Hackney to Turkey

Living in the Turkish outpost of Hackney for several years I’ve long been intrigued to visit the homeland.  Whilst visiting Turkey the familiarity of Hackney is comforting, sheesh and a bottle of Efes for tea, shopping at the green grocer’s or being meticulously groomed at the barber.  Arriving on Saturday evening into Istanbul and meeting up with friends from London it could be a night out in Dalston.

Istanbul is a glorious world city, large in my imagination, with fantastic perspective from its hills and light bouncing from the various seas allowing panoramic views.  The sparkling Straits of Bosphorous magically connect the Marmaris and Black Seas, a narrow conduit for chugging liners and connecting two continents of possibility.  Here, empires emerge and religions interchange. Grand Byzantine churches can morph into Ottoman mosques.  Travellers and refugees pause with anticipation and sychronise at this entrance to new continents.



From this springboard I dive into Asia Minor, flying up above Anatolia before swerving down briefly into Ankara.  Viewing the modernist capital from the sky is enough. Onwards East to plunge into the ancient city of Sanliurfa, edging onto the plains of Mespotamia, birthplace of civilisations and biblical myths, where the trickle of the Euphrates springs before branching on into Syria.  This conservative Middle Eastern city is the birthplace of Prophet Ibrahim, attracting pious pilgrims and shoppers to the a historic bazaar…a contrast to the stylish cocktail bars we frequented in Istanbul.  Highlight of this city is visiting the hammam, this Turkish bath is a real local male hang out.  I get a double soap massage from an excited 19 year old apprentice and his uncle. 

 We travel into rural Kurdistan where I’ve wanted to visit for ten years and the Kurdish men I meet are just the same as the Kurds I taught English to in a Yorkshire ice cream factory in 2002.  Wearing pointy shoes and clad in leather and denim, these proud men are childlike and gentle with an underlying volatility and invisible wives. Murat, eager to please serves us diligently repeating his three English phrases, no problem, good evening and nice. Better than my two Kurdish phrases which I recall after ten years.

The Kurds welcome the prospect of peace as PKK militants retreat into Iraqi Kurdistan and hope for recognition within new laws.  Denied their language and identity for generations, the cost of a united Turkey where a single national identity has been prioritized.  However, the hangover of European colonial shame confronts me again, given the redrawing of country boundaries in this region which in 1923 deleted Kurdistan.


From Kathe we pass a whole afternoon traveling 30 kilometres up into the hills, back to Asian style sense of time where people think you’re barmy for asking how long journeys might take. The mini-bus is late and when it arrives we need to go and pick up Grandma and bowls of vegetables then pause for 45 minutes outside the hospital whilst a passenger runs in and has an appointment then goes to collect her prescription. Patience. The journey is rewarding when we reach the peak of Nemrut Dagi.  Sitting at over 2000 metres groups of stone heads of the Gods are perched, one set looking East to the rising sun and the other West to the setting sun.  Zeus, Hercules and Fortuna have nestled here in the snow on the mountain for over 2000 years.

After a night in a lovely mountain Kurdish village, we succumb to the care of The Godfather overcoming our caution of insistent hoteliers, scarred by the trickery in India.  The Godfather drives us off the mountain and deposits his commodity at the bus station, not before parading us proudly around Kathe.  Our friends head East, a young handsome Venetian couple hitching the Silk Road to China. A beautiful image of youth silhouetted behind us.

Twisting North West, we trundle steadily up into the Central Anatolian steppe.  Vast emerald spaces span out across an ethereal plateau, flanked in the distance by snow capped peaks. As we approach the majestic peak of Erciyes, the setting sun is distorted by a confusion of fluffy clouds.  The bus skirts the metropolis of Kayseri.  Tiger city growing rich on burgeoning technology.  Standard Anatolian clone city, characterized by a token of modernity, the sprawling pastel paneled apartment blocks.  A bland modern urban expansion unfurls with walls emblazoned with quotes of Ataturk.

“Happy is he who says ‘I am a Turk’.”

Like El Comandante in Cuba and the King in Thailand the people here revere Ataturk, the Father of the modern nation state of Turkey.  It remains illegal to speak against him.  The secularity of the state continues, protected in recent years by military regimes.  Now, a new Islamic government frustrates young thirsty liberals with high alcohol taxation and the threat of an Iranian style government.  A period of limbo and expectation as neighbouring states move out of an Arab Spring…Turkey maintains its proud nationalism and rife homophobia.

We are greeted by an obscure futuristic hangar like coach station where smartly dressed Muslims move into a new dimension before hopping onto fabled Cappadocia.

It must have been idyllic in Cappadocia before the troglodytes were invaded by bus loads of German tourists and neon lighting was put up. Depressing tourism and unsustainable development.  Sustainable are the underground cities built millennia ago to provide refuge to civilization after civilization of persecuted peoples.  We venture 50 metres underground to visit a city which housed 50,000 people before marveling at the unlikely natural phallic rock formations. 

Condemned to the night bus.  The standard bus host who juggles hot water to serve dangerous cups of chai doesn’t make it much more bearable.  Morning and we reach the coast and land of the Lycians. A Sophisticated people who piloted the modern federal democracy for the United States years later to adopt. Their capital of Patara an ancient city is gradually being revealed after centuries encapsulated safely in the sand dunes. Emergent amphitheatres, pillars and baths glisten in the midst of a vivid green paradise of swamps and frogs, smudged with brown goats. On the second pilgrimage of the trip I visit the birthplace of Santa Claus.
The Lycian’s left their sophisticated influence with the stylish town of Kas. Decadent days lazing in the sun in chilled bars on the cliffs, interspersed with diving into turquoise waters.

I fully appreciate the Turkish care for their guests with the passport drama. Packing hungover we forget our money belt, stashed under a cupboard!  Horror on the dolmus, we ask the bus driver to let us return.  No problem.  The local bus driver phones a friend, his friend visits the hotel, the hotel locates belongings and sends said

belongings to the bus stop and onto the next bus.  We sweat anxiously in the midday heat at our destination bus depot until the parcel with our valuables magically arrives…

Butterfly Valley, which is incredibly awash with phlittering butterflies, a hidden paradise for hippies, run by a mafia, we pay our most expensive accommodation in the country which is a hut but with a wonderful roof where we can sleep under the stars. Escaping the mafia we somehow find ourselves staying over at Oludeniz.  Oludeniz is a scary Blackpool style resort full of rosy tipsy English folk. Horrified departure to Antalya where we attempt to visit a local gay bar, but fail because the only gay bar is hidden away from the sight of the people. 


Ups & Downs on The Road

Freedom, changing my environment when I get bored
Change, change and stimulation of the senses
Time to read, write and reflect
People smiling at you as if you’re a celebrity
Learning about the world
Meeting people
Not working
Jumping in waterfalls
Cheap shaves, massages and fruit shakes
Activities – hiking, cycling, kayaking
Hiring scooters and stopping in random villages
Travelling in random, local transport surrounded by
chickens, watermelons and babies
Living in a relaxed culture with less rules and complaining (adapting to a slower pace)
The warmth
Being waited on, not cooking, good food

Not having a kitchen
Not working
Mosquitoes, cockroaches, bed bugs and rats (in order of frequency of occurrence)
Never ending, tedious bus journeys
Getting ripped off & general scams (send the patience levels boiling back up to London levels)
Losing things
Bribing corrupt immigration officials
Altercations with tuk tuk drivers
Time difference when something bad happens at home
Decision overload
Irritating travellers
Repetitive conversations with travellers
Filthy squat toilets
Harassment by rabid, stray dogs
Visa charges