Monday, July 2, 2012

Day Two: A Lesson In Turkish Automotive Adventure. Afterwards, Erzurum. The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary

This is day two of the Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary.

The road south from Trabzon climbed slowly onto Anatolian plateau, and as the day wore on we drove up loftier and loftier mountains, plunging further and further east.

We discovered that the number one Turkish road-trip pass-time is overtaking other cars.  Two lanes?  One lane?  Dirt road dusty with construction?  Turkish drivers think all these places are great for passing by motorists languishing at the speed limit.  Inevitably every few minutes we would suddenly be passed by a clutch of cars which would veer into the oncoming traffic.  This happened everywhere we drove:  in cities, on long straight highways, on blind curves hugging the sides of mountains.

At first, these incidents were scary.  Our driver would brace herself and grip the wheel testily.  Us passengers would hurl opprobrium at the passing car.  “Why is he passing us?”  “Turkish death wish.”

But after three straight hours of driving an absurd humor crept into the incautious bravery of the Turkish driver.  Once while driving down a wide mountain highway we were passed by an impatient driver who himself was passed while passing us by an even more impatient driver.  This was a thing of beauty.  A rare "Double Pass."  Of course, a few bends in the mountain later we saw both cars stuck in a clog of traffic, only ten meters ahead of us for all their automotive bravery.

The art of Turkish overtaking reached its most fantastic hight when we saw a motorbike puttering its way up the side of the mountain, its left turn signal on, meandering suddenly into the left-hand lane even though there were no other cars on the road.  “Look guys,” our resident snark pointed out, “this guy’s passing himself.  It's a Self Pass.”


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Then the beauty of the changing scenery quieted us.  We had mounted the Anatolian Plateau, an otherworldly dry scrubland stretching restlessly in every direction.  Slabs of rock jutted out of the pasture at odd angles, as if there had been some great ancient war that had torn up the earth.  The sky was bigger, prouder, full of huge castle-like clouds.  The light looked different.  It was clear, and sharpened things.

For long stretches of the well-paved highway we saw no other cars, and for a while we could be imagine that civilization was very far away from us.  But Turkey is one of the oldest civilized landscapes on earth, and the road threaded its way through numerous small villages, like beads strung on a bracelet.  A little before noon we stopped in one to pick up nuts and cherries for our lunch, and outside a local bakery we gawked at a wheelbarrow stacked with burning logs for charcoal.

Later we passed through a dust-grey town, the perfect setting for an Anatolian wild west film.  In the other lane we saw a thin horse pulling a beaten-up cart  On our right a seven-year old boy diligently changed the tyre of an eight wheeler, while his father gummed at the filter of a cigarette and admired his work.

But too quickly, the loneliness of the vast landscape returned, and it was back to the rolling hills and the scrubland and the feeling that we were far away from everything.  The only hint that we were nearing something big were the handful of billboards chucked along the roadside.  One was for a bank.  “ATM!—30km!”

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Erzurum is an ancient town perched more a mile above sea level like an eagle on a high rock.  As we pushed our way into the crazy traffic trying to find a hotel, we became worried.  The streets seemed a little too pot-holed, a little too crammed with cars, the driving a little too intemperate, the people a little too interested in us and our small car.  We drove the wrong way up a one-way street, argued about directions, finally found our hotel, and parked, struggling out of our seats with half-shaking legs and testy humor.  We heard a passing child remark in wonder.  “Tourists!”

The history of Erzurum is one of conquest.  First settled by the Armenians, it fell under the sway of the Roman Empire in the late fourth century and was quickly renamed after the Emperor Theodosius.  The city was reinforced, and strengthened to become one of the bastions that Rome held against the Persian Empire.  And for the next two thousand years, the tides of history have pushed ambitious empires over Erzurum.  The Persians, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Turks, the Russians.  Each has come, only to leave again while Erzurum remains in its lofty rock, proud and slow.

We found our hotel.  The proprietor was kneeling on a prayer mat in the lobby, and slowly straightened himself up to meet us.  He was very old, with white stubble on his face, no teeth, and the striking intelligent eyes of a much younger man.  Our Turkish friend negotiated with him, and the old man refused to lower the price of our rooms by a single lira.  Weary with travel, we checked in, dropped off our bags, and made a hurried search for toilet paper before gathering ourselves for one last jot of tourism.

