Turkey — Day Twenty-five — Pamukkale & Night Train

Thursday November 1, 2007

The morning was a scurry of activity at the hotel: we had more on our plate than just eating yet another delicious breakfast and showering in abundant hot water. We wanted to leave Pamukkale in the evening on the night train – the Pamukkale Expresi – from Denizli to Istanbul that was to leave at 5pm. Since we wanted a sleeper, we asked Karyn if she knew if there was somewhere in town we could reserve our ticket. There wasn’t a travel agent handy, so she had Ibrahim check availability online and there was only one sleeper unit left! Eek!

Karyn suggested we buy the ticket online, but of course we didn’t have a credit card. We were intensely grateful when Karyn offered to buy the ticket for us, so long as we also paid her the few extra lira to cover her bank charges for her Australian credit card. Since this beat hollow the prospect of a panicky dolmuş ride into Denizli to buy a ticket that may or may not have still been available when we got there, we gladly accepted. Even with the small charge (which Karyn showed us on her statement – she didn’t take a fee on top of it, even though we would have happily paid one), it was still less than $50 each – I think 49YTL each for the ticket and two or three lira for the service fee.

The next order was the hotel we would stay in the next night. As exciting as it was to have arrived in Istanbul that first night and look for our hotel room, we wanted to see if we could get in with the Canadians who would be arriving there that night. We tried to call on Skype, taking advantage of the free wireless, but the connection was a little spotty. Karyn – again, such an awesome hostess – lent us the phone for no charge, even though we were calling long distance. Unfortunately that hotel was full. Karyn then looked online and advised of a few hotels that had space and were reasonable, including one called the ‘Med Cezir’ (pronounced Med Jezeer) which was right in the heart of Sultanahmet. We called, heart in our mouth, and were told by the nice man on the other end of the phone that he was full up for doubles with their own bathroom. We were just about to hang up when he told us he did have a double with a shared bathroom. The price was great, and we wanted this to be done, so we accepted – no deposit, just our names and the advice that we’d be there in the morning. Yay! Now we had somewhere to stay and a way to get there: we could enjoy our day in Pamukkale.

It didn’t seem like it would be difficult to get to the famous travertines since we could even catch a glimpse of them from our bedroom window. Indeed, it was a short walk up through the winding streets, past the little lokanta we were in last night, to the pond at the bottom of the road that led to the travertines. The sun intermittently broke through the high cloud and made the upper hillside sparkle. It was interesting from far off; fascinating from up close. We paid our 5YTL and walked (shoes on) up the gravel path until we reached the white… how do you describe the travertines?

Technically, they are the result of a natural hot spring which carries a large quantity of calcium dissolved in the water. When the water reaches the surface and spills out over the top of the hill, the calcium precipitates out of the water and is deposited on the natural rock as a new kind of rock called ‘travertine’. Over many thousands of years, layers and layers of calcium have created terraced rock pools that shine white in the sun. Perhaps because of the ability of the white pools to reflect the sky, they are coloured the same bright turquoise that we have seen many times in alpine lakes. From a distance, the white structure on the top of the hill looks like a shining fortress, which gives Pamukkale (pamuk: cotton, kale: castle) its name.

We had waffled, as I think many travellers do, if it was worth it to even go to Pamukkale. We had read the reports that the hotels in the area had diverted the mineral water for their own little pools and the reduction in calcium-rich water spilling over the travertines had made them dingy at best, completely ruined at worst. We pro’d and con’d for several days: Denizli was out of the way, but it was on the way to an easy route back to Istanbul. The travertines might not be as spectacular as they were, but it might be our last chance to see even the faded glory of an incredible natural sight. As we took off our sandals and took our first step into the cool white lower pond, we were so glad we came. Up close, you could see that some of the pathways were a little gritty and not all the pools were full. There were some workers digging a ditch of some sort along the edge of the travertines and I was glad to see they are still working on repairing it.

The silt in the bottom of the pool was pleasantly squishy between our toes, and it created fun little swirls as we walked through. The water didn’t get past mid-thigh and we hung out in the pond, watching the clouds roll through and hoping for more sunshine. After not too long, a crowd came down the trail and took over our pond, and it was time to move on. It is a requirement that you walk up the trail without shoes on as the dirt from shoes makes the rock grubbier. Most people adhered to it and I glared daggers at those who didn’t. Really, there was no reason not to take off your shoes: the rocks were surprisingly smooth to walk on, even where the surface was patterned into tiny rock ripples. Frankly, if you don’t want to take your shoes off, don’t walk on the travertine! Not that I was irritated or anything.

