Across Turkey, 2016
Roger Short Travel Scholarships Report – Louis Grandjouan
I arrive in Istanbul from Tel Aviv, almost a month to the day after the July coup. I file into the arrivals hall at the same time as passengers from Jeddah. Women in black niqabs billow in amongst Israeli men; each take up positions in the queue. The Israelis take off their kippas as they shuffle forwards, and the Saudi women briefly lift their veils when they reach the control booths. It doesn’t feel tense, or hostile, just quiet.
Once outside, I eventually find a bus and it lurches towards the motorway. The road is chaotic, sticky with traffic. Cars are spilling over the dividing lines and heading up the hard shoulder, hazard lights clicking away. Soon we meet a police checkpoint occupying a few lanes. Passports are briskly collected and checked before we are sent back to continue inching our way to central Istanbul.
Three long hours later I find our hostel in Galatasaray, 50 odd metres from Galata Tower. Hugh – a friend who I will be travelling with – hasn’t arrived yet. I set up shop in our room. There are 8 beds and one other occupant: a Brazilian guy, watching the Olympics on his laptop. Not a tourist, he says. Has a job teaching Portuguese at the university, but his flat isn’t ready. I struggle to get much more out of him — he’s absorbed in the Men’s Table Tennis Team Final — so I go for a coffee then for a walk round the hardware shops near the Galata Tower. I buy a packet of shiny silver ball bearings and a screwdriver to justify my presence.
Back at the hostel I find Hugh and two other new arrivals: a melancholic French software developer who has recently left his job and an enthusiastic young German guy also about to start a year at the local University, but as a student. We go for a drink. The French guy leaves almost immediately.
The following day we head to the Golden Horn via Eminönü. We walk up through the Spice Market, round past the Governor’s palace, and up to Sultanahmet. The Hagia Sophia has the most powerful impact on me: staggering in size but intricate, the brickwork at times disclosing how successive additions have been folded into the structure of the whole.
We cross to the Asian side. Though Europe was not particularly busy, the atmosphere there was more tense, with gun-toting policemen on every corner. Fitting, then, that we were accosted by a plainclothes police officer as we boarded the ferry to make the crossing. After checking our bags he berated us for not carrying ID, and then left with a smile. A stupid oversight on our part.
Across the Bosphorus we found quite a different city, full of newer buildings and young people. We walked up along the sea towards the old railway station, which is supposedly in the process of being renovated. It is a vast black forest gâteau of a building, tufted and crumbling. Built by European architects at the turn of the 20th century, it was meant to serve as one of Istanbul’s two stations on the Baghdad Railway. Today its future is uncertain and nobody seems to believe that it will be restored to its former role.
At dawn the following day we fly to Kayseri, a city in central Anatolia which — our guidebook tells us — is ‘notable for its religious conservatism and ultra-nationalism’. The number of women in veils and men in moustaches increases dramatically. We rent a car at the airport from a man who was unimpressed that our final destination was Armenia, and take to the road in the direction of Göreme, in Cappadocia. Our hostel was carved into the soft sandstone hills which sprawl across the region. The rooms are in cool, dark caves. After lunch we set off haphazardly through the neighbouring valleys and kept stumbling across churches which had been cut out of the hills. They are calm and mostly unattended, but I find them rather mournful. All had, leading away from the nave, a web of tunnels burrowed into the chalky rock-face. As you scuffled on hands and knees away from the central body of the church, deeper and deeper into the ground, the tunnels narrowed and twisted and turned. Finally you’d reach a low room, typically about five metres deep and wide, and a metre and a half tall. Carved into the walls were what looked like unfilled recesses for coffins. They were, I later understood, bunks for the monks who formerly occupied the churches, and these low rooms were where they came to hide from the various oppressors who have passed through Cappadocia.
