Good news and bad news: I took some really great pictures this week. But they’re in my camera, which is in my bag, which is hiding in a German airport until someone can find it and bring it home to me. I’ll post photos soon!
Riding out of Mardin in eastern Turkey, I followed backroads through terrain that could have been New Mexico: small streams running through rocky scrub slopes, topped with red-rock outcroppings. Every 20km or so, a minaret appeared in the hills, and then a village of mudbrick and concrete block homes, above the green farmland. The mosques’ metal domes shone brightly in the sun. I imagined John Wayne or Alan Ladd riding this land on horseback, drawing a bead with his sixshooter on the minaret’s squawky loudspeakers broadcasting the afternoon call to prayer, then thinking again and lowering his gun. He’d ride into the sunset, because it’s a Western.
Just before sunset, and after a long day of riding the hills, I passed through Şenköy (literally, Happytown, a common name here).The local kids had been tailing me for a few blocks on their own bikes, and when the parade came to a halt at the corner store, we had a crowd. I traded high-fives with the kids, hellos with the older folks on the stoop, and talked a little with the guys inside about last night’s big football match. People stared outright. (Turkish folks, especially out in the country, don’t have the US habit of pretending not to stare. Instead, they just lock on to the oddball foreigner, take three or four steps closer, and won’t look away for anything.)
One of the teens, with a sleeveless t-shirt and a basketball, asked me if I like the NBA. LeBron? Lakers? Kobe? Yes, yes, and yes. Then, he asked if I wanted to play. It’s hard to turn down an earnest invitation like that. I thought I had to show these kids how the game is played, American style. Probably I felt this way because I was irrational and delirious from the heat. I was twice as old as these guys, hot and tired from riding all day, and no great hoops talent under the best conditions.
We walked down the street to the rotten asphalt of the playground and chose 3-on-3 teams. The rest of the kids gathered on the wall and cheered. I fouled relentlessly, traveled when I could get away with it. Shot a little, missed most. But I had one weapon, the bounce pass, which these guys had never seen and could not defend. So I fed our sharpshooting forward ball after ball, and he kept sinking the twos. The wall urchins yelled YesYesYes! and YouAreWelcome! We won big. I drank a Coke and rode off into the sunset, flanked by my victorious teammates. (Did I hear a “Shane! Come back Shane….” in the wind?)
A few days later, I followed the Tigris river to Hasankeyf, a 1300-year-old castle and village that’s been nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status. Hasankeyf’s cliffside homes and fortress walls were of such strategic importance that they were occupied by Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, and others who wanted a foothold in the region. It’s threatened now by a gigantic dam project that will flood the valley under hundreds of feet of water.
I talked with the owner of a small restaurant who bemoaned the coming of the dam: “My work is finished. The town is finished. Everything is finished.” The government is already building the roads for the new Hasankeyf, far up the hill on the other side of the river, but it’s not clear who will live there once the old city is flooded. There are more optimistic voices, though. I spent the warm evening drinking chai with Idris, an archeologist overseeing excavations at the site. He told me that the dam is a “fifty year old government dream.” His grandmother, he said, grew up hearing about it, and when she died as an old lady, there was still no dam. Idris believes that when he is an old grandfather, the dam will still be a dream.
After Hasankeyf, I rode up and out of the Tigris valley to a wide farming plateau, and on to the city of Batman. (Yeah, the locals all know about our Batman and Robin, and they like to joke about it.) The guys at the Batman rail station, which sees three trains a week, dropped everything to sell me a ticket west for the next day. A manager, a cargo guy, and a maintenance man sat with me the office for an hour drinking chai and talking about the virtues of rail travel. If the conversation slowed, they’d rally to find another topic, call for more chai, and keep me in my seat. I don’t think they were lonely for company, but I’m pretty sure they’ll be able to milk the story of the American visitor for a few months.
