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Two Turkeys: Solo vs. Tour Group (www.washingtonpost.com)

Two Turkeys Solo Tour Group

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Posted 25 March 2007 - 17:57

Two Turkeys: Solo vs. Tour Group

Go it alone or with a group? Sometimes it's an easy call: China is a group tour kind of place, Orlando is clearly do-it-yourself. But what about Turkey? More exotic than England, not as daunting as, say, Bhutan. We couldn't decide, so we did both. On a recent spring day, John Deiner boarded a tour bus in Kusadasi and Steve Hendrix hailed a cab in Istanbul. Same week, same country, two very different experiences.

Wait a minute . . . did I forget to panic?

Ataturk International Airport had just spit me out onto the curb, jet-lagged, alone and all but empty-handed in the hinterlands of Istanbul. Without knowing a soul, I'd arrived in Asia Minor with nothing but a carry-on, a one-night room reservation and a week to kill. My hotel was on a street I couldn't pronounce, written in letters that don't exist in my alphabet. The fistful of local currency I had just changed was so crammed with zeros and commas I couldn't tell the difference between a tip and a ransom payment. I was on the lonely side of passport control, with no language skills, no itinerary and no clue about the next seven days.

And yet I was as calm as a mosque at midnight. Why? Because I had something better than a clue -- I had an invitation to dinner.

For it turns out I do have a friend in Turkey. And guess what? So do you.

You may not think so, but ask a couple dozen people you know. One of them will cough up some connection to a Turk. It may be only a friend of a friend. It may be only a friend of the brother of some guy you met on the train to Philly. In a place like Turkey, that's all the entree you need to be received and feted like a returning native. Six degrees of hospitality.

Call it network tourism, traveling the same way you find a new mechanic. In a place with such rooted traditions of hospitality as Turkey, walking out of the airport with even a single local name can launch a solo traveler onto the inside tracks where no crowded tour bus can fit. Add that to the Turks' willingness to befriend any stranger on the street, and you're on an instant tour.

In my case, it was a long-ago colleague of my wife's uncle. I called a few days before I left, and voilà! They invited me for dinner the night I arrived. That dinner would Ponzi into other introductions and, quickly, a locally grown itinerary of hotels, restaurants and tourist sites all over western Turkey, with names and contacts to go with each.

I anointed one of the clamoring cabbies at random and we headed into old Byzantium. Everywhere were the minarets of Islam, singing needles on the skyline. I could hear the faithful chanting their midday prayers toward Mecca even as we passed under an ancient stone aqueduct that must have been imported from the opposite direction. This was the Istanbul that filled my fantasies, the crossroads of East and West, the cloverleaf of the Silk Road.

We drove along a coastal street, the very edge of Europe, with the big snub-nosed boats of the Marmara Sea tied up along the seawall. Asia loomed clear on the other side of the channel, and I could see the freighters heading north from the Aegean into the Bosporus. We turned back through the old quarter, where the streets narrowed, and drove under the shadows of balconies that hung on pastel-colored frame houses.

The Ayasofya Pansiyonlari, a small hotel in a block of restored houses in the old neighborhood of Sultanahmet, was the first fruit of my network. I never cracked a guidebook or called up a Web site to research Turkey. Instead I found this hotel through -- now follow this -- the wife of former British diplomat to Turkey who is a friend of the uncle of this guy I know in Cambridge, Md. I called her in London and she recommended this one.

One for the Road
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer

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Posted 25 March 2007 - 17:59

Two Turkeys: Solo vs. Tour Group
My window was across the lane from one of the four white minarets of Aya Sophia itself -- which scared the shish kabab out of me when the call to prayer erupted at sunset. Built as a cathedral and converted to a mosque, Aya Sophia is an architectural jumble. But that squat, turtle-shell dome boldly mounts its base of confused buttresses. And inside, it soars over the gold mosaics of an interior nave that is eerily free of supporting columns. Of course, being alone, I simply walked around the place in ignorant appreciation. I envied -- and sometimes shadowed -- the tour groups I saw getting lectured on the details by their guides.

