While many tourists to Turkey hit the same spots I did with my friend April, most choose to fly between them. April and I decided to drive. After four great days in Istanbul, we head back to the airport to pick up our Hertz rental and are treated to
five-star service. I am driving because April does not know how to drive a stick shift (yet). I’ve promised to teach her during the trip, but for now we have nine hours of road ahead of us to reach Cappadocia by nightfall, so I’m piloting and she’s navigating. We don’t know how much cell signal we’ll get on our trip, so we turn off Google Maps and go old-school with a real map the guys at Hertz scrounged up for us.
Between the traffic and the sheer sprawl of Istanbul it takes us almost two hours to feel like we’ve finally left the city, but when we do, we’re greeted by a wide open motorway so smooth and clean we could practically eat off of it. We pass some of the most beautiful rest stop restaurants we’ve ever seen, with white linen tablecloths, and we’re looking forward to stopping at one of them later in the day. We’re struck by how much building is going on around Istanbul, and then too when we reach Ankara. Where are all the people coming from, we wonder.
After we pass Ankara we switch to smaller roads. I have a brief moment of panic when we turn onto a gravel road…oh please tell me the rest of the trip won’t be on gravel! It’s just a short stretch though, and before long I’m back on asphalt. By now April has gotten the hang of how the map and road signs align, and she’s directing me like a champ. But on these smaller roads those awesome rest stops have disappeared, and we blow through town after town without seeing somewhere worthy of stopping at. Seven hours later we finally stop at a large, non-descript cafeteria. We are the only westerners, and we may be the only Americans these folks have ever seen. We fuel up on mediocre food and what we will come to learn is key to our driving success: Turkish tea.
Energized, we hit the road for our final hours and marvel at the beauty of the landscape. We’re in low hills and farmland, and we can see towering mountains in the distance. I secretly pray I don’t have to drive over them. April is disappointed that all of the sunflowers are dead in the fields, but after six weeks in Europe I’ve seen enough to last a lifetime. As we near our target town of Göreme in Cappadocia we see a shift into some of the stunning rock formations this part of Turkey is so famous for. Oohing and aaahing, we roll into town and discover we’ve come 850 km just to get lost in the final kilometer. I call our hotel and they send someone to fetch us from three blocks away.
Once we check in we stop to congratulate ourselves. We’ve just Thelma’d and Louised our way across Turkey without a single hitch and without GPS. High five, sister! Now let’s treat ourselves to a hamam and Turkish massage. We earned it.
Three days later we’re hitting the road again for coastal Turkey. I thought it was going to be a six hour drive, but when April pulls it up on Google in the hotel it says ten hours. Ugh, I think. We’ve been racing around for the past three days and I haven’t yet had a chance to teach her to drive a stick, so it’s all on me again. I feel my shoulders tense up in anticipation. I call for an early start so we can be on the road at 8:00, figuring we’ll reach our destination by 6:00pm so I don’t have to drive in the dark.
The first leg to Konya, home of the Whirling Dervishes, is a breeze, and I open up the throttle to see how fast our little Hyundai can go. With no speed limit signs in sight, I’m averaging between 160-180 kmph (100-110 mph) and feel in total control of the car. We make it a game to see how fast we can get to the next signpost on our route. Back home, April drives a BMW Z4, so she’s loving the speed. Suddenly we see police cars pulling people over, and they motion us over. We have a big “oh shit” moment and think we’re in for trouble, but it’s just a random document check. I’m psyched I get to whip out the International Driver’s Permit I spent $15 and a morning at AAA getting, but they barely glance at it. Before we know it, we’re off to the races again and April and I congratulate ourselves on surviving a police stop.
Hours go by, and it’s beautiful countryside. We see farmlands and old ladies dressed in kerchiefs and long baggy pants. We see men on tractors. We see random horseback riders and homemade trucks on the highway. And in every town, there’s a glut of construction. We’re in the middle of nowhere when I feel the need for a break, and a huge rest stop beckons. We pull in and marvel at it. It’s so big it could handle five tour buses at once, but we’re the only ones there. The elderly waiter with bad teeth dotes on us as he serves us the best road food I’ve ever eaten. I discover that if you don’t know how to say “lamb,” “baaaa” works just fine. He speaks no English but understands a bit, and after some effort we learn the place has only been open two months. It’s a pattern we’ve seen repeated everywhere we’ve gone. What’s driving all this growth, I wonder for the hundredth time.
AKP, the Justice and Development Party, has been in power 13 years in Turkey, and the road and building construction has been going on that long. There’s an important election coming up in November and the whole country is talking about it. I’d like to follow the money, I tell April, to figure out what happened economically to create this boom for the past 13 years. And that’s when it hits me: In 2002, the US went to war in the Middle East and have been paying Turkey to use their country as our primary base of operations. That’s what fueled the growth – my tax payer dollars, hard at work. I’m suddenly glad we’re driving instead of flying. If I paid for these roads, I might as well use them.
