Monday, October 6, 2014

A Weekend Trip to Bursa

   Istanbul is a HUGE city, some estimate the population to be near 17 million people and a popular shopping and restaurant street near my house, called Istiklal, is said to host 1.5 million people a day. So you can understand how I might want a break from the hustle and bustle of Turkey's biggest city for a few days. Our trip to Bursa was exactly that.

   Bursa is the old capital of the Ottoman Empire. Today it's Turkey's 4th largest city but feels much quieter and maybe the Uludag mountains in the near distance have something to do with it. I've always felt things are put in perspective around mountains. The city sits near the Marmara Sea as well and so traveling back to Istanbul was done by ferry (quicker, but choppier than the bus). As for the inspiration of the trip, well -this weekend was Bayram or religious holiday for all of Turkey and any country following Islam.

   With me, on the road, I had my usual friends from Germany who are also studying here, along with a fellow American student, a Dutch student (from Netherlands), and a Swiss student as well. So we really were a varied group.

    A photo of me and the guys.

Myself in front of the mosque outside our hotel room window.

   Now the first day of our trip was a nice warmup evening. We walked around in search of the infamous Iskendar Kebap, thought up in the city of Bursa! Kebap is famous all around turkey and inspired the word we know in the states "shis kebab". So the Iskendar Kebap is this roasted and shaved meat over pita bread and a light tomato sauce over it with yogurt on the side (In Turkey plain yogurt is a common addition to any meal) and after your plate is placed they pour a butter sauce over the whole dish giving it a remarkable flavor...but I'm getting ahead of myself because on this evening, we could find no Iskendar Kebap, for all the places had closed due to Bayram.

   The journey, however, is where all the interesting things always happen. We were walking through a neighborhood in search of The Green Mosque when I noticed an interesting looking walled-in structure that smelled like a zoo. I was curious and well rewarded for it. We investigated and I'm so thankful we had Omer with us because his fluent Turkish made it comfortable to walk in and see the spectacle. Inside, we discovered this place to be an official sacrificial area. Lambs were hanging, two bulls lay dead, one already skinned with its stomach contents hanging out and the other with its throat cut and bleeding out. We also witnessed a lamb that was sacrificed and then bled and finally prepared. 
   To the uneducated or self righteous this may seem like a terrible thing, this may seem like a horrendous treatment of animals, when in fact it was quite the opposite. I discovered from Omer, who is a Muslim, that according to Islamic law the animals are neither allowed to see the blade nor see their brethren killed or the sacrifice is made invalid by God. The animal must be faced toward Mecca and then prayed over and calmed before it is victimized and if one should have another do the killing then the blade carrier must announce to God they are doing the sacrifice for "___" the son of "such and such" who are their mother and father. The whole experience was very unique and seeing that I eat meat nearly every day I thought it appropriate to know just exactly how the killing and cutting of the animal happens. The tradition's roots come from the story of Abraham in both the Bible and the Quran, who God had commanded to sacrifice his son, and when Abraham loyally pulled the knife across his son's throat there was a lamb in the boy's place, and so God had looked upon Abraham proudly for his loyalty and saved his son.

That night we were fortunate to see the homes on Uludag mountain illuminated at night.

   We were also fortunate to visit the mausoleum of the Sultan Mehmed I (5th Ottoman Sultan), and the Green Mosque or Yesil Camil in Turkish. Omer showed us how to clean ourselves in the Islamic fashion outside the mosque at the marble fountain. The reverence for this religion as well as the personal care each believer takes for themselves is respectable and with all religions should be viewed as openly as possible. 

This concludes Day 1. 

   Day two was an enjoyable experience through and through from hotel breakfast we made our way to a Turkish Hamam built in 1555 with a natural hot spring supplying earthly water to the pool inside. This was my second Hamam experience and the hot pool in the center was just terrific. Now,  a few notes for westerners who really have ill conceived notions about Turkish baths. It's not a bunch of naked men sitting around washing each other and there is no gay activity in traditional baths, you'd have to specifically look for a gay bath just like you would look for a gay club in a city. So, with that commonly raised eyebrow dealt with, I'll continue...
Notice the domes of the bath rooms.

