No-one comes to eastern Turkey for the food, and while Turkish cuisine has been praised, even by French gourmets, as one of the finest in the world, sadly such praise rarely applies in eastern Turkey, where food is on the whole far more limited than in the rest of the country. Notable exceptions are in the extreme southeastern parts close to Syria, heavily influenced by Syrian cuisine, so in towns like Mardin, Midyat, Gaziantep and Antakya, there awaits you a gastronomic experience of a different order. Make the most of it, for as you head north and east, the food becomes increasingly basic and unvarying. Doğubeyazıt, at the foot of Mount Ararat, is known as the cheapest place to eat in all of Turkey, and quantity outweighs quality by a long way. Hors d’oeuvres or mezze, usually the highpoint of Turkish cuisine, are hard to come by except in the areas close to the Syrian border. Soup is usually the only thing on offer as the prelude to the main course. The common staples are as follows:
• Hot yoghurt soup with rice and mint (usually quite good)
• Tomato soup (very bland, a Heinz lookalike)
• Potato or lentil soup (variable, and best inspected before deciding)
• Lukewarm or cold green beans cooked in tomato sauce and grease
• Baked beans
• Chips or pilav rice
• Salads with tomatoes, cucumber, onion and green chillies
• Stuffed green peppers with rice and pine nuts (usually cold, and though rather greasy, not at all bad)
• Chicken cooked in grease
• Meat (mutton) stew with aubergine and okra
• Meat kebab, lamb or mutton (usually quite grisly)
• Trout (alabalık) plainly grilled or fried (available close to rivers)
• Rice pudding (strangely comforting)
• Crème caramel (usually very good)
• Baklava (not one for picnics – too sticky)
• Fresh fruit in season: strawberries (May), oranges and apples (late summer), guavas, green erik (a small sharp kind of plum), peaches and cherries (May and June)
• Nuts: pistachios are especially good in Gaziantep and Antakya
Like the food, all drink in Turkey, alcoholic or not, is very cheap. Ayran is the non-alcoholic national drink, a chilled unsweetened yoghurt liquid, thirst quenching and slightly sour. Rakı (a clear aniseed spirit similar to the Greek ouzo) is the national alcoholic drink, usually mixed with ice and water, which makes it go cloudy white. It goes well with Turkish food and is usually drunk with a meal, rather than on its own.
As befits the place where it is thought the grape was first cultivated, Turkey today has the fourth-largest area in the world under viticulture, and is the sixth-largest wine producer in the world. Very little of this wine is exported. On the red side the best is Buzbağ, a full-bodied red, closest to a Burgundy; other good reds to ask for are Yakut, Villa Doluca, Dikmen and Trakya. The premium whites are Çankaya, Villa Doluca, Kavalıdere and white Trakya. The locally brewed beer is the ubiquitous Efes, sold in cans and bottles. It is very refreshing and tastes like a kind of Pilsner lager.
While alcohol – spirits, wine and beer – is available in all the better hotels in the cities, around 70% of the local restaurants never serve it at all, and during the holy fasting month of Ramazan this percentage may go up to as high as 90%. If you want a drink with your food it is therefore best to check before ordering so that you are not disappointed once it is too late. Of the non-alcoholic drinks available, ayran and water are the most common, although cola and fizzy orange are usually available as well.
Standards of accommodation in eastern Turkey have improved dramatically over the last 20 years, so that on the whole you will find the full range from top to bottom. The upper range in particular has seen great leaps forward, with a handful of boutique hotels now available in places like Diyarbakır, Mardin, Midyat, Gaziantep, Şanlıurfa and even Kars. These are usually in restored and converted Ottoman buildings such as caravanserais (Diyarbakır and Antakya), residential mansions (Mardin, Midyat, Gaziantep, Kars and Şanlıurfa), and in Cappadocia there are literally scores of boutique hotels and pensions in imaginatively converted cave-complexes or in old Greek mansions, often restored by cultured ex-professionals or academics from İstanbul seeking a mid-life change of pace. Most are in the 4 and 5 star price bracket, and many have excellent restaurants. The big towns like Adana, Antakya, Gaziantep and Erzurum also have a few top-range modern business hotels.
Official campsites are to be found in Cappadocia, on the Mediterranean coast, in a few of the Georgian valleys around Artvin and on the way up to Nemrut Dağı, but are few and far between and not the norm. Rough camping is permitted anywhere, except where notices state otherwise, though it is probably not advisable in the Kurdish areas unless you are with a local guide. If you do decide to camp rough when not with a guide it is best to do so near a local jandarma post, after first asking permission.