Touring Turkey on the Cheap
It wasn't long before I realized that my shortcut was going to be anything but. The road was twistier than a noodle, winding its way along the wall of a yawning canyon. Half of each lane was broken away, and the occasional vehicle straddled the center line as it careered haphazardly along to the next village.
Paralyzed with conflicting urges, I wanted to admire the vista and to keep intently focussed on what remained of the road. I wanted to stop and take pictures, and to keep moving to avoid getting punted off the cliff by the next rattling truck to come racing around the bend. I wanted to slow down and absorb the spectacle, and to race ahead to reach the next town before sundown. After all, the sun was getting very low in the sky, and my headlight (all of the lights, in fact) hadn't been working since Germany.
Germany was a long way away from here, the mountains of southern Turkey, both geographically and figuratively. I might have had a chance of getting the lights fixed in Western Europe, if I'd had the patience for the shops to order the parts for my leaky, squeaky 10-year-old Suzuki dirt bike, purchased in Amsterdam for way too much money. But I was eager to keep moving, and kept telling myself that I'd find a shop in the next city I stayed in. No time in Vienna. No luck in Budapest. Not a chance in Romania or Bulgaria.
It wasn't until the Suzuki creaked into Istanbul, held together with pieces of string and scotch tape (literally), that I forced myself to locate a shop to replace the bald rear tire and seriously overstretched chain. They couldn't manage the lights, however, so the Suzuki was still flying blind.
And this mountain road was getting steadily hairier. Soon the pavement petered out altogether, and I found myself lurching along a rocky track, dodging potholes and goat herds. I congratulated myself on having the foresight to buy a dirt bike (although it was really just a lack of cash for anything else), all the while cursing the lack of lights in the approaching dusk.
Not all Turkish roads are like this. An hour after arriving in the country, I found myself on the most perfect piece of pavement on Earth, the Autobahn leading east into Istanbul. Six glassy smooth lanes with a 130 km/h (81 mph) speed limit arcing past mathematically perfect rolling farmlands and the occasional nuclear cooling tower. It was simply too much for my battered Suzuki, and I turned off for the pitted, chaotic secondary roads first chance I got. But that's Turkey for you, an ever-shifting balance between the 20th Century and the 14th.
At the moment I was rolling headlong towards the latter. Thumping through mountain villages, I passed peasant farmers in donkey-drawn carts, brown-skinned children playing soccer on the road, puny roadside cantinas constructed of sticks and hay, and the occasional fellow motorcyclist, buzzing along on a two-stroke MZ or Jawa, with three and sometimes four people aboard.
How do you get four Turks on a 250cc motorcycle? Dad drives, junior sits on the tank, and Mom in her skirts and scarves rides side-saddle on the back, cradling the baby in her arms. Not a helmet in the bunch, of course. One enterprising motorcyclist I passed figured out how to get five people on his bike, by the simple expedient of adding a sidecar. Everybody rides.
On the previous day, a toothless old man with a cane came up to me as I was stopped at the side of the road taking pictures. He managed to communicate that he was looking for a ride to the next town, where I happened to be going, thirty kilometers away. I looked at him, bent and frail, like he was a madman. ``No helmet," I said, pointing at my own brain bucket, trying to find a reason to turn him down. That's not a good excuse in Turkey, and he persisted, so I acquiesced. I had him place his cane across my stomach and hold on to both ends, and we blasted off through canyons and desert for the next town. He would shout cheerfully at me from the back, and I would shout something back, and neither of us had a clue what the other was saying.
Most Turks drive cars, however, although it is rumoured that Turkish vehicles only have two controls, accelerator and horn. An acquaintance in Budapest warned me of this when I informed him of my plans to tour as far as Turkey. ``Craziest drivers in the world," he said, recommending that I park as soon as I arrive and take the bus.
But after five minutes of getting acquainted with Istanbul's estimated 17 million residents in that city's perpetual rush hour, the sheer genius of the Turkish system of driving becomes apparent. First, you must ignore all lane and traffic control markings, since you can easily fit another two or three lanes of traffic into the available space if everybody just squeezes up a little. Second, you should honk more or less continuously so that everybody around is aware that you are currently executing a hazardous and paralegal manoever and they won't be caught by surprise.
