The Greece Turkey border was the most official I’d encountered so far with army men and woman in advance of the border patrolling the near by river boundary. Queues of stationary lorries waited in blistering sun for the authority to pass or fail. Once through, however, the only administration was the compulsory green card for 45 euro.
‘Should I change money here?’ I asked the broker.
He shock his head. ‘I don’t recommend, there are 4 commissions here!’ Refreshing honesty, and a reminder I am further east, where trade is an outer garment and no price is fixed.
Outside a loan cyclist with ragged Tibetan flags flying at the back of his panniers caught my attention.
‘Where are you from? I asked, one traveller to another.
‘From southern France! I came through Italy and Albania, ah Albania, such a place’, he touched his heart, and I recalled 24 hours ago Barry saying there is nothing in Albania.
‘I live from day to day, never knowing exactly my path, then someone says go here, and I go there. I cycled 10 days with a Rumanian, and have places all over Romania now to stay.’
As I drove away I saw the French cyclist with a group of other cyclists, and heard him saying to them
‘Ah that was the best camp’,
‘No it was was my best camp’, they competed.
And in that moment I felt the loneliness of travelling alone in a steel can, removed from such camaraderie, speeding too fast through places to encounter others, insulated from smelling the land. I waived to them as I sped past to join the motorway, signposted Istanbul, 230 kilometers.
As I drove my thoughts meandered back to that first desire to reach Istanbul. In a hut in Norway over looking the Hardanger vida writing Sugata’s story, 10 years ago. It was a single chapter in the odyssey of his life, when as a ‘wandervogel’ he escaped the nazification of Germany. In 1935 Istanbul was one of the last exit points from the pressure cooker of Germany for many escaping, mainly Jews on their way to Palestine.
What little else did I know? Ataturk, the republican who sought to drag the people from the dregs of Ottoman Empire into the new century. Turkish delight. The centre of the Ottoman Empire, which had a hold on the land I’ve been travelling for 500 years. Turkish coffee. Orpan Patnuk who I was reading now, his love story to Istanbul. Bordering with Syria, where refugees are fleeing from. Kurds? Constantinople, east west. Taksim square where the students have been demonstrating.
The plan was to stop before Istanbul and I found a place on the map by the Sea of Marmara called something like Barbara (in fact Barbaros), the name of my mother. We’d be there around 5. Good plan, I considered and we turned off the motorway with gratitude. Turkish drivers are fast and irregular. No head is paid to speed limits, they have not done a speed awareness course to know that most people are killed in built up areas. There are unexpected traffic lights, appearing on straight roads difficult to see as I drive into the sun. I am not popular going slowly. They flash lights and undertake. They are quicker on their horn than the buzzer in Just a Minute. Turning off is a relief. The small road goes through factory land, rubbish burning, and twists down to a shanty town of concrete blocks, windows smashed, kids and dogs rampant, roads potholed. No this is not an idyllic Greek sea side village, with a sweet taverna to serve me wine, walk the dog on a desolate beach. I need a new plan.
I rejoined the main coast road along the Marmara sea to Istanbul. The sea is not visible; all the way are enclaves, fortified housing estates, with guards if they are middle class, who gesture move on if I loiter. Light becomes dusk. I pass a hotel called Einstein, but I’m going too fast to turn into it. Istanbul is only 100 kilometres away. I turn off a place that proclaims secret beach, we walk down, no one speaks English, beat music is playing. We do not feel welcome. On we go. Dusk becomes dark. I turn off into an enclave with more trees. I find a guest house. It is run by a German woman married to a Turk. We’ve arrived.
I do not need to see the room, I say, the sea is here. 20 euro, so what. Dog is in the van, poor sod. I have a glass of red wine, the Marmara sea beside me is persistent and strong and dark. I have written up the log, the glass has ended. Tomorrow Istanbul.
I was thinking, amid the melee of it all, this is a suitably dramatic entry to the city at the end of my journey, Istanbul, Constantinople. The fact that PLF didn’t make it that first year of his 19 year old travel, news given by Christine in Metfield, intrigues me, and I wonder why not? (information later contradicted – he did make it) Not that there was much time to dally on such contemplative thoughts. The Turks are macho crazy behind the wheel. The German hotel owner gave good advise: relax and become like them. I did.
