Turkey stretches south-east of Europe between the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea. Geographically spoken, almost all of Turkish territory lies in Asia. With 780,000 km², Turkey is more then twice as large as Germany and a little bit larger then Texas, but with some 65 million inhabitants its rather sparsely populated (compared with European countries). However, there's a strong regional difference in population density. 99% of the population are muslim, with the majority of them belonging to the Sunni branch. But there are also many minor religious groups, among them Christians.
Turkey officially became a republic in its present form on 29 Oct 1923. The founder of the Republic of Turkey was Kemal Atatürk (who can be seen on the note below). Before that, the area was known as the Ottoman Empire for many centurys. Atatürk, which means 'Father of the Turks', managed to unite the Turks in their struggle against foreign powers, introduced the Latin alphabet und family names, separated state from religion, granted women the right to vote (which was very progressive at that time) and more. And so it comes as no surprise, that even today many Turks almost worship AtatÃ¼rk. However, there are also numerous Turks condemning his life's-work.
Turkey was declared parliamentary republic in 1982. State and religion are still strictly separated, which means that the country is a secular state. Until the 1980ies, Turkish military intermittently interfered with Turkish politics. Nowadays, the country is trying to hard to gain full EU membership. Therefore, even the constitution was changed, and so, among other measures, capital punishment was abolished in 2002. The situation of the Kurds, yet to be considered a minority, seemed to have improved a lot - today, Kurdish language is permitted at schools in areas with a large Kurdish population. Nevertheless, several organizations and institutions still denounce occasional violations, e.g. against demonstrants, journalists etc.
|Patriotic inscription on a
mountain in Eastern Anatolia
During the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey didn't intervene directly, but they simply cut off Armenias energy, gas and goods supply. This was playing havoc with Armenia. Eversince, the border between Armenia and Turkey is shut. But since 2004, there seems to be a direct flight between the two countries. Recently there is a hearty debate within the EU whether to grant full membership to Turkey or not. Some powerful parties explain, that Turkey isn't ripe for the EU (or vice versa!?), others acknowledge the efforts Turkey has made so far. Personally, I think that slamming the door to Europe in Turkey's face is a dangerous thing. Ironically, many voters saying 'NO' to Turkey's membership go on holiday to the Turkish riviera. Unfortunately, only a few EU citizens know more than the Turkish Mediterranean coastline and maybe Istanbul.
Official language in Turkey is - surprise, surprise! - Turkish. Which is - another surprise - one of the main languages of the Turk language group. Which is a branch of the Uralo-Altaic language family. This language family is not very widespread in Europe - only Finnish, →Estonian and →Hungarianbelong to that group inside Europe. Thanks to Atatürk, the Latin script is used. However, there are some letters featuring diacritical marks. Those letters should not be ignored. One of them is the [ ç ] (pronounced 'tch') and the rare dotless [ i ] ( ı ). Especially the difference between [ i ] und [ ı ] is rather important. The Turkish [ İ (i) ] is pronounced [ ee ], the [ I (ı)] is a "schwa" (phon. symbol [ ə ], as the [a] in [about]). Hence, the correct spelling of Istanbul is İstanbul. By ignoring this, communication errors are a foregone conclusion. Another trap is the [ ğ ], which is not pronounced as a [ g ] at all but simply lenghtens the vowel before. Therefore, [ dağ ] (=mountain) is not pronounced [dug] or something but [ daa ]. Another diacritical mark is the [ ş ] (sh), which can be seen everywhere. Umlauts (ö and ö) are extensively used as well.
Actually it's not necessary to attend Turkish language classes before travelling the country - many Turks understand English and/or German (with the latter being more widespread). However, knowing basic words such as "Hello", "Thanks" and "Please" in Turkish is a great help. The smallest effort to try to say something in Turkish will be rewarded immediately. Now try that in Germany or as a non-native speaker in England!
Turkey is not a small country and therefore offers many different landscapes. The area near the Syrian and Iraqi border can be already called desert-like. The whole interior, esp. Eastern Anatolia, is characterized by more or less breathtaking mountains, with the more than 5000 m high Mt. Ararat as Turkey's highest point. It also features 2000 m high plateaux, e.g. around Erzurum, with temperatures dropping as low as -40 degrees Celsius (-40F) in winter and rising up to +40 degrees celsius (+104F) in summer.
A few dozen kilometers north of Erzurum, the area along the Black Sea never encounters frost. There, evergreen rain forests allow the successful cultivation of tea, tobacco and more. The sunniest area of Turkey is the Mediterranean Sea coast. Istanbul and the small European part of Turkey on the other hand is rather temperate. Every region of Turkey has its own charm during the different seasons. However, it's not a bad idea to be well prepared for icy cold Eastern Anatolia in winter or the blazing heat (up to 50 degrees Celsius!) around Diyarbakır in summer.