This was my debut neighborhood: Aya Sofia next door, the Blue Mosque just across the square, the kaleidoscopic maze of the Grand Bazaar a short walk away, and endless warrens of rug boutiques and curio shops in between. Walking here was rich, and never lonely. The young Turks who troll for customers for the rug shops accost persistently, but with a sort of nonthreatening graciousness that allows real conversation before you brush them off. I drank tea with one, Ahmet, long after it was clear that I was not a buyer. "You had the love and prayers of every person in Turkey after September 11," he said earnestly, holding my arm.

Finally it was time to taxi out to the house of Mustafa Oz, a Turkish physician who once lived in Wilmington, Del., where he knew my wife's uncle. Now he and his wife, Suna, live along the Bosporus. They had invited another guest, Layla Umar, a 73-year-old television journalist of almost fiendish energy. We shared a car back to the city. She is, I would learn, well known in Turkey as a left-leaning crusader with a bulging Rolodex and a particular friend of Fidel Castro's. "I'm going to Havana next week to cook fish for him," she said.

As soon as Umar discovered that I was looking for advice on what to see in Turkey, she commandeered my week. I told her I had vague plans to head south and pick my way along the Mediterranean coast (based on the suggestion of my London informant), but she shushed me mid-sentence.

"My dear, absolutely not," she said with a patient smile. She was dressed in a complex system of scarves and looked like that actress on "Soap," Katherine Helmond. "You cannot come to Turkey and not see Cappadocia. You absolutely cannot. And it is not the best time to see Antalya. Bodrum is better, Izmir, the Aegean. Darling, here is what you will do -- "

And she told me. And I did it.

The next day I taxied back out to the airport and bought a $90 one-way ticket to Ankara. Ankara is Turkey's capital, of course, but for me, it was only the gateway to Cappadocia, the region of the great cave cities of the Byzantine Christians, many of which are still occupied as houses and cafes. A travel agent at the airport booked me a car and driver to Urgup, tourist hub of Cappadocia, and called ahead to reserve a room.

The drive through the flats of Anatolia was long, but there was still enough light as we pulled into Urgup to see the first astonishing features. It looks like something conceived by Tolkien and executed by Dr. Seuss: A land of drip-castle grandeur, high stone spires, great peaks whittled into castles and cities, bizarre valleys that seem to fold in on themselves and lushly planted now in almonds and olives. Still-inhabited caves line the roads into Urgup like little rows of Hobbit houses, wooden doors set into round stone openings. I had hoped -- and I thought requested -- to stay in one of the hotels built into the caves, but was disappointed to pull up to Ugurp's most modern tourist hotel, a charmless multistory box. A misunderstanding with the tourist agent back in Ankara, and a reminder of the solo traveler's creed: Don't book a room before you see it.

At the steam-table buffet off the lobby -- rich mutton ragouts, stewed eggplant, stuffed leaves -- I stood next to a chatty local man with a gray mustache. Eventually he came by my table, introduced himself as Abdurrahman Yuksel and asked if I would like to come out to a traditional Anatolia nightspot.

He and his wife, a teacher, drove me to a countryside club called Yasar Baba, a two-room cafe carved into a deep hillside. It was mix of locals and tourists. We sat at a wooden table off the dance floor, drinking the local wine from a glass pitcher and eating orange wedges and nuts. I was enthralled by the comely young belly dancer until I realized that she was up to the ultimate nightmarish mischief: Pulling men from the audience to dance with her. I froze in stark terror as she extended a bejeweled, writhing arm toward me. Praise be to Allah, she condemned a Japanese man sitting nearby. She even made him take his shirt off, poor soul.

Yuksel -- who seemed to know every local in the place -- filled my glass and nudged me as a man in an embroidered black vest blew a long soulful note on a horn called a zurna. A troupe of men and women from the Black Sea region rushed in, hands on each other's shoulders for a high-kicking athletic dance, Cossack style.

I was wine-tired when we filed out after 1 a.m. "Don't worry, I know another place," Yuksel said. We finished the morning in Baccus, a smaller, smokier cave lined with cushions, with another pitcher of wine, another tray of olives and fruit.

One for the Road
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer

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Posted 25 March 2007 - 18:00

Two Turkeys: Solo vs. Tour Group
It was a couple of hours into my walks around the ancient cave dwellings the next day before my mind dried out enough to marvel. Yuksel had asked a friend of his named Aslan, a local guide with starter English, to show me around.

