Orienteering in Turkey

Blue Mosque, Istanbul

A couple of years ago, I noticed Turkey become a member of the IOF. Since this was always a country I wanted to visit, I'd been watching for races. Last year they held a 5 day in Istanbul, and I couldn't go. Fortunately, they held it again this year, and I was able to make it. (The dates of these races were first week of November, 2005).

The first comment to make was that I was quite impressed with the organization. Everything ran efficiently, from the buses leaving on time to results being promptly posted. One thing I noticed about Istanbul was that Turks are efficient, if not impatient (you should see the way they drive), and it showed in the efficient organization. The maps, made by Eastern Europeans, were good, and I felt the course setting sophisticated (while, of course, there will always be some quibbles -- in particular, with the green on the classic days, you were never sure what you were going to get in terms of runability). The map printing (inkjet, I think) and cases weren't very good, but no worse than at many US A meets. They also had e-punching.

Aya Sofya, Istanbul

They even played bad techno at the meet venues, making it truly feel like a normal European meet. When things are being done right, they feel normal. Not bad for a 3 year old federation. (There were a couple of things that were bizarre, such as a 4 minute start interval for the sprint, and start times changing at the last minute).

The weather was lousy. Cold (about 5 degrees), and rainy. They told me at the hotel that once the winter clouds arrive in Istanbul, it rains 'til spring. That was pretty much the case for the week, tho it was more of an on-and-off rain.

My races were good. 4th in both classic days, and 5th overall, behind 3 Bulgarians and A Russian on 21E. I felt my best race may have been the middle, where it was difficult and I thought I did pretty well. But I finished 8th, losing a ton of time to my competition. It was my worst result -- go figure.

Day 1 and 4 terrain*
Day 1 and Day 4 were at Belgrad Forest, a park about 30 minutes north of Istanbul on the European side (although only about 5-10K from the city limits; the traffic was brutal) . Seemed like wild forest, tho probably managed in the past. Runability varied from super white to greenbriar, and I think the mapper did a decent, tho not perfect job on it. Alot of it was knee-high thorn bushes probably better mapped with the vertical green symbol. Climb was 7% on the first day, with them giving us a break at 6.3% on day 4. I guess it sort of reminded me of Ohio, with deep ridge/valley, and clay soil. I was cautious and did a lot of trail running, alot more than is typical for me. That may have been a mistake.


Day 2 terrain*
Day 2 was a "middle" at Omerli Forest, about 45 minutes northeast of the city on the Asian side. I thought I did well, but was a full 12 minutes behind the winner. WT was 42, so it wasn't really a middle, I guess. Climb was 6.5% The white was variable, the green was to be avoided. #8, mapped as an earthbank, was an honest to goodness charcoal platform, tho it looked like the north end was eroded a bit. A touch smaller than the French Creek ones, but otherwise looked pretty much like them. I thought that was cool. I thought #4 was a tough control, and I was impressed that the map was good enough to make it a fair leg. I think, again, my route choices were too conservative.


Day 3 terrain*

Day 3 was a "sprint" (WT 32) at a small, remote village, about 2 hours northeast of the city on the Asian side. I think the village was called Hacilli. This struck me as a very odd place to have a race, as there seemed no population centers around. While it was an ok area, it didn't seem special enough for such a long round trip. This place was steep; basically the side of a mountain (it is steeper than it looks as the scale is 1:7500). The climb only clocks in at 5.8%, but it seemed to come in chunks. This was the most brutally physical sprint I've ever done, especially in the rain. When I turned the map over, I said omigod -- looks just like the Brazil map. But it was a decent, tho not perfect map. I had a decent race under the circumstances. Dark green was variable -- anywhere from light to impassable.

* Photos with (*) are from the organizer's website

Start at the Grand Bazaar
Day 5 was in the Grand Bazaar, a famous tourist attraction in downtown Istanbul. I went there as a tourist early in the week and it was mobbed, you couldn't even walk, much less run. Fortunately, it was closed for the race, and we had the place to ourselves. One thing I didn't know about the Bazaar beforehand was that it is enclosed in a big building (my vision of the word "bazaar" has always been an outdoor market). That meant it was fairly dark. It is like a big shopping mall built in the 1500s, tho now the shops cater to tourists.

