In all my years travelling I’ve never really come across a place I didn’t like.
I think that’s changed.
When I landed in Istanbul, I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d heard in passing conversations that it was an amazing city and there was a lot to see there, but I hadn’t really researched it in any real depth. I was simply going to land, explore, and see what the city gave me.
I ended up spending four nights in Istanbul before heading west, knocking off the major sights while eating my way through the city. The Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque, spice market, Istiklal Street, Kadikoy, all while eating as much Turkish food as my stomach would allow.
The city itself was stunningly beautiful. Lots of little alleyways and coffee shops hidden amongst cobblestone streets, a deep history to explore, and a cheap and functioning public transport system to get you anywhere you needed to go. Regular ferries carted people between the Asian and European sides of the city for only a couple of dollars, and the food was delicious, just as I’d expected.
What let the city down was my interactions with the local people. During my limited time in the city and the rest of the country, I found the Turkish to be quite an insular community – not hostile in any way, but just a bit cold and stand-offish. It can be easy to quickly disregard this as plain unfriendliness, so I wanted to dig a bit deeper to understand why I was getting this vibe.
Over my remaining days in Turkey, I spent most of my time closely examining my interactions with the locals. I found the Turkish often fell between two extremes – while some showed extreme friendliness and kindness, the others were so dismissive it was as if they were offended I was even talking to them.
One example was the man sitting next to me on the ferry, who I hadn’t spoken a word to, buying a handful of fridge magnets off some kid and then insisting I take one as a souvenir of my visit to Turkey – a completely random act of kindness that I was quite taken aback by. On the other hand, there was the guy at the bus office who gave me a look that just said “f*ck off” the moment I walked in and refused to talk to me, and his colleague who I had to practically beg to sell me a bus ticket.
Unfortunately, I had many interactions in line with the latter. There was an indifference about them, a feeling that they really couldn’t care less that I was a visitor in their country. And of course, I never expect anything more than that. In their country, they are welcome to treat me however they please. What I still couldn’t figure out though was, why? It’s typical of most countries to welcome foreigners and try to give a positive impression of their country, but this didn’t seem to be the case in Turkey. Why?
At first I assumed it was the lack of English spoken. Almost all locals I interacted with weren’t able to communicate in basic English, even those working in tourist-related areas, and the ones that could were people who had made the conscious effort to seek out and study the language. Perhaps I’d confused unfriendliness with them simply avoiding English interaction with foreigners. Once I learned a few Turkish words, even simple things such as “hello” and “thank you”, people did seem to warm up considerably.
There was bit of a chicken and egg scenario here. Did they not speak English because they didn’t care to learn about the outside world, or did they only seem that way because they couldn’t speak English? Who knows.
My next observation was that the coldness came almost exclusively from the men. I’m no Adam Levine, but the women were always extremely friendly and helpful whenever I interacted with them. If I asked questions at the restaurant, they did their best to explain. If I asked for directions, they pulled out their phones and tried their best to help. If I asked the men, they shook their heads or shrugged their shoulders and waved me away. As I walked down the street, I noticed various men give me the glare or a suspicious once-over. What was going on here?
One interesting experience was on my bus out of Istanbul. We’d just been served our snacks and drinks, and once the guy in the seat next to me had finished he casually placed all his trash onto my tray table, folded his table up and went to sleep. I was so shocked that I started laughing. Had we been in New Zealand I would’ve kindly placed the trash back in his lap and smiled, but I’ve learned on the road it’s always wise to tread a little carefully. Besides, he did in such a blasé and casual way I started wondering if maybe this was just normal behaviour in Turkey?
In the end, I just put it down to a symptom of the culture. Turkish people in general seemed to be very direct, no-nonsense and in-your-face, and I just accepted it as the way it is. It wasn’t something I could really figure out in my short time there, and probably never will.
Funnily enough, my fellow travellers seem to fall between two extremes as well. Some were churning through all the sites at light speed so they could just leave the country as soon as possible, while others were in love with Turkey and were trying to extend their stays. As one girl put it, “I just need to see Cappadocia and then I can get the f*ck out of here!”, while another girl had spent 20 days in Istanbul and was already planning her next trip back.
For me, travel has always been about the people. The most magnificent city in the world is nothing if it does not have warm and interesting people to create the kind of energy and community that a city needs to be great. And while I never really felt unsafe or threatened in Turkey, I never felt very comfortable or welcomed either.
To be fair to the Turkish, these are all generalisations from a very short visit, and I did come across many friendly and welcoming people during my time there. For every bus driver that rolled his eyes at me, there was a waiter or waitress who did try to show some warm Turkish hospitality. Like I said, a case of two extremes, and it made for an interesting visit if nothing else.
I ended up cutting my visit short and actually missed out on a lot in Turkey – Pamukkale, Cappadocia, the beach towns in the south and a bunch of other famous sites. But in a country where I never truly felt welcome, seven days felt like long enough.
Have you been to Turkey? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below.
Note: If you’re planning a trip to Turkey, don’t let my observations stop you. The country itself is beautiful and Istanbul is certainly a must-see city, unlike any other I’ve ever seen. There’s also a good chance your experience will be completely different to mine. Go with an open mind, explore and enjoy! (the food is incredible, too).