A few days later we leave by bus for Trabzon, a city in north-eastern Turkey, with a view to crossing into Georgia. Trabzon is on the Black Sea – another large industrial town with little tourism and conservative values. After being dropped off at the border crossing, we join a large, bustling crowd of Georgians creeping towards the border. As we get closer, the crowd is squeezed into crushbarriers and the atmosphere becomes tense. It’s hot – 38C and humid. Two hours later and the crowd continues to swell. We are making very little leeway. The Turkish police have two officers manning the booths. The others on duty are waving Turkish passport-holders ahead of the crowd. Hence the slow progress. Occasional bursts of pressure pulse from the back of the crush towards the front – you can track it heading towards you from the shouts getting closer and closer until suddenly you are propelled, rucksack and all, headlong into whoever is in front of you – some guy, or an old lady, or a little kid. It starts to feel a little alarming when a woman ahead of us faints and is carried out and over the barriers by a raised throng of hands. Lorry drivers queuing alongside are throwing water bottles down into the crowd from their cabs. Not long after a second woman fainted, and is carried out of the herd in the same way, we decide to cut our losses and leave. We manage to squeeze our way from the centre of the crowd over towards the barriers, and hop out of the crush. That’s when we discover, a good 3 hours after arriving, that they are letting all non-Georgian passport holders waft ahead of the crush and straight into the queue leading to the booths. Standing in that queue I ask a fat, jolly-looking Turkish man ahead of me whether it was often like this. ‘Oh yes, always!’ he chuckles, and turns away to light a cigarette.
But I am happy to arrive in Georgia. There is a brilliant liveliness and intensity on the other side of the border. We take a taxi which sprints down the seafront road to Batumi, squealing past cows and Russian tourists who are heading to the beach. Batumi is a strange town. Georgia’s second city, the capital of the Adjara autonomous region, Batumi hosted a complex, brief and brutal conflict during Georgia’s Rose Revolution, when the then Georgian leader Shevardnadze was ousted by a pro-Western popular revolt. It used to have separatist ambitions. These have been quelled by a massive influx of cash, some of it from the West and some of it from Russia, but most of it quite difficult to trace. The effect has been to redevelop Batumi as a sort of Black Sea Vegas. Skyscrapers have been built along the seafront with rotating restaurants at their summits, and ferris wheels planted into their sides, 30 floors up. Trashy casinos and bars sprawl across the seafront. A large fountain on the central promenade dispenses chacha – the local hard spirit – for free at appointed times of the day. The times are unpublished but can be worked out easily enough from the ebb and flow of melancholic old men who, several times a day, line up patiently with empty water bottles to take their fill before scattering once more into the city. Much of the city’s prime real estate is occupied by great hulking shells of steel and plate glass. Half-built and waiting, almost shamefacedly, to be repurposed in someone else’s scheme.
A few days later we pile into a clapped-out minibus to head to Tbilisi for a brief stopover before making our way to Svaneti. Svaneti is in the High Caucasus, on the border with Russia and just west of South Ossetia. Until recently, its inaccessibility made it a magnet for organised crime and for some years it was effectively lawless. The Svan people spoke Svan not Georgian, and for many their Svan tribal identities trumped any sense of Georgian national identity. In 2004, after the Rose Revolution, Saakashvili sent the army to Svaneti to reassert control. Since then the situation has improved somewhat with the growth of tourism to the region. An airfield was built in Mestia (the region’s largest town) and a little airline — ‘Vanilla Sky’ — has recently started running weekly flights to Mestia from Tbilisi in a rickety old Czech turboprop. We are lucky to get seats. The journey to Mestia from Tbilisi would otherwise have taken a few long days zigzagging around the country chasing trains and buses.
We fly from an airfield about an hour from Mestia. Within the airfield is a little holiday resort, also run by Vanilla Sky. The land around is flat and featureless. The guests come here to lounge by the pool and watch the planes take off and land.
Forty-five minutes later we are in Mestia. You often hear people bemoaning the fact that Mestia has become increasingly overrun with tourists. They come here to see the ‘wild side of Georgia’ and are jostled along the trails by big groups of Israelis and Russians on package holidays. I find such talk self-indulgent. Ten years ago Svaneti was a brutal place, catastrophically poor and overrun with gunrunners. Nor is it yet Club Med. Mestia is still at an intermediate point in its development. The entire tourist infrastructure is run by amateur locals: there are no hotels, just guesthouses run from within family homes. Some are larger than others, with guests kept in purpose-built outhouses on the grounds; others are more old-fashioned, with guests put up in spare rooms.
