Turkey: One Foot in the Orient

DAVID COOK encounters the land where Europe and Asia meet

Most overland travellers from Western Europe end their journey in Turkey, where exotic mysteries are reassuringly anchored in tourist support systems. You dabble one foot in the Orient while the other remains firmly on European soil.

Turkey is almost a bike-free zone. The drivers and the state of the roads see to that. The people are exceptionally kind and generous and if lorries and coaches spew out leg-scalding fumes and blood-curdling klaxon shrieks, it is not because they have it in for cyclists, but simply because bikes are virtually unknown to them.

With the Bulgarian border just behind me, I turned north on to minor roads leading to the Black Sea, intent on finding a quiet back way into Istanbul. Although still part of Europe, this section of Turkey was one of the least westernised areas through which I passed. Women were invisible in the towns and in the fields they turned away rather than catch my eye. Roads were certainly quiet but the endless courtesies, cups of 'chai' (tea) and many questions slowed me down. People were always interested in the reason for my journey, where I had come from, and the personal freedom which allowed me to travel. I felt like the Pied Piper, with columns of small children running gleefully out of the villages behind me.

Leaving Istanbul is a cyclist's nightmare. One bridge carries Turkey's only official motorway across the Bosphorus. Bikes are banned. But I had to give it a go. Half­way across the bridge a policeman flagged me down. His amazed and puzzled expression showed that he was as anxious as I was. Then he laughed with relief and whistled a lorry to a halt. Bike and rider were efficiently loaded aboard to speed their way into Asia. The 100km from Istanbul to Izmit proved the most unpleasant so far. The road bore the combined weight of local industrial traffic, long-distance haulage and droves of tourists heading for Aegean resorts.

The once-fabled northern shore of the Sea of Marmara has been turned into an industrial slum. There appear to be no short cuts to environmental wisdom. Each country has to make the same mistakes before the 'green' penny drops. At the end of that awful day a grey sooty dust covered me completely and my bare legs ached from burning exhausts.

With immense relief I escaped southwards at Adapazari through high wooded mountains and beside tumbling streams to emerge on to the endless switchbacks and fertile cornfields of the central plateau. A succession of ancient cities led me in to Ankara four days after leaving Istanbul. The contradictions in a nation's make-up are sharply expressed in their capital cities and in Ankara the country's crisis of identity is clearly revealed. Ancient or modern? European or Asian? Temporal or Islamic? Democracy or dictatorship? Pan-Turkish dreams or a military state? Were these questions ever thrashed out in open discussion? The censored press made it seem unlikely.

Further west the hot question had been: "Can you help me with a work permit?" Here it was: "Have you a copy of Satanic Verses?" Although Ataturk's face adorns every bar, office, mosque and boulevard and his memory is revered, his mighty attempt to modernise Turkey appears to have run out of steam.

In Central Anatolia my two objectives were to investigate the fabulous Cappadocian wonderland of underground cities, bizarre land formations and ancient churches, and to climb the highest summit in the Taurus range, a line of impressive mountains fencing off the Central Plateau from the Mediterranean Sea.

Cappadocia proved the easier. Beautiful roads, light traffic and immense vistas sped me to the Goreme valley with its famous 'fairy chimneys' of hard stone balancing crazily on softer volcanic rock out of which s countless generations - from the Hittites onwards - have excavated a vast warren of homes and places of worship. It was a delight to explore the tangle of eroded pinnacles, dug-out churches and prolific orchards all in equal profusion.

At Kaymakli and Derinkuya Christian fugitives from Islamic armies had in the past 'gone underground' and cut out whole cities. I spent hours wandering through the labyrinths, savouring the delicious coolness and the uncanny sound effects made by tourists' voices as they echoed eerily through the tunnels.

Goreme represents the last outward reach of European motorised tourism. When I pedalled up the narrow roads into the Taurus range south-east of Nigde the people greeted me as though I had come from another world. Villagers informed me that Demircazik was the highest point and not Aldag as named on the map. At 3750m it was the height of a respectable Alpine peak - a great pile of steep and crumbling rock which rose out of a lunar landscape of lava scree.

The border crossing into my next country, Iraq, was still 1000km away. I was learning that there is as much of Turkey to the east of the Mediterranean as there is along its southern coastline - and it is all mountainous. I found myself crossing the high passes to Tarsus and the southern plains and passing through many Kurdish cities. Apart from the brutal gradients out of the coastal belt the terrain was relatively flat. Aided by an occasional lift on the back of a lorry, the kilometres sped by in a dirty mixture of dust, sweat, diesel fumes and kebab smoke.

On this long arduous section 'body' rather than 'bike' came first and I gave it good attention. Hotels and showers replaced hard-ground camping by mountain streams, beside which my tent had hitherto stood. More thought was given to diet and an adequate intake of carbohydrates. Water was poured into me by the gallon, often from roadside fountains inscribed with holy words. One spectacular well intoned chants from hidden loudspeakers as the blessed water gurgled into my bottles.

Right across these arid lands the people kept reminding me they were Kurds. The fire of their ethnic aspiration burned strongly among these descendants of Alexander's armies, ever rekindled by the repression in the lands over which they are scattered.

Most thrilling moments were the crossings of the head waters of historic rivers. At Birecik the drivers of oil lorries shouted an invitation to swim with them in the Euphrates. I joined them with gusto. They had run their wagons deep into the water to cool - just like the cowboys of old who put the wellbeing of their teams before all else. At the roadside the lorries drank before their drivers and were hosed down from great troughs beside the petrol pump. Although they had once been the bane of my cycling life, my attitude to these great trumpeting monsters underwent a subtle change. It had become possible to distinguish a klaxon roar of greeting from an angry snarl. Frequently the drivers would offer me chai, drinks and friendly words. On the long climbs, when our uphill speeds synchronised, oily arms would thrust goodies towards me.

The Tigris proved too dirty for a swim but I dawdled along its banks, wishing I could load my bike aboard the small boats that drifted across Syria into Iraq.

Suddenly at Silopi the frontier queues started to form. Five kilometres of lorries, parked two abreast, waited to pass through, their patient drivers playing backgammon in the shade between the wheels. There was not a tourist car among them. In my love-hate relationship with Turkish trucks it was good to have the last laugh. I zoomed straight to the front, and through to Iraq.

Unfortunately, on a subsequent cycling trip through Turkey Dave was killed in a collision with a truck. 

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