Saturday, 6 October 2007

Red in the Morning (Chapter 4 - Into Turkey)

From a cloudless sky the sun blazed down on the cluster of frontier buildings and the dusty track winding away into a distance of brown, treeless semi-desert. The officials spoke English of a sort and welcomed us warmly, if a little incoherently. There were one or two Turkish soldiers lounging about outside the customs. Tough, squat-looking fellows, completely without spit and polish of any kind, they looked very efficient for all that. While we were changing our money a large dust-smeared car, with a crumpled front wing, pulled up and disgorged a middle-aged English couple who had just made the overland trip from Kuwait. Both were pretty hostile towards Turkey because the exchange had proved so unfavourable. They had stopped for one night at an hotel in Istanbul and paid £10 for the privilege. From their description, it must have been just about the plushiest hotel in the city, but still we thought this sounded a bit dear for an eight-hour stop. They were anxious to know about Bulgaria and we gave them what information we could on conditions. These two overlanders were in for some shocks if they thought Turkey costly. I was thankful that our petrol needs had been no more than three gallons; at £1 a gallon it had proved very painful buying.

I dared not stand and look at that discouraging track too long and was anxious to get started; those Australian aborigines seemed a long way off, farther, somehow, even than when we had started. We reached Edirne at lunch-time and got a friendly reception from a crowd of little urchins who pelted us with stones. We ran through the barrage unscathed and did the next half-mile with our heads well down. When we finally looked up, it was to behold a most impressive sight: Edirne, Turkish city of minarets and dazzling white domes-hundreds of them dotting the horizon, their beautiful outlines looking cool and inviting under the scorching midday sun. Asia was becoming a reality.

Under closer inspection a little of the charm of Edirne evaporated; there was too much dirt and poverty, too many ragamuffin children begging for cigarettes and money, too many recklessly driven American cars. After the hail of rocks that formed our reception into the town, we rode along warily, anxious to avoid a repeat performance. Our only outlay was on two glasses of water from a wandering vendor carrying a brass jug and tumblers. The water was clear and cold in our parched throats. The vendor, much to our surprise, would at first take nothing for his service. I tried to insist, but he would not accept. His only explanation was to point to the Union Jack on the Prima and pat us both on the shoulder. He was the first of the many really Anglophile people we met all the way through Turkey. I still wanted to pay for the water (he was pretty sharp with all his other customers) and we finally reached a solution by getting him to accept a cigarette. He and I stood puffing and nodding to each other, while Nita searched around among the gear for our dark glasses, for the sun was very bright. We got rid of a handful of kurus in exchange for a gallon of petrol at a modern petrol station just outside the town limit and, with much enthusiasm for the good tarmac road, opened the throttle full bore for the coast of the Sea of Marmara.

We could not accomplish the journey in one day, so we spent the night at the roadside. I chose a very convenient camping spot; a nicely levelled cut-out in a grassy bank. We woke to find a coach at the side of the tent and a bus queue standing diagonally across the guy ropes. I hastily drew the tent flaps together and we dressed inside. With a number of 'god mornings' and 'excuse me's' we broke camp under the interested though politely restrained glances of the many passengers. One man insisted on talking to us for a long time, and only after noticing the many impatient and exaggerated looks at wrist-watches on the part of the bus load did we realize that he was the driver of the coach. He did not hurry, however, and finished his piece before ambling slowly into the driving cab and starting up. The antagonistic frowns vanished from the passengers' faces and were replaced with smiles. One or two even waved as the coach moved off, which, considering the hour and their prospects of a hard day's work, we valued highly.

On the beach thirty miles from Istanbul we enjoyed, for the first time in our lives, the pleasure of bathing naked from a mile-long beach of golden sand which we had completely to ourselves. Splashing into the warm, deep-blue breakers was absolutely marvellous, especially as it washed away the dust of the road that clogged the pores of our skin and turned our hair into matted tufts.

Nita and I had intended to have a brief dip and then push on, but the water was too fascinating. We made an afternoon of it. It was as well we did, for our next dip was to be in Australia! We reached Istanbul in time to book in at the cheapest and most derelict hotel in Turkey, the only one with any vacancies. How much nicer it would have been to camp in the clean fresh air of the countryside, but we had no choice, for we had to be on hand first thing the next morning to see the agent for our next batch of film.

The Golden Horn, Gateway to the Magical East, last link with Europe. City of minarets; tall, masculine, military-looking structures; provocatively veiled women; haunting eastern music with all the romance of Asia. That is what we had visualized. It seems that illusions are easily shattered.

