Photography Class Travels to Turkey
Editor’s note: WCC photography instructor Terry Abrams led a trip to Turkey by his Digital Photography Abroad class in May. The following is a first-person account of the trip by Mike Wilkinson, a student.
May 19: Departure
On a warm Michigan morning, the group gathered at Detroit Metro Airport for the 11:00am flight. Unfortunately, it was delayed for an hour due to maintenance issues, and then we had to sit on the runway for about three hours. Thanks, Delta! We arrived at JFK in New York and had missed our flight to Turkey. Things weren’t starting very well. Thankfully, Terry Abrams, our group leader, was able to work with the Delta staff in New York and the travel agency that booked our trip, and we were able to avoid staying in New York. We were placed on a flight just a few hours later on Turkish Airlines, which was definitely an upgrade from Delta.
May 20: Day 1
A brief 10-hour flight later, we landed in Istanbul sometime in the afternoon (local time), which is seven hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.
The group loaded onto a tour bus, met our tour guide, Yucel, and departed Istanbul. We headed east through the city across the Bosphorus Strait and into the continent of Asia (Turkey is about 95 percent in Asia and 5 percent in Europe). Immediately, I noticed how prosperous and modern it was. I was seeing shades of other metropolitan cities such as New York and London; lots of construction going on, lots of commerce. There were residences everywhere on the Asian side. Also, I noticed that there were Turkish flags on many of the shops and residences. As I would soon discover, the people here have a great sense of national pride. I was only able to see all this from the bus as it crawled through the rush hour traffic of Istanbul, but we would return in about a week to discover more. We traveled through rolling hills and arrived at our hotel in Ankara around midnight—or 5:00pm according to my body clock!
May 21: Day 2
We woke up early to hit a few sites in Ankara, the capital city of Turkey. They included the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, where we had a look at some of the oldest artifacts in the world and received a commentary on the history of Turkey, which goes back hundreds of thousands of years before the birth of Christ. Then we went to the Mausoleum of Ataturk, where the tomb of Ataturk (Turkey’s version of George Washington, as our guide noted) was inside a temple.
After a good lunch on the road to Cappadocia, the topography varied greatly in a very short time. From flat plains to rolling hills to amazing vistas, the landscape had much to offer. We stopped at Tuz Lake, one of the largest salt lakes in the world. A short drive later, we attended a religious ceremony where we watched something known as the “Whirling Dervishes,” which was a unique experience. We arrived at our hotel later for a buffet dinner (I would soon see that most of our meals were buffet style), including some very nice Turkish dessert. With a full belly, it was time to go off to process all of my photos and use the Internet for the first time in almost three days.
May 22: Day 3
At 1:00am I woke up to what I think were screeching tires and then five gunshots. I peeked out my fifth-story window, but didn’t see anything. I had noticed a wedding party going on that evening, so I hoped there may have just been some people partying a bit too much….
I woke up again just a few hours later—at 4:00am—for our hot air balloon ride. The balloon company picked us up and took us to their base station, where we were treated with much-needed coffee and some Turkish biscuits, too. We split into two vehicles and left for the launch point. The balloons were rolled out and filled with air, then our group got inside of a large basket. After some minor instruction on what to do if the landing were to go awry, we were off. It was extremely smooth and very quiet, save for the loud blast of fire into the balloon. The view was stunning, to say the least. Our pilot masterfully guided us over, around, and even through some of the valleys, controlling our altitude with incredible skill, bringing us within inches of the rock face before gently ascending over it.
We were treated to a champagne toast when we landed, and had a little fun with the balloon workers before heading back to our hotel before breakfast, as it was only 8:00am at this point!
Feeling rather rejuvenated from the amazing morning, we set off on the bus to visit some sites around Cappadocia. First we stopped at the Three Beauties rock formations for some photos, and then made a few more stops to walk around the hills and get up close to some of the unique rock formations. One stop was at the underground city of Derinkuye, where a small system of very small caves had been preserved, and many more were still being excavated. This was not a place for the claustrophobic.
Our last stop before the hotel was at a pottery-making place called Chez Galip, I think. A Turkish man who looked like Albert Einstein and had some odd obsession with women’s hair gave us a demonstration on how they make pottery by hand.
May 23: Day 4
We left our hotel early once again and stopped first at the Sultan Han, where we had a talk about how to capture high-dynamic-range photos. Then we had a little free time to explore. On the drive things were really becoming scenic, with snow-covered mountaintops stretching into the sky.
After a good lunch with arguably the best lentil soup in the world, we toured an ancient Roman theater in Aspendos. I’d seen pictures of this sort of ruin before, but to actually be there was quite an experience. It’s amazing how preserved it still was, even after almost 1,900 years. We then traveled to an archeological site called Perge, which was a large area filled with many ancient columns and fallen structures, with lizards and turtles scurrying about.
Something I had noticed while hiking around with 30 pounds of camera gear was that the temperature changed very quickly as the sun came out from behind the clouds. It easily would go from the low 60s to the high 70s within minutes. In Michigan, some say that if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes. It was exactly the same in Turkey.
