When we decided to make a detour to Turkey on our travels around Eastern Europe this year it brought about universal signs of upset and disbelief. Whilst down in Plovdiv, Bulgaria we decided to take the night bus over the border and down to one of the world’s oldest and most impressive cities: Istanbul. But a city in which only 11 days earlier two police stations had been blown up, a city where tension had been building for the last couple of years, and a country that seems to be hit by a terrorist attack or major incident at least once a month. Where we being foolhardy or fearless in the face of terrorism?
Where did we go in Turkey
We headed straight for Istanbul from Plovidiv, a place we had dreamt of going for many many years. A bucket list destination that completely lived up to our hopes. A place that is on a scale we had never expected and yet is so jammed packed full of history. With the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia and crossing the famous Bosphorus we were in our element!
The we took yet another night bus down to Fethiye to meet up with the in-laws who now live down there. On the surface this area with the villages of Oludeniz on the beach and Hisaronu in the mountains is nothing more than a party holiday resort. But look closer and you realise how stunning this region is, turquoise water and unspoilt landscapes to explore…and even a mountain to paraglide off. These familiar streets were a welcome break from backpacking too, and the holiday vibe, swimming pool and beach helped us have a well earned rest!
Another bucket list destination in this huge and diverse country. A desert like alien landscape like no other on the planet, it is hard to believe that this is even the same country as busy Istanbul and green and lush Fethiye! Huge strange rock formations tower into the sky in this barren landscape, several that have been lived in for thousands of years, what a fascinating and mind blowing place! Taking a hot air balloon ride as the sun rose over this stunning landscape was yet another dream!
What is going on over there?
Turkey at the moment is in somewhat of a transition period. Terrorist attacks are common in Istanbul, the capital of Ankara and the far east of the country where it borders Syria, Iran, Iraq, Georgia and Armenia. This region is particularly volatile given its proximity to these troubled regions and also because many are using the country as a route into Syria, including many European nationals going joining ISIS. The government over here has been accused of not doing enough to stop their country becoming a “route to evil”, however they are also being targeted themselves by ISIS.
Add to this the increasingly tense domestic political situation over here. The government are implementing several measures to turn this secular nation into one ruled my Muslim law. Famously Kemal Mustafa Ataturk turned the one time archaic ruins of the Ottoman empire into the modern Turkish state we see today. A hero of all Turks, and often seen adorning shops, flags, bars and anywhere you can hang a photo! He separated religion from government, abolished arabic in favour of a modern Turkish language and introduced rights for women.
The current government are systematically turning back the clock on many of his revolutionary steps. The recent coup was rumoured to have been a set up designed to reenforce the power of the ruling party. Further rumours of the authorities banning the displaying of Ataturk’s image is concerning and already blood has been spilt over these radical changes. Turkey is a vast country in both size and culture and I have no doubt where some genuinely feel aggrieved by the changes others will be fully supportive.
How did we feel?
Getting across the border took hours, partially because we made the mistake of reading out of date information about the cost of a visa but also because security is tight and they are beginning to vet more intensely who is entering Turkey and why.
I will admit that the first day in Istanbul we were a little on edge, entering into the crowded and chaotic bus station it felt like this would be a prime target for terrorists and it had little in the way of protection. Squeezing into the tightly packed underground trains into the city having only passed one security guard who had only a hand held metal detector and was unarmed we also felt a little uneasy.
Walking down the main shopping streets and through Taksim square there were a lot of police. Outside many of the large shopping malls, university campuses and official buildings they had guns and were heavily armoured. Having only been a twin attack on this city 11 days ago we were surprised however how many unmarked vans were allowed to park up in busy areas unguarded and how relaxed everyone seemed to be especially in the crowded trains and public areas. We figured that these attacks had just become part of life here, there are so many people and the city is huge that maybe an attack in one area of Istanbul feels almost like another city.
After the first day where we were a little cautious the wariness wore off the more we saw and the more we explored. We saw no one of any suspicion and were greeted with nothing but the warm Turkish welcome we had become accustomed to over the years. Things were definitely more tense in Istanbul than other areas we visited but the city just appeared to be operating like normal and by our second day there we were getting around just as we would do anywhere else.