It was snowing, something that can happen here in spring. "Ek," Aslan said, shrugging at the gray sky in a universal gesture of "Whatta-ya-gonna-do." With collars turned up, we spent hours at the excellent Goreme Open Air Museum. This is Cappadocia's best concentration of restored and stabilized caves, a collection of seven underground chapels around a secret fourth-century monastery. It didn't matter that Aslan and I shared only a few dozen mutually comprehensible words. We needed none as we stared, heads back and mouths agape, at the still vivid frescoes painted by early Christians.

Later, at a smaller, less official site, Aslan took me on a wild, unsanctioned crawl through the deepest, steepest tunnels of two cave cities. He has lived here all his life, and we climbed up tubes no wider than chimneys, along handholds no bigger than soap dishes. No tour groups up there.

That night -- a day earlier than planned because of the dismal weather forecast, and with no tour leader to answer to -- I headed for Ankara, for a night in a business hotel with a sultryTurkish bath and an early cab to the airport. Another $90 ticket down to Izmir on the Aegean coast meant the promise of warmer seaside days.

As per Umar's master plan, I rented a car and driver for $70 at the Izmir airport for a ride up the coast to the Ephesus ruins, and then on to the resort town of Bodrum. After Ephesus -- spectacular, crowded -- I decided to detour up to Sirince, a small mountaintop village recommended by a fellow I'd met from Izmir. He sometimes spent weekends here, reading in the sloping olive and cherry groves, walking the tiny unnamed lanes. He recommended the traditional yogurt drink. I don't.

We made it to Bodrum in time to see the setting sun light up the bowl of whitewashed buildings surrounding the blue Aegean port town. This time, I was more specific in my search for a hotel, and we eventually pulled up to a small hillside villa across the road from the ancient ruins of an amphitheater. The Antique Theater Hotel proved to be an intimate 19-room jewel with a good-for-hours view of the town below and the Castle of St. Peter across the harbor.

After cold and rigorous Cappadocia, Bodrum was like a massage, a place to slip out of gear for a day or two and do nothing much but walk the waterfront, eat dockside seafood, ramble the ruins, nurse patio cocktails over the view with the other hotel guests, all Turks. Thus restored, I finally taxied out to the airport for a flight back to Istanbul.

"My dear, how did you find Turkey?" Umar asked, kissing me on both cheeks in the lobby of the Marmara Hotel. She was picking me up for a party at a friend's apartment on my second-to-last night. At the party I would meet Sema, a banker with a daughter living in New York, who took me on a tour of nightclubs in the hip Taksim district. At our third club -- 'round about 3 a.m. -- I thought balefully of all I was booked to do on my last day -- tours of the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace, tentative lunch with Dr. Oz's daughter, dinner with the friend -- twice removed -- of a woman I know only by e-mail through work.

It would all get done, I knew, but there was something about this solo trip to Turkey I was beginning to wonder about.

When would I ever be solo?

A Group Effort
By John Deiner
Washington Post Staff Writer

The sun, like me, had had it for the day. As it continued its pitch toward the sea, I watched from my balcony as the buildings across the harbor became sheathed in shadows. I took a deep breath, content that 17 hours of travel -- three flights and a 90-minute car ride -- had ended at such an idyllic spot on the Turkish coast.

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Posted 25 March 2007 - 18:01

Two Turkeys: Solo vs. Tour Group
Then it struck me. I had no idea what body of water I was looking at (it was the Aegean) and had forgotten the name of the city I was in (Kusadasi, among the country's most popular resorts). If not for the sign at the hotel entrance (the Kusadasi Festival), that would have stumped me, too.

Motorcoach tours will do that to you.

Having paid months earlier for a six-night, all-inclusive escorted excursion up Turkey's west coast, I found myself -- usually the most organized and curious of travelers -- unprepared when I finally arrived. For $1,200, I knew I'd be pressing northward from Kusadasi and visiting the ruins of Ephesus and Troy, the battlefield at Gallipoli and, finally, Istanbul. There would be a driver and a guide, lodging, meals and the fellowship of a bunch of strangers.

Somewhere along the way, I'd decided to let the tour company do all the heavy mental lifting. All that worried me was that bunch of strangers.

