Sunday, 14 October 2007

Turkish Delight (Chapter 5, Ankara, Turkey)

Now we were in Asia. Our direction was at first to the north; almost to the Black Sea, through flattish green countryside where I blessed the tarmac road beneath the scooter. After a while the road turned east again and wound up into the mountains. We had five hundred miles to cover from Istanbul to Ankara. It was quite an abrupt climb and the hairpin bends twisted up among forests undisturbed by man. At a little place called Bolu, we shed our jackets; drill slacks, shirts, and sandals were more than enough. From Bolu to Ankara the road ran through two hundred miles of pine forest. It was a delightful stretch. Fifty miles from the capital, however, the green disappeared and was replaced by harsh, arid country. Desert. The engine purred, the miles mounted and the sun became progressively hotter. We passed more and more water buffalo and women in drab, black swathings, a depressing colour accentuated somehow by the dazzling sunlight. Ankara loomed up three days after we had left Istanbul, and swallowed up our two sunburnt and dust-coated figures. The air-filter on the scooter was so choked it could barely climb the steep hill to the British Embassy. We stopped to ask directions and were immediately the cause of a traffic blockage. The crowd were all anxious to help us find our way and when we did get clear we were sent off with a rousing cheer. All very heartening.

Most of Ankara is modern and the city lies in a dustbowl. Bare mountains encroach on every side of this Hittite land. Nero called Ancyra (now Ankara) 'Metropolis'. The emperor must have been a prophet, for only within modern times, thanks to Kemal Ataturk, has this come true. With the temperature up in the nineties, we pulled into the Embassy, tired, hot, filthy, but triumphant.

The security guard glanced up from his imported edition of the Evening News and looked at us coldly.

'Yes, sir?'

'I'd like to see the Consul if I may.'

'Sorry, sir, the Ambassador is away and the Consul and the First Secretary have gone with him-they'll be back after the week-end.'

'But surely there must be somebody here to deal with business,' I said.

'Well, there is one assistant, but he won't be back until two o'clock.'

'Very well,' I replied, 'we'll wait for him.' We paced the quiet hall for a few minutes.

'Do you think my wife and I could get a wash?' I asked.

'Yes, sir,' he answered from the depths of the newspaper.

'Down the corridor and second on the left.'

'Thank you; you are most considerate.' He looked up from the paper with a puzzled expression as we passed the desk.

Prospects brightened as our interlude in the toilets lengthened. We stayed an hour, at the end of which we emerged scrubbed and shining to see the hands of the clock pointing to two. The assistant (thank heaven, a human being) bounced through the doors punctually.

In the next half-hour our position altered considerably for the better.

First, as the Ambassador and his entourage were out of town, we could camp on one of the (lower) lawns for a night or two. The scooter, which was badly in need of attention, could be operated upon in the garage, and the next day the assistant would see what could be done about shipping out our film. Confidence restored, we set up camp in the spacious gardens and surrounded by exotic blooms and a view of the city below from the tent flap, we were established for our short stay in Ankara.

That evening we visited the tomb of Kemal Ataturk, a huge square mausoleum perched on top of one of the hills, brilliantly floodlit and proudly pointed out by an old man we met as the last resting-place of the greatest man in Turkey's tumultuous history. When we told him we had travelled from Istanbul, he dismissed that city with a sniff.

'That hybrid ants' nest is not Turkish; this is the real Turkey,' and he waved his hand about him at the myriad twinkling lights. 'You sniff that bracing air,' he said, inhaling deeply. 'There's nothing like that in Stamboul. That's symbolic of our new country, fresh, invigorating, and healthy. Ataturk knew what he was doing when he chose Ankara as the new hub of Turkey. It is a thousand pities he's not alive today.'

We looked at the glittering tomb again, reflecting on the influence of westernization we had seen thus far; the abolition of the fez was, in itself, a revolutionary move. I fell to surmising what this undoubtedly great man-his notorious private life notwithstanding-might have achieved had he lived longer. He had been dead for eighteen years but his memory to the Turks was as fresh as yesterday. Even now, tolerant as they generally are of criticism, one has to be careful on the subject of Mustapha Kemal Pasha.

For two days I worked stripped to the waist in the furnace-like garage of the Embassy. The Prima was checked from stem to stern. I decarbonized the engine, swapped the back tyre with the spare, changed the gear-box oil, took up some slack in the steering, adjusted the clutch, and cleaned the air filter of an incredible amount of dust. A new sparking-plug was fitted for good measure. The mileage showed just over three and a half thousand miles, about a third of our total land mileage to Australia. While I was working on the scooter, Nita was no less busy cleaning and repairing our clothing and equipment. Both my pairs of slacks were torn at the knees, the results of occasional tumbles to the ground.

At night, it was a minor thrill for us to sit on the balcony of the Embassy building and watch the lights of the capital twinkle on: millions of them, like fireflies against a backdrop of velvet. The dusk brought coolness and a soft breeze, and to sit drinking Turkish coffee and watching the lighting-up ritual was a sort of unwritten law for most of the staff. For two nights we joined in this soothing pastime.

As we expected, we had no luck with our film problem. There was a wild idea of including it in the diplomatic bag, but this was vetoed at the last minute as 'not being quite cricket'. We should have to carry it to Lahore.