Off we go again to tackle the final half of the drive. The mountains are closer, but somehow we’re still skirting them. I slow a bit as we reach a town, and a few minutes later there’s another police stop. Easy-peasy, we think, because we’ve already been
through it today. But this one is different. The policeman only speaks Turkish, but “radar” translates in any language. He calls an older policeman over who speaks halting English. I’ve been clocked doing 154 in a 90 zone. Out comes my inner New Yorker and I furiously type into Google Translate “where was the speed limit sign?” They ask us to step out of the car and come to the station a few steps away. Oh, crap. There’s a guy at a table who has been writing up the ticket the whole time. We quickly see there’s no getting out of it. They’re speaking furiously into a radio, and a few moments later they motion us to follow them back up to the road, where a black police car is waiting. They open the door and motion us inside. No f-ing way am I getting in that car! But all they want is for me to see the video of me barreling through the speed trap. Yep, that’s me, alright. But I still didn’t see any speed limit sign. We go back to the little table where the scribe is still working on the ticket. Next thing I know, they’re bringing us hot tea and offering cigarettes. Really! All the while they’re chattering on the radio and the one word we can understand is “Americans.” By now, April and I have resigned ourselves to our fate and are having a hard time not laughing at the experience. The ticket will cost me 391 Turkish Lira, or $130. I try to pay on the spot but they won’t take it, I have to pay at a bank or post office. They all want to take pictures with us. Take one with mine, they all say. I think we’re the first American women they’ve ever ticketed and we’ve become the highlight of their month. They’ve certainly become the highlight of our trip. I mean, where else do you get served fresh hot tea and selfies while getting a speeding ticket? We’re laughing so hard I can hardly see as I pull away, and April offers to pay half the cost of the ticket just for the entertainment value.
An hour later we pull off at Pamukkale and take a walk in Cleopatra’s footsteps. It sets us another hour behind schedule, but it saves us a long drive back here to see it later. I’m glad we make the stop, but the mountains are looming closer and the sun is low on the horizon. I call our Airbnb host to tell her where we are, and she exclaims, “Oh, that’s still hours away!” Thanks for reminding me.
I barrel into the mountains (at a much more reasonable speed than earlier) and I’m racing the sun because I know my astigmatism makes night driving on mountain roads hard even when I’m not already exhausted. I desperately need a tea break, and we’re under half a tank, but I really want to get through this before dark. I see a strobe light flashing ahead and at the last second I realize it’s a shepherd warning us about his flock of sheep on the non-existent shoulder of the road. Adrenaline rush! We finally make it through, and I almost cry when I see another mountain waiting up ahead for us. We break for gas and tea before tackling the second one. In all, there are three mountain passes to get through, but fortunately the first was the hardest. It’s nearly 9:30 at night when we pull into our small town, and once again, it’s the final kilometer that kills us. This time, though, we’re in a really hilly town with narrow cobbled streets, and all the U-turns challenge my stick shift ability. After 13 hours, two police stops and 14 U-turns in the final kilometer we finally we arrive, and bless her heart, April goes out to fetch take-out dinner for me. I’m so tired I can barely hold up the weight of my head.
Five days later we’re at it again. There’s been no way to teach April on these hilly streets, so once again I’m behind the wheel. This time it’s only 400 km and five hours, but my neck and shoulder still haven’t recovered from the other day and I’m dreading it. I make it through the first 100 km before I need a tea break. We pull into a gas station, but they don’t sell tea. I still need a break and head for the toilet. When I come out, the station worker is carrying tea out that he’s just brewed for us out of his own stash. Oh, how I love the chivalry of these Turkish men! I look at the flat open road with barely any traffic and am in the midst of an internal debate when April reads my thoughts and asks if this would be a good place to teach her. We decide it’s perfect, and she gets behind the wheel.
With the engine off, I have her sit and cycle through the gear changes. Throughout our time in the car I’ve been teaching her the operational basics of how a manual transmission works, and she’s learned to hear when the car needs to be in a different gear. Now it’s time to put that into practice. She’s tried a stick twice before but was never able to grasp it, so she’s nervous but also determined. Of course she stalls out on her first three attempts, but who doesn’t do that when learning? I encourage her to try again, and this time she manages to turn the car around and head out onto the open road. Hazards blinking, she jerks and sputters her way up to fifth gear. She’s thrilled! It’s easy, straight roads, and only once or twice does she have the opportunity to downshift, but then we head into the mountains. This gets trickier, and in a few spots when she can’t find the right gear we drive tandem, with her working the clutch and me working the stick. It gets us through, but she’s not pleased. We reach a small town with a stop light and I can tell she’s nervous, so I put on the hazards as we pull up to the light. No one is behind her and she’s left plenty of room ahead. We talk through the steps of what she will do, but when the time comes, she dumps the clutch and stalls out. Twice. The light turns red again and I thank goodness it’s a small town with no traffic. We talk it through again, and I coach her to go slower on the clutch release. It works, but transitioning to second almost knocks my front teeth out. We’ll work on that next. All afternoon we repeat this process, and with each try she gets better. Third and fourth gear are eluding her, so we go through a series of practices. Each time I say, “Great! Now pull over and go through it again.” She is a calm and patient learner who doesn’t give up, and before we know it, she’s driven us 300 km through mountains and towns, and I finally have a chance to sit back and marvel at Turkey’s beauty. April knows she’s at novice proficiency and needs to find opportunities to practice, but for the first time, she knows she can do this. I have her pull over 40 km outside of Antalya so I can take over for the big city, and she says she could get through it if she needed to. She’s right, but the last thing I want to do now is put her in a situation that kills her confidence. She’ll have plenty of chances in the future to take on city driving, but for now, I’d rather leave her on a high. I am so proud of her!
What you should know
- Driving through Turkey is safe, but like everywhere, people sometimes do the most unexpected things.
- Be prepared for random donkeys or horse carts on rural roads.
- There are police, but they are friendly and honest
- Roads are very well marked if you know where your next target city is
- Blue signs are for roads and highways, brown signs are for sightseeing attractions
- The roads, at least the ones we traveled, range from good enough to fabulous
- There are some stretches where gas is scarce
- An attendant fills your tank and sometimes washes your windows. Tip for this. They often take credit cards, but you’ll have to go into the store for this.
- Use a paper map either as primary navigation or backup.
- Turks feel that gas is very expensive, and if you’re from Texas or Alabama, you might agree. For us California girls, it was about 20% more expensive than what we are used to.
Have you ever been stopped by the police in another country? Did they serve you tea? I’d love to hear your experience in the comments below.