Turkey on the Eastern Horizon
(A reflective essay by Rick Price, Ph.D., owner of ExperiencePlus!.)
Rick will accompany our new Cycling the Turquoise Coast of Turkey in May. Read about his previous travels in Turkey and why he is excited to go back.)
Somewhere I have a small notebook with an inventory of how many times I’ve crossed the Atlantic Ocean. I haven’t seen that notebook for about a decade and by now I’ve lost track of my transatlantic crossings (it must be something on the order of ninety times). My first two crossings are memorable, though, and I’ll never forget them. The first was by student ship from New York City to Rotterdam in 1966 and the second, my first transatlantic flight, was in January 1968.
I was on my way to Teheran, Iran for a study abroad program. That flight took me from Portland, Oregon to New York, on to Frankfurt, Beirut, and right into the middle of a snow storm that had swept across the Anatolian Plateau of Turkey and the Plateau of Iran. Our flight was to go straight from Beirut to Teheran but the weather forced us to divert to Ankara, the capital of Turkey.
This experience taught me to think about the world in terms of physiographic regions, not just nation-states. All of a sudden these two plateaus loomed large for me. I learned that Iran is not just modern Persia but a high plateau subject to extreme winter weather, very hot summers, and nasty wind blown sandstorms in spring or fall (President Carter learned this lesson while trying to rescue our embassy hostages in the spring of 1980; the rescue attempt was foiled by sandstorms in central Iran). And Anatolia is not just an historic region appended to Asia but another high plateau that, in winter, can be as bleak and cold as North Dakota. My education as a geographer had begun.
We spent twenty-four hours in Ankara as guests of Pan American Airlines. I ate real goat cheese for the first time in my life and fresh, hot, unleavened bread that melted in my mouth. Outside, Ankara was as bleak and cold as the town in northeastern Turkey that Nobel prize-winner Orhan Pamuk described decades later in his book, Snow. Though I had spent the summer of 1966 in Germany as an exchange student, this trip was really the beginning of my discovery of the world.
The Iranian stay is a story for another time but three of us on that study abroad program found that we could trade in the Teheran to Frankfurt portion of our return airline ticket and get a $200 rebate. We also found that we could buy a pretty nice Persian carpet with $200. So we did just that and on May 12, 1968 three vagabonds with three five by six and a half foot carpets set out to hitchhike across Iran and Turkey to Greece.
What an adventure! One of my most vivid memories of that trip is riding the last twenty five miles to the Turkish border leaning over the cab of a full-size dump-truck, wind blazing in our faces as we crossed the broad plateau of Azerbaijan. Ahead, marking the intersection of the borders of Turkey, Iran and Soviet Azerbaijan was biblical Mount Arrarat, rising nearly 17,000 feet above the plain.
At the border we found that we had no exit visas which were required by the Iranian officials. Fine, we said, we’ll sleep in the customs hall while the authorization by telephone and telegraph arrived. We pulled out our $200 Persian “bedrolls” for the night. Now it was the turn of the Turkish officials to raise the alarm. “Where are you going with those carpets? You won’t sell them in Turkey, will you?” No, we explained, we’ll take them to Europe to sell. Our day ended with us playing Frisbee with the border guards from Iran and Turkey before bedding down on the floor of the customs hall. We left the next day with notations in all our passports requiring us to exit Turkey with the rugs.
Paola and I were married in 1969 and traveled throughout Europe until 1976 when I devised a plan to take her to Turkey and Iran. I wanted to share the fascinating city of Istanbul with her and we had a friend in Teheran who was closing down the US Peace Corps operation there to move it to Bahrain. We had been to Tunis, Algiers, Casablanca, and Marrakech together. But Istanbul combines the best of all these, I explained, a true bridge between East and West. So off we went in the spring of 1976 to make our way to Teheran.
Our plan was to hitchhike across Anatolia in April and to get to Teheran in time to accompany our friend across the Persian Gulf to Bahrain. We would return via Turkey to Greece and back to our base in Italy. The spring snow-melt in Anatolia wreaks havoc with roads so our hitchhiking was cut short and we took long distance buses and trains across Turkey, a journey equivalent to a drive from Portland to Los Angeles without the interstate highway.
We felt like veteran travelers on our return trip across Turkey, taking buses from Lake Van, through Turkish Kurdistan and the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates River valleys. I had taken enough cultural geography classes to know we were traversing the area that likely gave rise to modern agriculture as we know it. I look back on that trip now and wish we had taken more time to explore. “I’ll be back,” I thought to myself.
By the 1970s the south coast of Turkey was a popular tourist destination for Europeans and the area was getting international publicity. We headed to Alanya and Antalya to explore the ancient Roman and Greek ruins. We had traveled widely in Greece and Italy and had seen Classical Greek ruins at Paestum, south of Naples, and in Sicily so we were familiar with Greek ruins. But the tiny Hellenistic theater in Kas remains one of my fondest memories. It made clear the value the Greeks placed on landscape as setting for life’s drama long before Shakespeare observed that “all the world’s a stage.” (We’ll visit Kas on our Turkish bicycle tour; I hope it hasn’t changed too much).
Our trip ended with a ride on a small fishing boat from Marmaris, Turkey to the island of Rhodes in Greece. Our bike tour this May and October will end near Marmaris, which has developed into a popular tourist destination since our trip through there in 1976.
My fifth trip to Turkey involved a day-trip only from the Greek island of Samos to Kuşadasi in 1996. I was on Samos developing a new bike tour in the Greek islands when I decided to take a day trip to Turkey. It is only about forty-five minutes to Asia Minor from the port on Samos. I had my bike and rolled off the boat in Kuşadasi to the delight of the merchants in the bazaar. “Mister,” they shouted “how much for the bike? How much do you want for the bike.” I wasn’t selling of course, but rug trader that I am I was tempted to see what kind of rug I could get in trade!
I pedaled 45 km. one way up the coast and inland to the site of one of the great ancient cities of Asia Minor. Inhabited by the beginning of the second century BC, Ephesus was thriving at the time that Troy was destroyed. The remains are of the Hellenistic and Roman period, Ephesus having been a major Roman center city.
During our trips to Turkey Paola and I had always been impressed with the hospitality of the Turks. Our most recent trip confirmed this impression. In July of 2006 we finished our 2,620 mile ExpeditionPlus! bicycle tour from St. Petersburg to Istanbul by bicycling from the Bulgarian-Turkish border into Istanbul. It was nearly impossible to pay for a cup of tea along the way as anywhere we stopped our tea was either offered by the owner of the tea shop or by another patron. We had forgotten about this small gesture but it warmed the heart and made us feel welcome.
Our visit to Istanbul last summer took us back to that city after a thirty year absence. Was it that long absence that made it look so vibrant and alive, or was it really so? Thirty years ago, of course, we were on a strict budget, while this time we stayed in a lovely hotel right near the Blue Mosque. But the city really seemed alive with tourists from the four corners of the world. It was clean, it was colorful, and it was congested. What more could we expect from a city of around twelve million people? This vibrant city was also friendly, happy, and easy to navigate.
If you join us on our bike tour along the south coast of Turkey this May or October, do plan to take a few days to explore this wonderful tapestry of classical and modern Mediterranean history, a bridge between Europe and Asia. If you would also like to explore Istanbul in more depth, we offer a 4 day, 3 night Istanbul Sampler which allows you to experience Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque and many other sights of this enchanting city. There is no place in the world quite like Turkey.