Go Turkiye: Kusadasi & Pamukkale

The history of Turkey makes a very interesting reading. In ancient times Hittites were the original inhabitants of the Turkish region, but after their fall the Persians took hold of the region. Alexander the Great led the Greeks in conquering the country in the 3rd Century BC, but after a few centuries, the Greeks lost control to the Roman Empire. Soon the Eastern part of the Roman Empire established its own independence and was known as the Byzantine Empire.

The ruins of Ephesus and Hieropolis bear testimony to the changes during these periods, and no trip to Turkey is complete without visiting these two locations. We flew down from Istanbul to Izmir, a city in Western Turkey, and then drove down to the seaside town of Kusadasi, which is the gateway to the old city of Ephesus.

The tourist town of Kusadasi is located on the Aegean Sea, which separates Turkey from Greece. The small town has a population of only about a lakh. The harbor is known for luxury cruise liners coming in from Greece bringing in tourists from across the world, who are mostly headed for Ephesus an hour’s drive away.

We reached Kusadasi in the afternoon. The Marina Hotel where we checked in was close to the seashore, and from our rooms, we could get a clear view of the blue sea and many boats of different shapes and sizes there. Multiple cruise liners were seen at a distance. In the evening we visited the seafront, a buzzing space with many tourists and dozens of restaurants lined up on the coast. We again tried some Turkish Ice Cream here. The dinner at the hotel had a nice spread, extensive mezze dishes, different varieties of olives, and the Turkish dolma were some of the highlights.

The next morning we moved out early. Our destination today was Ephesus. After a touristy visit to a leather factory, we headed to the House of The Virgin Mary located on top of a small hill. Mother Mary used to live here towards the end of her life after she was brought there by Saint John who was designated by Jesus to take care of His Mother. The place was thronging with tourists mainly visiting the chapel and the wishing wall, where people can write their wishes on a piece of paper and leave the strip here.

The ruins of Ephesus were a few kilometres away. The city, popular during the Greek and Roman rules was built during the 10th Century BC and was destroyed by the Goths in the 3rd century AD. The main places to visit in the huge area were the Gate of Augustus, Amphitheater, Temple of Hadran, and the Library of Celsus. As the guide was explaining the rich history of the place, one feels transported to a different civilization itself. I did not have much idea about Greco-Roman history, but still had one of the best days of the trip.

The following day, we left Kusadasi for the quaint town of Pamukkale. The trip to Pamukkale involves a road trip of a couple of hours. Many tourists do this location through a day trip, but we decided to stay in the village for a day before proceeding to Antalya.

Pamukkale is known for its hot springs and travertine terraces formed out of carbonate mineral deposits from the hot spring water. As you travel, you come across areas with huge white deposits, just next to the springs. The name “Pamukkale” comes from “cotton castle”, stemming from the fact that the white deposits resemble cotton. The water from the hot thermal springs supposedly has healing power which leads to many people taking baths in the water bodies which get created from the water from the springs. 

It is the healing powers of the water here that led to the setting up of the city of Hieropolis around the 7th century BC as a healing centre.  It was initially a Jewish settlement that later became part of the Roman Empire. The city was destroyed due to an earthquake later, but from the ruins, one can get a very good idea about the civilization at that time. We looked at the remains of the streets and the gates, an amphitheater that remained quite intact, as well as a necropolis with graves and tombs. A thermal pool where Queen Cleopatra used to take bath during her visits here is aptly named Cleopatra’s pool. Many tourists take bath here. And finally, there is a museum, with artifacts and statues that had broken off from the structures.

We enjoyed our bath in the hot spring as well as went around the ruins on a conducted tour in a buggy. The Hieropolis is one location that narrates the history of the land, and again it is important to take a guide along with you.

Late afternoon, we checked into our hotel at Pamukkale. The novelty of many hotels here is that the bathrooms attached to your room have a connection to deliver thermal spring water so that you can enjoy a thermal bath privately. Our hotel also had a swimming pool with this water.