To get to the trails you need to hire taxis for the day. As some of the walks are a few hours’ drive from the town centre, the men of the villages congregate in the central square of Mestia with their cars. We settle for a friendly old man with a cane and a little Volkswagen hatchback from the 80s. The roads are terrible but he deftly coaxes his car in and out of potholes and up mountain bends. These are long drives, typically 2 hours or so each way. He speaks no English and we speak neither Russian nor Georgian but we got on well enough through a mixture of smiles and hand gestures. Mainly we listen to his music. When we set off in the morning he plugs a little usb stick into the car radio, which is filled with a seemingly bottomless collection of US 90s hip-hop (Tupac, Biggie Smalls) interspersed with Russian gangster rap. He would drop us off at the bottom of the valley, near a café, and wait for a few hours with the other drivers doing the same while we walked up the mountain and back down again. The practical problem from our perspective was that when we got back to the café we would invariably find him in very high spirits, having spent the last few hours propping up the bar. It visibly affected his driving, which would become erratic and unsteady. We stuck with him on the basis that he cut his speed in half on the way home, and the roads were empty enough. But at times it did feel a bit touch and go.
I find the other travellers in Mestia a source of constant fascination. There are two groups, Russians and Israelis. The Russians come as energetic packs with tremendous amounts of gear. We would be plodding up a path when out of nowhere we would be caught in a whirlwind of Russians sprinting up the mountain, carrying huge rucksacks jangling away with crampons, ice picks, sleeping bags, and spare pairs of walking boots. I don’t understand this. They aren’t camping: the Russian groups all booked guesthouses in Mestia. We saw them in the morning when we set off, and again when they put us to shame in the afternoon, and found them once more in the evening, when we would come back to Mestia to find them already sat at the restaurant tables having a drink. So there’s something I’m missing.
The Israelis are a very different crowd. Having arrived from Tel Aviv – where my family lives – I was surprised to find the streets of Mestia filled with lively conversations in Hebrew. But on reflection it makes sense. Georgia has the closest high mountains to Israel which are both politically accessible and affordable. These Israelis were young, – most were fresh out of military service, – relaxed, and spoke with the easy directness which I love about Israelis.
We leave Mestia for Tbilisi, where we catch a train that night for Yerevan. We share a cabin with Grigor, an avuncular Armenian man in his 60s who takes out his wallet to show us pictures of his wife and children. There follows an exchange mediated by Google Translate. He is surprised that we had started our trip in Turkey, and lugs his suitcase out from beneath his bunk. After a few minutes spent rooting around, he pulls out a fresh black T-Shirt, marked all over with the phrase ‘Remember the Armenian genocide’ in various languages. Without more he says goodnight and turns in.
The following morning he tugs gruffly at my feet and tells me to get up at once, shouting ‘David, David’ (the effect of a long and early misunderstanding is that he took my name to be David). I think we have arrived in Yerevan. In fact we are passing alongside the Turkish border, at a place where Mount Ararat is beautifully lit up by the morning sun. After more haggling over Google translate I understand that he is telling me that as a young man, he had reached the summit of Mount Ararat. This makes me feel self-conscious about my modest escapades in Georgia so I go back to bed (Mount Ararat is very high).
We arrive at Yerevan’s central railway station a few hours later. It’s a great building, similar in outline to the main building of Moscow state university but with less outrageous dimensions. Much of Yerevan’s architecture is like this; scaled down 1950s Soviet, in blood red stone.
Our first destination is the Genocide museum. The comparison with Yad Vashem in Jerusalem is obvious but valid. Both present the atrocities with a quiet, intense dignity. But the differences are also striking. Yad Vashem does not set out to show that the Holocaust happened. It accounts for its origins; it shows how Jews were murdered and who was complicit; it shows how Jews fought back and it also engages with wider questions about — for instance — the state of German society in the 1930s. In other words, Yad Vashem has the space to engage with the systemic social issues raised by the Holocaust. There is nothing comparable to that in the Armenian Genocide museum, because it is entirely devoted to a single line of argument, repeated over and over again without fanfare throughout the exhibits, which is that the Turkish authorities had, during the 1920s, conspired to kill and displace the Armenian population in Turkey. The evidence in support of that specific contention was substantial in volume and diverse in origin. I find it difficult to understand, as I leave the museum how the fact that a genocide had occurred — quite apart from any argument over the numbers of dead — can continue to be denied by the Turkish government. The following day we catch an early flight back to Istanbul. From there we return to England.
Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the trustees of the Roger Short Scholarship Fund for giving me the opportunity to travel to Turkey, Georgia and Armenia. They are places to which I will return, and I look forward to hearing about the journeys of future Roger Short travellers.