22 July, 2011

Turkish Delights

It took a few hours to cross the snowy mountain pass towards Turkey. This was a quiet, almost traffic-free road and it was very, very cold. The road itself was mercifully dry and clear of snow but on either side of it, deep threatening snow was banked up high where it had been shoved aside by the snowplough. The air was bitterly cold and cut quickly through each layer I had carefully encased myself under. By the time I reached the border I’m sure I must have been mildly hypothermic. At least that’s my excuse for what happened next.

The Iranians let me out through their side without any fuss or drama. It was lunchtime as I approached the Turkish border. I was looking forward to this. Somewhere deep inside I expected that a nation seeking to join the European Union would have efficient systems in place to deal with the tiresome nature of border crossings. There were still a good few miles to get to the nearest town, Kaddari, and I was keen to get these last cold miles done as quickly as possible and find warmth. I thought a four-hour run would get me to Kaddari, the next sizeable town.

Cold and tired, I carefully negotiated the bike over a deeply snow-covered car park up to Turkish Immigration Control. Young lads were running around playing in the snow, apparently without parental control and they immediately took an unhealthy interest in the bike. As I waited indoors, I kept an eye on the bike and had to come out to it a few times, asking them in the most polite sign language not to climb onto the bike. I was worried more that if it fell on them they could get seriously hurt, not to mention the damage they could do to the bike and the hassle involved in getting it back on its wheels again on such a slippery surface. Surrounding policemen and border guards showed little interest.

I thought that I had more or less perfected borders by now. Smiling and patience is the key; more patience than the most time-wasting border guard. Here I was entering a country that aspired to join the EU. There’s even a little bit of Turkey that’s physically already Europe, although this is at the other end of the country. Countries after this, I thought, should be even easier to get through, having minimised the dafter bits of their systems. Smile and have patience. Even the most surly border guard eventually gives up once he’s realised that he’s not getting to you, that you have all the time in the world and that his next piece of nonsensical idiocy is just adding to your gleeful enjoyment of the moment. Unfortunately, I hadn’t accounted for mild hypothermia and an adolescent border guard.

This curiously immature policeman took my passport and began filling out the necessary documentation to let me into his country. He stuck out his tongue dramatically to aid concentration at what appeared to be the more difficult bits. A curious tension pervaded the air, but I put this down to the officials being a little jumpy, having been posted to such a remote spot in the middle of a Kurdish uprising.

The policeman went to press the ink stamp into my passport. He stood up and leaned on it with all his weight, biting his tongue and groaning like a child might in full concentration. Having done this he then closely regarded his efforts with comical dismay. Either he hadn’t pressed hard enough or there hadn’t been enough ink. He said that he was very sorry but that I would have to wait until his boss came back to verify whether this stamp would do. How long would that be, I wondered aloud. About two hours, he suggested. I had about three hours’ more riding to do and about four hours of daylight left. This delay would leave me one hour’s riding in the dark - and in the snow.

Patience and smiling is what gets you through borders. I had learned this, I knew it, it was by now second nature and yet . . . I felt it necessary to urge the young lad to find some faster alternative. He rang someone and gave me his telephone. This person spoke English more fluently than he and told me I’d have to wait there, until he came. For some reason (or none!) I found this entirely unacceptable. I cracked. “I must get to Kaddari tonight!” I protested.
“I am verreee sorreee . . .” wailed the child-policeman.
“You’re sorry! I am sorry, but I’m not waiting around here! I have a stamp and I must go!”
“You cannot go, you must wait!” I have no idea what got into me, but I quickly swapped the policeman’s mobile for my passport lying in a basket and made to leave the building. All sorts of interesting things start to happen just then. I had stupidly thought that I could reasonably expect some sort of efficiency from Turkish border officials. I later had to put it down to the hypothermia because I know never to argue with policemen, no matter how daft they are, but . . .
The child-policeman was screaming now, “This is not UK! This is Turkey!”
“If it was UK, you wouldn’t be working here!” I roared back, soothing nothing and inflaming the situation. Now I was outside preparing to get on the bike and leave.
“You do not have visa! You cannot come into Turkey, go back to Iran!” he whined in his panic, dramatically pointing back the way I had come.
He was wrong, I decided - I had my visa. It wasn’t very well stamped but it was legible nonetheless. What I didn’t have was time. He had many, many colleagues and they began to emerge from all sorts of doors. Instead of arresting me, which I suppose they might reasonably have done in the circumstances – I was shouting at one of their colleagues, certainly breaching his peace – they sensibly began to calm us both down. They seemed to recognise this wee boy’s failings and made gestures and faces at me as if to say ‘what can we do?’ and ‘please don’t make it any worse’.
One of them at last decided he had the authority to allow me to go on this stamp, and I began to regain something of my composure. Immediately after calming back down I was surprised and disappointed with myself in equal measure for ‘losing it’ in such a potentially dangerous situation. I tried to apologise, but the youthful policeman continued to eye me sulkily from the other side of the room, claiming I had thrown his phone down in my haste to leave. I had put it down fairly heavily as I swapped it for my passport, but I hadn’t caused it any harm and certainly had not thrown it. I was still very, very cold despite the heated exchange.

