Cappadocia, Turkey: 10 Questions I Asked Myself Before My First Solo International Journey
I had traveled internationally by the age of 7, spending a summer with my family in Canada while my dad had a temporary, short-term job transfer doing work in Edmonton, Alberta. In my early teenage years, a family cruise took me on a few short tours through Panama, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, and Puerto Rico. And with my snow-bird grandparents living at the very southern point of Texas, we border-hopped to Mexico a couple of times to buy jewelry and trinkets from street vendors and to ride the mechanical bull. My first trans-continental journey was a tour from Northern to Southern Italy with my high school art class. This was where I developed a true appreciation for travel. But it wasn’t until a college study abroad program in France where I developed an insatiable appetite to explore the world… I don't think my first love was ever a boy. It was Paris.
That’s why after a broken-hearted, rocky start to 2019, I decided to buy myself a gift… more travel. In June, I booked a plane ticket from Columbus International to Erkilet International Airport in Kayseri, Turkey. This one was special because it was my first true solo international trip. I was getting on that plane with no one. I was meeting no one there. It was going to be me, myself, and a backpack going to Turkey, kinda hopefully figuring things out along the way.
I can say in full, unapologetic honesty that the “how” of this trip is nowhere near as romantic as the “why”, but for the purposes of this blog, I wanted to write mostly about the “how” and all of the ups, downs, ins, outs, tips, tricks, things I learned during my trip.
You will find below just a fraction of the questions I asked myself before and during my journey. Some things I figured out before hand, and some things you just learn along the way. But I think these are some of the big ones, as well as some stories and notes of my experience to go along with it 😊
Here it goes! A written summary of my first solo travel journey, Cappadocia, Turkey, September 2019.
First and foremost, before even purchasing my plane tickets, I tried to research EVERYTHING. I did TONS and TONS of research. Compulsive research… but this is how I am. I try to think of the ins and outs of every situation before it happens… from terrorist attacks to whether or not there would be toilet paper, and all of the little nitty-gritties in between. Turkey has been in the media a lot, and I wanted to make sure I was getting first hand reports of the area I wanted to go to, not just shit you see on Twitter. This brings us to question #1:
1. IS IT SAFE? This wasn't just the first question I asked myself, but also the most common question I received from others… “Is it safe”, followed by “to go by yourself” and “for a woman” shortly after... to which I would reply "Don't know. Haven't been there yet." But my research led me to believe that I'd have no trouble. And after travelling there, I don’t have a lot to say about it except that YES. Turkey is safe. Cappadocia is heavily touristed and considered to be one the safest areas to travel to. It was also safe for a 28 year old American woman to be there “by herself”. Here’s the thing… I have a different concept of what it means to travel “alone”. All that really refers to is the fact that I bought a plane ticket for 1, not 2. But there are close to 80 million people in Turkey… you are not alone. Ever. People will always be there to help you. Bottom line is you have to use common sense. It's currently best to stay away from the Syrian border simply because right now it's potentially a more volatile area. Don’t partake in civil protests. Don't be disrespectful. Don’t be stupid. Lesson #1: If safety is the main concern that may be stopping you from visiting a foreign country, don’t let the media do your research for you. Read blogs and forums of recent travelers, or even try to reach out to them directly! Avoid regions that might be more volatile. And just remember to ask yourself, is the US safe? Because the answer is no. It’s not. And I felt far safer in Cappadocia “by myself, as a woman” than I do in Columbus, Ohio.