Finish chute in Grand Bazaar
Some of the things that were interesting about it were little passages that lead to these open air courtyards, and the fact that the Bazaar has 2 levels in many places. This was the most difficult aspect of the navigation, as if a control was on the upper floor, you had to get on stairs well beforehand to make sure you were at the right level. If you just navigated to the circle, you'd be disappointed to look up to a balcony or upstairs courtyard and see where the control probably was. I made that mistake once and had to go back to a stairs. It was cool, but hard to see this on the map. They did put the upper level controls in green on the control descriptions, but it would have been cooler to color the control circles green on the map, if possible.

One quibble with this race was that they hid a couple of the controls. One was behind (an unmapped) Coke machine. Another was sort of tucked in some carpets by a carpet shop. Very bazaar.

This was a very cool place to orienteer, but I don't think Cervara will ever be topped. Ever. The scale on this map was 1:1600, but it still felt like sprint orienteering with normal winning times and all the sprint quick thinking. Stuff just came up really fast. Just goes to show you can have a sprint just about anywhere. Unfortunately, this map is embargoed for "security reasons", so a copy will not be posted here.

Grand Bazaar #7, open courtyard
Grand Bazaar #9 (a little dark in here)
Grand Bazaar #10 (4 second exposure)

I tried to find out some things about orienteering development in Turkey. I was told there were about 50 clubs, about half civilian. I think about 3 were represented in this race. The Bulgarians at this meet seemed to outnumber the Turks, at least in my class. The Turks seem serious about getting good, tho, and I talked to some who have been to the Scottish 6 Day and O-Ringen. They were baffled when I tried to talk about "recreational orienteering" (like in the US); to them, it is definitely European-style sport. Of course, I run into this everywhere outside the US -- is the US the only country with recreational orienteers? It will be interesting to see if the Turks get good over the next 10 years. Like the Brazilians, I think travel expense is a barrier.

I tried to find out about orienteering around Ankara, another place I'd like to visit. Apparently, there isn't much forest on the whole Anatolian Plain, but at least there are maps. Looking forward to an O trip there in the next few years, but am waiting to see how the Iranian program (non IOF presently) develops, since they are fairly close.

The country seems somewhat terrain-challenged (tho I saw so little of it, and talked to so few people I feel stupid making such a statement), but with such a big country, I'm sure there is tons of great terrain to be found. They definitely seem started out in the right direction, and I hope they are successful.

Some sort of cool candy available at the post Ramazan festivities
Finally, some non-orienteering travel notes for those planning a trip to Istanbul. If you are an independent traveler like me, chances are you like to rent a car. My advise is -- don't even consider it for Istanbul. The traffic jams are brutal, drivers impatient and maniacal, the streets tough to navigate, and parking doesn't exist. Of course, many travelers consider the preceding part of the experience -- but Istanbul is a fun city to explore on foot, and the public transportation is decent.

November is supposedly off-season for Istanbul. It was cold and rainy, but the tourists were there in droves anyway. I generally like to travel off-season, but if it so crowded now, I wonder what it is like in high season. I was told that generally the rains don't start 'til mid-November, so I was a bit unlucky. The point is, don't go in November just to avoid the crowds (or at least early November).

I stayed in Sultanahmet, the old town where the Blue Mosque and many other attractions are. You'll have to deal with all sorts of people trying to "engage business" with you here. I would still recommend staying in this part of the city, tho, if you want to do the tourist thing. The one downside is attempting to find an authentic Turkish dining experience in this area (some of the best food in the world, and the whole point of going to Turkey).

Most of the restaurants are clearly set up for tourists, and are overpriced to match. Its not that the food isn't good, nor seem authentic (its hard to screw up Turkish food) -- its just that the whole experience doesn't seem real when the menu doesn't contain a word of Turkish and the waitstaff looks like they've been in the country less time than you have! You'll have to do a little exploring to find the authentic experience, but it is possible.

One place I would recommend is Saray, on Peykhane Cad -- off the main drag near the Grand Bazaar. Still catering to tourists, but Turks ate there, and it seemed the most authentic food I got in this part of the city.

For hotels, I stayed at Alzer, right across from the Blue Mosque. 3 star hotel for 65 euros. Not bad. One downside is that it is loud in the area, and the call to prayer wakes you up at 5 am, tho I imagine this happens in most parts of the city. There are 2 star hotels only 500m away for 25 euros.

Finally, if you get a chance, do a nargile. A nargile is basically a meter high bong or hookah (but as Turkey is strict on drugs, none are involved -- instead various tobaccos are used). I didn't expect this to be a cool experience, but I was pleasantly surprised.