Turkish feel all its own. And that makes all the difference.