About a trip to the hamam in Safranbolu and a scary time in transit to Ankara.

There is nothing quite like laying naked on a hot stone slab meditating on the meaning of life.

The three giggly Japanese girls had left. I figured out what it was with all those Japanese in town: Their guide book highly recommends Safranbolu and in several hotels basic Japanese is spoken – so they come! We are such sheep; me too. When the guidebook says it’s good, I go. What the guidebook does not mention, I will likely miss. Gone are the days of true exploration where you had to venture in to the wilderness and discover things on your own. Like Burkhardt, the Swiss explorer who re-discovered Petra for the western world, or the many other travel giants like Marco Polo and his kind. But I admit that this would be a bit too much for me anyhow. Hiking around Safranbolu or busing around the Middle Eastern urban centers is enough for me. The few female explorers of their day often traveled with a convoy of servants and trunks full of stuff, anyhow. Nothing I could pull off these days.

The hamam and the citadel are a good 100-150 years older than most residences and hint at a past in Safranbolu that goes all the way back to Roman times. It is a great building with a large entrance hall centered on a fountain, a typical central dome inside, and a set of nine smaller domes around it forming a square. All domes are all pierced by small openings admitting small amounts of light. Going to the hamam by yourself is not quite what it is meant to be – a social event, but it suits me just fine. Aside from me there were the three giggly Japanese girls who did not quite understand the meaning of the men-women separation at the bath. It means you don’t have to wear a bathing suit or bikini as they were. You use one of the cotton sheets stacked up at the hamam to cover yourself, or to sit or lay on it as you see fit.

I opted for the full services in addition to the bath and the sauna and had just survived a pretty rough scrub down plus massage which made me feel deep-clean again for the first time in five weeks. The scrubbing woman spoke no English, but was about my age. We just smiled at each other. My feet were in terrible shape: Dust and crackling in Egypt and excessive walking in Turkey. Today, they were happy again.

Once the scrub was over and the giggling girls had left, I stretched out on that hot stone slab beneath the central dome. Off to all sides are the smaller rooms beneath the surrounding smaller domes. One was the sauna, the other contained the scrub table, and the rest had three floor level basins that you would fill with water to pour over yourself with little plastic bowls. It was so quiet now. An occasional three-tone ping-pong-glucks sound came from the right corner behind me. A high-pitched tip-tipple-tip-tip sound came from the left behind me. Occasionally, the pipes sent out a low frequency aching sound to my immediate right and from the left there was the rare muffled sound of human voices coming from the TV that was running in the lobby. A mid-range gurgle filled in the gaps from one of the corners toward my feet. Tipple-tip, ping-pong, gurgle, glucks. The variations were endless, but sparse and subtle. It was a symphony played out by the water. It was a two timbre symphony, almost monochrome if you can think of sounds as colors. Once in a while I had to get up to pour cold water over myself or I would have gone into hyperventilation due to the heat and the humidity. It felt like a roar when I had to open the faucet to fill my basin and I was glad when I was done and could allow the silence to return. After a few minutes in the sauna, I was back on the hot stone slab and back for another movement of the ping-pong-tipple-tip-glucks symphony. Had 10 minutes passed or 30? By the time left, after I rested in my little private cabin that was provided for my clothes and gave me privacy to dress and undress, 2 hours had passed! What fun.

This morning, Safranbolu was covered in white. My room still was only 13/55 degrees, but by now I was used to it and had found the right amount of clothes and blankets to sit and enjoy the ambiance. The not so friendly owner of the hotel had refused to serve me breakfast at 7:30; his breakfast starts at 8:30. I had to get going with a few cookies I had left and a piece of chocolate. Taxi to the shuttle, shuttle to the bus and the trip started as usual in one of those comfortable overland buses by the MetroTourism company heading towards Ankara.

As I am looking out the window now, we are surrounded by winter wonderland. It’s one of those mornings where soft snow must have fallen all night long covering every twig and every inch of the landscape with a layer of snow. The clouds hang so low, it’s only a matter of time when they will open up again. We are riding along through mountainous roads. It looks beautiful, but it’s one of those times when I have to wonder if my time has come.

I can’t see the road ahead of us unless I crane my neck, but I can see what’s going on at the other side of the highway. There is a lot of snow, but hardly any traffic. I think, the sensible traveler is staying home today. There are trucks going downhill at a snail’s pace in fear of losing control. And there is a sedan – but wait a minute! This car is going in our direction. That means it is no longer going uphill, but sliding down backwards! This is not good!

Snow removal trucks seem not to have been out yet. The two-lane highway has only one set of tracks in the middle, carved out by vehicles that have gone by before us. Our bus driver is going along at what seems to me an overly confident pace. He is impatient with a row of sedans that are inching along ahead of us. He wants to pass! I can see the lineup of cars and for my taste he is keeping way too little of a distance. And he is honking! Ugh, not my style of driving in this weather. Even buses topple!

As if to reinforce the notion, there is a truck on the other side of the road facing the wrong direction and pointing sideways towards our lanes. And there are cars that are parked as if they have given up driving altogether. On our side, a van has slid into the ditch and is being pulled out by a tow truck. We have to stop. The other side of the highway is now lined up with dozens of trucks and a few cars – that’s why there was so little traffic! There was an accident. Several truck drivers are putting chains on their tires as they are stopped in the lineup. We pass more and more and more parked cars, buses, and even snow removal trucks that are stuck. Nothing is moving in the opposite direction. We are still going. We are still passing cars…

I am sending a few prayers to St. Christopher and Ganesh! I think a lot of people in the bus have taken to praying since it is awfully quiet; as quiet as in the hamam yesterday. Even as monochrome as in the hamam yesterday. But there is no symphony, just the hum of the motor and the occasional honk.

We made it to Ankara with only one hour delay. Due to the snow storm Ankara was a total mess. My hotel arrangements got messed up too, the streets are treacherous, and I am not in a good mood. On TV I see that the snow storm even reached Istanbul. Very unusual for March, as the hotel receptionist told me.

I walked around in the slush and ice for the rest of the afternoon exploring the citadel. But I am too tired to write about it now. I had a feeling I would not like Ankara, and after the welcome I got today I really don’t like it; not yet, at least.

Good night.

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  1. So glad you enjoyed the symphony in the sauna – a warm memory to take with you on the wintry journey that was to follow. We have Finnish sauna stories to share with you some day that will surely bring smiles. Wish I could send you an extra pair of wool socks and sweater to keep you warm. I shiver as I read your journal.