After organising Turkish insurance, I got to Kaddari just as the light was failing. The snowplough hadn’t climbed the hill to clear the snow in this small mountain city and I slipped off at 0mph as I turned into the hotel car park. No damage at all as the bike settled gently onto its engine in the soft snow. A challenge to get it upright again! Naturally, as in all places around the world, strangers came from every direction to help me right the bike and then, somehow sensing how fragile and cold I was, kept supporting me as I pushed the bike into the parking space. People throughout the world are fantastically kind. The feeling remained with me throughout my stay in Turkey that, while the bureaucratic uniforms might be difficult, ordinary people – just like everywhere else I’d been – were always genuinely and overwhelmingly friendly and helpful.

I spent a comfortable night in the hotel and then – fully refreshed – made my way further west along the snowy road. I was greatly looking forward to getting down and out of these frozen snowy mountains and into the heat of the Mediterranean coast. Unfortunately the Turkish Army had other ideas. They were in the middle of chasing Kurds across the Iraqi border, which this road closely paralleled. All along the way were checkpoints and a great deal of silly checking had to be done. A routine quickly established itself. I would stop; they would take my passport, get me off the bike and stick the passport through their computer (in a hut usually some way off) to see who I was and what I was doing there. All the while I was anxious about my western progress. I didn’t want to be there any more than they did. They told me there was a great threat from the PKK (the Kurdish paramilitaries) but could see no logic in my suggestion that there might be more threat to their uniforms than to my motorbike and that maybe standing next to them was more dangerous for an innocent tourist like me, than just going quietly along my way. Some saw the humour; most were surly. They did have the uniforms after all. One young officer tried out his English.

“You know the PKK are terrorists?” he asked.
“I’ve heard that Turkish authorities think of them that way,” I said, not wishing to take sides in a dispute I didn’t properly understand.
“Because some countries seem to think they are freedom fighters!” he said angrily.
“Really?” I tried to sound surprised, “Which countries are those?”
“Belgium!” he growled. I was glad not to be Belgian.
We eventually came to an understanding and I was allowed to continue.

As I was pottering along another quiet valley, I saw a cyclist just ahead and slowed to check him out. Keiron, an Irishman, was the only other European in the whole area and we decided to stop in the next village for a break. I went ahead to check it out and found a fine wee shop surrounded by older men. They were interested in the bike and one spoke good English. I knew we were close to the Iraqi border and asked about where it might be. He put his hand gently but firmly on my shoulder and pointed across the small stream to the other side of the narrow valley maybe 150m away to the south; “That is Iraq, and this,” he pointed at the ground beneath us, “is Turkey. But that is Kurdistan and this is Kurdistan,” he announced more forcefully through tightly clenched teeth, “Turkey is finished!” Okay. Immediately he smiled, relaxed his grip and bade me sit with him and his friends.

These older men wore a kef that pronounced some meaningful defiance of Turkey and support for the Kurds. They wore them, they explained, because anyone younger would be arrested for doing so, whereas the armed men patrolling through their village grudgingly left the older men alone. I was reminded of Northern Ireland at the height of their Troubles. Two lines of combat-ready soldiers, on either side of the road strode warily past.

