Saturday, 27 October 2007

Turkish Delight (Chapter 5, Erzurum, Turkey)

At a village half-way between Kayseri and Sivas, we went in search of petrol. From past experience, we knew we had to employ sleuth-like methods. A direct approach usually led nowhere. Suddenly no one spoke English. The first step was to stop at one of the little chai houses where the samovar was for ever ready, and get two glasses of the milkless sweet tea. Ironically, we never bought one glass ourselves all the time we were in Turkey; someone was always ready, indeed anxious, to act as host. It was probably a point of etiquette, but we liked to think it was because they found us good company. Once the tea glasses were in our hands then the business of locating fuel could, in a roundabout way, begin. First, from somewhere in the village, an interpreter, usually elderly, would come on the scene. The questions and answers would soon be flowing freely. After an hour or so of conversation, we might casually mention petrol.

'Oh, yes,' we would be told, 'there is a man in the village who keeps some in a forty-gallon drum; he's a butcher really, but quite likely you'd get some there.'

‘And oil too?'

'Yes, of course, and oil too; in fact, so-and-so would go with you to do the introducing.' So eventually we would manage to refuel. As time, within reason, was one of our more expendable items, this way of buying petrol and oil was pleasant, instructive and, ultimately, quite successful.

The Turk is a fine sort of man, tough, down to earth, with no illusions about himself or his country. He is very easy to talk to. It was nice to be able to say, 'Your roads are really bloody awful,' and know he would not take offence. On the contrary, he would heartily endorse such sentiment, but with a mischievous grin would retort, ‘Yes, they are terrible, but our donkeys and oxen don't seem to mind them.' Sometimes I would gladly have swapped our skittish machine for a couple of slow but sure-footed donkeys.

On our way through Turkey we must have sat in discussion dozens of times at the chai houses, the Turkish version of the local pub. Always, at some point, the question of Cyprus would crop up. Why, they said, were we messing about so ineffectually on that strategic island, like a lot of old hens? They felt very strongly about this enigma and every group with which we spoke put forward the same solution. Let the Turkish army take over and within one week there would be no more trouble. To them it was simply black and white. But, we retorted, those tactics are not in vogue any more; that method is as outdated as the Turkish harem. It might be outdated but still highly effective, they said; what had happened to Britain? In the old days no country dared incur her displeasure, yet now she practised appeasement.

We heard this frank opinion of Britain many times, either directly or through an interpreter. We have a staunch ally in these rugged, taciturn descendants of a Moslem empire, but they think we have turned soft. They themselves live on memories of the ruthless but highly successful Ataturk-Father of the Turks. He was the man, they said, who had lifted Turkey out of the rut of Moslem fatalistic resignation; but for him, Turkey today would be nothing more than a satellite of some other power. Westernization provided an answer for them. Now one of the most powerful countries they took as a model seemed to be paling into insignificance. Why? It was difficult to answer that one.

The infrequent villages, their mud-and-plaster walls fading into their surroundings as if camouflaged, merged with the view of ridge after ridge of hills and spurs of the lofty ranges. Someone had told us that only about twenty per cent of Turkey was cultivated. In this northern province there was nothing but endless desolation.

We reached Erzurum, high up in the north-eastern corner of Turkey, chief city of the province bordering on the Russian frontier. Not surprisingly it is here that one of the largest military camps is established. The Turks are not afraid of the Russians-at least not physically-for they are brave and tenacious soldiers; but ever since the Czar dubbed them the 'Poor Man of Europe' the Turks have been ready at least to demonstrate that the poor man is not necessarily a weak one. The constant maintenance of a large, fully mobile army is as much a strain on their resources as it is on ours. While half the young men of the country train in their tactical exercises in the barren country around Erzurum, the other half, still in the army, languish on the Bulgarian border. They have not forgotten the mass expulsion, with all its implications, of Bulgarian-settled Turks during the Korean War. Many of the people we spoke to said it was a miracle that the two nations didn't end up fighting. But bigger powers were at work behind the scenes; no war would ever again remain within the confines of the Balkans. Be that as may, it is a drain, a serious drain on their struggles to remain solvent. Lack of roads, technicians, communications, and modern farming methods, are all too obvious. There has been progress, a great deal in the cities, but more of the modern world needs to reach the small-holdings. We saw men using wooden ploughs in many districts; picturesque, but futile.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Turkish Delight (Chapter 5, Kayseri, Turkey)

Ankara disappeared behind us at dusk on the third day, and it was on the same crisp moonlit night that we made-for us-a tragic mistake. After the second hour, the road forked left, the tarmac continuing along the fork and a dirt surface track winding ahead. We continued along the bitumen. With two brief stops, we covered a hundred miles in record time and felt very pleased with the effort.

'What price those sore backsides now?' I said to Nita as we unpacked for a few hours' sleep. 'A hundred miles almost non-stop and I feel as fresh as a daisy.'

