My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Impressions and reflections on Turkish Hotels: our pilgrimage continues...

We check into our hotel for the night, tired and hungry, and everything seems to be wrong with it.
First impressions are unfortunate. The water is cold, the beds lack clean sheets, the duvets are distinctly grubby, some room bins have rubbish in them from previous occupants… Our guide lists our complaints and the hotel staff look bemused but promise to try to put things right, while we have our evening prayers. Meanwhile our supper is getting cold.
And everything is put right, more or less.
The lads who comprise the hotel staff were well intentioned if untrained to Western standards of hotel management. 
The food was good, although the choice was limited to two dishes - fish or meat - plus my vegetarian tomato/onion/pepper casserole with couscous, which was very good. All the food was plentiful and well cooked, albeit cold on serving, some said, but again this was to some extent our fault. Our impromptu half hour evening prayers when the staff were clearly ready to serve us our supper was perhaps unfortunate timing. Anyway the meal concluded with unlimited quantities of typically Turkish syrupy cake and cay – so I was very happy!
Tomorrow was to be the start of the next stage of our journey, and something completely different; a few days experiencing the hospitality and liturgy of a couple of Syriac Orthodox monasteries whilst we explored other churches and monasteries of the Tur Abdin area of Southern Turkey down towards the Syrian border.
the view from our window

When I woke up the next morning, drew back the curtains and saw our position right on the shore of the beautiful Lake Van, with splendid views over to the glistening snow capped mountains beyond the other side of the lake, I felt more than a little contrite. We all seemed to have so much to complain about last night when we checked into this hotel. And what a panorama we woke up to! A simply fabulous view of the lake was there straight in front of us – we were right on the waterfront. We had been so tired and grumpy the previous night on arrival that we had all noticed only the bad, not seeing any good in our situation.
the view from our window
The wifi in our room worked very well, we had a lake view (those on the other side of the hotel fared less well) the room was large, with both a double and a single bed, carpeting and well decorated. The beds were comfortable once we had made them up with the clean sheets supplied, the room was very quiet and we enjoyed a really good night’s sleep. Yes the modern bathroom was scruffy and moldy but this could so easily be put right. Yes there was no hot water on arrival but these hotels cannot afford to put heat on until guests arrive – quite reasonably! Our itinerary said we were staying in Bitlis, and from the map I see that this is some way inland from Lake Van. The hotel was in fact in Tatvan, a town on the far South West corner of the lake in the province of Bitlis. (actually Bitlis itself, I now read from a guide book, has one of the highest concentration of restored historic buildings in Eastern Anatolia, so that seems like a good place to visit on another trip). I don’t think any one of us expected this hotel to be on the lake. Hence my own confusion, and my total surprise and delight at such a lovely view.
Lake Van from the hotel grounds
The hotel has been operating for 30 years, we are told, and is in fact in a wonderful scenic location. Sadly, wondering down to the lake before breakfast, I see that the hotel frontage is in a sorry state, and in desperate need of much repair and cleaning up. It could be so lovely again, given its position on the lake. I also do believe we have to be careful that we do not judge others’ hotels in different cultures by the standards of our own. That said, it would not take much effort to tidy up the lake frontage outside, clearing up the piles of litter, mending and re-laying the odd broken and uneven paving slabs, tidying up the grass areas and the edging plants. Perhaps it has a good tidy up at the start of the season. We are after all now heading into winter. And proper toilets not squats in the public “lavabos” in the downstairs foyer would be good!
Breakfast was OK with not the greatest choice of foods available, especially for a veggie like me. But the cay was brewed early, and I was able to take a cup to my room mate before she rose; tea in bed is not a luxury the monasteries will provide, I’m sure!

In one of those curious moments of synchronicity I was reading Freya Stark's Riding to the Tigris at this time, where she recounts her experiences on a journey from Lake Van to the Tigris, mostly undertaken on horseback. In Chapter 3, on Van, she writes: "The Turks, with the most splendid, varied and interesting country in the world, are naturally anxious to obtain tourists, and their difficulties in this respect are caused chiefly by the quite phenomenal badness of their hotels." This she attributes mainly to their lack of training in hotel management. OK this was written about her travels in the 1950s, but it is clear that some hotels could even now do well to heed her words! Although I must add that the efforts of hotel staff everywhere we went were invariably well-intentioned and the traditional Turkish hospitality could rarely be faulted.

an early glimpse of the Tigris river
We have an early start and another long drive ahead of us. Our journey on the coach begins with a short version of morning prayer, and a wisdom reading from the Holy Bible, Ecclesiastes Chapter 6, on balancing gratefulness with generosity - carefully chosen by the bishop and very pertinent to our experiences last night. I listened with contrition. I wonder if everyone on the coach felt as I did? Anyway it was a good way for pilgrims to start the day, as we made our way South towards the Tur Abdin region of Turkey.

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