Turkey

08th August 2009


I am writing this on the roof terrace of my hotel in Duhok, Iraq. I only have 3 days in the country. So far things have been very quiet and, dare I say it, boring. Turkey has better trekking, better food and the towns are more interesting. It is a sobering thought that a stretch of only a few kilometres separates me from the blood and chaos in the south.



Apologies for the yellow Crocs in the photo. I have let my standards slip a bit since crossing the whole of north Africa in a suit and tie. Otherwise things are good. I am disgustingly healthy at the moment. Virtually no booze for 6 months has left me pretty trim and fit. But the cost, dear God, the cost.


Iraq
I met two Americans travelling in Iraq two days ago. They are shocked over the ‘unacceptable’ fact that 3000 US soldiers have been killed over the past four years. Where is their concern for the 600,000 Iraqis, mostly civilians, who have died since they were 'liberated'?

In keeping with their free-market ideology, the Americans now have the sinister Blackwater Group and other private contractors doing much of the work. It begs the question – why not fully privatize the military? That way the middle man is eliminated and next time Exxon-Mobil can just invade foreign countries directly.

Up here in the north, it is clear that the Kurds are becoming more and more autonomous, which may well result in resurgent separatism among the Kurdish populations of Turkey and Iran. There is no end in sight to the ugly scrabble for control of the south. As usual, the huddled majority – supposedly crying out for freedom, really just want stability and a better standard of living.


The Iranian Visa Debacle
What is it about the petty tyrants that work as immigration officials? I honestly think they start out as normal people before the absolute power and lack of accountability corrupts them. Every border post and consulate on earth is just a re-run of the Stanford prison experiment.

11th of July. I arrive at the Iranian Embassy in Istanbul with my precious authorization code, safe in the knowledge that this will get me a visa issued the same day. This optimism proved spectacularly unfounded.

I enter the holding-pen for petitioners and notice I am the only foreigner. I spot the guy under the 'Foreign Visa’ sign. He is a nasty-looking little mosquito with a head far too large for his body, little piggy eyes and a ridiculous comb-over pasted across his greasy skull. He points at me, channeling a thousand years of religious hatred into a stare of preternatural malevolence.

I approach the desk. “Hello there. I’m here to collect my visa. This is my authorisation code. I would also like to take this opportunity to apologize for the crusades, though of course I wasn’t involved. I’m Austrian, don’t you know. Staunchly neutral country. We invented the coffee shop. Didn’t have anything to do with those naughty Nazis either. Absolutely not.” Or words to that effect.

I hand him my application form and code, which he scrutinizes for mistakes in minute detail, poised to start shaking his head. Unable to find anything wrong he casts a perfunctory glance down the sheet of paper on his right, then like a gulag komandant: “No matching code!”.

“Ah really? I did have confirmation of it. Perhaps if you check the list again…”, say I, peering over the desk. He covers the list with his hand. “No matching code!!”.

I have a brief flashback to the Lybian embassy in Tunis and stifle a demented shriek of despair. I can see that my usual combination of hysterical entreaties and phantom family emergencies is not going to cut it. I consider responding with: “How dare you take that tone with me, you giga-cephalic homunculus” but settle for “Thank-you very much for your help sir, I’ll go and check again.”

The plan is simple. I pay one of the security guards to call me when another official is manning the desk. Two days later I get the call and go over. A new guy with a beard. “Hello there etc.” “Ah yes, here’s your code. I’ll get right on it.” Twenty minutes later it’s all done and I stumble gratefully down the stairs back onto Turkish soil. These things are always the same - it all depends on the guy who happens to be in front of you.



Young Turks
Turkey is modernizing rapidly. The slow pace of life has given way to the rude immediacy of economic development. As always in early stage capitalism, everyone is becoming more status conscious and a man is increasingly judged by how tall he is standing on his wallet. This has given rise to a new type of trendy 20-something Turkish man. Although not gay, he wears the outfit of a gay personal trainer in the UK - carefully-styled spiky hair, sunglasses, tight T-shirt, white jeans and the latest mobile phone strapped to his belt like a second dick.



