If you permit me one short indulgence in pure nostalgia… On the train from Istanbul to Kayseri there were two backpackers from Devon, England a couple of doors down who brought back memories. The fellow was very tall and lanky, soft-spoken, his girlfriend bright-eyed, friendly and chatty without getting too up front about it. I envied the way they were travelling – heavy backpacks, open-ended plans and easy way of talking about their days on the road: Oh yeah, we heard Diyarbakir’s something to see, we might head there or beyond depending on the situation – which of course got me launching into the seductive beauties of Lake Van and how they absolutely must go further than Diyarbakir if they want to see the most fascinating parts of the country beyond the well-trampled tourist trail.
I suppose the days when we got the notion we were the first and only foreigners who’d ever been through some of those remote mountain towns because that’s the way the people treated us – so special, so different – are gone forever, but do you remember the feeling of being on the road with no set return date and just letting yourself be driven by the urge to GO GO GO – see what’s beyond the horizon, dealing with things as they come up, stopping to rest when you needed to and moving on? That’s what I saw in that lovely English couple: the freedom of the open road.
I think it’s dangerous to bring a delicious guidebook to a country the size of Turkey if you’re only going to stay for two weeks. Leafing wistfully through our Lonely Planet one evening, I read aloud to K. the routes we took through the far east of the country – they still say it’s very remote, not easy to get to, and that few take the trouble to visit – and wished we’d had a whole month. Maybe next time?
Do you remember being in Kars and having to forgo a visit to the ruins of Ani because the red tape of having to get a permit merely to approach the Soviet border was just too daunting a hassle to bother with? The former Armenian capital of a quarter million strewn across the plain is open now. You can get there without a permit.
I believe in doing things right, after all – even 30 years later. One day I want to see Ani, because it’s still there waiting. We were so close, but didn’t go.
Approaching Kayseri I noticed something which, again, made me think I was walking around blindfolded last time. How on earth could I have missed the sight of that enormous volcano looming over the city? Mount Erciyes is nearly 4,000 metres high! When we finally made it to Uchisar 70 km away – we didn’t stay in Ürgüp – it was still the most dominant feature of the distant countryside. We loved watching the sun rise over it in the morning and paint it gold in the evening. For some reason I have no photo of it from those days. We had good weather, didn’t we? Why don’t I remember it?
If you look at the extract from my journal back then I did mention the mountain, so I wasn’t walking around blindfolded. On the same page I wrote that we’d seen a working steam engine in the switching yards there – imagine, a steam engine still plugging away on the rails in the 1980s!
As our taxi – crammed with our loveable English couple, a Spaniard who spoke German and the three of us and all our gear – up loomed what else but a steam engine, proudly restored and on display at the road entrance to the station area. I wondered aloud if it wasn’t the same one we’d seen back then. Who knows?
I do remember being stared at, but back then all golden-haired, and now… didn’t really expect it this time. But just as we were getting off the train and figuring out where to grab a taxi, a couple of Turkish women – mid- to late-twenties I guess and dressed in traditional clothing with headscarves – were slowly walking past us down the platform. I realised one was looking straight at me, so I looked at her back. And looked. And looked some more. Normally by then I’d have averted my gaze but I kept looking deep into her eyes because I though OK, I’m not breaking any laws here or even making eyes, I’m not afraid to look back at someone even if it is some sort of intercultural taboo, so I’m just going to keep looking at you until one of us blinks. Then I smiled at her and she smiled back, which I thought was the most natural thing to do, really, and then she went back to talking with her friend and was on her way. I’m still wondering what that was all about.
In Kayseri we were also greeted with a reminder on the way into town of how militarised Turkey is. Right beside the tracks and practically in the centre of town is a huge military barracks, base and ammunition depot – stacks and stacks of arms, weapons, materiel of all sorts, guarded by mean-looking soldiers who look like they’d shoot if you looked at them cross-wise. At another point on the way back we saw a whole trainload of new tanks headed east, convoys of military vehicles on the roads. We also passed a couple of enormous radar bases.
Remember the chaos of bus stations back then? A muddy corner lot with hulks parked any place they could find a spot, touts yelling at you to take their bus, hello-English-where-you-go? where-you-go? I can still hear in the chaos of the Ezerum station a man spilling out the itinerary of that magical route we took near the eastern border, at one point the road hugging the side of a canyon with cliffs a thousand feet vertical above and a raging river ten feet below. Ezerum – Savsat, Savsat – Artvin, Artvin – Kars…. Do you remember that? It seems like such a banal moment, but for some reason that whole scene has always stayed with me.
The bus station in Kayseri, by contrast, looks like a modern airport. An extremely high ceiling, white, fluted support columns, and so clean I thought this couldn’t be the centre of Turkey.
Part eight in a series. Part seven: Knife fights, confusion and a freezing cold night; Part six is here, part five – underneath Istanbul; part four: the Blue Mosque smells like cheesy feet; part three: Sleepwalking through Turkey – was I even there? Part two: Istanbul memoir, and part one – the intro.