Destination: Nemrut Dagi & Urfa
Number of Days Spent: 3 days
Where we stayed: Our hotels were covered by the tour. In Katya it (we can't remember the name but it isn't in any of the guidebooks) was absolutely disgusting and in Urfa we stayed at Kilim Hotel which was very clean and pleasant with a good breakfast spread and free wifi.
Best restaurant: The dondurma (goat's milk ice cream) dipped in crushed pistachios in Maras gets our vote for best restaurant (1 lira - $.65)!
Best of: Urfa (Saniurfa) was a pleasant city and we wish we would have spent more time here wandering through this more conservative and traditional city that rarely sees so many "tourists".
Worst of: Two things, for more information read below (Cem Tours & suspected food poisoning)
From Goreme we booked a tour with Cem tours for a 2 night/3 day trip out to Nemrut, Urfa, and a few other stops along the way with a drop off in Ganziantep. First the good parts of the tour. After negotiating the price to 120 euros per person, the cost of transport, food and admission on our own would have cost us about the same with a few extra headaches along the way along with days lost waiting for public transport, plus we got a guide to explain a few things. The hotel in Urfa was nice with a good breakfast as was the lunch place in Urfa.
The bad parts: lunch on the first day was at a disgusting "truck" stop where half the people on the tour complained about getting sick, and the other half I think were just not talking about it (they stop here again on the way back also, unless you revolt, which our group did). The hotel near Nemrut was listed as a three star, but the toilet didn't work, rooms & common areas were dirty, air con unit in most rooms was falling off the wall and didn't work properly, the food served was adequate at best, and an uncaring staff just shrugged when we mentioned the problems. The hotel does have a pool, but we didn't get there until well after dark. The "air-con" van was crammed with 18 people where the guide had to sit on a stool the entire way while the driver kept turning off what little air was coming out in order to make up for lost time from a flat tire delay, driving insanely too fast, overtaking cars in curves with oncoming trucks blaring their horns as the driver swerved at just the last moment.
So to sum up, if you are short on time, don't mind spending hours in a van, bring a snack to avoid the first lunch, and above all, negotiate the price to a reasonable level then the tour is not too bad. You really have no other option other than public transport (slightly cheaper but more time consuming), your own car (more expensive), or a complete package deal (most expensive) of Turkey. No matter where you book the tour (Istanbul, Gorome, etc.), it all goes to the same company. We paid the least at 120 euros, but some paid well over 200 euros for the exact same tour.
Moving on, the first stop was at a canvaseri (sp?). Back in the silk route heyday, one of these types of structures existed every 50 or so kilometers; or as far as the average camel could travel in a day would be a more accurate distance. The buildings served several purposes. Not only were they a place of commerce were goods were traded and sold to continue up the line, but they also served as protection against the elements and potential hostile tribes or thieves. When sea routes provided a quicker and cheaper way to transport goods, these overland havens fell into disuse and eventually were abandoned. Today they are restoring a few of them to their former glory and will eventually be convenient stops for a new kind of trade - tourism.
After the crappy, aforementioned lunch, we stopped at the home of Dondurma, or the Turkish Ice cream found all over Turkey. Made from goat's milk, the tasty treat is much thicker, almost chewy in fact, and topped with the traditional pistachio, a major crop of Turkey. All those ice cream vendors in Istanbul struggling to stir the mixture get the base from here and just like most things, nothing beats the original (1 cone. - 1 lira - $.66).
After arriving late to the hotel, switching rooms three times till we had a working toilet, we laid down for a couple of hours before getting up at 3am to catch sunrise at Nemrut. The hike to the top is rather short as far as hikes are concerned and the sunrise is nice, but we've seen nicer.
Once the light rises above the surrounding hills, the faces of a fallen empire are case in an eery glow. For a very brief period of time, only about 100 years or so, King Nemrut ruled over a kingdom that served as a buffer between two goliaths, the Persians to the east and the ever expanding Romans to the west. During this short time, the tiny kingdom became rich from trade between the two and as a result the King and his son got somewhat of a Napoleonic complex placing themselves in the same echelon as the gods. To prove his greatness, the King commissioned these massive statues to be built on an artificial hill. In total, only 16 statues were built, two sets of eight on each side of the hill to catch the sun rising and setting. The figures have been identified as the King, Hercules, Zeus and a couple of other protecting animals. While they don't quite live up to the moniker "Eighth Wonder of the World" (as our guide told us this "fact" we all chuckled), they were still neat to see.
Around the hill are a few other remains of the kingdom. The King had summer and winter palaces and there are a few remains of statues and scenes of his greatness scattered about. Many of the reliefs depict him shaking hands with the gods. Also in the area is an impressive Roman bridge, still standing and even used as the highway up until a couple of years ago. There are three columns standing in each corner with the fourth one intentionally missing. The columns represent the family of the Roman governor and the fourth one was of his son who died at the age of 9 while the bridge was being built. As one of the locals demonstrated, the columns have stood the test of time by being built earthquake proof - you can actually shake the pillars and they give (only a little), but don't topple.
After a crappy breakfast, we were off towards Urfa. On the way, we stopped at the largest dam in Turkey, the Ataturk Dam. Built over the mighty Euphrates, the dam is somewhat controversial as it diverts much needed water from Syria for use in Turkey, not to mention the environmental concerns associated with large dams.
Sanliurfa, or just Urfa is one of the largest cities in Eastern Anatolia. The cities claim to fame is really one of significant religious importance and casts the city as a pilgrimage site for so many. The cave of Abraham, father of all three Monotheistic religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), is said to be here. The sight of him being cast into the fires by King Nimrod (not to be confused with the much later and less significant Nimrut) and coming out unscathed is also said to be here as well. Islamic teaching say he was catapulted into the fires and stayed there for 9 days. When the fire subsided, he was sitting in the middle of a lake eating fish and having a good ole time. While I don't remember that exact story from Bible school, something similar also exists in Christianity. Today, the area is one vast compound of mosques, cafes, a well manicured park, and...of course...a holy fish pond. We donned the necessary attire and poked our heads in to see the cave. While the smell of sweaty socks dominates the small room (you have to take off your shoes and do a ritual washing) detracts somewhat from the atmosphere, it's still an interesting experience to see so many devout Muslims making this a pilgrimage site from all over the Islamic world.
Upon exiting the compound, you enter into the souk, a collection of shops similar to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Unlike the Grand Bazaar, one can wonder around this souk and do some shopping with much more reasonable prices.
The last stop of the day led us out to within 15km's of the Syrian border to Harran, the sight of one of the oldest Universities in the world and the beehive houses. Given the name for their unique shape, the mud and brick homes are typical traditional homes for the area. As they are made of mud and brick, they are not original by any means, but in this town, Abraham was said to have lived in one such house.
The next morning, the van took us to Ganziantep and dropped us off. We said goodbye to some new friends we made along the way and found a hotel for a couple of days in the Gastronomic capital of Turkey!