A typical specimen. He can’t walk past a reflective surface without checking his hair.


Ataturk
There is a side to the Turks that I find rather unappealing. They are intensely nationalistic, which manifests itself in arrogant dealings with their smaller neighbours and cruel and dismissive treatment of minorities. It is also apparent in the decidedly weird personality cult that surrounds Ataturk. I have seen this kind of thing elsewhere but always with an incumbent. Ataturk died over 70 years ago.

The breakdown of the Ottoman empire in the early 20th century left a chaotic mess with poorly defined borders and European powers jostling to establish control over desirable pieces of the jigsaw. It was Ataturk, who had been the inspirational commander of the Turkish forces at Galipoli, who emerged as the leader of a Turkish nationalist movement. He defeated the Greeks, who had invaded, and set about negotiating the borders of modern Turkey with the Allied powers. It is fair to say that without Ataturk, there would be no Turkey.

Veneration is one thing but his picture is not only in every public building, but in every room of every public building. Statues of him occupy the central square of every town, and every house that he ever spent a night in has been turned into a museum. Any biography or comment that veers from the official view results in threats and imprisonment. In other words - disengage your brain and worship or else.

The government has a declared commitment to freedom of expression, a commitment that they largely ignore. “Insulting Turkishness” is a crime in Turkey and the law was recently used to prosecute their most famous writer, Orhan Pamuk, who dared to say that perhaps they should apologize for murdering a million Armenians at the turn of the century.

This appears to be part of a political strategy to bind together a nation that is not a natural nation at all. The western half of the country is populated by ethnic Turks and is much like Europe, whereas the East, which is like a foreign country to most Turks, is a mish-mash of Kurds, Laz, Georgians, Turkmens, Circassians and Abkhazians. There are no Armenians for reasons the Turks would prefer to forget.


The Kurdish Problem
The Kurds, of whom there are 14 million, are the largest minority in Turkey. The Turkish government until recently refused to even acknowledge their existence as a people, insisting they be called “mountain Turks”. They are banned from being taught their own language in schools.

There is a serious double standard at work here. A country squeezes through the gates of independence, then slams the door in the faces of others who wish the same for themselves. The advice to the Kurds from the international community boils down to this– stop causing trouble, conform, assimilate and accept the disappearance of your culture.

“But if we let them break away, then this other group will also want independence”. Damn right and if they deserve it, why not? I couldn’t give a shit about the integrity of borders drawn within the last fifty years by old Etonians with a degree in creative cartography.

Longer term, countries that make sense culturally and ethnically are far more stable than those that are cobbled together. Witness the misery in artificial countries like Yugoslavia, Russia and almost every country in Africa.


Istanbul
I flew to Istanbul from Alanya for 5 days to get my Iranian visa. I had been before about ten years ago and it was as fascinating as I remembered. The first day it poured, the only rain I’ve seen since England. I sat for quite a while in a third-floor coffee shop, just listening to the sound of traffic on wet tarmac and watching the umbrellas opening like desert flowers in the street below. The next day, I route-marched round all of the sights, despite having seen them before. What a city. The Aya Sofya, Istanbul's church-turned-mosque-turned-museum, is an incredible building. The scale and proportions of it are magnificent. The designers of the Guerkin should visit and weep with due humility. One thing I hadn’t seen before is the amazingly atmospheric Basilica cistern:



I wanted to do the 3km swim across the Bosphorous, but was refused because I was too late to have my swimming ability assessed. Probably no bad thing. I had a mental image of the shimmering water, its emerald depths teeming with fish and lost treasures of the ancient world. Looking over the Galata bridge, the reality was less inviting - discarded plastic bags, bottles and cans bob along the water's edge in a green slime so disgusting that even the seagulls disdain to get their feet wet.