During our travels in the rest of the country the threat was even less. In Fethiye especially there was really no sign of any trouble and life in general was as normal as it ever has been. The only difference was that is was quite a lot quieter and there were less tourists than normal. This region at times when you are in the villages can feel quiet disconnected to the rest of the country and almost in a bubble.
Over in Cappadocia and the isolation continued, here we would have forgotten all about the tense political situation and potential impending attacks if it weren’t for yet more discussions on the dwindling numbers of tourists. This unique landscape that sits in the desert in the centre of the country is miles away from an other large cities and once again has a culture all of its own. By the time we headed down here all worries had faded away into distant memories.
What we saw and experienced in regards to trouble
There was some minor trouble in Istanbul whilst we were there with some people getting beaten up at a rock music event by extreme islamists and a subsequent protest. This provoked some panic from our parents as Chinese whispers and miscommunication resulted in them thinking there had been a bomb.
However whilst we were in the coastal region of Turkey, an area in which we felt we had left behind all possible potential for trouble, the airport in Istanbul was attacked by a gun and bomb attack. Given that we had plane tickets booked to transit through that very airport up to Bucharest just 4 days later we were a little concerned. With 45 people dead and all social media and news outlets blocked by the government the situation suddenly felt much more real and close to home.
Around Hisaronu, a village in the mountains where we were based whilst in the Fethiye region and a self confessed tourist destination (not our usual place to visit but we have family and freinds there as we used to go every year as kids, and it was kind of a bit of a holiday within our travels!! It was quite an ironic and hilarious experience after backpacking through off the beaten track Europe!!) was left almost unshaken. Flags flew at half mast but life went on without a missed heart beat. It anything this made the situation a little bit stranger.
I am not keen on flying as it is and clearly transiting through Istanbul didn’t help this. Arriving at Dalaman in the early hours we passed an army barricade at the outer perimeter, complete with automatic weapons.
The airport in Istanbul however was chaotic at best, security didn’t feel any different and we were made to queue for over an hour with hundreds of other people to pass through passport control. This all in the glass fronted area where the previous attack had taken place and where the entrance to the building was enforced only by metal detectors and batons! Not the high security we expected.
So, Is it safe?
It is hard to say for sure, is anywhere really safe any more apart from your own front room? There have been terrorist attacks in all corners of the world recently and especially this year. But, Turkey is one of those countries that has been disproportionally targeted that is for sure.
But the chances of being caught up in trouble are very slim and visiting this wonderful country is a way to stand up against the terrorists. ISIS want to destabilise the economies of the countries they target and often tourism suffers first. As travellers we need to do the one thing we do best, keep travelling! That way we fight back! At the end of the day we can’t live our lives in a bubble, too scared to chase our dreams because of a threat that might never happen.
Turkey is such an amazing country with so many opportunities for adventure in so many different landscapes. It is full of friendly and warm locals, many of whom have become more like family to us over the years. It would be such a shame to miss out on one of the most amazing and underrated countries in the world.
I could never say 100% that you will be safe if you decide to travel to Turkey, but it does depends quite a lot on where you visit. I would advise that if you go to Istanbul to be wary and keep your wits about you just like you would in any large/ major city. As with most places let your senses guide you and if you feel uneasy then removed yourself from the situation.
In other areas of the country the atmosphere and threat is different, in the capital the situation is much more volatile. If you can avoid travelling to Ankara or the far east of the country then you will likely miss most of the trouble.
If you are heading to places such as Cappadocia and even more so down in the Fethiye region then the likelihood of trouble is even less probable. These regions feel really isolated from the rest of the country and especially in the resorts of Hisaronu and Oludeniz, they are a world away from the political climate in the rest of the country.
In many ways being in Turkey during this time felt like when we visited Ukraine during the troubles with Russia. We saw no direct trouble and never felt in any danger, but we definitely saw remnants of that and felt some tensions that remained.