The landscape jared with me. No longer the peacefully rolling hills of Greece, but something quite different, hills yes, but stripped bare of trees. Towns and villages of regular concrete blocks of homes grew in their place, no gardens, and litter everywhere. Later a young Turkish girl at university here, would say to me, after a while you do no see the litter. For miles the built up city evolved, becoming tighter, taller and more compact as I drove on and in. It was huge.
A brief intent search last night revealed that there were no camp sites in Istanbul – one called London had closed – I was heading on Sat Nav for a hotel the helpful German woman at the Guest House recommended. Arriving was chaotic. I missed one turn off, found another, made a wrong turn, and I was off the crazy main freeway (what a misnomer) in narrow cobbled streets that were surprisingly hilly, challenging for a van on hill starts to fit between tight parked cars, potential dead ends, reversing for oncoming cars etc. I garnered some respect, being a woman driver, with the dogs head popping out the expected drivers side. I began to enjoy this ‘driving like a Turk’ and made few circles of the hotel area before I found a parking place, which was a lucky find.
The recommended hotel was full, the one they recommended was 80 euro, another 50, which would have to do for one night. Just as I was checking in, I bemoaned to the receptionist that there was no camp in Istanbul.
‘But there is one’, said the boy, ‘just by the radar tower’ He saw my eyes light up. ‘Perhaps I should stop checking you in. Do you want to check it out first? I would if I were you’.
The radar tower is on a corner promontory of land sandwiched between the Marmara sea side on one side and the always busy four lane highway that skirts the old Stanbul city fortifications, the other side. It’s use is to guide the container ships and other sea vessels that wait, like circling planes above Heathrow to pass through to the Bosporus Straight, the water way that divides east from west, and the sea of the Golden Horn. Our first encounter was the wild life, cats and dogs that live amid the outcrop of stones that protect the landmass from the water. In a mad naive way as soon as I arrived I said to Onzo, one of the resident engineers that I wanted to take my dog to the water, so I met the 5 resident dogs, Onzo throwing stones to keep them at bay. First and last time. Now Kali has adjusted to the dogs, keeping his distance. One female is attracted to us, often walking with us in the evening. K as always is not much interested, but has an occasional frolic. There is an old and ill dog, who sleeps most of the day, I’m told to be weary of him, but have given food. He is not thin but always hungry. There is a handkerchief patch of grass, laden with toilet habits of people, dogs and cats, although it is still used, I see, for a man to sleep on under the shade of the single small tree. On a ragged carpet I notice, even he has an understanding of its merit. There are half a dozen other vans, all larger than mine and one huge overlander.
Peter Wells died. Yesterday, Monday, the day of my arrival here, at 6 in the evening.
‘He was like a piece of alabaster, oddly beautiful’, said Gill. ‘There it is, an end of an era’, she added. Ah Peter, who at breakfast would turn the conversation to death, while putting marmalade on his home made bread. Who so prepared for this moment years ahead, who ‘went into the forest’ as the Indians would say. Who told me once not to be a victim, when I was. Poet, artist, socialist, Quaker catholic, I shall miss him. And Gill, who tended and cared for him so lovingly, practically, intelligently, stimulatingly, who listened while Peter talked of Helen his first wife so lovingly, (through rose coloured spectacles one feels) while she got his food, or a book he wanted, and sometimes I wondered if he noticed.
Here in the radar parking lot, close to dusk, the woman selling roses arrives; her market is the lovers who gather here now, parking their cars overlooking the Marmara sea. Perhaps they come here after the Juliana park bench where I was walking last night, where every bench was occupied by lovers, except one, with two men playing music on their mobiles, and who I asked directions, then finding good English, pressed further asking about the park.
‘This park was created’ he said, ‘to celebrate the first stage in our republican history. In 1858 – one year after the Indian revolution I think – and inspired by the French Revolution (1789) that rights were given to the different ethnic people that had accumulated here in Turkey. The Sultan still had absolute power but a secular parliament was formed’. Nice to receive an aural history lesson. I’d taken a Turkish tea in a tea house high up in the park (dog permitted, sulking under the table), next door to two spectacled students, one head scarfed woman, taking it in turns to read Karl Marx to each other.