The town of Pamukkale is quaint and enjoyable. There is a hot spring bang in the middle of the town. We walked through the local market, stopped by at a local café for sandwiches and coffee, and checked out some goodies at a local grocer. This was the part of the trip where we could get a feel of the local life.

We had a long trip ahead to the coastal city of Antalya the following day. We left Pamukkale the next morning with happy memories and wished we could have a longer stay here. 

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Go Turkiye: The City of Istanbul

When I was a small child, I first heard of Istanbul through a popular Manna De song in Bengali that talks about a chef named Bhajohori Manna, who learned to ply his trade in Istanbul, Japan, and Kabul. From that time, I believed that food in Istanbul must be something extraordinary. So many years later, on my maiden trip to Turkey in October 2022, this was one of the things on the top of my mind.

Istanbul is not the capital of Turkey, it is the largest city. It is possibly the only city in this world, with one half in Europe and the other in Asia, separated by the Bosphorus Straits, which runs across the city.


Our travel team consisted of seven people, me and my brother’s family along with his friend's. The Indigo flight from New Delhi was uneventful and brought us to Istanbul around late morning. From the traveler bus which transported us to our hotel Hilton Garden Inn Green Horn, the large city looked very much like any other cosmopolitan city in the Middle East that I have visited like Dubai or Muscat. Nice roads, many mosques, and abundant street food stalls. One thing I noticed is that even if Turkiye is an Islamic country, very few women here cover their heads. 

Hilton Garden is located in an area called Sutluce in European Istanbul. The hotel room gives a nice view of the Bosphorus Straits where you can see many small boats plying. We were famished, as the Indigo flight offered very few good choices of food, and immediately took to the streets, looking for some local food.  A restaurant named Cinaralti Et Ve Ukyuluk caught our attention. It was a completely Turkish local restaurant. As per our discussions with the waiter we ordered some Hummus with bread, followed by Adana Kabab (something I had heard of from India), and Urfa Kabab

The Adana Kabab is named such because it is a specialty of Adana, a city in Southern Turkey. A plate of thick seekh kababs were accompanied by rotis, bulgar (a rice-like dish of cracked wheat grain), and salad. Urfa Kabab is similar to Adana, but with very few spices. We loved both the dishes and ended our meal with some hot Turkish tea

Late afternoon, our travel agent sent a bus for the first sightseeing visit to the city, the Dinner Cruise on the Bosphorus. On our way, we weaved through the crazy traffic of Istanbul, traveling through the Taksim Tunnel and picking up more tourists from Taksim (the city center) and finally reaching the Bosphorus near the Galata Bridge (which separates European and Asian Istanbul). The two-hour cruise was fun, one could stand on the deck and look at the nighttime Istanbul, with many people thronging the shores, as well as minars, mosques, and palaces on the side of the straits. The multi-course dinner was nice, especially the multi-dish mezze and the kababs. Some music and dance followed on the cruise ending with the famed Belly Dance of Istanbul. We were dropped back at our hotel at around midnight. 

The second day started early, just after breakfast we moved to the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque in the Sultan Ahmet square area. The area is possibly the most crowded and touristy area in the city with attractions like Sophiya Mosque, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the Grand Bazaar located close to each other. 

Originally built in the 6th century as a Christian cathedral, the Sophia mosque has had many metamorphoses. The church was there for thousand years, after which it was converted into a mosque by Ottoman Turks which took over Constantinople (the old name for Istanbul).  While the architecture remained, many Christian mosaics and statues were removed. In 1931, when Turkiye became a secular republic, the mosque was turned into a museum, and again in 2018, it was changed into a mosque under the current President Erdogan.

The mosque visit took us close to three hours. The interiors are just outstanding with intricate Christian and Islamic elements, and it is a pity that some parts of the mosque were burnt during the many transitions. The monuments located in the Hippodrome of Constantinople area are rich in histories like the Obelisk of Theodosius and Serpent Column. 

