Turkey in a (Travertine) Shell

Nov 19, 2014

Pamukkale - Istanbul 

Pamukkale, pronounce it if you can, is located in central Turkey. The Traverntines, an angelic cloudscape of burning white bathes which cling to a mountainside, are the main attraction. They draw tourists from all over the world.

Credit Skippy Mesirow

An intertwined mix of crystalline structures they bubble and dance along the hillside, each glorious tub clinging to the bedrock and its neighboring travertines like mushrooms on a rainforest tree. The pools are filled with hot, glacially-blue water heated in the Earth’s interior. As it pours over the mountainside, the water deposits more of the crystalline white mineral and the process of forming and reforming these celestial bathes begins a new each day. This is where butterflies flutter, where diseases are cured, and where “Care Bears” live.

Or so we're told.

It’s early morning and I’m rearing to go with neon pink swim shorts hiding underneath beige traveler pants along with a pilfered hotel towel and a split of wine in my backpack. The sun crests over the mountains above me, illuminating a stark white crescent on an otherwise unremarkable hillside, as if the ghost of Dali left some paint out in the sun to melt.

First, the obligatory ticket purchase is a Turkish special. I’m told two more will be required inside, though they cannot be purchased in advance. The ground rises steadily from the ticket booth, a ramp to heavens gates. About 100 meters upwards and the grounds are bleached in a shimmering white.

Credit Skippy Mesirow

As I approach signs with crossed out feet protrude from the ground. A security guard spots me, his little flat brimmed hat perched atop his head, white gloves on hands, and a whistle hanging from his neck. I can feel his eyes follow me as I move. His glare penetrates my being; his gate slows as if waiting for me to do something unsatisfactory. I stop at the benches just shy of the calcified surface and remove my shoes. Approvingly, he moves on.

The ground is wet, water flows and trickles down its undulating surface until it reaches a final ditch, filtering off in one direction and taking is magical whiteness with it.  I step across the ditch. The water is cold, icy and refreshing. The ground firm, not squishy or slippery in the slightest as it crests and ridges massage and stab, like walking on a sea of deformed pummel stones.

Tourists mill about everywhere. Small Asians take photos with iPhone wands, larger Germans huff and puff their way up the hillside, Latinas shriek with glee and terror as Turks laze along the pathway and near pools puffing away at their cigarettes.  The tightly dressed guards march up and down the periphery blowing their whistles and pointing at unruly tourists.

As I ascend the running ground water begins to pool in large tubs. Long and terraced they rest along the giant ramp than continues to bend up the hillside at a near perfect gradient. The water that fills each bath is as blue as you’d imagined and the crystalline white surface as marvelous as you could have possibly hoped.

Credit Skippy Mesirow

The baths however are not tubs, they are shallow ponds, only inches deep. There beds a milky powder that sticks to just slightly to your feet as you walk through them. The water is cold, not hot. No one swims or frolics. They don’t cling to cliff sides down the hill, and no one drinks the green fairy like in “Fern Gully.”  

As I near the top, some of the more expected forms come into view. Down and to the left they cling, sequentially falling down the fall line like the photos I’ve become accustomed to seeing. Yet, they are barren. No water flows, no pools of ethereal blue. As I reach the summit and begin the walk along the wooden causeway at the top of the mesa many hundreds of these traverntines come into view, all but a small selection are dry.

The few that are filled bubble with hot water that pours in between rocks below the wooden deck. A prominently placed sign informs that no entrance is permitted in this area. Perhaps this is the scam to necessitate an additional ticket, I muse.

Credit Skippy Mesirow

As I walk through the gardens at the hilltop, reality comes into view. Several men are hammering away at a walkway and several pipe-fitters lay in wait. The sound of water rushing through pipes can be heard from below. Peering in to the opening created by their work I see the gates, hold tanks and ditches below.  

My mind wanders back in time. Wasn’t that ramp almost impossibly linear? Extending just perfectly to town's entrance? Weren’t the large pools along its surface uncharacteristically large and oval interspersed at to regular an interval?

I keep walking. I notice the improbable ditches that form the boundaries to all the white areas in the park and notice a distinct lack of such boarders out in the distance, past where your ticket permits you to go. I sneak past a fence into a construction area. And there it is. On the ground above the natural travertines, serpentine lines of carved cement, water does not flow but a small closed pipes lie above them. 

They are engineering this place. And they've messed it up.

The ramp isn’t natural, it was built and framed. Then, the natural water is pumped over it to leave deposits and create the effect. This is why the water is cold – it sits stagnant too long, unnaturally so. This is why the other areas are dry as water is diverted for unintended purposes.

Credit Skippy Mesirow

This place then is bastardized – a fake, inelegant. It’s worth venturing to for sure, but it altered.  Its white façade is beautiful, it feels unique, and its existence wondrous. But, it is in fact, a façade. And more than that, it’s a waste. It would have been better left in its natural state. Yet in the desire to do more, to do better, the Turks have strayed too far from the script and the result of their inputs is regression, not improvement. Decay, not growth. 

Much like Turkey.

For several weeks now I have been trying to put my figure on it. Turkey is great on paper with its deep history, diverse peoples, amazing architecture, unique cuisine, massive cities, improbable natural wonders, ancient town, and ruins. But, in practice it seems to continually fall short. It’s the new Harvard man who never quite jibes with his coworkers.

Turkey tries so hard to welcome tourist that is becomes disingenuous. It attempts to make natural wonders appealing by changing them. It attempts to build its economy so it may enter the EU and pollutes its countryside so horribly in the process it becomes incompatible with the requirements. It’s attempted to ensure pluralism using force and that has incubated a hardline Muslim response, driving the country away from its pluralistic history.  

Turkey is a place with much potential. It has a large, young, energetic workforce, natural resources, a strong sense of identity, and a unique culture. Yet, as I write this, it’s drifting away from the developed, democratic world by failing to capitalize on its potential.  

In my travels, my experience has reflected this. Turkey never quite met its potential. It was never bad, or off putting, it’s just unfulfilled. 

It was never overtly friendly, though certainly not hostile. It was pretty, but never extraordinary. The food was diverse and flavorful, but never had the love and care in it one finds in an India or Vietnam.

The drive back to Istanbul does little to assuage this conclusion. Town after town is thick with pollution. Repugnant, putrid air pours into the car. Sour, sulfuric, charred and nasty. The horizon obscured by a thick green haze, vulgar and vile. I hold my breath much of the ride.

In Istanbul I’m greeted with 4 hours to pass a 7 mile stretch of highway at noon.

Credit Skippy Mesirow

Don’t get me wrong, Turkey has a lot going for it. It is definitely worth a trip. But, we need to be honest about our experiences. Not every place can be the best by definition. Not every trip can be amazing. And, of course, our experiences are subjective. Only our own perceptions subject to millions of unplanned influences coupled with timing, weather, and human interactions. Two people on the same trip may have entirely different experiences. 

None the less, Turkey could and should be so much more.

Much like Pammakule.