At the top, we were impressed at the quantity of the ruins that cover the plateau: we had read that Heiropolis was darn cool, but this was really neat. We decided to first take a look at the ‘Sacred Pool’ which was located in a very strip-mall looking building. The sacred pool itself looked interesting in that there were indeed mineral waters and actual Roman ruins in the water – broken columns you could swim by and over. The whole thing seemed a little dingy, though, and the prices were obscene, plus there was that whole strip-mall atmosphere. I think that if the ruins in Turkey were more hands-off or somehow less accessible to be touched and leaned on and generally mauled, swimming with ruins would be more attractive. As it was, we felt as though we had had enough of an intimate ruin experience that we didn’t need to get naked with them.

Instead of a swim, we bought two wildly overpriced Magnums and went outside to sit on a tomb and eat our icecream. See what I mean? intimate ruins.

We walked along the cliff edge over to the left and admired a few tombs that were being very sloooooooowly drowned in a rising sea of travertine, or at least until a tourist policeman (well, maybe a park caretaker, but he looked mighty official) told us to keep back from the edge.

Keeping away from the edge wasn’t much of a hardship given the interesting group of ruins, including a colonnaded street, a couple of well-preserved arches, and a hillside just covered in ruined tombs. I think I read on ‘Turkey Travel Planner’ where Tom Brosnahan said that lots of Romans came to Heiropolis to take cures in the spa but many of them died instead. Perhaps it was best we didn’t swim in the sacred pool!

We walked through the triple arches towards the necropolis where we admired the jumble of tombs and tried to decipher the interpretive signs.  The tombs were very interesting and some were even open to visitors!  The magnitude of the excavation was overwhelming.
Tiring of ghosts, we wandered back to the arches and walked up the marble-paved streets, lined with rows of columns and poplars.  It was lovely and graceful and we went twenty minutes without seeing another soul.  

We found stone paths to follow up along the hillside that were paved in huge marble slabs. It took a while to realize that these were city streets that would have served all the now-razed neighbourhoods we were walking through. The streets were laid out in a grid pattern and sometimes we thought we saw the remains of drainage troughs underneath the streets where a slab was broken. I would have liked to follow the street up the hill to more tombs, but we wanted to take a look at the theatre before heading back to the hotel to get packed up for the dolmuş to Denizli. Walking those paths made me feel closer to history than any other place we had been, even Ephesus, and I felt if I could just walk a little further, I could walk right into the past.

Instead we slogged up the normal modern road up to the theatre, where you enter from the top. The theatre was apparently restored by Italian craftsmen in the 1970s and it was the first theatre we’d been to where you didn’t have the run of the place. To prevent people from going down onto the stage, there was a wooden barricade set up on the walkway above the first rows of seats. Frankly, we felt a little gypped. Those Italians did a nice job and all, but as I’ve mentioned, we were spoiled by our access to and intimacy with other ruins.

By this time it was well into the afternoon and we wanted to be on a 3:30pm dolmuş at the latest. Even though it was only a half hour into Denizli, and the dolmuş went every fifteen minutes or so, we wanted enough time to comfortably wrangle our RSFH to the train station and make our 5pm train. We decided to head down the hill where I would take a quick fifteen minutes in the museum and Steve would go back down to the pool with water in it to take some more photos now that it was a bit sunnier.

Fortunately the ticket to the museum was inexpensive, since I certainly didn’t waste any time there: I basically ran through taking photos that I figured I could admire at my leisure. The rooms weren’t well-lit and it’s probably best that Steve didn’t attend, as the detail on the friezes might have eluded him.

The guards looked quite entertained as I left with a quick teşekkür ederim: I’m not sure they’d ever seen someone go through so quickly.

I found Steve in the lower pool as expected. It felt a little sad to walk off the travertines, put our sandals back on, and turn our backs on Pamukkale. We were very glad we came.

Back in town, we found our landmark lokanta and set off in what seemed like the right direction to get back to the Venus Hotel. I’m sure you can see where this is going, though we were unsuspecting… that we were most certainly NOT headed in the right direction. On the upside, we saw back streets of Pamukkale that most tourists do not see. On the downside, we were tired and hungry and anxious about the time, and spatted pretty much the entire 20 minutes we wandered around lost. We did ask a little girl the way to go, but she pointed us in the entirely wrong direction, which really didn’t help the situation. Finally coming back to the travertine entrance from around the far left side of town, we saw Karyn and Ibrahim parked in front of a shop. They offered us a ride back to the hotel and then a ride back to the dolmuş stop with the RSFH, which we gratefully accepted.