'Me too,' answered my wife. 'But it will be better if we stop for a few hours otherwise we'll feel washed out in the morning.' So we crept into the tent, which we'd had some difficulty rigging because of soft, sandy earth, and, feeling contented, snuggled down to sleep.

'Kayseri in the morning,' Nita mumbled, and with happy sighs we slept.

We were up and on the way again before dawn; prospects could not have been brighter. It was one of those days that started perfectly. The dawn broke about an hour after we started and I had the satisfaction of turning off the headlight as the daylight strengthened-I always enjoy doing that. And what a glorious dawn. The shafts of vivid golden sunlight stabbed up into the sky like daggers above the rugged beige mountains and the sandy plateaux. Our scooter ran like silk and the speedometer never dropped below forty-five. The tarmac wound out before us.

The first bad omen to dispel our complacency was a black shape far ahead which resolved, on approach, into an overturned grape lorry. It was in an awful mess, there were crushed grapes all over the road mixed with shattered glass, blood and petrol. The truck was lying half in a ditch and the driver was stretched out on the bitumen. He was dead. His colleague, sitting in a daze beside the body, was in a badly shocked condition, deathly pale, but apparently unhurt. He told us the other truck which had been in convoy with them had gone on to Ankara for help. The driver had been alive when they left, but they had been afraid to move him without expert aid. It would probably have been useless anyway-he had impaled himself on the steering column. It was the tragically familiar story of the over-warm cab, early hours of the morning, and the driver nodding over the wheel; then the mistake that could not be rectified. For Turkish long-distance drivers there were no such pills as 'Nodoze'. The driver's mate was quite fatalistic and assured us there was nothing we could do. We sat smoking with him for a few minutes and then pushed on.

Our own mistake, discovered a few miles later, was nothing by comparison, but we felt pretty bitter about it at the time nevertheless. Nita spotted it first by exclaiming, 'Isn't that a lake over there?' I stared in the direction of her pointing.

'Can't be,' I began, 'there's no lake anywhere near the road.' But sure enough, there it was; and no mirage either. A beautiful expanse of water, shimmering in the early morning sun-I couldn't believe my eyes. We had studied the map the previous evening and there was no lake within miles of the Kayseri road. As I brought the Prima to a stop, the horrible suspicion loomed.

Nita said, ominously, 'That wretched dirt fork just outside Ankara; it couldn't have been the Kayseri road. . . .' But it was. There, on our map, was the lake, large as life and touching the road at several points. But it was the wrong blasted road. Instead of being a mere fifty miles from our objective, we were nearly two hundred and fifty. I pin-pointed our position; instead of moving south-east, we were heading due south. For us this was a major calamity. All that night driving, for which we were patting ourselves on the backs, had been wasted. I looked at the map again. There was a rough inverted triangle of road with Ankara and Kayseri at the upper points and a place called Nigde at the base. We were sixty miles or so from Nigde, so were what might be termed beyond the point of no return. It was the longest detour we had ever made.

But the day that had started with the sight of death was far from over. We ran out of road at about ten o'clock and for mile after endless mile we ploughed through inches thick of sand and dust under a blazing sun. The country, harsh and arid, looked very unfriendly. It looked even worse after we had the spill. It all happened-as these things usually do-in a twinkling. One minute we were going along upright and reasonably serene, the next the front wheel hit a soft sand-patch and we were lying sprawled over the track with the scooter on its side and the engine screaming wildly. The ground, which met us at forty miles an hour, was much harder than it looked, but we were fortunate not to be badly hurt. Hips, knees, and elbows severely bruised, but the real disaster was not to our bodies, or to the scooter, but to Nita's spectacles. They had been in the offside pannier-bag along with the dixie and other cooking equipment. The whole lot was battered out of recognition. Most of the stuff was replaceable, but not, of course, the specs.

One running board of the Prima was badly twisted. I remedied the trouble in part by bashing it level with a rock, but it still made a pretty uncomfortable footrest. There was, as I said, no mechanical damage. A great wave of depression flowed over us as we reviewed the shambles that had been a pannier-bag. This countryside was hostile for sure.

Nita started laughing at me. My debonair 'gorblimy' cap was no longer set at a jaunty angle as I sat chin in hand on that dry, shadeless bank of dust, but had slewed round with the impact and now reposed with the peak over one ear. We were both smothered with dust.

'Do I really look so funny?' I grunted sourly. 'You can't afford to laugh with the rest of the journey as a blurred picture.'

'If it's going to be like this most of the way,' and here my wife nodded at the dead, parched view, 'I'll be only too pleased to keep it slightly out of focus.'

I stared gloomily at the rocks and desert flats; there was no other human being in sight, not even an animal to relieve the barren landscape. If, by some magic, we could have been spirited home at that moment, I'd have gone like a shot.

But in such horrible situations, it is useless to sit brooding. We rallied ourselves as best we could, bolstering each other's lowered morale. Somehow we reached Kayseri, although it took another day and a half. It was lucky the accident had not been a really serious one: there was nothing between Ankara and Kayseri in the way of medical aid.

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.

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.