Galetta Bridge, Railway station, Juliana Park
First full day, started early, traffic buzzing, ships chugging., across the highway under the Ramparts archway. We walked up to the Blue Mosque, threw a few round conquers along the perimeter, casing the area for an opening to enter without the dog. That reminds me, a Dutch man camping next to me informed me a reason why Turkish people do not warm to dogs. Mohamed evidently had a bad experience with a dog, so dogs are not it. The map is getting sorted, we came down skirting the Juliana park, and landed in the railway station.
It was here that Sugata arrived, back in 1935, escaping Germany. On the train he met Omar and Ahmed, two middle class Turks returning home to bring the revolution. The Sultan times were the dark ages and they were bringing the change: Ahmed, trained as an engineer, dreamed of making a bridge across the Bosphorus (it is now built). Omar, trained as an architect, had plans for Izmir based on Brazil. And it was from here that Sugata and Omar visited for old times sake to watch the Orient Express while biding their time before their mutual departures, Omar to Brazil with his German girl friend, and Sugata still hoping for an exit visa to Iran.
The station was a delightful oasis of peace and quiet. No trains, no people. How different from India I thought. There were only two tracks (how unlike Delhi station I thought), a pleasant deco architecture, and stillness. Later I learned that they were repairing the track, hence the station was not in use.
From the station the Galetta bridge is not far. Boats mored up alongside the entrance to the Golden Horn water way were busy with morning ply, waves rocking their holds and cargos of people. The bridge is low, so many taller boats turned and parked before it. Kali, spooked by the horns, became nervous but we persisted along the lower tier of the Galetta, which is a series of fish restaurants. We took coffee, Turkish, watching the Hamel’s of today rolling barrels of beer, oddly, or carrying baskets of bread. From his chair, smoking a cigarette, the owner boomed his commands to the serfs, his belly big, his walk when he finally deigned to rise, a slop of foot, and I thought back to the conversation I’d had last night with the doctor, of how there was no physical education in the schools, no physical balance as there was in India no yoga of mind and body, but as little movement as possible and another cigarette.
We got half way across the bridge. Kali dragging the lead, unhappy, low to the ground, ears back, finally he just lay down. A protest. In the middle of the Galetta bridge. So we turned back. Shortly after he was sick on a patch of ground that had a smattering of grass. Poor bugger. He’d probably eaten some rotten pork. Yes he’s become a street scavenger. Looking for water, I re encountered the possey of men outside the station, and one, with that booming commanding voice, made a gesture to beckon the dog, so I went to him.
‘Water, aqua’, I said.
Over there, he pointed. I gave him the lead. He was delighted, a group of men gathered around him, he was the centre of attention. Kali lapped up the water. The way back was easy, the dog knew it.
We both slept in the afternoon. The temperature was even, not hot and a cool breeze from the Marmara sea kept us fresh.
Taksim Square, House of Innocence
I gave Kali to the keeping of one of the Radar boys, while I ventured out on my own at 5, to do all those things I could not do with a dog. I had pangs of what ifs, but the journey by tram, funicular, and quaint town tram was challenging enough to distract. The destination was Taksim Square where the revolution ‘Occupy’ was broadcast to us in our sitting rooms in Halesworth, spring this year. It was a protest against the government, described to me by the doctor in brief last night. Turkey has a leader who never misses a chance to advocate a minimum of 3 children, the more the merrier, and preferably uneducated. A government that boasts of no waiting lists but cannot deliver quality.
‘We are still waiting for the Islamic revolution. You have to be a socialist to be a Muslim. There are no socialists in Government.’
As the daughter described, the revolution had abated for the summer holidays when the students, who lead the revolt, had departed for their homes, but they were returning so there was a fresh movement, but in a different part of the city, as Taksim was covered by the police and army. She was right, only tourists taking photographs were there when I arrived.