Somewhat refreshed, we drove into the nearby city center to look at the historical sites before the light died.  Our first stop was the Çifte Minareli Medrese, the Twin Minaret Madrasa, a strikingly strong red-brick building raised in 1271.  We found the Madrasa—so emblematic of Erzurum that it’s on the Wikipedia page—closed for renovation, covered in scaffolding and sheets of green mesh tarp that fluttered in the cool mountain wind.

Rebuffed, we crossed the street to the Three Kumbats—medieval octagonal tombs topped with steep conical roofs that look a little bit like hats.  One of the roofs had grass sprouting in the grout between the bricks, looking like a bad hair transplant.  The Kumbats were built sometime between the 13th and 14th Centuries, but who built them and why is unknown.

We discovered a young man sprawled napping on the curb of the leftmost Kumbat, in bright red shoes, jeans and a red shirt, his arm thrown up over his eyes to block out the high afternoon sun.  He stirred as we gawked at him, shifted his arm a little to give us a surly look, and then returned to sleep.

The doors of the Kumbats were all locked, but we could look inside through the barred windows.  Nothing.  Any sarcophagi that had once rested here had been removed sometime in the past eight hundred years, leaving nothing but bare stone and shade.

But they were still remarkable, because they were so solid, and so old.  As we made our way around the Kubats and settled into an appreciative silence, I imagined the workers who placed the stones there a thousand years before us, and I wondered what they were thinking of as they worked, and of how when they stretched themselves up and wiped the sweat off their foreheads, they looked to the same background of high rain-washed mountains as we looked.

The third and final cultural event of the day was the nearby citadel, a vast building of heavy stone overlooking the city and the plain below it from where the passing generations of Empire had looked out onto world.  We circled it, looking for an entrance.  It was shut.  The citadel had closed a quarter of an hour before.

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Our humor had thinned.  At the citadel a group of dirty-faced children had swaggered up to us, cornering a straggling member of our group shouting “Money!  Money!  Money!” with threat and anger.  Our jokes had lost their laughter.  We checked out a mosque built in 1179 and tried to appreciate the ancient domed roofs and the quadruple arches, but we were just playing the role of tourists without actually enjoying what we saw.  We all sat sat on the rug at the front of the mosque and waited.  We were hungry, but we hadn’t exactly realized that we were hungry, so we lingered in a half-exhausted pile before coming to the inevitable conclusion that it was time to eat.

Erzurum is famous for Cag Kebab, a spit-roast lamb dish that might very well be the ancestor of the ubiquitous doner.  Two restaurants claim to have invented the kebab.  We went to one, Gel-Gor Kebab, a bright clean building near the city center.

Once we were seated we craned our heads around us, looking for a waiter to present us with a menu.  No menus came, but soon a waiter efficiently whisked plates of salad and thin bread onto the table.  A moment later another waiter offered us skewers of slow-roasted lamb.  We ate one skewer, two, and then three, gorging ourselves on the grease and hot pepper paste, eventually falling into contended food comas where time seemed to have no meaning, and our tiredness seemed to have no meaning, and the hassle of the traffic had no meaning, and all there was that mattered was the pleasant bluges in our bellies.  We had passed through the mild discomforts of travel into a painless nirvana of gluttony, our pain gone.


Soon our dirty plates were removed and we were asked if we wanted dessert.  Yes please. Dessert was Kadayıf Dolması, another local delicacy that is nest of deep-fried pasta soaked in syrup, stuffed with chopped walnuts.  The texture, the taste, the sublimity of Kadayıf Dolması is impossible to describe.  Maybe it's like the Turkish dessert version of a perfect sushi roll:  an infinitely subtle combination of simple falvors.  After polishing off two of these each, we gazed at each other in a contended stupor.

Now that the dusk was coming, the city seemed easier than it had when we had first struggled in.  The roads had cleared themselves of cars, and silence had fallen on the terraced streets and the quiet houses.  We pulled open the curtains of our hotel room and looked out on the skyline, and below us the ancient plains, and we know that we had accomplished something that day.  We had struggled, and we had enjoyed it.


The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary continues...

You can also get the whole series as an e-book.

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