Turkey: To the East in 1976


I drove across Turkey in 1976 in a Ford Econoline van with two friends and a few new acquaintances, on the way from Athens to Kabul.  Some of this trip’s highlights have been related elsewhere, but events in Eastern Turkey stand out, even after all these years.

The western portion of the country is a marvelous place, full of ancient ruins from a variety of civilizations that still bask in Mediterranean warmth.  And by and large the population is friendly and hospitable.

1) The tourist’s image of Turkey: a land of ruins, sea, and sun – Photo by KG Herring

We didn’t linger in Anatolia very long.  Frankly, everyone in the van was paranoid.  The movie Midnight Express had yet to be released, but we knew the details of its reality by heart.  Turkey was famous a country where travelers did not want to be stopped by the cops while in possession of drugs.  No.  Turkish jails were rumored to be black hellholes worthy of the Oliver Stone screenplay that eventually described them so well.

So we made our way east and north as fast as possible, keeping away from the tourist routes.  In retrospect this was a shame; we missed many glorious sights.  My parents, who in these matters were usually smarter than me, traveled extensively in Anatolia and its surroundings, even buying in Izmir a beautiful carpet that now graces the living room of my house.  The rug is a Hereke, named after the group of villages that have traditionally produced large carpets for mosques and royal retreats.

2) The Hereke carpet in our Seattle home

But carpets are not the focus of this story.  After spending a few days in Istanbul, a city we considered huge, unwieldy, and extremely polluted, with overhead street wiring hazardous enough to electrocute half of its population in a heavy rain, we departed for more distant lands.

On one memorable occasion we arrived in a small village, whose name I have long forgotten, quite late in the evening.  We were tired, hungry, and the village had gone to bed for the night.  We did find an open store and stopped to ask about accommodations.  Word of our arrival spread like a fire in New South Wales.  Soon the entire population of the town woke and gathered.  A restaurant was opened for our enjoyment, the local police showed up to join in the festivities, and soon an epic arak-drinking contest began.  Everyone concerned felt it a matter of honor and duty to swallow as many shots as humanly possible.  I used to have a photo of my friend Renée, drunk and hugging an equally inebriated police officer, she sporting his uniform hat on her head, he grinning like he’d just married the finest white woman in all of Asia Minor.  The hospitality of these people was truly astonishing, one of the finest examples of a true welcome I have ever witnessed.

At last, well after midnight, the party ended.  Rooms were provided for us above the restaurant and the village retired, soused and sleepy.  We slept like tranquilized babies and woke fresh in the morning to continue our journey, pushing ever eastward.

The going got more sketchy as we made our way into the arid mountains of Eastern Turkey, after a brief overnight stop in Ankara to visit Ataturk’s tomb, a rigid monument to grandiosity and the cult of personality.  The road passed through increasingly dry terrain, and after a couple of days we found ourselves in a rugged, desolate landscape, devoid of greenery or people.  We had heard that this stretch of Turkey was dangerous to travelers.  Bandits regularly descended from the hills at night to waylay big-rig trucks, hippie vehicles, and any other traffic they could find.  Often drivers vanished without a trace, and nobody thought alien abductions were the cause of the disappearances.

3) The road east: Photo by KG Herring

So we made a decision to turn north and head to Trabzon on the Black Sea.  I liked the idea.  Located near the edge of Turkey, not far from the border of Iran and Russia, I imagined we might glimpse views of the Caucasus Mountains from the shoreline, and be embraced at an ancient crossroads of humanity, where great armies had passed over the centuries, warring with one another as Europeans clashed repeatedly with the cultures of Asia.  Besides, I had never seen the Black Sea, and of course wondered if the body of water would indeed look, well, black.

We arrived in Trabzon in the late afternoon.  Our first night there, we headed east of the town and camped on the beach, a most unsatisfactory arrangement.  The weather was cold and damp, and the beach sand had the consistency of a dirty landfill.  Furthermore, the Black Sea looked gray and the water was cold.  Of the legendary Caucasus Mountains, little could be seen except some high peaks that drifted in and out of a dank fog.  Perhaps they were in Georgia, then part of the Soviet Union, or they could have been in Turkish territory.

The second night we elected to find a hotel in town, somewhere to warm up, take a hot shower, and sleep in a warm bed.  On one of Trabzon’s main streets we found an inexpensive place to stay.  But for reasons no longer recalled I didn’t like the feel of the place so I elected to sleep in the van for the night.  The others haggled with the owner about the price of the rooms and came to an agreement.  The cost of a habitation was on the expensive side, considering the quality of the establishment.  It seemed like the kind of place where bedbugs and cockroaches might rule the late hours.  The van, with its basic interior of bench seats, at least would provide a relatively clean space to stretch in my sleeping bag.

The following morning I woke early.  None of my friends had yet appeared from the hotel, which was across the street from the van.  I hadn’t yet seen Trabzon’s harbor, so I took a walk to the water’s edge to move my legs and shake the sleep from my bones.  The port proved to be a disappointment, with only a few shabby fishing boats moored at the docks and dirty water lapping at a rocky patch of beach.   At least here the Black Sea was black, probably more from pollution than from a poetic visual perspective.

Returning to the van, I noticed that a group of men had gathered around it.  Not thinking clearly and still groggy from lack of sleep and coffee, I thought little of the peculiar scene and continued slowly toward the vehicle.  Suddenly one of my friends opened the rear sliding door and shouted, “Jump in, quick!  We have to get out of here!”  I reacted with startling speed and raced to the van, throwing  myself through the door.  Something was seriously amiss, that much was clear.