The train ride and sleeper car were everything the guys said they would be: comfortable, scenic, long. Two days of travel through Turkey’s interior was a nice way to see the country in reverse and with far less effort. The landscape shifted from rocky buttes to grassland and steppe, to green mountains. We followed rivers to find the low twisting passes through the mountains. I made friends with Omer, a young man who was going to Istanbul to live with his older brother and work in a textile factory. His entire traveling kit was a bag with a t-shirt, a pair of socks and underwear, and some jeans. It made me feel like I’d been laying siege to Turkey, with my four bags full of camping gear and clothing for every occasion.
Back in Istanbul, I reconnected with the amazing host family of Aysun Cervatoglu, her sister Asuman, and nephew Gökay for my last three days in Turkey. I visited Asuman’s elementary school again and watched teacher Murat lead his kids in a Turkish folk dance (super-cute video here). Murat took me out to drink raki with Gokay and teacher Emel that night. It turns out that raki is 45% alcohol, which is enough to just wreck an American; my Turkish friends handled it with ease. The next evening, we visited the hilltop park of Camlica, where newlywed couples posed for photos, the Istanbul skyline and the Bosphorus in the far background. A boy of eight or nine walked past in a white gown, a bejewled crown, and a prince’s scepter. His proud parents trailed close behind. Asuman told me it was his circumcision costume–a Turkish tradition for every boy.
So: that’s it. My time was up. I got myself and my bike on the airplane, with considerable logistical help from Gokay, and came home. Checked my mail, sorted the bills. Tried to overcome the jet lag. Before I sign off completely (I’ll make one more post with some pictures), a few more things:
- Lance Armstrong is wrong. It is about the bike. My bicycle put me in places I wouldn’t otherwise be, and opened real and conversational doors with people who might otherwise keep them shut. Because of the bike, I could play basketball with village kids and dance at a Kurdish wedding. I could share a picnic with a farming family far from the official tourist sights. On a bus, whizzing by at 100km/h, I would have missed those opportunities. Many of my best moments in Turkey came when I was between places on the map. But there’s more: the bicycle is a tool for and symbol of joy, freedom, wonderment. People in Turkey were drawn to it–and eager to share in the story of their country as seen by bicycle.
- As you could tell, I had a great time in Turkey. But it’s a deeply divided culture, especially in the eastern part: men and women exist in separate spheres, with the latter almost invisible to me. Men gather in chai houses and on the street corners of every town. I could comfortably sit with them and chat. I don’t know if a woman–especially a single woman–would feel as warmly accepted into the extremely male public culture of Anatolian Turkey. Maybe there’s a way for a woman to see inside the female world that I didn’t have access to.
- Non-Turkish friends: You should visit Turkey. (And you should consider doing it by bike!) For the history, the people, the culture, the great food. It sounds exotic, and in many ways it is, but Turkey is an easy place to travel. I think you’d love it. Please go, and let me know so I can connect you to some of my new good friends there.
- I really want to thank the super people of the Anatolian Mountaineering Club, who helped me with routes in western Turkey, and who suggested some adventures in the East. Thanks especially to Oguz Tan, an experienced cyclist who spent an hour looking at maps with me, and who set my mind at ease early in the trip.
- The google tells me some blog readers are from Germany, Singapore, the Netherlands, and the UK. I’m really curious to know who you are! If you’re one of these readers, please send me a note at email@example.com and tell me how you found this blog.
Statistical stuff. Let’s do the numbers: 1800km of riding, and about 15,000 meters of climbing. That’s almost as much as going from sea level to the summit of Mt. Everest twice, which makes up for the relatively small distance I managed to cover! (Thanks to Aussie friend Greg’s GPS, you can see some of the daily rides and maps online.) One flat, on my last day of riding. One worn-through tire that bravely suffered weeks of bad pavement and washboard gravel roads. No other mechanical troubles, bike or body. Approximately 87% high-five rate, mostly with schoolkids who would line up on the street to get ride-by high-fives. YesYesYes! Welcome! (Search for my pal Pete’s High Five Running page on facebook. It’s cool.)