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This year I'll celebrate the Christmas in Turkey, far away from my family and traditions in Finland. It has been refreshing to spend one December without being surrounded with Santa Claus decorations and Jingle Bells songs everywhere. It hasn't been a complete escape however: I devoted one day to shopping for presents and a couple of evenings to writing postcards.
Nowadays streets in Turkish cities are lined with small western-style shops, but markets and bazaars are still the liveliest places to shop. There you'll find also the best prices for fresh food, sweets, spices and many other things, after some negotiation of course. So I also headed to the most famous of them all, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.
Every shopkeeper knew at least "Hello", "How are you doing", "Where are you from" and numbers in English. As a proof of success of the tourism industry, surprisingly many could even produce a greeting in Finnish. Then some would actively start pushing their merchandise while others would let you wander around and take a more relaxed look. Perhaps needless to say that I preferred the latter. Of course I'd also engage in conversations which are part of the bazaar experience, but the more fruitful talks never started with "Would you like X? No. How about Y? No...". Having a couple of photos of my trip handy turned out to be useful: they spurred also some genuine interest beyond just getting my money. The lamp shop owner in the picture taught me some Turkish in return — and got a deal too. However, all in all I cannot say that I really enjoyed my time in the Grand Bazaar.
More pleasant experiences were the Spice Bazaar and other smaller bazaars and markets in Istanbul and Ankara. They were full of locals unlike the touristy Grand Bazaar. There was also shouting and pushing going on but it was different, because buyers generally knew what they wanted. Shopkeepers would also more readily give out free goodies for tasting and offer tea, especially in less touristy Ankara.
Ankara is far behind of Istanbul in the number of historical sights and lacks the attractive location by the sea, but it compensates with a generally more friendly atmosphere and less tourist scams. Even taxi drivers waved me to have tea with them without intention to make me take a taxi. And the landscape isn't bad either: the view from Atakule tower towards the mountains in the north is pretty amazing on a clear day.
Ankara is also the prime city to become familiar with the Turkish admiration of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. His mausoleum stands on top of a hill in the heart of the city surrounded by a large park, and smaller statues and pictures of him are abundant everywhere in Turkey. Atatürk was the first president of the country for 15 years in 1920's and 30's and implemented a shocking number of modernizations, including reforming the alphabet, giving women a right to vote and separating church from the state. Some of the changes must have been controversial at that time, but nowadays nobody seems to have a single bad word to say about him — at least not publicly. Partly it's a taboo: you'd need to have guts to criticize a man who has been given the name "The Ancestor of Turks", but he's also honestly greatly respected by the majority of people.
However, the number one reason for me to come to Ankara was to get my visa to India. I first went to the Finnish embassy to get the silly paper I mentioned in my previous blog entry and got ripped off 30 euros for that. To make the Indian visa officer satisfied still required a bank statement printout and a couple of photocopies but yesterday they accepted my application. I should be able to pick up my visa next Friday, but won't rejoice until I have it in my hand.
To send my best season's greetings to all the readers of my blog I prepared a Christmas and New Year card (also available in Finnish). If you can read Finnish, you might also enjoy the extensive report of the Riga–Warsaw section of my trip, which is now online. Enjoy your holidays if you have any, get some rest and have fun in year 2007!
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