On to more technical matters! 2. HOW IN THE WORLD DO I GET THERE? There are of course multiple ways to travel almost 6,000 miles from Columbus, Ohio to my destination town of Göreme, Turkey. But I chose to go via plane. Get yourself to either of the 2 large, international airports in Istanbul, "The meeting point of the world", and from there you can hop on a domestic flight to Kayseri. I flew in to Istanbul Airport, and out of Sabiha Gökçen, meaning I was able to hit both Europe and Asia in the same city 😉
I book my tickets through Kiwi.com (a website similar to Kayak, Travelocity, etc.) They’re a legit website and seem to have pretty good prices. I book about 3 months in advance. This seems to be sweet spot for overall cheapest tickets. The “Kiwi.com guarantee” is legitimate *but*, make sure you know the terms. Also, make sure you are checking your reference number consistently (like at least every day) on the actual airline’s website for a week leading up to your flight… Kiwi is not reliable at letting you know if a flight has been delayed or cancelled. They're quite reactive to situations, not proactive, and you may have to wait a few hours to hear back about potential new flights if you miss one... which brings me to Lesson #2: While it is important to always attempt to keep a level head, there are times where a few dramatics, such as tears and profuse begging, when used effectively, do tend to move things along faster. Overall, for someone like me who is working with a modest amount of money and a very tight budget, Kiwi is worth the hassle because it's the difference between me getting to travel vs. not getting to travel. I was able to get round trip tickets with a few extra add-ons from Columbus to Kayseri for about 1000 USD - not too bad for 6,000 miles!
By the time I arrived at Istanbul after a couple delays, a missed flight, and a 9 hour puddle hop, I was extremely, dirty, tired, sweaty, nauseated and lost in the massive Istanbul Airport. I had to still make it through customs and security. And I had 40 minutes to do it. This is where actually being level headed is important. Come up with a fast system to organize your bags in the trays at security (by this point I was a pro). Dress conservatively and don’t try any funny business at the border and you can get through rather quickly. Then panic only mildly while you sprint to your plane and pray they don’t close the gate. I had about 10 minutes to spare before I was in the air again. No sweat!
Arriving at Erkilet International in Kayseri is more like pulling up to an abandoned warehouse with an asphalt strip. But I made it! They drop you off on the tarmac where I exited the arrivals building. Luckily my hotel had gotten my last minute email about my flight switch, and a man was standing there with my name on a hand-written sign. “THAT’S ME!” I said, probably a little too excitedly. And he directed me to the shuttle bus. The final leg of the journey to get from airport to hotel is ~1 hour shuttle bus ride from the airport. You can book a shuttle on your own, or you can typically book through your hotel, which is what I did for ease of communication. It will cost about 7 USD.
I would be staying in the Anatolia Cave Pension, a little hotel I booked through AirBNB (Highly recommend!) As I mentioned before, Turkey is very budget friendly, as the Turkish Lira is very much in favor of the US dollar. Cappadocia region is FULL of little hostels and cave hotels from as little as 6 USD per night! I paid about $30 a night because I wanted a private room and bathroom. (You can barely get a campsite in the US for less than $30...) Modern hotels today are built straight into the caves that were carved out and lived in over 2000 years ago. If you get the chance, be sure to stay in a cave room and become a part of this amazing history!
3. DO I NEED ANY SPECIAL VACCINES? The CDC does recommend receiving certain vaccines before travelling to Turkey. You can find the exhaustive list here --> https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel. I was on a budget, so I got the ones I could afford. Check with your insurance though beforehand – anything that also occurs in the US is considered “preventative” and you can likely get them discounted or free of charge. I was vaccinated for Polio, Hep A, Hep B, and Typhoid Fever.
4. WHAT ARE SOCIAL NORMS, AND WHAT ARE NOT SOCIAL NORMS? Before the trip, I studied Turkish etiquette and social norms a lot. I didn’t want to accidentally do anything outwardly disrespectful by accident. Turns out, it’s very much like America, but a bit more conservative and reserved. Turkish people tend to be a bit more serious, and they do not smile at every single person they meet like we tend to do in the US. It’s not because they are mean. It’s just a cultural difference. Hospitality is extremely important to them, and they treat guests very well, no matter where they are from. I stayed in the hotel with people from places all across the globe including UK, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Japan, and Korea to name a few. We were all treated with the utmost courtesy and hospitality. Tourism is a HUGE part of their economy, especially in Cappadocia, and every dollar that tourists spend contributes to overall stability in the region. They’re happy to have you as a guest.
Lesson #3: Be courteous in return, but not afraid to say no. Turkish men can seem very forward. It was not out of the ordinary for me to meet someone in a shop or on the street and have them immediately invite me to coffee, tea, or to have a drink. They want to meet you, talk to you, ask you questions. However, they also don’t get all offended and butt hurt over a firm but polite “NO”. The next day they will still smile and wave at you, and probably invite you in for tea again. As my friend from the hotel described, "Yes, the men will try"... but they're also respectful of a "no".