No sooner had I climbed inside than my friend slammed the door shut.  The group of men around the van, I quickly discovered, had not gathered to pay us their morning respects.  They were screaming at the driver, who yelled back in return.  Suddenly a Turk opened the driver’s side door and dove inside, knife in hand.   The driver wound up and punched him in the face, hard enough to send the the man flying back out of the van.  Then the other traveler in front reached into the glove compartment and grabbed the 12 gauge starter pistol we carried.  The men outside began to rock the Ford, trying to turn it on its side.  Our redoubtable navigator leaned over our driver, opened the window with amazing speed and fired point-blank into the crowd.  “Floor it!” he screamed, and the van took off like a vehicle  in a Steven King novel, possessed with demons.  The crowd ran close at our heels.

Dazed and baffled, I demanded, “What happened?  Why are these men so angry?”  The van continued to accelerate and was now doing close to 100 kilometers per hour on the busy street.

“We got into an argument about the price of staying in the hotel.  The owner wanted to double the rate he agreed to last night.  We said no, so he ran outside and called to his friends to come help him make us pay.”

“Jesus,” I said.

“We refused and they became even angrier.  They were going to kill us!”

“Holy shit!”  I added, now bewildered.  My aimless walk to the harbor might have been the last walk I ever embarked on, had I not returned to the van in time.

“We wondered where you were.  What the fuck were you doing?”

“Um, just taking a morning stroll to the water.”

“You could have got us fucking wasted.”

“Sorry, how was I to know?”

Meanwhile we had now escaped downtown Trabzon.  We fired a few more rounds for effect from the starter pistol, our collective adrenaline pumping like acetone in a cocaine factory.

And so that was that.  We had been attacked but managed to escape.  Had the Ford stalled before we left the city, we would have been thrown in jail or worse.  Surely the blast from the starter pistol, shot into the throng of men from only a meter away, had caused serious bodily injury.

But we carried on and soon forgot about our brush with disaster.  Such was the way of travel in those years.  A few days later we stopped in Erzurum where we were treated to some of the finest Turkish food to be had in the country, and we delighted in the sight of the famous Cifte Minareli Medrase, one of Turkey’s architectural gems.  The people of Erzurum proved kind and helpful.

But we experienced a final negative encounter at the border between Turkey and Iran.  Before arriving there we had wonderful views of Mt. Ararat, its volcanic cone soaring into the heavens, and I thought of Noah and Gilgamesh and the Native American boat survivors who washed up near the summit (depending on which version of the world-wide legend a person chose to believe) long ago during one of Earth’s great cataclysms.

4) Mt. Ararat from Yerevan, Armenia: Photo by KG Herring

At the frontier we halted behind a long line of commercial trucks that plied the route between Europe and Asia.  Slowly the line advanced, and soon we saw a Customs and Immigration shack on the side of the road.  We wondered if we would be able to check out of Turkey before nightfall, when the border probably closed until the following morning.

A Turkish border guard opened the door of the mud-brick hovel and lurched in our direction.  Dressed in a slovenly uniform, with half its buttons missing and the fly unzipped, he staggered to the van.  He had his hand on his sidearm, a large and nasty handgun.  Leaning into the open window on the right side of the van, arak fumes emanated from his breath into the interior as if he was exhaling gasoline.  “You!” he barked.  “I want woman!”

“Excuse me,” the English driver said.  “What may we do for you?”

“Woman!” he repeated, waving his free arm through the window in the direction of the three women travelers.  “I want!”

This was bad news.   He had absolute power at this lonely outpost.  The truck drivers would do nothing to interfere with his authority.  “Well,” our driver said, “we can offer you a nice carton of cigarettes.”  He pulled a long box of Rothmans from under his seat, kept there for such emergencies.

“No.  You give me woman. I take.  Bring back later.”

I had an idea.  We also carried with us several bottles of Johnny Walker whiskey to use as informal bribes should an unpleasant situation demand a “gift.”  “Listen,” I said, holding up a bottle.  “Let’s go back to your office and talk.  We can have a drink and discuss matters of mutual interest.”

My friend Steve now said, “Yes, sir.  Wouldn’t you like a taste of good American whiskey?”

The border guard assumed a befuddled expression.  He’d planned to have his way with one of our female passengers, but on the other hand, American whiskey was a tempting offer.   Before he could answer, Steve and I exited the van, bottle prominently displayed.  I took the bold step of putting my arm around the official and gently led him away from the Ford to the Customs House.  “It’s a cold day,” I said.  “A drink will do us all good.”  I didn’t dare look back at my other companions.

So we entered the man’s office and sat down.  He had a metal barrel he used as a stove and heater.  Taking a jug of alcohol or maybe straight petrol, he poured it into a metal hole on top.  The fire roared and I still wonder why the thing didn’t explode into a fireball.

And so we sat and chatted, perhaps for two hours.  He turned out to be a simple fellow, if not exactly likeable.  But we sympathized with his plight, stuck here in the middle of nowhere with the great mountain of Ararat as a forbidding backdrop to his station.  He told us of his family, far away in another district, and how he seldom saw them. He told us how little he was paid, and how the truck drivers treated him with disdain, while his superiors demanded ever longer work hours with diminishing pay.

Finally Steve and I became nearly as intoxicated as our host.  We rose to our feet and engaged in a group hug with the Turk.  Tears streamed down his cheeks as he bid us farewell and safe journey.  The two of us returned to the van, weaving and slurring, beaming with the conclusion of what might have turned into an ugly scene.  Very ugly.

And so our Ford Econoline departed Turkey.  We jumped the queue and drove to the Iranian checkpoint.  Steve and I positioned ourselves in the rear seat and prayed that the booze on our breath wouldn’t be noticed by less alcohol-tolerant Iranians.  Turkey fell behind us, a land of startling contrasts and fascinating people.  The question of right and wrong as related to our actions there, both in the legal and moral sense, is one for which we have no answer.

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