Keiron peched up the hill into view and we settled on some fizzy drink before having our photo taken with the older men and some nearby children. Keiron was cycling home to Ireland back from India to prove to others that you don’t need to drive your car to the supermarket. Good for him – cyclists always put me to shame and make me feel very lazy!

We wished each other luck and said goodbye, but there was another checkpoint just a mile up the road and we were soon reunited. I was impressed by as well as envious of his cheery disposition and quite unhappy with my own comparative impatience, but I had a deadline again and no time for all these repetitive precautions. Turkey wasn’t impressing me so far. That night was spent in another small town only 123 miles west of Hakkari. Progress was slow.
Next morning was a bright and early start without breakfast and I felt hopeful of getting some serious miles done. There were no more time-consuming and patience-sapping checkpoints and the roads were much better surfaced. It seemed that I must have left the Kurdish region.

After a particularly steep descent round one huge corner, the mountains turned quickly into rolling hills and the road wound gently down through them. Now making for lost time, I found myself stopping only after a marathon 449mile day in Adana itself, a day early and in plenty of time to meet Sarah off her plane.

A friendly hotel let me store the bike underground in its secure car park and I went quietly to sleep. Next day I got a much needed haircut at a nearby barber’s. I had deliberately kept my hair longer for the wintry conditions I’d expected over Kurdistan. As a finale to his work, the barber produced a lengthy cigarette lighter and, shielding my now tidy hair with one hand, flashed the flame into each ear. I smelt the burning hair with some surprise before realising the practicality of this idea. I doubt Health & Safety in the UK would allow such practices.

At 1am the next morning I was waiting at the airport terminal for Sarah’s plane. The small airport had just the one terminal. Mainly used by the military, there was no one there who spoke English but I was sure I’d found the place to stand and wait. Soon enough, passengers began filing through the automatic doors to be greeted by friends and families. Then they thinned out and still there was no Sarah. I waited a little longer, assuming that some bureaucracy had delayed her. After a while, when there was still no sign, it occurred to me that I’d have to return to town to find an iCaff to check whether she might have missed her connection. Before I left, I made some final sign-language enquiries – “no Turkish?” demanded the man with some surprise, as if it was impossible that non-Turks would ever use this airport. Bizarrely it seemed that there was an entirely different exit specially organised for non-Turks. I raced around to this foreigners’ exit worrying that Sarah would be standing all alone fending off insistent taxi-drivers. And there she was, waiting in the dark, thinking she’d been stood up.

She wasn’t well. I had moved into a twin room with en suite facilities and I wanted all the news of home. She had only been home for a ten days and hadn’t learned much. She hadn’t been quite ready to go home then – hence the extension to her trip via Turkey. She had kept her head down in Scotland, not venturing much past her own family. But still she had news of politics and she had salt and vinegar crisps, oatcakes and cheese. She also had the flu. I kept her awake as long as I could politely justify and then let her sleep. In the morning we decided to stay put while she recovered from her flu.

Before I’d left Scotland, Margo, a friend from home, had offered the opportunity of staying at her Turkish villa just 300miles further west along the coast. Not expecting Sarah’s arrival, I had only just confirmed that Margo was able to lend it, and I hadn’t yet told Sarah, in case Margo had lent her place to others. I kept the information as a surprise. But I thought it might be better for Sarah to recover there. It would be far less expensive and we could come and go as we pleased. We thought we might stay for four or five days. First we had to get there. Sarah’s previous motorcycling experience was limited to just 20minutes around Quito in Ecuador almost a year previously. She had borrowed a lot of motorbike kit from a friend at home and some of it even fitted. We posted the tent and other camping equipment home. I hadn’t used it since Australia, hotels being so inexpensive since then, but it had been a comfort to know it was there if I needed it. It would be far too cold to use it from now on, and Sarah would be needing the back seat.

We took our time along the road winding coastal road. It was warm and Sarah was uncomfortable in her borrowed leathers. We stopped in increasingly European style towns with supermarkets and all the trimmings. After two days we had collected the keys to Margo’s villa in Alanya. To me it seemed huge, homely and very welcoming. It had all we could possibly want. A friendly shop nearby, a great view over the sea, three bedrooms and a fridge completed all the necessary requirements for domestic bliss. Sarah went to bed and I went shopping to stock the fridge.