Ancient Sites
There are a great number of remarkable ancient sites in Turkey although many are in poor condition. There are two reasons for this, the fact that Turkey lies across three active earthquake fault lines and the fact that the British and others pinched much of the best stuff for their museums. A major scandal involving museum staff in Istanbul selling priceless pieces and replacing them with fakes has undermined the Turkish case to have artifacts returned.

I have seen enough Roman ruins for the moment. They are highly impressive feats of engineering but they lack variety. The Romans were the Germans of the ancient world – organizers, codifiers and engineers. You have to admire their achievements but it is hard to love them. All Roman towns share a largely identical set of structures – theatre, temple, colonnade, baths, forum, tetrapylon, agora. There is some room for variation around these themes, but after a while they start to look very similar. I have started turning my nose up at mid-level sites. Ephesus, despite the hype, is not that amazing. There I’ve said it. May God have mercy on my soul.

There are a number of fascinating Armenian and Georgian churches in Eastern Turkey, which made a nice change from the steady diet of mosques and Roman theatres. I was surprised that even in frescoes dating back to the first millennium, Jesus is depicted as a long-haired primary school teacher in a dressing gown.

I visited the city of Xanthos on the Lycian coast, which made a powerful impression on me, not because of the ruins but because of its dramatic history: In 540 BC, the city was attacked by the Persians. Despite being vastly outnumbered and unable to withstand a siege, they refused to surrender. They killed all of their own families, then burned the city to the ground and marched out through the gates to die. The entire population perished that day.

In our age of concession, arbitration and compromise this kind of macho behaviour is totally out of favour, but you have to admire the sheer balls-to-the-wall conviction. This was an age when people really believed in the heroic ideal. To them, the reckless, unconditional and whole-hearted life was the only life worth living. This is the philosophy that runs through the heart of much of the world’s classical literature - Beowulf, Homer, the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Viking Sagas - the idea that beauty is at the centre of the world and greatness comes from beautiful action.


Turkish
I have made pathetic progress in learning Turkish, mainly because it is too bloody diffcult. It is a member of the Turkik language group and has virtually nothing in common with European languages. Apparently, it shares rules of vowel harmonization and agglutination with Azerbaijani and Turkmen. Not helpful.

As usual, the phrasebook is useless. You can laboriously construct a question and work on correct pronunciation, but you will be totally unable to understand what is said to you in reply. A combination of sign-language and shouting works fine like everywhere else.


Ararat
Set amongst fields of wheat and sunflowers, Dogubayazit sits contentedly on a dusty plain under the awesome shadow of Mt Ararat. When I arrived in the late afternoon, low clouds had hastened the onset of dusk and I couldn’t see a thing.

The next day I was woken at 5am by the loudest and least tuneful call to prayer I have ever heard. It sounded like a dog barking into a kilometre-long nostril. I decided to go up to the roof for a cup of tea and was met with the spectacular sight of Mount Ararat in the early morning sun. For a few moments I found myself really looking at the scene, really taking it all in - the mountain suffused with a golden glow and the sun creeping over the horizon like a shiny Buddha’s head. A stunning combination of colour, contrast and stillness. This photo was taken from the same spot later in the morning when it was much hazier.




Tourists
Brits abroad. Lots of them, especially on the south Aegean coast. Having not met any for months, I was quite happy to see them. They are easily identified by their tattoos. It seems we are the only people who’ve not yet realized that they are no longer edgy or rebellious and have instead become faddish and conformist. Surprisingly, the Turks and the English have a similar style of banter and get along well.

Conversely, the Turks hate the Russians, who are without question the worst behaved tourists in the country. Crass beyond belief, they have no sensitivity to the local culture and descend on resorts like a troop of red-arsed baboons, clutching plastic bottles of vodka and dressing girls of six in thong bikinis.

My abiding impression of the Russians is of a squawking bonebag of about 50 wearing a swimsuit and fishnet dress in a mosque, screaming at the kindly old Imam who asked her to put on a robe. He looked absolutely terrified, as well he might – she had the jaw and arms of Dolph Lundgren and was wearing so much make-up that she was probably bullet-proof.