I am probably wrong in damning this city of fables, but in my view Istanbul was a wonderful place to leave in a hurry. The sanitary arrangements were, to say the least, exceedingly primitive and our nostrils were constantly assailed with aromas sadly unlike incense and exotic eastern spices. Add to this the flirting with death of suicidal car drivers, the incredibly narrow, viciously cobbled streets overflowing with sweating humanity, and you have an idea of Istanbul in high summer. Our bank balance, however, restricted us from a more salubrious neighbourhood at a charge of around £10 per night. Nevertheless, our beds were clean and, despite the perpetual stream of eastern hoodlum-types parading up and down the corridor, we slept undisturbed. As instructed by the hotel manager, I kept the door locked securely and left my gun in a strategic position at the head of the bed. We awoke with the sun trying to stream through the dusty window.

Film farce, part three, commenced promptly at nine o'clock. We found the agent after an hour's search through frowzy crowded streets, up a rickety flight of stairs, in and out of narrow nooks and crannies and, finally, an office door revealed Mr Fezeke, who welcomed us effusively while continuing to annihilate a plateful of cream cakes. We declined his fly-blown offerings and got down to business. Had our new batch of film arrived? It had, but we were forbidden access to it; even worse, perhaps, it would not be possible to send our exposed material out of the country unscreened. It was hopeless from the start. Turkish security regulations are possibly the most rigid in the world. We could do nothing but withdraw ungraciously.

So we crossed the Golden Horn on the ferry boat to Scutari with fifteen hundred feet of film shot in the Balkans. Mr Fezeke had said we should probably be able to get through the customs, but officially, that is by air freight, the film could not be exported. Our picture-making was over for the present. All that precious new film, two thousand feet, languishing in that dingy little office, was to be sent back, unused, to London. I am still maddened at the thought. It meant that through northern Turkey, Persia and Afghanistan we would have no film. Our next pick-up point was Lahore in Pakistan. It was useless brooding, we should have to forget the whole thing and concentrate on getting to Lahore, three thousand, five hundred miles distant. It was going to be a long hard haul.

The Asian side of Istanbul appealed to us far more than the European had done. It was cleaner, more spacious, and the cobbles were less like boulders. Our route lay through a residential area that was reminiscent of southern France. Some magnificent houses sprawled back from the road, with Rolls and Bentley cars parked outside most of them.

There were no real suburbs, and it was not long before we were on the open road again. Once out of the city we saw few women and those we did see were veiled. National headgear for the men seemed to be cloth caps, a result of the westernizing by Ataturk. This gave them the appearance of industrial workers. They were restrained, slightly aloof in manner; in fact, particularly with the cloth caps, very Anglo¬Saxon.

At Izmet, we took on provisions for the long run to Ankara: petrol and oil, some tinned meat and, among other oddments, another water bottle. Every day the sun became just a little bit hotter. While at Izmet we decided to appease our appetites with one good Turkish meal before setting off. We chose a cafe tucked away in a narrow side street. The establishment was full of men all with their caps firmly on their heads and eating in phlegmatic silence. A small boy was busy flitting from table to table and yelling out orders to the cook in the adjoining kitchen. One of the customers got up to help himself from the cooking range and I thought this a good idea for us to adopt. There were some very succulent dishes simmering over the charcoal stove: stuffed tomatoes, luscious fat green peppers, filled to bursting with aromatic mince, stuffed marrows, vine and cabbage leaves, egg-plant, and heaps of rice. The cook, beaming, waited for me to choose a dish.

I took one of each; an unorthodox procedure by the look on his face, but we were very hungry. It is usual to select one stuffed item and pad it well with masses of dry bread, or rice. That may be sufficient when eating is a regular habit. I staggered from the kitchen with two plates heaped to overflowing with every sample of the cook's culinary art. I could feel the eyes following me as I walked past to our table. The Turks seemed to prefer eating to drinking, and at every locanta or chophouse we rarely saw them with a liquid stronger than lemonade, of which they drink a great deal. Water is popular too and they are expert at detecting a good water from an indifferent or bad one; to their trained palates a glass of fine water is appreciated as a fine wine is by a connoisseur.

As appetites were sated, so tongues were loosened, and before the meal was over we were chatting to each other in a desultory fashion. One of the customers told me it was the first time he'd ever seen a woman in the locanta. Nita paused in her feeding to tell him it probably wouldn't be the last. She had fallen in love with Turkish cooking, as I had, and tightly budgeted as we were, there would have to be at least a few more interludes like this one. We paid our bill to the lad; with a small tip it came to just over three shillings for the whole meal. For the first time in days I had to slip my belt a notch.