I did not dally long. I had a second mission. But one moment sticks. On the way up the busy shopping thoroughfare, looking out of the window of our slow moving tram, like watching a movie, I passed the city street, the woman kneading doe in the window, the men selling football scarfs, the hawkers, shoppers, people on mobiles, cameras taking photographs of us, even movies, amid this there was a man seated, just looking, a beggar. I saw him, he saw me, then we moved on. When walking down, I saw him again, he saw me again, I smiled, his face lit up, he offered me his hand. I did not take it, but walked on. I regretted not stopping to take his offered hand. A pang of too conventional nerves. A single moment remembered.
By the time I found the House of Innocence of Pamuk, it was closing, just on 6. But there were people gathering for some private function. Journalists, people I wanted to be.
‘You can go’, said a more confident woman interrupting my disappointed muse. ‘You have 10 minutes before our event begins’. So I wandered up the flights of stairs of his regular Istanbul residential house, that had been turned by Pamuk into a museum for his fictional book House of Innocence, to display in cabinets the memorabilia of the thwarted love affaire that lasted 400 pages (many of them I skipped).
“Life is made up of moments like atoms, linked by a necklace of time. This time is difficult for most of us, so I learned that if I just kept those moments, like the 456 moments I was with Füsun, then that was sustainable.” I paraphrase. Beautifully retro. Those hundreds of cabinets of moments, Turkish tea. A whole wall of cigarettes, a la Damian Hirst, suspended in Perspex.
The dog was tied to the van when I got back, two hours later than I’d said. But safe, and happy to see me. Love the dogs happiness. So forgiving.
’Some city’ I said to Onzo when we got back, exhausted.
‘With 20 million people, it is more like a country’ he replied
’20 million!’ I exclaimed. This number would change depending on who I talked to. Wiki says 14 million.
The dog and I took a tough walk along the waterway, cats in every crevice. Men camping out under make shift reeds. Ship horns moaning out.
Just one more day, I say to Kali as we rise in the morning, traffic incessant, horns augmenting, boats humming by. Pee in the bucket. A young Chinese couple arrived next to us late in the night, by car. Chinese are unusual tourists here, and very unusual in the camp according to Onzo. They are a couple who are driving from France, awaiting a visa to pass through Russia to China. They need visas for every country, poor beggars. We bemoaned the Turkish driving, as he cooked up noodles in a small pressure cooker adapted for the car. They had a tent, but didn’t fancy the grass for pitching.
So we were a little late in setting off, after the usual ‘where is my camera?’ search, lost and found, phew. We hastened across the carriage way, turning into one of the four gateways into the city wall, where busses hissed and breathed in and out on their way to our destination. The Blue Mosque. Dog tied up under the shade of Plain tree, a Hawker requested (some money helped) to keep an eye on him. At Blue Mosque square tour guides were gathering with their umbrellas or numbers held high, their charges already taking photographs, queuing at the ready. I saw a lone tourist mount the steps and ask for information, and joined them, and so it was we were the first in. For 10 seconds we had the place to ourselves, but it swiftly became the space of tourists, and it lost it’s own. The architects aim for overwhelming size, majesty and splendour, dwarfed by the hundreds of nationalities talking simultaneously, relaying history, full of numbers: six minarets, eight secondary domes, 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles. A piece of writing in English attracted, an invitation to come and inquire about the Muslim faith, gentle words amid the violent history.
Exiting the door into sunlight, I found myself watching a young girl being sick outside another of the Blue Mosque’s white marble exists, watching as one does as a tourist an ancient artefact, until I caught myself, and entered the story. Young, German, ashamed, and very sick, I took her outside the compound, (instructing a lackey, as one does, to see to the sick), sat her on a bench, found water, and collected the dog. It was the unjudgemental dog, his nose nestling in her hand, that gave her a smile. The Blue Mosque, for all its peaceful calm, high dome, space unencumbered with representation of human figures, or chairs for their forms, its abstract geometry and calligraphy will always have this connecting memory for me, as it will for her no doubt.