Best Moments
  • Three days walking the Lycian way, which is consistently voted one of the world's best hikes. Nothing but mountains, old ruins and stunning sea views.



  • Staying with Mike and Jess, who live in a cave house in Goreme and run balloon flights over Cappaddocia. They were super-hospitable, supplying me with unlimited gin & tonics, free ballooning and bacon breakfasts.





  • Having a friendly go at Yagli Gurez –Turkish oil wrestling. Their annual competition finished in June but they were more than happy to give me an introduction. I showed them some chokes and leg locks, they took turns throwing me on my head. Good times.

  • Smoking Nargile water pipes. Got a bit carried away with this. N.B. Ilesam Lokali is the best Nargile place in Istanbul.



  • Driving round the tea plantations in Rize. The valleys behind Rize, where almost all of Turkey’s tea is grown, don’t even get a passing mention in the guidebook. This area is the greenest in Turkey and really beautiful.



  • Getting drunk in Kadir’s treahouse. Had a heavy drinking session with two English girls I met at Olympos, with body slammers and dancing til five. Really fun night despite the worst DJ on earth.

  • I went to see the Dervishes at the the Mevlana Mosque in Konya. It was a very solemn affair, totally different from what I’d seen in Cairo, which had lots of razzamatazz but did not feel remotely like a religious ceremony.



  • Paragliding over Oludeniz at sunset. Fabulous.



  • Seeing Loggerhead turtles on the beach at Patara. Baby loggerheads are born at night and then make their way to the sea, drawn by the reflected light. It was recently discovered that lights from bars and hotels built near the shore were causing them to head inland. The thought of baby turtles crawling arduously away from the safety of the open sea and towards a dancefloor glitter-ball in a beachside disco has both comic and tragic touches.

  • Exploring the underground cities of Cappadocia. Ten floors straight down.



  • Throwing pots in Avanos. Harder than it looks.

  • Trekking in the Kashkars. These mountains on the Black sea coast are rather reminiscent of Austria - snow-capped and thickly forested with hanging meadows. They are often enshrouded in fog that sweeps in from the sea. When you are high enough this makes for very atmospheric views, with the peaks projecting from the rolling vapour. Plus I can now milk a goat. Another indispensable skill in my survival toolkit.

  • Sea kayaking over the sunken city at Kekova.



  • Visiting Ani. It is really just a collection of isolated buildings scattered across an undulating sea of grass in a remote corner of north-eastern Turkey, but it exudes an eerie ambiance that is unique and unforgettable. It was the Armenian capital for more than 300 years until it was partly destroyed by an earthquake in 1329 and abandoned. I tried to give this photo a bit of a vintage look.




    Worst Moments
  • There are two categories of people in the world - people who get asked for directions and people who get asked for drugs. I have gone from being the first to being the second. I got approached twice by backpackers for ‘shit’ in Olympos.

  • Pamukkale was 46 degrees and humid. It felt like the inside of Satan's jockstrap. I could have fried a full English breakfast on the bonnet of the car.

  • I developed a suppurating wound on my foot from an infected insect bite. For some reason my tried-and-tested ‘wait and see’ treatment system was unsuccessful. All fine now.

  • Missing item: my favourite shirt. Last seen: before I re-organised the car. Chief suspect: me.

  • I visited the superbly-named "Bloostained Place of Madness", a cliff off which convicted felons were thrown in ancient times. A snake struck at my foot just near the edge and I came within a hair’s breadth of falling in. Felt as though Death had nudged me with the butt of his scythe.

  • The Artvin brothel fiasco. I arrived late at night in Artvin, a seedy but spectacularly situated little town near the Black Sea and found a hotel. “One pillow or two?” says the chap at the desk. “Two please” says brainiac here and goes up to the room. Christ on a stick, what a craphole. I had no idea they manufactured 10 watt lightbulbs. I go into the filthy bathroom and put my hand on some unidentified stickyness on the edge of the tub. Not happy. Ten minutes later the prostitute I ‘ordered’ knocks on the door. Cue a highly embarrassing exchange as she thinks my refusal is because she isn’t up to scratch. Nightmare. I guess the name ‘Hotel Enjoy’ should have been a clue.