Another side note to be aware of, and Lesson #4: Being a pedestrian doesn’t really mean you have right of way. Don’t assume the cars will stop. They probably won’t hit you, but they’ll be close enough to make you not do it again.
Turkey is estimated to be somewhere between 96% and 99% Muslim. Respect their religion and religious practices. Mosques use loudspeakers to call to prayer 5 times a day and can be heard across the entire city. This is just another exciting part of the culture to be immersed in. If you talk to people enough, they are more than willing to share information and answer questions about their religion and practices. Having an open mind is a great way to learn firsthand, instead of whatever garbage the media happens to be shitting out.
Just be respectful of people and property and you will receive nothing but warm hospitality in return.
5. DO I NEED A VISA? Yes. I can’t speak for other countries, but as an American citizen, Turkey has about the easiest visa process ever. This is the official government website --> https://www.evisa.gov.tr/en/apply/. It will cost $20 USD. Do not use any other website to purchase a visa. Purchase your visa 3 months before the start of your trip – i.e. I purchased my visa June 6. This made my visa valid from September 3, 2019 through February 29, 2020. I scheduled my plane tickets so that I’d arrive in Istanbul on Sept 4. (You may stay in the country for 90 days with this visa. Longer than that and you will need additional documentation.) Other than that, all you need is a valid US passport.
Bring currency!! Some places take credit card, but they don’t seem to like to. And a lot of places just don’t. I brought about 1300 TL, which is about 250 USD. I spent significantly less than 100 TL per day, and ended up with quite a bit left over. (Leave it with the hotel staff as a tip 😉) I did use my card a few times (make sure to notify your bank!) at my favorite restaurant, but other than that, I was fine with a bit of cash. I did spend money on nice lunches, tours, some small souvenirs, and drinks in the evenings. But if you buy food from local vendors and just stick to hiking and exploring, you could easily get by on about 50 TL (or less) a day. This is the equivalent of just under 10 USD. Lesson #5: Going to a country where the USD stretches a lot further can really help lessen the burden on your wallet!
MAKE COPIES OF EVERYTHING – passport, credit cards, travel insurance if you purchase it (I used Wandering Nomads), and your emergency sheet… This sheet should have all local police and ambulance numbers, your hotels and their phone numbers/addresses, and phone numbers and addresses of US embassies in Turkey… Then take photos of all of it.
Enroll in the STEP program --> https://step.state.gov/
6. IS ENGLISH WIDELY SPOKEN? Evet. This means yes. English is widely spoken in Göreme. BUT at some point you may run in to a street vendor or shop owner that doesn’t. I studied conversational Turkish before my trip for a few reasons. 1. I never want to rely 100% on my phone. Google translate or Converse apps are great, until you have no signal, no battery, or you lose your beloved smartphone somewhere in between those long 6,000 miles. I wanted to make sure I could buy things, ask for help, or go from point A to B in Turkish if technology failed me. 2. It’s a respect thing. You’re in THEIR country. This is THEIR home. YOU are the foreigner, and if you try to learn a bit of THEIR language, they will appreciate your efforts, even if your Turkish is pretty terrible (like mine.)
7. CELL PHONES AND INTERNET? Wifi is everywhere. Almost every hotel, restaurant, bar and café. I had an international cell plan, but signal is often questionable and it’s $10 a day if you use it. I think I triggered it twice by accident. You can get cell phones and sim cards in the Istanbul airport, but I didn’t and I was just fine with the hotel wifi. It’s always nice to have though in an emergency situation.
8. WHAT SHOULD I PACK? As little as possible. Buying budget flights on Kiwi means you are allowed a limited amount of baggage. I was allowed 12 kgs in a carry on, plus a personal item. I didn’t want to check a bag and risk losing it, as I was going to be changing airplanes and airlines multiple times. A 50 liter pack or smaller is the way to go. They fit in overhead bins, and are much more manageable to manuever around with than rolling bags. That being said, 12 kilograms adds up super quick.