"You're a doctor, right?"

Dale Collins, a 70-year-old retired pediatrician from San Diego, nodded as he sat at a table at the hotel's breakfast buffet. "Thank God," I yelped, unnerved by the apparition in my bathroom mirror moments earlier. "Why is my tongue black?"

My temporary traveling companion winked at his wife, Jan, 67, and asked me if I'd taken any Pepto-Bismol in the past 12 hours. I had, as a precaution against upset stomach. On the count of three, the couple stuck out their tongues at me, revealing two more puddles of black drool.

Oh, good -- a sense of humor. The previous evening at our introductory dinner, things hadn't been so cheery. Expecting dozens of bus mates, I'd been astonished to find that there were only six of us. And that we'd be transported in a van. And that the other five had already been together for nine days.

Blame the lingering effects of 9/11 and the downturn in visitors to Europe. I'd been the only one to sign on forPacha Tours' "Journey Through History," whose itineraryoverlapped the finale of the others' 17-day "Super Value Western Turkey" jaunt. As a result, the groups were fused in Kusadasi.

Whatever the reason, dinner was a downer. As the Gang of 5 reminisced like old friends about camel rides, carpet factories and Cappadocia, I stared into my plate of runny mashed potatoes and congealed meatloaf. Furthermore, I'd be joining them in a vehicle they already considered crowded. I wasn't just an interloper, I was cargo.

Things brightened considerably the next morning after I found out I wasn't dying. Marcos Huereque, a 52-year-old handyman from Whittier, Calif., and his mother, Eloisa, the world's youngest 76-year-old, bounded into the sunny dining room. Moments later, Dilip Patel, 61, a chemical engineer from Ashland, Ohio, pulled up a chair. This time, the conversation came easy.

I discovered that the Collinses have been everywhere in the world twice and, as a dozen felines preened at the restaurant windows, that Jan was a cat fanatic. Dilip, like me, was traveling solo; unlike me, he was a big spender -- including $12,500 for two exquisite Turkish rugs, an especially good deal "because it included shipping." Marcos, who considered bargaining a contact sport, adored chatting up the locals. Eloisa adored chatting up Marcos.

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Posted 25 March 2007 - 18:03

Two Turkeys: Solo vs. Tour Group
More important, the five shared the rules of the road with me: Duck your head before getting into the van. Keep at least a million Turkish lira (about 62 cents) in your pocket for pay toilets. Buy two, three or four of everything to snag a better deal. And no matter how good the meal, always save room for dessert.

We had started to click as a group, although I was worried about our age differences. The youngest of the bunch by more than a decade, I feared that I'd be unable to keep up with them.

A typical day: group breakfast, followed by sightseeing, group lunch, more sightseeing, group dinner, free time to wander the streets at night. It only sounds awful.

As it happened, our first expedition together was also one of the more eagerly anticipated: Ephesus, about 20 minutes from Kusadasi. Taking his cue from our driver, Akin Yildiz -- genial Turkish guide, mother hen, snack provider -- turned in his seat and began lecturing us on what we were about to see. He would do so often as we wound our way up the coast, and the 27-year-old history whiz never failed to fascinate.

"One thing I want you to remember is to stick together," he finally admonished. "It could be very crowded."

It wasn't, a rarity for the wildly popular attraction and a harbinger of the throng-free days ahead. Under blue skies and surrounded by fields of wildflowers, we strolled the spectacular ruins of the 3,400-year-old city, stopping frequently for Akin's commentary. He'd quiz us later to see if we'd retained some of his wisdom -- "Is that temple inspired by the Greeks or Romans?" "Which god is depicted on this frieze?" -- but the questions frequently elicited blank stares, none blanker than my own.

Still, I was happy he was trying, as other, larger groupsflew by us without pausing to contemplate much. One particularly indifferent tourist, whose pockets bulged with gray mystery meat from his hotel's breakfast buffet, seemed to have come solely for the purpose of feeding the feral cats prowling the grounds. As he raced ahead, an entourage of mottled fur followed.

Then, somewhere between the Temple of Hadrian and the Library of Celsus, Dilip disappeared.