The domesticity was amazingly comforting for me. A cooker and a fridge were all I needed. Sarah settled herself quietly in one room and I took another. I cooked whatever we wanted for the first time in months. Previously I had eaten from cafes and, just occasionally, whatever I could cook on the camping stove – a limited menu. This was a dream. Funny how you miss things.

Slowly, Sarah began to recover. First we went for short walks but she was very weak and the streets around the villa were hilly. We went to the chemist and they recommended a doctor for a better idea of Sarah’s needs. The doctor was in the teaching hospital. Since they were learning, they made a great fuss immediately putting Sarah on a drip without any attempt at diagnosis, as if this was just standard procedure. Then they took chest X-rays, blood samples and urine samples. Sarah was asked if she smoked and more concerned head shaking and pointing at dark patches on the X-ray took place. Sarah was highly alarmed and seemed understandably on the verge of tears.

Eventually a lady Professor came in and pronounced a chest infection. Antibiotics were prescribed and a huge bill for the X-ray presented. We had been in the villa for over a week now and had visited none of the places Margo had recommended. As Sarah’s strength returned, we ventured further afield, determined to enjoy as much of this place as possible. We hired a small car for very little and had a look around at the surrounding countryside.

One night as we played scrabble, there was a very insistent knock on the back door. We didn’t know anyone and wondered who this might be. I opened the door to reveal a tired-looking Tues-Jan. It was fantastic to see him and we made a great fuss of welcoming him in. A few days earlier I had let him know by e-mail where we were in case he’d felt like getting warm after all those mountains and all that snow. I hadn’t heard anything back and we weren’t expecting him. Tues-Jan had come over many more cold Iranian mountains than me, and then over the snowy central Turkish Plateau.

He stayed with us for two whole days and together we enjoyed some interesting tourist outings and lots of good home-cooked food. He left but we promised to catch up with him soon.

Now that Sarah was fully recovered, we realised that after 17 fantastically enjoyable days, we should really be making some westerly progress. Reluctantly, we packed up and made our way slowly along the coast. I had hoped that a ride along the Mediterranean coast in April would be like a mild Scottish summer. I had envisaged crisp air but bright sunshine, warmth whenever we stopped and clear skies. Instead it was cold and windy, but there wasn’t much rain - like a very, very poor Scottish summer.

On the second day as we sought out Tues-Jan’s hotel a young lad let off an air gun whose pellet struck Sarah’s leather-clad leg. I rode the bike angrily towards him and he guiltily ran off. The leather had protected Sarah leaving her with a sting and later a deep bruise. If not for the leather the pellet would probably have penetrated her leg. Welcome to Marmaris.

Tues-Jan had done some sailing in the past and we thought we might blag a boat to sail in. There was no chance. The rental yachts were huge 30ft things and we had no documentation to prove our capabilities. My Kinghorn Sailing Club sweatshirt surprisingly cut no ice.

We all three left together next day and rode to Ephesus. This was a beautiful city with incredible insights into Roman life. The city was founded long before the Romans, perhaps as long ago as 1000BC. Add stuff here

I was glad to be slowed by the tourist thing. In India I found myself thinking I was ready to be home. I had thought that with an Iranian visa, I could be home in just a few weeks. I was grateful that Sarah and Turkey were slowing me so that I could enjoy the ride more. I had missed so much in Iran by rushing through. I will look forward to returning there one day.

Tues-Jan decided he should go and find a friend he knew in Greece. He could take a ferry from here. We delayed our departure for an extra day to say a proper goodbye to him. An enjoyable lunch on the roof of the hostel and then dinner in a posh restaurant completed the formalities of this. We’ll see him again soon.

Sarah and I made our way north up the Turkish coast. In petrol stations hot water was available and we used this to fill a hot-water bottle and then put that down Sarah’s jacket. Having watched BBC 24 in one hotel, observing that the temperature in London was 17degrees Celsius, we were amazed to see an electronic thermometer here in Turkey registering only 7. But we could believe it. Someone had turned Europe upside down, and my dreams of wooing Sarah via a romantic motorbike ride through a magical Mediterranean spring were fading into the constant fog.