   Upon entering the bath you are given a key to a changing room where you removed your clothes and don a towel. If you'd prefer to wear swimming wear into the bathing area you may do so, or if you aren't bashful you can just wear the towel. Turkish towels are not fluffy and soft like traditional towels but are a fine woven cotton that dries quickly, like a dish towel material. After walking through a shower to clean yourself of any filth you walk into the main chamber. Inside there is a huge pool with temperatures equal to a hot tub or jacuzzi, there is a stone lion's head with water pouring out of it's mouth attached to the wall and this water enters a 3x5 foot tub that fills and then over flows into the big pool. On every side of the octagonal shaped room there are hand crafted copper fixtures where you can rinse your body with cold or warm water and also scrub yourself if you choose not to pay for the cleaning service. 

   Back to this lion's mouth. The water coming from the lion's mouth is HOT spring water, and when I say hot I mean think of your grandmothers scolding dish water in the sink. This water was so hot that when you put your feet into it you feel pain. As if you are being cooked alive, your skin tells your body this is not normal and it's probably not good. I was able to stand in the water up to my knees for about fifteen minutes and none of the other guys in our group could, so I felt proud of myself. There were older men who would sink their entire bodies into this bath up to their necks and sit for five or ten minutes. I later found out this is a natural remedy to back pains including rubbing discs in the spinal cord.
   There is also a sauna off to the side of the main room where natural hot water fills a stone basin to create the steam. All of the walls and all of the floors in this entire building where there's water, are marble. After a few times back and forth between sauna and pool it was time for a massage and scrub. The best part is this whole package only cost me 57 lira plus a ten lira tip at the end so about $30, and this is why I recommend traveling to Turkey. So in the massage room you take a seat on a stone bench and a man washes you limb by limb with what looks like an oven mitt but has a thick fiber that pulls all of your dead skin off of your body. You will actually see your skin roll up in tubes of a greenish grey color depending on how dirty you are. The first time I did this it was much dirtier and gross looking.
    After the scrub I was to lie face down with my towel over my waist and face on a normal towel that I'm used to. The massage begins with the masseuse taking a pillow case filled with soap suds and plopping it down on my back releasing soapy suds all over my body. Then he begins massaging, chopping, kneading and stretching my limbs, back, and head, and finally pouring a bucket of water over me many times to rinse all of the suds. The guy who massaged me was from Russia and his name was Can Polat pronounced "Jon". I went for a cold shower and then met with a grinning man eager to speak what English he knew, who wrapped a towel on my head, over my shoulders and over my waist, letting me know that regardless of where we are from we are all of the same mother and father. I finished with a glass of homemade Ayran to replenish my minerals: it's a salty liquid yogurt drink that looks like milk. 

   While we were hanging outisde "Jon" came outside to say thank you and ask if we needed a cab or anything since we were foreign, then made a hand gesture touching his heart, kissing his hand, and then touching his forehead and waving it over his head. Omer explained this is an old Ottoman gesture that means you are in my heart, I give you my love, and you are on my mind and over my head if you need anything. Basically this means that you have priority in my mind before anything (over my head) if you need help. This is the classic example of Turkish hospitality.

A picture of the guys after the bath. Ha Ha Ha!

   To cap the trip off we tried Iskendar Kebap at the place where it was originally thought up. We ate under a trellace with old grapevines and cobblestones below, where the servers wore white collard shirts and black ties. Here is the dish in all it's glory, the atmosphere very peaceful and classy.

   After a great relaxing morning, and delicious meal it was time to climb Uludag mountain and this was definitely the most exciting part of the entire trip. We took a cab to the cable car lift and from there took this cable car up to a height thousands of kilometers high. Fog swept over us as we were literally in the clouds and cold air forced us to bundle up and purchase hats. The excitement took a few leaps higher when we rented ATV's on top of the mountain. This was so fun and we were able to see the natural area around the mountain top in a relatively quick amount of time, all the while tearing through mud, tall grass, and even a stream! Afterwards I tried some Salep -a Turkish hot drink made from herbs and milk. It was delicious and the trip was complete! Back down the mountain for a cab to our ferry to take us home to Istanbul. A remarkable journey with great stories to tell. My travel advice: if you have the money, do things you would normally pass up because it's being spontaneous that will get you into the best situations!

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