The Blue Mosque, just across from Hagiya Sophia is closed for renovation for a long time, and we could only manage a view from outside. A quick lunch at a restaurant nearby and the theatrics of a Turkish Ice Cream vendor in the streets were the other attractions on that day before we headed to the Grand Bazaar. 

The Grand Bazaar one of the largest in the world has more than 4000 shops. We visited some of the places selling Turkish goodies like Turkish Delight and Baklavas, as well as mementos like Evil Eye key chains, shot glasses, and fridge magnets. The clothes, jewellery, gold, and chandelier shops were some that caught my eye. For an Indian, Turkey is not a very expensive place, especially in the current scenario where the Turkish Lira has dropped from Rs 8 to Rs 4.4 in one calendar year. 

Our dinner that night was light, as we had to retire early. Our flight to Izmir was a late-night one. A small place next to the hotel had some lovely and soft Izgara Kofte (grilled lamb patties) as well as some nice Turkish coffee.  We left Istanbul for the next leg of our trip, but our experiences did not end here.

After, a terrific trip to Kusadasi, Antalya, and Cappadocia, we were back for our final hurrah at Istanbul again. Time was short as we landed at Sabiha Gokchen in the late afternoon, the old airport of Istanbul. Our flight to India was scheduled for the next day, so we wished to see some of the other important places in the city. This time the focus was on nightlife. 

Our first visit was to a neighbourhood called Balat, which was traditionally the area where Jews lived in the city. The houses and stairs there were painted in multiple bright colours, and there were many buzzing street cafes. We even visited a small room where an auction was taking place. However, one should visit this place in daylight.

Our next stop was the famed Galata Towers, a huge watchtower built in the twelfth century. In the evening, the tower was brightly lit, and the place was abuzz with hundreds of people dancing to a live musical performance taking place just next to the tower which was draped with the Turkish flag. It was really great soaking into that ambiance and enjoying the time there. We moved from there to Taksim Square, the modern downtown area, and took a stroll down the buzzing Istiklal Street. Istiklal means independence in Turkish. The street is pedestrian-only, with shops lined up on both sides. We went into a large Baklava store and tasted the Baklava there, and then listened to some performances by local bands on the street corners. The whole atmosphere was totally celebratory, and you can’t but feel happy in those surroundings.

Our disappointment during the Istanbul trip was not being able to visit Topkapi Palace. While we tried on the last day, we had to abandon the same due to huge queues. We had no time left as our flight back was on the same afternoon. Possibly the only regret while visiting this interesting city.

One note of caution about Istanbul. Like many other cities, the Taxi Drivers here are not very reliable and can ask for exorbitant prices. Buy the travel pass which gives you access to trams, buses, and metro to have a seamless visit. Also, while coming into the country, do not convert your dollars into Lira at the airport. Go to an area called Eyup Sultan, where you get very good Forex rates. The difference can be as much as 10%.


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Eating out at Leh Ladakh

While our 2 week-long trip to Ladakh (See Ladakh Diaries) was very hectic, and given the schedule we were mostly eating lunch at roadside places (dinner was usually at our hotels), we could not resist the temptation to try out some Ladakhi food on the two days we were free to hang around in the capital Leh.  I would have loved to explore the local cuisine a bit more, but time did not permit the same.

Yarkandi Pulav

I had some exposure to Ladakhi food from a food festival about five years ago at ITC Kakatiya Hotel, Hyderabad. Nilza Angmo, who is the owner of the well-known Alchi Kitchen in Alchi (70 km from Leh) was in Hyderabad curating the festival. She introduced the cuisine of Ladakh to us with dishes like Skyu (local handmade pasta in veg sauce),  Chutagi apart from the usual Churpi (delicious Yak cheese), Mok Mok (Ladakhi Momos), and Pakthuk (Soupy lamb broth with veggies and cheese). But more than that she had kindled an interest in the cuisine, which I followed up in this recent visit. It is a pity that we could not visit Alchi this time to try out some more of her food.