At the Venus, we hurriedly packed our things and found that we had had a casualty on the trip: my loyal Teva sandals, which had carried me faithfully throughout Turkey, to say nothing of the other adventures, were now officially dead. The sole was separating, they smelled atrocious and they were too heavy to justify carrying back to Canada for interment. I sadly left them on the top of the garbage can in our beautiful room in the Hotel Venus. Farewell, old friends.

Downstairs, we said our goodbyes to the dogs, the mum and dad, and were carted back up into town by Ibrahim. What a nice place! We had just enough time to grab snacks: simit, suyu and a few cookies before hopping on the dolmuş. I hadn’t realized how much time had gone by while we were lost, and even though the dolmuş was going relatively quickly by dolmuş standards, we arrived in the Denizli otogar at about 20 minutes to five.

Wrestling the RSFH and our packs out of the dolmuş, we were assured by the driver and various passerby that the train station (tren istasyonu in Turkish) was just down and across the road. They didn’t say that the sidewalks were GRAVEL or that our wheelie RSFH wouldn’t wheel very well (ok, at all) on gravel. They also didn’t mention that it was rush hour in Denizli, and that crossing six lanes of road would take our lives into our overly full hands.

We were hot and tired and overly-adrenaline’d when we finally ran down the metal mesh stairs (also not very good for the RSFH wheels) onto the platform. Fortunately, we changed our printed confirmation for tickets without incident and got on the train with five minutes to go before five. Needless to say, we were very, very relieved and actually quite pleased with ourselves. It had taken a lot of co-operation, cheerleading and finely choreographed suitcase-lifting to get ourselves to the train on time, and our satisfaction wiped the spat from our minds.

One last push of the suitcase onto the train and into our little room, and we were free from suitcase lifting for at least another twelve hours. What a relief! We ate the contents of our little fridge as we watched… the station.  Had we known the train would leave some twenty minutes late, we might not have panicked so badly.  Insert UTS (ubiquitous Turkish shrug) here.  

Finally, the train started off, leaving the city of Denizli. After about twenty minutes, it screeched to a halt.  We thought it might have stopped abruptly for a station, but official-looking people were running up and down the track outside the train, shouting at each other.  We wondered what all the fuss was about — did someone get left behind?  The conductor eventually told Steve that a passenger’s child had pulled the e-brake.  Hee hee!
After not too long, the train started again and we watched the darkening countryside roll by, before repairing to the dining (cough smoking) car for a well-deserved dinner.

There was a little menu card on the table from which we tried to order, but the waiter was either not familiar with English or (bastardised) Turkish, because he kept indicating things were not available or giving us blank stares. We were pretty sure we had ordered some mezes and perhaps a şiş of indeterminate animal by the time he left.

When he arrived, proudly bearing plates of food, I realized that this was what menu roulette must really be like. Steve just smiled; he’s played this game before. Everything was good, but it was also a surprise: we had two eggplant salads, one of which might have been Imam Bayıldı, a haydari-like dish, a cucumber-yoghurt soup that must have been cacik, and liver. Yes, liver. Now I’m SURE I didn’t point at that item on the menu, but we got it anyway. I have to say the taste was ok, but the texture was… well, it was liver. So it was liver-y. Fortunately Steve likes liver. It was all quite reasonable in both taste and price, though not quite as good as the food on the Istanbul-Ankara train. Finally satisfied, we hung out in the dining car until we were smoked out. There isn’t any smoking allowed in the train carriages themselves, so the smokers hung out either in the gap between cars or in the smoking car, which was fine. Turkish cigarettes are somehow less irritating to my allergies than North American ones.

We found ourselves tired out when we got back to our room and sat talking and watching the lights of the countryside go by. I was a bit anxious about going back in Istanbul as I wasn’t sure I had liked it much the first time through. Istanbul is chaotic, noisy and crammed to the gills with people, and I’d felt out of my element. I also wasn’t keen on introducing the RSFH to the cobbled streets of Sultanahmet – or to the ferry gangplanks, either… but Steve reassured me and I reassured him, since he had similar fears, and we cuddled and felt like successful newlyweds after our trying day. Whatever Istanbul was like, we’d manage it together.