The hotel we stayed at in Antalya was certainly a little posh, and the foreign tourists who were there definitely weren't the conservative type; lots of revealing attire and pop music. Since Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, I was not expecting this. But I quickly saw how popular Turkey was as a vacation destination.
May 24: Day 5
I woke up after about five hours of sleep to grab some breakfast and hit the road. Speaking of breakfast, many of the breakfast and lunch places had wonderful fresh fruit, vegetables, and cheeses. There were fresh apricots, peaches, tomatoes, and greens, all in abundance and I’m sure sourced from nearby areas.
Our drive from Antalya took us west along the Mediterranean, and what an amazing drive it was: crisp green waters on our left, and tall mountains on our right for most of the drive. It reminded me of those high-speed chase scenes from James Bond movies where they go speeding around the twisting roads across the immaculate countryside. Riding in a large tour bus was almost like the same thing.
We made our way to a dock area, where we piled onto a small boat to discover the ruins of an ancient city both above and below the water. The boat ride was really fantastic, as the weather was sunny and hot but the air on the Mediterranean was cool and refreshing. Taking a boat ride was pretty relaxing, too. I made sure to take some time out and put the camera down to just enjoy myself for a moment and take in the environment.
We then drove to the ruins of Myra, where there was an amphitheater with many tourists about, mostly Russian and French. I enjoyed a short hike around and took some photographs. Before grabbing some spicy lamb kabobs for lunch, we made another brief photo stop at the St. Nicholas Church. St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra in the third century, and is the source of some of the legends of Santa Claus.
After driving back through the mountainside for about four hours, we checked in at our hotel in Pammukale. I washed up and set some photos to download, then grabbed a quick dinner. The sun had already set so I wasn't able to shoot a time-lapse like I had in other cities, but another opportunity presented itself when a small group of us decided to make our way into the nearby town to walk through the market. At night, we walked about 20 minutes to get into an area where there was about a half mile of restaurants and markets. I took some photos here and there, had some ice cream, and practiced speaking what little Turkish I had picked up with some of the shopkeepers.
I arrived at the meet-up point early so I started chatting with a cafe owner named Mustafar, who spoke good English. We sat down with some tea and talked about politics, culture, travel, and other things. I actually found it quite refreshing to do this, and I get the sense that he did as well. I get the feeling that Americans are stereotyped as being from a snobby, self-centered culture. And I think that's pretty accurate for the most part. I hoped that small displays of politeness and curiosity in another culture could help dispel this, even if it’s just with a person or two I met on the trip.
The culture in Turkey, and in other similar areas, shows a certain openness that at first made me wary, thinking that shop owners were just trying to make a buck or that maybe people were teasing me for being an obvious tourist with a large camera. I found the reality to be that many locals just wanted to socialize. This concept has taken me a little while to figure out and get used to, but now that I have, I feel much better in public areas. Whether it's to practice English or hear about what the USA is like, or to simply ask if we are enjoying Turkey and what sights we have seen, many of the locals showed a genuine curiosity and a friendly, outgoing manner.
May 25: Day 6
Another 6:00am wake-up call. Breakfast was rather anemic, which was too bad since the first stop we made was at the Hierapolis, a huge ruins area where I must have hiked at least three or four miles with all of my camera gear. I started by going down to the travertines, where calcium carbonate limestone sparkled white with natural springs pouring cyan water over it. People were allowed to walk through these, so I waded all the way down and up them to take photos and video. It was like something out of a music video—really, really spectacular.
By the time I finished doing that I only had so much time to look at any of the many places this particular site had to offer. I made my way a bit more than a mile out to look at some ruins, and was getting absolutely cooked by the hot sun in the cloudless sky. I had to hustle to get back to the bus without going to look at another amphitheater and other ruins, but I felt that I was successful in my image capture either way. A tasty pistachio ice cream bar hit the spot as I waited for the others to return to the bus.
We drove for a while and grabbed a great lunch, then went to the ancient city ruins of Aphrodisias. Many sculptures, a small white marble amphitheater, and a large stadium were just amazing to behold. A storm was moving in while we walked round the site, threatening rain, but it never materialized. But it did make for some interesting clouds in some of my photos.
We left that site and drove for a short while and stopped in a small village to be greeted by a group of children. They could say a few things in English, but really just wanted to have their pictures taken and act like, well, kids. Our guide treated us to some tea at a cafe, and then we made our way to our next hotel. Another evening of downloading and processing images, then off to bed.
May 26: Day 7
We were allowed to sleep in until 7:00am today! After breakfast we stopped at a local carpet shop, where we were given a demonstration on how their women hand make carpets with wool, cotton, and silk. The silk was particularly impressive, as it was removed from caterpillar cocoons in a warm vat of water, and it was very durable. Some of the rugs, depending on the number of knots per square inch, could take anywhere from two months to a year to make, especially for larger pieces that were made of silk and required upwards of 300 knots per square inch. After a demonstration of the making of these carpets, we were treated to tea and raki (a Turkish liquor) and then allowed to shop. I was actually looking to purchase a carpet, so the salesmen were extremely interested in making friends with me to get a good sale. My purchase was expensive, but I negotiated a pretty good price.