"Here we go again," muttered Marcos, who'd been helping Eloisa navigate the hilly landscape. The group wit, Marcos had dubbed Dilip the "Eighth Wanderer of the World" for his tendency to go astray, and we all learned the drill: Sit still while Akin yelled "Mr. Pahhhhhtelllll!" over and over. This time, it took only a few minutes for Dilip to resurface from his picture-taking detour.

We ended our visit at the Ephesian amphitheater, where St. Paul the Apostle once preached. On this afternoon, however, we watched as a Japanese tourist broke from her group, climbed onto the stage and began to sing. It was an enchanting moment, made more so when, at the crowd's urging, she performed an encore.

But it was time to move on. In fact, it was always time to move on. Pacha's ambitious itinerary wasn't unusual for a motorcoach tour, but it meant that lingering anywhere was usually out of the question.

This became a problem at the hilltop Meryem Ana Evi, the House of the Virgin Mary. Roman Catholics believe it to be the site where St. John brought Mary after the death of Christ, and Akin warned us to be respectful in the chapel now built there. Although the others weren't impressed, the Huereques and I -- the group Catholics -- were eager to explore.

"This is a highlight for me. I've been looking forward to Mary's house all week," Eloisa said as we entered the tiny stone structure, dimly lit despite the candles flickering throughout. After only a few minutes, though, Akin waved us back toward the van.

Already? Exasperated, I snapped up some rosary beads from the nuns who maintain the chapel and scrambled to the van. Eloisa was vexed as well, but she had gotten a better souvenir: water from the chapel's spring, captured in a plastic bottle saved from breakfast.

That night back at the Festival, Eloisa tapped on my door. "Take this, dear," she said, handing me an Evian container half-filled with the precious Mary water. "I want you to bring it back to your family and share it. You've traveled too far not to go home with some." I took the bottle and gave her a hug, thankful that I'd connected so quickly with my travel mates.

It was a good thing, too, as we spent 12 of the next 24 hours trolling about in the van. Again, the scheduling bugaboo struck. As we approached the ruins of Pergamum, several hours north of Kusadasi, Akin launched into his lecture-on-the-road, oddly soft-pedaling our destination by cautioning us not to expect "another Ephesus."

True, it wasn't another Ephesus, but we were enthralled nonetheless by the city's remains and the splendid view from the mountain it sits atop. But Akin was in fast-forward mode, as we had lunch, Troy and more than a hundred miles to go before we reached Canakkale, the evening's pit stop.

Hours later, after a laugh-filled meal in the village of Bergama and frequent bathroom breaks in the gift shop/snack marts lining the country's well-maintained roads, we neared the ruins of Troy. We had an hour before closing time, much to Akin's relief.

At least he was happy. "I have a friend who told me there's not much to Troy," Dale confided, as we looked skeptically at the colossal wooden replica of the Trojan Horse planted outside its small museum. How very Vegas, I thought, as Dilip raced up the steps inside the beast for a photo.

But then we trudged to the ruins and surrendered to Akin's enthusiasm and the city's remarkable past (Troy, the setting for Homer's "Iliad," was destroyed and reconstructed nine times over 3,500 years). Best of all, there was no one else there. Troy was ours.

As we departed, a shepherd sat tending his sheep in the warm afternoon sun, with the Dardanelles glistening in the distance -- a National Geographic moment. The mood was shattered by Akin, who once again had to gather his own flock.

"Mr. Pahhhhhtelllll!"

The early morning temblor that rumbled through Istanbul on Day 6 was a nonevent, as far as the locals were concerned. No news bulletins disrupted the Turkish music videos I'd grown so fond of watching. But the minor quake jolted me out of a deep slumber at 4:30 a.m. and . . . something was wrong. At breakfast I attributed the queasiness to that rude awakening and the busy schedule of the past few days, but I had my doubts.

By this point, we had become a well-oiled nerdy tourist machine. From Canakkale, we'd ferried to the Gallipoli Peninsula to visit its infamous WWI battlefield (in my only bit of pre-trip prep work, I'd rented "Gallipoli" to see how Mel Gibson fared) before vanning on to Istanbul in time for dinner and bed. That was followed by a glorious, yet exhausting, beat-the-clock spree among the city's Suleyman Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque and Grand Bazaar.