And the system works! I was actually thankful for the incessant honking, which relieved much of the burden of constantly checking my blind spots (``toot, here I am in your blind spot", ``beep, here I go, leaving your blind spot") and let me focus more on the chaos directly in front of me. Unfortunately, my own horn had fallen off in Hungary, so I wasn't able to participate as fully as I might have.
On the more open highways, the drivers did't relax all that much, constantly trying to muscle past me and share my lane position, even when I was already directly behind someone else and there was nowhere for them to go. The thought of those few feet of unused lane on either side of my motorcycle just drove them crazy, and more than once I had to aggressively defend my position against encroaching cars.
But up here in the mountains there is little traffic, and fending off aggressive drivers is the least of my concerns. I'm starting to toy with the idea of pulling off to the roadside and unrolling my sleeping bag in one of the many caves that pock the rocks and cliffs in this part of Turkey.
After all, I wasn't too far from the region of Cappadocia, famous for the monasteries, palaces, and often entire cities that were tunneled into its mountains and badlands in the previous millennium. One gets the haunting feeling that the entire land is hollow, the ancient tunnels and chambers beneath your feet echoing with the bustle of the world above, their dark windows and doorways looking out at you from every rock face.
Only that morning, I had decided to stretch my legs at the Selime monastery, a subterranean maze of ancient churches, apartments, kitchens, and stables. Leaving the bike at the side of the road, I trudged up the worn rock paths towards some of the more sinister-looking openings into the ancient Christian underworld. Two young Turkish lads bounced along beside me, attracted by the motorcycle and eager to show me around. Ishmail, no more than 13, spoke reasonable English, and without any prompting, proceeded to give me the most throrough and professional tour of an ancient site I had yet had in Turkey. Diligently pointing out all the key chambers, rock carvings, and remains of ancient frescoes, he even led me on a perilous rock climb up a vertical shaft that rose to other rooms and lookouts hundreds of feet above. His younger sidekick followed us with a rolled-up bundle of cardboard that he picked up at the side of the road, and which he lit on fire to use as a torch when we came to particularly dark passages. Though they never asked for it, I tipped the lads 40,000 Turkish lira (about 80 cents), and turned down their persistent appeals for a ride on the Suzuki.
There are times the Turks can be almost pushy in their friendliness. Everyone wants to know where you are from, and it is always the most wonderful place, and if you are dealing with someone who has something to sell, he always has a friend from there. But once you escape the bazaars and kilim (carpet) sellers of Istanbul, Turkish hospitality becomes much more genuine.
Almost daily, I am invited to join the gas jockeys for tea at various filling stations, where they want to know about me and my wreck of a Suzuki (which was usually revered as an exotic and highly desirable machine). We rarely have a common language, but sign language can fill a lot of gaps, and a suprising amount of information gets communicated in the end.
One gas station owner invited me into his office over tea to tell me all about his time in Germany, where he worked for two years to save the money to buy his business, upon which he now sits pretty. He went on and on about a Suzuki GS1000 that he bought in Germany for 3000DM and sold in Turkey for 7000DM, and recommended that I do the same with mine. And yet he only spoke Turkish and German, and me only English and a bit of French.
Finally the mountain road started downwards, and I thought that I must be getting somewhere. Looking out from a viewpoint, I could see the neurotic road winding and winding and winding in every direction during its descent, except, it seems, for south, the direction I wanted to go. It appeared that it would take 30 miles of driving to cover the last 5 miles on the map.
The sun was gone, and I pressed doggedly on. A policeman driving the other way politely flashed his headlights at me, chiding me for my invisibility. And then, suddenly, I reached the Mediterranean coast---and the 20th century---just as darkness hit.
I parked beside the first hotel I saw, which had rooms for 200,000 Turkish lira (four U.S. dollars---it's easy to be a millionaire in this country), including an actual private toilet and shower. Perfect. The tavern next door was empty, and the teenage-looking bartenders were far too curious about my travels and motorcycle to let me make the day's notes in my journal. They were full of advice on places to visit along the south coast, places with good bars and discotheques, and perfect beaches full of tourists. What about history, I ask. I like ancient cultures, old towns, historic sites, and traditional lifestyles. You know, Turkey. They shrugged and shook their heads, obviously too jaded by the impossibly rich history of their own country to care. Instead they asked about American bands and poured me free beers for my troubles. And I had to remind myself that this was 1995, and this was Turkey, too.