Churpi, Skyu, Chutagi & Buckwheat Rolls

Ladakh, the land of passes is one of the northmost states in the country, also the international line of control with China and Balti-Gilgitstan of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. While the mountain passes served as barriers for many intruders into India, they also served as an important part of the Silk Route. Thus the local cuisine has influences from the Uyghur Muslims who used to pass this trading route, Baltis, and Muslims from Central Asia as well as Tibet as Buddhism came here around the second century AD. Thus, Yarkandi Pulav (from Yarkand in China) and Tingmo, both coexist as part of Ladakhi food. Butter, Yak meat, barley are some of the ingredients very common in Ladakhi food.

Pee Shee Soup and Shapta at Tibetan Kitchen

In Leh, we were recommended a place called Tibetan Kitchen. The place is just off Leh market and has both indoor and outdoor seating. It has a large Tibetan and oriental menu, with Ladakhi dishes occupying a couple of pages. Only me and my wife visited this place as others in our team were busy. We tried Mutton Pee-Shee (a cheese-based broth with mutton dumplings) as well as Tingmok (Tibetan steamed bread) and Mutton Shapta. The Shapta is a Tibetan semi-gravy dish where sliced meat is stir-fried with abundant vegetables. The place also has various versions of Thukpa and Bagleb (bread stuffed with meat). The lunch was immensely satisfying, and we looked forward to trying some more Ladakhi food soon.

Namza Dining

My friend and travel organizer, Indranil from “Travel with Neel” had read about Namza Dining, another restaurant centrally located in Leh, which exclusively served Ladakhi food. We reviewed the menu and found it very interesting. It had Yarkandi Pulav, a rice and meat dish recommended by many earlier tourists here. So about twelve of us landed here for lunch so that we could try many items on the menu.

Shapta with Ting Mo

Namza Dining (https://namzadining.com/) was very close to our hotel. We loved the décor here, both indoors and outdoors. Apart from the usual seating, it also has some traditional Ladakhi seating where you have to sit on a low platform enjoying your meal from a small table kept in front. The restaurant has its own garden behind where its vegetables are grown.

Mok Mok Soup

As explained, their signature dish is Yarkandi Pulao. Yarkand is the homeland of Uyghur Muslims in the current Xinjiang state in China. Their traders used to pass through Leh as part of the ancient Silk Route for trading, and somehow this dish was embraced by the locals. Chunky mutton cubes and rice together are slow-cooked and served with soup. A small Mok Mok is also in the soup. One could notice fried onions and nuts in the dish too. The dish had a bit of fat too to keep the body warm.

Gyuma

Among the other dishes, we all loved was Gyuma, the Ladakhi sheep sausage. Traditionally Gyuma was made from Yak meat. The filling here has ground meat, fat, and even some rice. Absolutely delicious stuff.

Mutton Mokthuk Soup (momos with leafy veggies in mutton broth), and Mutton Shapta with Tingmok (baked Tibetan bread) were the other two dishes we tasted.  The other Ladakhi bread, apart from Tingmo is Khambir, a thick wheat-based flat bread which is very filling.

Loved both the places we dined at in Leh, but if you can do only one, choose Namza.

Butter Tea & Ginger Tea

A talk about Leh food is incomplete without the mention of Ladakhi tea. There is the usual Butter Tea that you get in all places. The tea is slightly salty and the butter keeps you warm. Almost all monastery canteens serve this tea. Apart from this, another one we loved was Ginger Tea, which has fresh thin slices of ginger in the tea itself.


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Ladakh Diaries: The Tso-s of Ladakh: Pangong and Tsomoriri

The word “Ladakh” means country of passes. Broken down “La” is mountain passes and “Dakh” means country. Over centuries, these passes have long served as protection from intruders as well as important routes for trade.

