Backtracking to Istanbul and Cappadocia, Turkey

The first time I was in Turkey, I was barely 21 years old.

Spring, 1981. Leonid Brezhnev was leader of a powerful Soviet Union which had invaded Afghanistan less than two years before, neighbouring Iran and Iraq were at the outset of a hideously brutal war lasting eight years and costing upwards of 1.5 million lives, Saddam Hussein was America’s friend, Turkey had gone through a coup d’etat and was in the grip of martial law, some brain-addled second-rate actor from the forties was barely six months in the White House and some nutjob had already taken shots at him, Paris Hilton was four months old and soiling her diamond-studded diapers but at least back then her ass was covered with something, and I was nearing the end of a year-long journey which had started out only as a planned two months riding the rails in Europe via Eurailpass.

The winds kept blowing south and east, and I kept tumbling with them.

They say you shouldn’t backtrack in life, that if you’ve traveled to one place already you shouldn’t return lest the memories of the place be spoiled. No place stays the same, and neither do you.

That’s probably why I haven’t gone back to Israel, a place which has changed so much and that holds so many memories of unique experiences for me. I was there for a whole half year in the winter of 1980 – 81, working first as a ski patroller at Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights and then briefly as a kibbutz volunteer – until the day we got shelled by Katyusha rockets from over the border in Lebanon.

Hah! When my American girlfriend and I told everyone we were getting the hell out of there and heading to Turkey, they all said, whoa – dangerous place right now!

Of course it wasn’t, but it did turn out to be another journey that can never be repeated. We spent a month and reached as far east as the border regions with Georgia, Armenia, Iran and Iraq, travelling through areas which are now pretty well off-limits unless you willing to approach a simmering war zone or risk getting kidnapped for ransom. We were happy to be the only foreigners for hundreds of miles it seemed, and I wonder if going back to the safer areas of the country would be a colossal disappointment, an impossible comparison between a past burnished by selective memory and a present staring me straight in the face.

Selective memory – no kidding. I caught some bug and was sick for most of the the last two weeks in Turkey, surviving on boiled eggs and sesame-seed bread and returning home a sunken-chested straw-haired scarecrow.

So it was with a mixture of apprehension and anticipation that I pressed ‘”book now” last month to reserve flight tickets from Hamburg to Istanbul for a two-week trip later this month that will be one of discovery for my wife and the little red-haired girl, and of rediscovery for me.

We won’t be going anywhere near the turmoil in the far east, though. Our plans are to stay in Istanbul for five nights, then take an overnight train to Cappadocia for five nights, then back to Istanbul.  We have friends from our Hong Kong days now living in that city and we’re looking forward to seeing them, too.

About the photos: They were all taken in Cappadocia, a fairyland of cave dwellings, hobbit houses, fresco-covered walls of underground churches, whole cities carved out of soft volcanic stone.

My girlfriend and I travelled to Turkey before the country had its tourist boom. Most everywhere we went we were greeted or even followed by curious locals just wanting to get a better look at us. The lady in the blue blouse top-right in the photo above was an English teacher who glommed on to us one afternoon and gave us a tour of the town of Ürgüp with her friends, later inviting us all over to her place for tea and cakes. She was the only one of the bunch who spoke any English.

I have this flashback travel fantasy film that plays over and over in my head whenever I look at these shots of us with all those friendly women back then. I take a few prints back to the town, show them to shopkeepers, rail station clerks, taxi and bus drivers, hotel receptionists, and ask them if they recognise any of the people in the photos.

“Yes!” one of them says. “Her! I know who she is!” And I’m given the address of the woman whose youthful image they’ve recognised, and after much searching go knock on her door, eagerly introducing myself and thrusting the nearly 30-year-old photo into her view.

“That’s you!! I’ll say. “Do you remember me? Do you remember sitting for this picture?”

She’ll look up at me and smile and invite us in for tea and cakes.

And in the meantime she’ll have learned some English… or German, or French… and we’ll finally get to know each other a bit. I somehow feel like I know them anyway, I’ve showed their image to so many people over the years.

17 Responses to “Backtracking to Istanbul and Cappadocia, Turkey”

  1. October 5, 2008 at 2:38 pm

    Whoa nelly check out those threads! I was a year old in 1980.

  2. 2 Mel
    October 5, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    I love that your blog upates are on my facebook page; I’ll never miss another post!

  3. October 5, 2008 at 5:22 pm

    wow – you were SO blond!

  4. October 5, 2008 at 7:43 pm

    nurse, when I was in Hong Kong a friend, also blond, called us the blond bookends! I should send him this link.🙂

    Mel – it’s great you’re keeping up with what your uncle was doing when you, too were crapping your diapers. Not diamond-studded ones, I bet.

    Cathy – you young whipper-snappers! (wheezy voice like Grandpa on Simpsons, trembling hand on cane…)

  5. October 6, 2008 at 7:36 am

    Wow, your hair has morphed over time! Are you still sporting a bald head at the moment? The pictures and your tale are wonderful I like how you recounted the political climate at the time. A lot of us have that adventurous spirit at that age, but where you’re unique is not only did you ACT on it—imagine staying in Europe all that time, and pushing further east—but you STILL have it!🙂 This sounds like it will be a great trip, and totally different as you’ll have your lovely family with you. Looking forward to a “letterhome” from there!

  6. October 6, 2008 at 8:52 am

    Oh no! I’d forgotten I’d posted that pic of me with a shaved head – and piggy on top.🙂


    Since grown back, thank you… but it’ll never be so blond unless I stand in the sun for six months or so.

    I think Europe always had this pull for me – after that trip I went back to Canada for a year of school, then back to France for a year, then back to Canada to finish the degree… It took another decade to finally leave for good.

  7. October 7, 2008 at 9:06 pm

    ah, I remember those BLONDE DAYS so well … like another life as you say.

    I recently did a ‘look back’ to a place I stayed for a year and a half. It was GREAT. The land stays the same and that I concluded is really what I WANTED to see … People come and go, but the LAND stays the same …

    Happy trails Ian. Your little girl will be all WIDE EYED and WONDERING …

  8. October 8, 2008 at 10:06 am

    Woohoo! Who’s that albino hunk?

  9. October 8, 2008 at 11:32 am

    I like the shaved head look🙂

  10. 10 American Girlfriend
    October 10, 2008 at 5:00 am

    Our Turkish travels are all coming back to me! How lucky for all of you. Will there be dozens of children following you around like the Pied Piper on this trip? The little red haired girl should attract plenty of attention with her gorgeous locks. Sorry to dash your dream, but remember the devasting earthquake that happened in the Teacher’s town in Cappadocia not too long after our visit?

    Long live sesame rings!

  11. October 10, 2008 at 7:59 am

    Hey T… we met them in Ürgüp, right? At least we did according to my journal… I never heard about an earthquake in Cappadocia, and none of the guidebooks mention one, either. Are you sure? Wikipeedatya mentions two in Turkey since 1981 – one in 1995, another in 1999 – both far northwest of Cappadocia.

  12. October 12, 2008 at 10:02 am

    Effin hell dude, you look Scando!

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