Now, on our final full day in Turkey -- and Akin-free, so we could do as we pleased -- my stomach was in revolt.And I wasn't alone. "I'm going to pass on breakfast," said Jan. "I'm feeling a bit of the turismo." So much for the Pepto-Bismol. We had toured as a group, ate as a group, shopped as a group. Now we would barf as a group.

Only Dilip and Dale were spared. I tried to salvage the day by walking with Marcos to the nearby Aya Sophia -- there was no way I was going to miss it -- but ended up sprinting back to the hotel and collapsing in bed. That's where I stayed for the next eight hours, getting up only to rendezvous with a friend from the States to tell him what had transpired.

He offered to stay with me, but I told him it wasn't necessary. "Are you sure?" he asked. "The only thing worse than being sick thousands of miles from home is being sick alone."

I wasn't alone. At the hotel, Dr. Dale gave me a handful of Cipro and instructions on how to fight food poisoning. Dilip sat with me in the hotel lobby and fetched Sprite and a loaf of bread when I was feeling better. Eloisa and Marcos -- both ill, though not as severely as Jan or me -- took turns knocking on my door to see if I was okay.

Thanks to them, I was.

Details: Turkey
GETTING THERE: No airlines fly nonstop between Washington and Istanbul, though numerous carriers -- including Delta, Lufthansa, United and British Airways -- offer connecting service. Round-trip fares start at about $975, with restrictions.

GETTING AROUND: Turkey is big enough to make domestic flying an appealing option for travelers with limited time. We both found Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com) to be friendly and efficient, with tickets purchased in-country averaging around $90 one way, even when bought on the day of departure. Car rentals for as low as $30 a day are available at airport counters (we found a car and driver for $70). And affordable buses run between all major cities. A ticket from Istanbul to the Aegean resort of Bodrum, for example, costs about $27 on Varan (www.varan.com.tr/english), a major bus line.

WHEN TO GO: Turkey's high season runs from mid-April to late October, and the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts are particularly crowded. In the early spring and late fall, the weather is mild, and snow often falls in the high areas of eastern and central Turkey. In the winter, snowfalls can be sizeable.

SAFETY: The U.S. State Department reports that the general security situation throughout Turkey is stable, though travelers should be on their guard in parts of the southeastern region. For more information, go to travel.state .gov/turkey.html.

PACKAGES: We used New York-based Pacha Tours (800-722-4288, www.pachatours.com), which offers 17 escorted tours as well as fly-and-drive packages (air and car only). The escorted tours range from seven to 25 days and start at $645 per person; most tours include airfare from New York, meals, guides, intra-country transportation and lodging in four- or five-star hotels.

Key Tours International (703-591-3550, www.keytours.com) of Fairfax offers a 15-day tour that visits 14 regions and cities, and includes airfare from D.C., first-class or deluxe accommodations, transportation and meals. From $1,559, with small discounts for booking online. If you want a less schedule-crammed trip, Blue Heart Tours (800-882-0025, www.blueheart.com) of Alexandria has a nine-day, five-city tour, with accommodations in four-star hotels, tour guides and two meals a day. From $1,509, including airfare from Washington. Note: Blue Heart charges a very low single supplement fee -- no more than $99.

Glory Tours (202-530-8899 , www.glory-tours.com) of Washington and International Group Ministries Tours (510-727-0380, www.igmtours.com) of Castro Valley, Calif., specialize in academically oriented, customized biblical tours; trips from $2,290. San Francisco's Nob Hill Travel Service (800-777-8630, www.nobhilltravel.com) and Heritage Tours (800-378-4555, www.heritagetoursonline.com) offer Jewish interest tours.

INFO: The Turkish Government Tourism Office (202-612-6800, www.turizm.gov.tr) and Turkish Ministry of Tourism (www.tourismturkey.org) produce a free booklet called "Turkey: The Travel Directory," which lists tour outlets in the United States and gives a suggested 15-day itinerary. The Embassy of the Republic of Turkey (202-612-6700, www.turkishembassy.org) offers a helpful "Turkish for Travelers" page on its Web site.

-- John Deiner and Steve Hendrix

#6 allharun



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Posted 26 October 2009 - 03:10

Two Turkeys: Solo vs. Tour Group
-- John Deiner and Steve Hendrix

nice :)

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