Our next stop was at the top of a small mountain at the House of the Virgin Mary. We then drove for a lunch stop where several women did all of the cooking in a regular-looking kitchen. The food was excellent. We even met a younger woman who worked there and actually lives in Rochester, Mich. She is teaching classes at a Whole Foods store in Rochester and even writing a book on Turkish cooking. What a small world!
We then drove a while and made it to Ephesus. Yucel gave us a verbal history on the site before letting us wander to take photographs. Of particular interest were the two-story library and a large amphitheater that was still being worked on, but had been used recently to host concerts by artists like Sting and Eric Clapton.
The group returned to the hotel a little bit earlier than usual, so we made the most of our time by going for a swim in the Aegean Sea and hanging out by the pool for a few hours before having dinner and getting back to work on our images. It was nice to have some down time from work to relax a bit.
May 27: Day 8
We enjoyed a nice six-hour drive through Izmir and arrived at Bursa. We toured the Green Mosque, which was unfortunately undergoing some restoration. We also checked out the Silk Market, an area with many scarves and fabrics made of silk, among other goods. We made one last stop in the Grand Mosque for a few photos and then left for our next hotel, which was a very nice four-star resort. It had a terrace pool and a good view, so we made some nice photos of the setting sun that evening.
May 28: Day 9
We left Bursa for the coast, and drove the tour bus right onto a large ferry to be carried over the Bosphorus. We hit land and entered Istanbul again. We drove down to the Grand Bazaar, where we got lost (figuratively) among the massive number of small shops and vendors selling crafts, food, spices, clothes, silk, and anything else people might buy. It was a bit dizzying, and while not as intense as the souks in Morocco, it would have been easy to get lost in there. After the bazaar, we went on a cruise along the Bosphorus Sea, guided with a commentary from Yucel about the different sites on both the Asian and European coasts. Unfortunately, the weather was overcast and a little rainy, so this was not nearly as memorable as the boat ride a few days prior on the Mediterranean.
We poked into another mosque before entering another market area, this one specializing in spices and herbs. After about an hour of wandering around there, we went to our hotel. The real eye opener about Istanbul came that evening, when a small group set out and walked into the Taksim Square area. We just walked around the main street, which was lined with modern stores. Even though it was just one small part of the city, it was clearly bustling with people, and the city had a lot of energy. Live music, 3D video projection advertisements, and people crowding the streets well after 11:00pm showed me that this was really a departure from the village-like areas and very modern.
May 29: Day 10
On this day the group traveled by foot to several amazing places. First was the Hippodrome Square, where there was the large Egyptian Obelisk. Then we simply turned around 180 degrees to be in awe of the epic Blue Mosque. The interior was massive, and decorated with spectacular wall tiles and designs. We then walked to the Topkapi Palace, which housed the Crown Jewels and had a lovely garden area to walk around in. Before we left the area, we went to Haghia Sophia, which was a church but is now considered a museum. The museum was huge on the inside, and the design of its architecture and painting was breathtaking.
After lunch it was time for a much-needed nap, as all of the long days and road trips were starting to catch up with me. In the evening a small group once again ventured out to Taksim Square. We were greeted with even more activity up and down the streets, including a big gathering of spirited football (soccer) fans celebrating with songs and cheering because of a soccer match that had happened earlier.
May 30: Day 11
I got to sleep in! I took my laptop to breakfast so that I could research how to spend my afternoon/evening, and ended up deciding to make my way back to the Sultanhamet area, where I planned to try and get a good sunset time-lapse over the Blue Mosque.
The group left around 11:00am for the Turkish Cultural Foundation, a sponsor for our trip, where we were treated to an interesting art history lecture and some light lunch. We then made our way to Arif Asci's home studio. Arif is a world-renowned photographer and documentarian. He spoke of stories from his past projects and showed us some of his photos. It was really inspiring to see the work of another visual artist, and to hear about how he came to be a part of certain projects.
After the talk, I had free time so I made my way to the top of the Galata Tower. From there I was able to take some nice panoramic photos of the city in all directions, with the minarets of all of the mosques poking into the sky. I made my way back to the hotel to reload my camera gear, then set off for the rail station near Taksim Square. I took a couple of rail lines to the Blue Mosque area, and after hiking around for a while I found the Ferman Hotel. I walked right in, went to the top, and took several hundred photos for a great time-lapse that included the setting sun. I spoke to a couple from Canada and a gentleman from Germany on my way back. I regrouped with everyone at the hotel, where we shared stories and photos, ready to begin our long journey home.
Mike Wilkinson works at WCC, and went on the trip to improve his photography skills and document the experiences of the other students who participated. A video he shot documenting the trip will be available on WCC's YouTube channel at a later date.