The great highlight of this part of the journey for me was Troy. This was a fascinating clue into so many layers of history. Years ago as a teenager I’d read The Iliad and the Odyssey. I had always looked forward to seeing this place. There were few buses in the massive car park and I could only imagine what it must be like at the height of summer. At one point a notice board pointed across a stretch of water to what it called ‘Europe’. I had no idea that Europe was visible from Troy. I looked up and perhaps it was the cold wind but my eye glistened as I saw Europe again for the first time in 19months. It would, I knew, be a few more days till I’d get there, and what I was looking at was a part of Europe with which I had no affinity but still I felt some sense of achievement at the sight of it. There would be more of this sort of thing soon, I knew, and I’d have to control myself.

After perhaps our longest day, we approached Istanbul in a thin, all-permeating Scottish drizzle. Traffic became thicker as we approached the city. I pulled off the motorway onto a sliproad so that I could consult the map. A tall wall restricted the view on this sliproad, like a tunnel without a roof. It was a single carriageway and one-way, of course. As I rounded the bend I was shocked to see a man suddenly in the road in front of us. My thought was that there was no way of avoiding this man. This was going to be horribly messy and my only option was to hit him as slowly as possible. We were moving fast and leant over as we were cornering but I braked as hard and swerved as much as I could. At the last minute he saw me and dived back towards the wall right hand wall. I felt a sickening crunch as the bike’s wheels went over his ankle. The bike jumped a little and I continued to brake as we were still miraculously upright and on the road.

Heart pounding, I stopped as soon as I was sure no other traffic would hit us from behind. I couldn’t see the man in the roofless tunnel, and there was no way we could go back down this fast-moving, one-way. We’d seem another man on the wall, presumably a friend, and decided they would help each other out of their situation. Gathering our wits, we moved on slowly. Eventually, Sarah noticed that the right hand pannier was hanging loose just on its lock, unsecured at the front. I stopped and wandered at the force it must have taken to detach this. A fully laden bike must surely have broken this man’s ankle and perhaps his hand, as we must have hit him at 50mph. Where he had come from and where he thought he was going to was a complete mystery. There was no pavement, no expectation of pedestrians. I had thought this road was overhanging, like a bridge as it had also gone steeply uphill. There was nothing more we could do without retracing back down a one-way slip road from which more traffic continued to emerge at a respectable speed. This moving traffic reassured us that the man and his friend were unlikely still to be on the road. They must have been on drugs, we told ourselves. Another reason not to return.

It felt a little odd when we crossed the bridge taking us from Asia into Europe. I was, by then, too cold and shaken by our recent experience to feel particularly good about it. It was busy in the city centre and there was a lot of traffic as we crossed what may as well have been any city bridge across any river. Although this was not a river, it didn’t feel much like anything else.

Cold to the bone, chittering with the cold, tired out and fed up, Sarah and I found a swanky hotel on the shore of the Bospherus. It cost us a fortune but, while I might have been able to get myself into a cheap hostel, it was getting late and something in me dictated that I should show my pillion some hospitality at such times. Some luxury was clearly in order. The room had a bath and I waited, shivering patiently in the room as Sarah warmed herself through in the bath.

Being tolerant of bedraggled wringing wet waifs is never very easy for posh hotels. There was a big conference of very expensive suits going on and we could see they would rather we left. We could hardly afford their prices anyway and, after a magnificent breakfast, we set off to find somewhere more friendly. There are some excellent places right in the centre of Istanbul and within easy walking distance of all the major sights. We found a very comfortable wee place where they let me bring the bike into their garden.

Whether it was the cold or what I’m not sure but I was weakened by a chill and felt better staying close to the lavatorial facilities for the next day or two. Sarah wandered in the streets nearby and read some books while I read and dozed, and ran to the loo. The guest house was warm and welcoming. Large breakfasts were served on the top floor.

Soon however, I was fit enough to have a good look around and I was impressed by much of what was available in Istanbul. We decided to be tourists again for a few days.

Unfinished -
The Mosquemarket loose camera. Tourist police Olympic flag, food,