Just outside, hardly noticeable amongst the buses, tour guides with their umbrellas or numbers still held high, guide book hawkers or, in the feudal caste system, the lower turning-top sellers, chestnut sellers, pick pockets, was a small corner of a street with a singular roman pillar, going nowhere in particular, unlike the illuminated Egyptian one near by. This broken pillar was the Charring Cross of the Roman world, the point from which all distances were measured. It was the beginning of the great Via Egnatia, the roadway, (now a horrendous 4 lane speedway) on which I had entered Istanbul, first encountered in Stobi, Macedonia, from where it comes from Durres in Albania, just across the Adriatic sea from Italy. I was so excited to find this unobtrusive pillar, I turned to share the news but Kali in these circumstances does not share my interest.
Yeni Mosque was our final objective that day. Here Sugata would sit under the shade of the Cypress trees, chill out, and from a high vantage, watch the Hamel’s carrying their loads across Galetta bridge – he had a default of finding burdened people. On the map it was marked as a green area so I was hopeful (for the dog). Perhaps a park, I imagined. The mosque was indeed elevated over Galetta bridge, but more immediately over the 4 lane highway. Not one cypress tree now stands. No grass. All concreted over, with some on going concretisation around some tombs being excavated. Inside I sat where Sugata perhaps sat, under the shade of the inner quadrangle arches, overlooking Galetta bridge. Quieter, far less intense than the Blue Mosque, I sat and watched. After this, India would not have been such a culture shock for Sugata, I thought. It had so many elements of that Asian land, huge rambling cities where a mass of humanity struggles amid strictures of space, caste and climate, that diversity of tribe and religion, passing through or staying, that great past history, its shadow casting today (which Pamuk describes it well). I wanted to draw the geometric designs as I had done once in that lovely tomb in Delhi, Humayan tomb. But I had a dog waiting.
I’d tied Kali to a mobile railing stationary at the time, which was being moved, Kali and all, as I exited. As a reward for the petrified dog, I bought him one of his favourite eastern dishes, pastry with a smattering of cheese. As we sat on a bench to the side of the Mosque, the 5 lira note change blew onto the ground in front unseen by me. What caught my attention was one of the older seed sellers (selling sunflower seed for visitors to give to pigeons) move with unusual speed, pick up the note right in front of me. For a moment I thought he would give it back to me, but that was just a moment, it went into his pocket. So be it, I thought. He then approached closer, perhaps to return it? But no, to blow his nose over the bin beside us and with his fingers extricate a sizeable piece of snot, which he discharged into the bin. He smiled as he left, slopping back to his pigeonhole of a cubical, 5 lira the richer.
I returned to Cheers. It’s a tourist restaurant in a back street on our way home which I’d found yesterday, befriending the Syrian waiter, who I noticed was, like most Turks, putting on weight around his belly. Not enough sport, I think to myself, not enough balance between mind and body. No yoga.
We both rested in the afternoon. Waking up I did something crazy, I had a cigarette. It got the bowels moving, and I had to move sharp to the restaurant across the way (close but to cross the road I have to walk to the traffic lights and back again). The toilets were clean and pleasant, and the restaurant a surprising pleasure. Built into the city walls, the table and chairs look out to the four lane highway, a view I had dismissed as absurd, but once sat down and not having to make conversation above the noise, I began to enjoy the place, the coffee was delicious, and I discovered, they had Internet. Should have investigated before.
As I returned, the rose woman was arriving for the evening lovers. Tea was being served. A Mercedes bus had arrived carrying a German family and their large dog, male, something to keep Kali from.
A Turkish man addressed me in French, and naturally I responded. I knew I should have refused, but somehow I said yes to his invitation to take me to his cousins restaurant. It was not far away, near the Blue Mosque, the one with the dervish turn every evening, a mecca for tourists to take photographs or movies, in this mad way we have. My French speaker was a numbers man. I heard now much rents were in Istanbul, augmented by rich Syrians fleeing war in their homeland. Today and yesterday, how many children each of his cousins had, how many years difference between him and them, how much wight he lost when his father died. Ah Bon, was my standard reply. An odd last night, a relief to return to our parking lot, a last look over the Sea of Marmara, to the lights on the other side of the Bosphorus of the east.
The dog gave a half hearted wag, his sad eyes begging. Both he and I were scratching our bodies throughout the night, as if I needed a physical reason to leave the radar concrete site and Istanbul. We were both flee ridden. Outside the ship horns blew on their way to and from the Bosphorus.