|No Thru Road - The Thousand Year
by Clement Salvadori
I left Istanbul on a grey, lowering day. I was alone. No place I had to be, ever. I could stop anywhere I wanted, fall in love, marry, settle down. I could go on and on and on. The only restraint on my trip was financial. Living cheaply, I could mosey along for at least a year easily. Probably two.
The owner of the little hotel I had been staying at near Sultan Ahmet Square looked on as I strapped my luggage to the motorcycle. A pair of small combat packs, surplused from somebody's army, were hooked together and slung over the saddle. In one was cooking gear, in the other, a few spare parts. Sharing the luggage rack and rear portion of the saddle was a small tent, a sleeping bag, and a middling-sized duffle bag in which spare clothes, rain gear, and anything else was crammed. The packing was not a polished job, but it worked.
"You say you go to India like that?" queried the innkeeper. "That is very long way." I am sure that he had said exactly the same to a hundred other low-cost travelers, but to him it was still astonishing that a person would leave home and family and head off for parts unknown.
I could not disagree with his appraisal of the distance. But if I could make the 250 miles to Ankara, and then the 250 miles to Adana, and then the distance to Aleppo ... Long journeys begin with the roll of a wheel, to paraphrase someone. And you never know where you will be spending the next night.
Down at the ferry landing by the Golden Horn the crew squeezed me and the motorcycle into a small opening between the steel railing of the boat and an overloaded truck. The Bhosphorus was slightly choppy, and the vessel creaked and groaned as it ploughed its way across the current. This fast-flowing channel of water was considered by cartographers to be the dividing line between Europe and Asia, over which a thousand armies had crossed in the last 30 centuries.
Traveling by motorcycle is not really the stuff of romance. For that you want large yachts or private jets, and lots of pampering. Or expensive safaris in East Africa, with charging rhinos and man-eating lions and cold champagne. This trip that I was imagining was not going to be very adventurous, as I would diligently avoid flirtations with death, but it would definitely be uncomfortable. "May the sun always shine and the wind be at my back" is the motorcyclist's mantra, but as I landed on the shore of Asia Minor the clouds were drizzling, and the wind was coming from every which-way.
Also on the ferry were two English lads riding two-up on a Triumph motorcycle. We decided to pursue the road together. After an hour the drizzle had become a steady rain, and we arrived at some small town. However, this was the month of Ramadan, when observing Moslems do not eat between dawn and dusk, and not a cafe was open. Ramadan, it should be noted, is vaguely similar to Christian Lent. We saw a building under construction, and the workmen invited us inside, where we set up a stove and brewed a pot of tea. And talked about what to do next. The rain was increasing.
The workers had a staticky radio, and one came over and explained, with hands and paper and pencil, that the announcer had just said there had been a landslide and both the road and railroad were blocked east of town. All right, we would return to Istanbul. We packed up the cooking gear, got on the bikes, and headed back uphill to the main road. At which point the two Brits fell over on the water-slick cobblestones.
There we were, struggling with the bike, repacking the load, rain pouring down, when a local came along with an umbrella and indicated that we should follow him. We did, going several hundred yards to a very new house built out of concrete blocks, with a dirt-floored storeroom beneath, living quarters above. We pushed the bikes inside and followed our guide up the stairs and through the front door, three very wet bikers.
Where we were met by our host's wife, small daughter, mother, and two sisters. Who were somewhat surprised at our presence. The house had a hall, three small rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. A quick reorganization occurred, with the sisters moving in with Mama and we being given their room. The young women immediately got to work on two sewing machines and turned out pajamas for the three of us, since all our gear was wet. Our host had worked in Germany for some years, and spoke a little of that language, about as much as I did. He had come home when his father had died, not wanting to leave the five women without masculine protection.
The storm continued. The radio said that the road back to Istanbul was blocked. A train was trapped between the slides, but safe. The storm abated. The women were busy in the kitchen. I heard our host arguing with his mother. I intruded, asking if our presence had created some strife.
Not at all, he said, but he feared that we were hungry, and wanted to start dinner before the official end of the day; his mother, truer to her Moslem tenets, objected. Stick with the religious instructions, I said, and do not concern yourself with us. We will happily wait, and we would feel guilty if you contravened the essence of Ramadan.
Not long after the distant cannon sounded, signaling the end of the day; the food was served, and we dug in. I cannot remember what we had, but it was good, and plentiful, and made better by the pleasure of being among hospitable strangers. Some travelers seek the anonymity of hotels and paid servants, but I feel they miss much of what the world has to offer.
We went to bed and woke to a clear, sunny sky. Our hosts had put themselves out a great deal to
accommodate us, and we were appreciative. And they were happy to let us enjoy their hospitality, which is a fundamental aspect of the Koranic philosophy.
The Brits and I parted ways at the outskirts of Ankara, as they wanted to see the city, and I wanted to get on to the Cappadocia region. This is where generations of families had hollowed out their homes in the soft rock of the steep-walled valleys; now they had moved to nearby towns to enjoy the questionable pleasures of indoor plumbing and electricity, abandoning hundred and hundreds of these cliff-dwellings. I rode down one small road and found a thousand empty windows staring down on me; I moved into a five-room duplex, my ancient Hittite Motel. For several days I stared at the strange sights of Cappadocia's 4000-year history ... too much to deal with here.
My intent had been to head down through Syria and Iraq into central Iran, but about 30 miles from the Syrian border I saw, headed toward me, a long column of Mercedes and Land Rovers and American cars pulled over to the side of the road, with a Turkish military vehicle at the front. Ah yes, October 1973; the latest Arab-Israeli war had just broken out, and foreigners had been advised to get out; hence the convoy.
Plans can change; I turned northeast to Erzurum. Back at the Pudding Shop in Istanbul the information network said that the easiest Turkey-Iran passage was via Dogubayasit. Further south, at those frontier posts in the heart of Kurdistan, a traveler could be held up for days as the officials, both Turkish and Iranian, who hated being assigned to Kurd country, cheerfully trifled with the foreigners as a way to amuse themselves as well as to perhaps elicit a little augmentation of income.
Erzurum was an uninspired center of government offices. I headed east, passing Mt. Ararat. Where, according to the tourist-office bureaucrat, yet another expedition was struggling through the chasms and ravines, bent on finding the remains of Noah's ark; the Turks had long appreciated that these pseudo-Biblical excursions could provide a small source on income to the state, and to the local villagers who appreciated this occasional influx of money. At least this sort of endeavor was reasonably benign, and gave work to many otherwise unemployed Western archeologists.
My time at the border was relatively brief, less than three hours; a lone motorcyclist did not excite the customs and immigration people, whereas bus-loads of potential baksheesh-givers did. I was free to speed the 150 miles to Tabriz. It was a gorgeous afternoon, and the slender Persian road was smooth and un-trafficked. This was desert, deserted, golden hued mountains ahead of me, an eagle swooping alongside, my shadow growing longer in front of me.
An image appeared in my head as I rode, which I could indulge as I did not need to concentrate whole-mindedly on the road, there being neither animals nor vehicles to contend with. My mind's eye saw a large book with thin pages, and I would turn a page, and then another, and another, and I knew that when I got to the last page, I would understand the purpose of my life. All this while rolling along in a harsh countryside at 70 or so miles an hour.
It was a pleasant sensation, leafing through these mental pages, which may have lasted a moment, or an hour, knowing that all my questions would be answered -- until I realized that the stack of unturned pages never got any thinner. Harsh reality intruded, and I concentrated on arriving at Tabriz before dark.
text and photography copyright © 2001 Vivid Light Publishing