CRASH COURSE IN HOW I HANDLED AIRPORTS: As a solo traveler, you just can’t be 100% aware of everything all the time… I knew this would be a long, exhausting journey going in, so I set a “level of importance” on EVERYTHING before I left. Level 1 - Things that I’d be ok without/easily replaceable (like clothes and airport snacks), Level 2 - things that were more valuable or irreplaceable, and would make things really difficult if I lost (like my cell phone, kindle, chargers, and travel journal), and then finally, Level 3 - the stuff that would just leave me royally fucked if I lost (like money, credit cards, and passport). My large pack had all my non-essential items and my 1st set of document copies. I wore this pack on my back. If I lost it, or it got stolen, I’d be mad for a minute (Osprey packs aren’t cheap), but I’d be ok. All items easily replaceable.
My Level 2 pack was a little 18-liter stuff-pack. It had all the important stuff (the stuff that would be really hard to replace, or cause significant trouble if I lost) – all electronics and chargers, small toiletry case with medicine and vitamin packets, life straw, 2nd copy of all travel docs and credit cards, emergency info sheet, and water purification tabs. I wore this pack on my front.
I had all my Level 3 items - currency + physical credit cards, and passport in my travel belt – the thing I absolutely could not lose – so I clipped it to my body. Aside from airport security, this one NEVER came off.
Lesson #6: Leave your ego at home. Wear your important backpack in front. Rock the damn travel belt. You look like a dork. Get over it. After maintaining a heightened awareness of everything for consecutive days and nights in airports, you will be DESPERATE to sleep. If you’re by yourself like I was, NO ONE will be there to watch your bags. Having your bags and belt clipped to your body will be worth it for enough peace of mind to doze off for a bit.
Wear as much of your heavy clothes as you can comfortably manage – aka hiking boots, your extra sweater, tunic dress, your leggings, etc. I could technically fit my little "Level 2 pack" inside of my big one, but by having all your heaviest stuff (like electronics and some extra snacks) in your smaller level 2 pack, you can claim your large, rather empty backpack as your “carry on”, and the little one as your personal item. Pull the heavy little guy out of your large pack at the last second before throwing it on the scale. This is how you turn a large 17 kg pack into a 7 kg pack in 3 seconds.
**Check out my next blog for a full list of exactly EVERYTHING that I brought, and how I packed them :)
9. WHAT SHOULD I WEAR? You can wear just about anything. I saw tourists in shorts, sports bras, jeans, cutoff midriff tops, small strappy sundresses. It’s technically fine in Cappadocia. I think they’re used to it with tourists, but I wouldn’t advise it. Again, it’s a respect thing.
For me? I always error on the side of conservative and slightly more formal. In September, it can still be quite warm (some days were still mid-upper 80’s, and I didn’t see a cloud for days.) Long skirts and dresses are always appropriate, but it was too hot while I was there. I brought clothes that essentially fit this criterion: Lightweight and long-sleeved (at least to elbows). Looser fitting (nothing skin tight). Nothing that showed any cleavage. Pants that at least covered my knees. A lightweight, white cardigan is helpful. You can throw it over anything, and it won’t make you too hot. I had 2 pairs of shoes – my Salomon hiking boots, and my little Keen trekking sandals. Cappadocia is a steppe climate, and during the dry season, it’s basically a desert. Everything is crunchy, sandy, and sharp. It’s worth it to have solid hiking boots, but my sandals were great for walking around town and going to museums. Save your camo pants, cowboy hat, and American flag attire for at home. You already will look American, but you don’t have to look like a fucking asshole. Here are some examples of what I wore :)
10. WHAT IS THE OPINION ON TATTOOS? Tattoos are fine in Turkey. A lot of my research online made it seem like it would be very taboo because it is a majority Muslim country and is “forbidden by the Quran”… so I was especially nervous about the one on my hand. Turns out literally no one cares… especially in a heavily touristed area like Cappadocia. It was yet another instance of media hype… Turkey is a secular nation, and no one cares if you have tattoos or not. I didn’t see many people other than tourists donning full sleeves, but the small tattoos on my wrist and hand were fine. Older generations or more traditional mindsets may not be as open-minded about your neck tattoo, but America is no different. Again though, I always try to err on the conservative side, so my tattoos were covered most of the time anyway.