During our 12-day trip from Srinagar to Leh and other prominent locations of Ladakh, we passed through five La-s, the last three among the highest motorable passes in the world. These are

1. Zojila – Height 11649 feet between Srinagar & Kargil

2. Fotula – Height 13479 feet between Kargil and Leh

3. Khardungla – Height 17982 feet between Leh & Nubra Valley

4. Changla – Height 17688 feet between Pangong & Leh

5. Taglangla – Height 17482 feet between Tso Kar & Leh

The world’s highest motorable pass is also in India. The lesser-known Umling La at 19024 feet, located in Ladakh, gets the honour after a road was constructed through this pass by Border Roads Organization in 2017.

But a pass is only a route, for us travelers it is sometimes strenuous to negotiate this kind of height. We all do that for what lies beyond. The high-altitude lakes of Ladakh (or Tso-s as they are known in the local language) are huge and serene, the best–known among these is Pangong Tso, around which frequent border skirmishes with China keep the lake in national news. About one-third of the lake is under India’s occupation currently, whereas two-thirds has been illegally occupied by China. 

Pangong is located at a height of 13,800 feet and can be accessed from two routes. One that we took was after our trip to Nubra Valley as we wanted to directly go there. The road was quite bad in some parts of the journey, whereas manageable in other parts. The route (250 km) which goes through Shyok, Durbuk, and Tangste has quite a few small canteens en route for snacks and tea.  The view was magnificent with the Shyok river accompanying a significant part of the trip.

As we reached closer to Pangong, the thrill of sudden sighting a portion of the lake reminded me of childhood visits to seaside spots where the first look at the sea at the end of the road used to make us so happy.

Pangong was blue, very blue, but actually the colour of the water changes depending on the position of the sun and the time of the day. The snow peaks seen on our right side further enhance your experience. The lakeside has become much more commercial since our last visit about a decade ago with scooters and other fun stuff. After taking the customary pics and staying there for an hour or so, we left for Tangste to have lunch.

Pangong has tent accommodation available near it, as well as homestays. You need to be vigilant about the oxygen levels, it is better to travel with oxygen cylinders on this route. On the way back to Leh, we encountered Chang La. This was the first time I felt a little breathless during our total tour. Our car driver made me sit in the vehicle, and rushed downhill and I started feeling better.

After a day's rest back in Leh and we were out to visit the other beauty, Tsomoriri. The lake takes about seven hours from Leh. Here we were planning to stay a night in a tent, so our journey was less hurried. Unfortunately, I had a bout of hill diarrhea since the previous day, which forced me on a conducted tour of local toilets en route.

The journey to Tsomoriri is smooth till Upshi (which is on the Manali-Leh highway). From Upshi we proceed to Chumathang, where most of the road is unpaved. After Chumathang there is hardly any road, and your vehicle literally dances over stones to proceed. We crossed Karzok and reached Tsomoriri almost at dusk. Tsomoriri is very secluded with nothing but an army camp and few homestays and tent accommodations. We virtually had the full lake to ourselves. The experience of this place is further enhanced by the complete attention you get from the lake. As the evening progressed the sky almost lit up for the sunset a view that photographs cannot capture.

It was freezing cold at night, and to make matters worse there was no power in the area. But early morning a view of the lake from the tents brought back our energy. If you ask me to choose one high-altitude lake in Ladakh, Tsomoriri will be surely my choice. Though travelling to the lake is quite a handful, the rustic beauty of the surroundings really amazes you.

On our way back, we took a different route, visiting another lake Tso Kar (15280 feet), 50 km away and close to the Manali Highway, and joining the highway near the Taglangla Pass. Tsomoriri was one of the reasons I went to Ladakh for a second time, and it did not let me down. 

One piece of advice. Though Tsomoriri is nearer to the Manali Leh highway, it is not recommended to visit here on your way to Leh. The sudden sharp climb to 15000 ft and staying a night there can easily result in high altitude sickness. It is better to go up to Leh, acclimatize there, and again come down to visit Tsomoriri. 

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