  • Hangover the day after the Kadir’s booze-up. Foul palate, raw torpor constricting each limb and a gullet like the exhaust of my Landcruiser. The good thing about a bad hangover is this - when you wake up the following day feeling normal, normal feels fantastic.


    Food
    Turkish cuisine is delicious. Foreign menus are rare but they encourage you to come into the kitchen and point at stuff. Good system. Strangely, Turkish coffee, which I drank all the time in Syria, is not popular here. They all drink tea. Every town has its own Kebap and I made a point of trying as many as possible. My favourites:

  • Iskender Kebap - Doner meat served on a bed of bread and yoghurt with melted butter poured over the top. This one will take years off our life.
  • Adana Kebap. Spicy minced meat on a skewer. The most common kebap after the ubiquitous doner.
  • Testi Kebap. Found only in Cappadoccia. Meat and vegetables baked in a sealed clay pot.
  • Tokat Kebap. Cubes of lamb and aubergine cooked vertically. The juices from the lamb baste the aubergine. Served with a fist of roasted garlic.
  • Usulu Firin Kebap – Large chunks of lamb slow-cooked in an oven for several hours.

    Lowlights:

  • The Turks do not understand breakfast. It is exactly the same everywhere – a handful of olives, a chunk of not-so-good cheese, some sliced cucumber and a boiled egg. "No croissants? This is monstrous!"

  • Donkey sausage in Sivas. GodDAMN that was foul.

  • Tavuk Gogsu Kazandibi – Burnt chicken breast pudding. The name says it all. What kind of animal puts chicken in a desert?

  • Only one place on the trip so far has had good wine – Lebanon. Other than that it has been a mix of the average and the undrinkable. I wouldn’t clean my car with the Algerian stuff. Anyway, I was invited for a visit by a Turk who makes his own wine on his farm. Error. He opens a bottle and pours out a huge glass for me. Acrid vinegary nose, rank in the mid-palate with tones of urine and pipe-cleaner and a sour, vomity finish.

    “What do you think?”
    “Fantastic.”

    I was overcome by the urge to run outside and stuff hay into my mouth until I'd got it out of me.


    Quote from something I’m reading
    "Unravelling the web of human life into its various threads of meanness, spite, cowardice, want of feeling, want of understanding, of indifference towards others, and ignorance of ourselves, - seeing custom prevail over all excellence, itself giving way to infamy - mistaken as I have been in my public and private hopes, calculating others from myself, and calculating wrong; always disappointed where I placed most reliance; the dupe of friendship, and the fool of love; - have I not reason to hate and to despise myself? Indeed I do; and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough."

    On The Pleasure of Hating (William Hazlitt)


    Conclusions
    I have enjoyed Turkey a great deal. The country is beautiful, the food is great and the Turks are an entertaining bunch - the men full of posturing machismo and the girls fun and mischievous. There is a lot more that I would have liked to see, had I the time.

    I have been pondering my route. The post-election kerfuffle in Iran and the total lawlessness in much of Pakistan are a bit of a concern. I have considered taking a ferry across the Caspian and going to China via Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Hmm. The outdated, factually incorrect but highly entertaining travel book Asia Overland describes Kazakhstan thus:

    “Looking like a two-day old beard of grass and scrub on the face of the earth, the vast ragged steppe-landscape that dominates Kazakhstan cannot be described as exciting. It’s amazing how this country, the ninth largest in the world, can have so much land, but so little of traveler interest. Swallowed up in this monotonous environment lies the exhausted Aral Sea, the Semiplatinsk nuclear testing area, Russia’s main space centre and a sprinkling of unappealing industrial towns.”

    Not inviting. I’d rather risk a Taliban bullet than spend a month crossing central Asia. Decision taken. In two days I’ll head into Iran.

    And so it begins.