OTHER THINGS TO NOTE:
FOOD AND WATER SAFETY: I was advised not to drink the water. I used either a Lifestraw or my Epic Outdoor water bottle filter whenever I was drinking tap water. (Check out my next packing list blog for more info on these!)
The food there is AMAZING. It seems standard in most hotels that you get a full breakfast spread every morning – and this isn’t some shit continental breakfast at the Econo Lodge… this is a full buffet fresh, brightly colored local foods - grapes grown on the roof, local tomatoes, salty olives, cucumbers, melons, peaches, and figs, white cheese and farm egg omelets decorated with herbs and peppers. I ate about 3 plates of food every morning… #noshame. This also helped me save money, as I could just eat dried fruit and nuts from the street vendors for lunch and dinner. With Turkey being so economical, I often did treat myself to a second large meal. My favorite was lentil soup, stew in a clay pot served with rice, and rice pudding for dessert. You could get all of this for around 9-10 USD.
Every other day the local bazaar would open where farmers could bring fresh produce to sell. I would buy several kilos of tomatoes, carrots, Turkish plums, peaches, and apples for a few bucks.
Food in Göreme is local. It tastes better. It’s super fresh. Before I went, I was told not to eat anything that couldn’t be washed or peeled… but after seeing the array of fresh local produce, dried fruits and nuts that were available, I can say that after about 24 hours that all went out the window. I rinsed my fruits, nuts, seeds, and dried fruits to get a majority of the dirt off, but that was about it. No way was I going to miss out on all of these amazing foods from local farmers!
This was how I learned what fruit and veggies are SUPPOSED to taste like – a locally farmed tomato or cucumber tastes indescribably better when it has not been mass produced, coated in pesticides, and shipped in from wherever… Within 2 weeks all my digestive issues had nearly disappeared, despite eating every slice of bread and Turkish dessert that was offered to me. Lesson #7: The food system in the United States is messed up.
A NOTE ABOUT SHOPPING, and Lesson #8: Do NOT buy anything that may be considered a Turkish antique… (1-2 centuries or older). The day I walked to Çavuşin, I met Mustafa, a shop owner and antique collector. He was wonderful to talk to, and I LOVED his shop – there were ornate Turkish keys and knives, old goat and sheep bells, and little oil lamps (like the one in Aladdin!) Luckily, he was an honest man, and informed me that if I’d be travelling out of Turkey, I couldn’t buy certain items because they can’t be taken out of the country… (He’s telling me this as I was contemplating how much stuff I could fit into my single backpack.) “I cannot sell you this item because you will go to jail", as he shows me a beautifully decorated knife and scabbard. "They will stop you at the border, take your things, and then they will find me, and I will go to jail too. It happened to my friend. He was in prison for 6 months.” I hadn’t come across anything like this in my research, so I don’t know what the exact law states, but I took his word for it. Needless to say, I ended up just buying a couple of things from the tourist shop across the street and a little painting from a local artist. As much as I wanted to experience Turkey, prison was one thing I could live without seeing… [I researched this law more after returning to the states and verified that it is true. Turkey has had many artifacts illegally exported to America, Europe, and other places around the world, now being housed in museums outside of the country they rightfully belong to. Most antiquities would be too expensive for the average person to purchase anyway, and one would need to be specifically seeking them out. However, don’t ever intentionally get involved in attempting to export Turkish antiquities… Turkey rightfully wants to keep their history for future generations.]
THINGS TO DO: There's a TON of stuff to do in Cappadocia. In my research, I came across a lot of blogs that said you only need 3-4 days to see everything - I largely disagree with this. There are 3 main tours, Red, Green or Blue. These are day tours, and will take you to various places around the Cappadocia region. The Open Air Museum is a must see in Göreme. It's only a short walk to the east. There's also a fun little open air market that you pass along the way. Make sure to climb up to Sunset Point for a beautiful sceneic overlook of the city, and a stray dog may even adopt you!
You can visit a Turkish bath, or participate in "Turkish Night" for evening entertainment. There are quad tours and hot air balloon rides. You can take pottery classes, or Turkish cooking classes. I think I'm a bit odd in that regard though... I planned this trip out to the very last detail I could possible think of... up until the point I got there. As to what I would actually DO while I was there?? I planned nothing. Except for 1 thing, my horseback ride. It's the whole reason I was hellbent on visiting Cappadocia in the first place! Because it was described as being "one of the best places to explore on horseback!" I scheduled 2 horseback riding tours. Both were amazing, and it was great to see parts of the landscape shown by the guides that I probably would not have found on my own.