Most Europeans do not require a visa, but Americans, British, Australians etc. still do need a
visa. This can be obtained upon arrival, so all you need is a valid passport and some cash. However, this information is subject to change. Be ensured that there are many cheap holiday deals to Turkey.
The easiest way to enter Turkey is by plane. Coming in from →Bulgaria is a bit time-consuming (at least at the minor checkpoint near Malko Tarnovo) but not a big problem, though. Be prepared to spend one or two hours in no man's land with rifles pointing at you - this means that the Bulgarians headed for lunch or dinner. When entering Turkey from →Georgia, immigration procedures are quite weird: First, a 3 USD entry fee must be paid. Next is a health check (a smart looking man asks "Are you in good health?" - if you nod, he will slam a huge stamp onto your passport), followed by customs. They have another stamp, and finally you need to sign your own passport below that stamp (whatever is written on that stamp).
Currency is the Turkish Lira (TL). There was a serious problem with inflation - during my trip in 1995, one Deutschmark (=0.51 €) was worth 27,000 TL. In 2002, € 1 was worth 1,600,000 TL. The highest banknote was 20,000,000 TL. Withdrawing money from ATM's wasn't easy - do I need 1000000, 500000, 10000000 or maybe 100000000 TL!? ATM's accepting all regular credit cards can be found everywhere in Turkish towns. In the countryside of course, it's not a bad idea to carry some cash. Attention: In January 2005, the Yeni Türk Lirası (New Turkish Lira) was introduced. Six zeros were deleted, which means that € 1 = 1.8 YTL. Old bills are valid until the end of the year 2005. Note that all prices in this website are quoted in the old currency - just delete the last six zeros and subtract around 10%.
|One of the old Turkish banknotes|
Turkey is still a very cheap destination for travelers. Whereever you go - there's no lack of accommodation, and even in the heart of Istanbul it's no problem to find a place to stay for € 10 and even less. In rural areas, a room for a night is often around € 5. Most buses and trains are quite convinient and also very cheap. The same can be said about food and drinks. It's just the sights in Istanbul that became pretty expensive, but with an ISIC-card students can save a lot of money. Very active travelers staying in 'normal cheap' places and eating out here and there in the evening can easily get by on around € 20 per day.
One thing is for sure: Turkish people are extremely hospitable. My very first day in Turkey was like this: We crossed the border at a very small, hidden checkpoint from Bulgaria. After entering the country, we hitchhiked to the next village. Some villagers saw us jumping off the pick-up and invited us to join them for a beer or two. Because of that, me and my companion arrived late in the evening at the bus terminal in Istanbul. There was no more public transport and we were looking for a camping site. The taxi driver neither spoke English nor German - and he hadn't a clue as to what a camping site is. So he invited us to stay at his place. There, he lived together with his mate - both came from a small city and shared an appartment during their worktime in Istanbul. After having a couple of drinks, he showed us around in Istanbul at 3 am - completely drunk, of course. And he didn't allow us to leave the next day - we had to stay another night. We wanted to leave some money - at least for the taxi ride - but there was no chance of doing so.
Turkey is backpacker's paradise, although I would exclude large parts of the Mediterranean coast. However, be prepared to have dozens of kids running behind you shouting "Hello", "What's your name?" and even "Money, money, Sir!" in provincial towns in Eastern Turkey. There are also some annoying shopkeepers and touts in Istanbul, but compared to perfume dealers and other dubious people in →Egypt it's rather fun in Turkey.
The Turkish railroad network is not very extensive and, except for the express trains running between Istanbul and Ankara, not very quick. But the trains are much cheaper than buses (for more details, see information on the train between Kars and Istanbul, →Day 13). In many areas, buses are the one and only choice. Most of them are modern, effective and pretty fast - sometimes even too fast. Since buses are frequent, getting a ticket even a few minutes before departure is usually not impossible. Long-distance buses stop every 2 or 3 hours. During the stops, chatting with other passengers is very common and a perfect way to meet some locals. Unfortunately? Thank god? it's taboo to take off the shoes on buses. Long-distance buses often stop at larger service areas. Note that the food there is often rather lousy and comparatively expensive.
Shared taxis, called Dolmuş, are a very useful invention. They run along fixed routes between villages, cities and inside towns. Pro's: They are fast, cost much less than a taxi and you can stop them (and jump off) wherever you want. Con's: They don't start before every seat is taken, which can take ages in the countryside. And sometimes to stop at every single tree. Needless to say that shared taxis cost more than regular busses and trains, but esp. in the countryside they are often the one and only chance for getting away.
General information about Turkey.
Private website, including some introduction into language and lyrics.
Official website of the Turkish railway company - incl. timetables etc. Offizielle Seite der Türkischen Eisenbahn, mit Fahrplänen, Englisch
General, useful information on Turkey from Lonely Planet.