Cappadocia is famous for their hot air balloon rides. It's a bit more expensive (~160-200 USD), and it's important to go with a reputable company. (Lonely Planet lists some good recommendations in their book --> https://amzn.to/2ps8uXm) Personally, I had little interest in going up in a hot air balloon, but I did wake up at 5:00am every day to experience the magic of the balloons taking off every morning. It's an incredible sight.
Other than that? I woke up every day and did whatever I felt like at that moment. Sometimes that was exploring rock caves in the area. I'd walk to the neighboring town of Çavuşin. I'd tour the shops. Or sometimes I would stay in my room or sit on the terrace for the entire day, sketching or reading a book, cover to cover. If I felt like going out for lunch, I'd go out. If I felt like staying in, I'd stay in. It took me awhile to get used to this concept of travelling 6,000 miles to sit and read a book. But for me, that's exactly what I came to do. To just be there in a new place, doing whatever I WANTED, not what I felt like I SHOULD do. I remembered this feeling from when I was in Paris... that sense of calm when you're just out wandering, not pressed with the burden of expectation. Lesson #9: Take yourself somewhere and expect nothing from it, and everything about it will fulfill you.
MEETING PEOPLE: When I first arrived in Turkey, I don’t think I said more than 2 words the first couple of days. I experienced a horrible vertigo for the first 24 hours. I felt like the walls and floor were moving in and out in waves. Bricks seemed to be shifting up and down. I couldn’t turn my head too fast. I had a hard time eating. Because of this, I felt just generally unnerved and vulnerable. I didn’t go out much, aside from grabbing a kilo of plums for dinner, and didn’t really talk to anyone. The next day I felt better, but still painfully shy and uneasy. Plus, I went on this trip to be “along and think”, I told myself. I don’t need anyone. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I just want to go out and explore and be in peace by myself. I’m someone that does well on my own, or at least I like to think so… and this attitude worked for about 3 days, but by day 4, that weird sense of aloneness starts to set in… and I was desperate to find someone to talk to. This innate human need to be with others turned out to be such a blessing in disguise. Of course, I could have spent the whole trip just doing my own thing. But my experience was enriched exponentially by the people I met along the way.
Most of the forward-facing hotel staff are men and are at the hotel from 7am until 11pm at night… so they were more than willing to oblige me in conversation. Locals will always be the best bridge between you and a new place. They indulged all my questions about culture, religion, and life in Turkey. We talked about our families, food, governments, and what life was like for us growing up. I would try to learn new words, which they would repeat to me ten times over because I had already forgotten from the day before… like çiçek – flower, köpek – dog, or güzel – beautiful.
Like I said before though, tourism is a huge and important industry there, and other travelers also provided me with that sense of belonging in this place. Meeting fellow travelers also enriched my experience tenfold, giving me a sense of unspoken community in a land where I otherwise knew no one. Lesson #10: I quickly learned the most important thing to experience is the HUMAN EXPERIENCE. I went on this trip to experience self-reliance, to see new things, to experience a far-off place. But my biggest takeaway was my new found importance of human connection, and how much you can learn from a single conversation with someone new.
My love for travel improves me as a person in every single way. I was able to decompress and return to a baseline stress level – something I had really lost touch with here in the fast-paced US. After returning home, I’ve been able to hang on to this sense of calm. No, life isn’t always as easy as eating grape leaves on a rooftop and reading books all day. But I’ve regained touch with what it feels like to not continually be operating at an elevated level of stress. Things that bothered me before just seem insignificant after 6000 miles and back. Everything is put into a bit more perspective. Travel forces you to adapt quick and problem solve. You remember how small you are. You learn how little you can live off. You have no choice but to trust strangers, and to trust yourself. Travel always restores my faith in humanity. It silences the media. It allows you to fall in love with the world again. I’ve been back for 2 months now… but before I even left Turkey, I was already planning my next trip 😉