Before we leave Sozopol in Bulgaria John asks a man walking his dog which is the best way to the Turkish border: down the coast or down the middle. He turns out to be very friendly, a seaman for thirty years sailing all over the world. His advice is to take the inland route. We retrace our steps, after watching two men head out in an old open boat with a diesel engine, on a beautiful calm sea.
We see pelicans on Lake Mandra before moving to high rolling country with grass, and oak forest. The road is rough and bouncy but there are no potholes and no other traffic. We see a flock of sheep with a shepherd, a herd of horses with a minder, then a young gypsy cantering bareback on the grass at the edge of the road, with another horse on a lead. We stop for coffee beside a hillside covered in a forest of lichen encrusted trees. We realise that our favourite guidebook “On the Loose in Eastern Europe 1993”, bought from the Newcastle Public Library a few years ago for fifty pence, is now of no further use as it stops at Bulgaria.
We hear a lone cowbell, the odd car passes, and it’s a perfect sunny day. We’re now entering the Strandja National Park which Kapka Kassabova describes in “Street without a Name”. In the Communist era pre 1989 the border zone here between Turkey and Bulgaria was known as the Death Triangle. It was a very lonely and empty place inhabited by hundreds of border guards. Virtually no-one was allowed to cross into Turkey, and many young Eastern European people (particularly East Germans) were shot as they tried to escape across the border, evading the guards, then swimming the Resovska River. It makes us feel uneasy even now.
We go through Zvezdec a desolate village of crumbling apartment blocks, then forest. At the turn off to Brasljan there are deserted apartment blocks and two policemen are leaning on the bonnet of an old Lada, watching the traffic go by. At Malko Tarnovo there’s a sign for Istanbul, the first indication that this is the road to Turkey. Women are out sweeping the footpaths. Then there’s forest of beech, alder and birch and lovely little vineyards and orchards with tiny cottages. The road is winding and we begin to wonder if we’ve taken a wrong turning. A light rain begins to fall and we’re relieved when we see a sign saying that it’s three kilometres to Turkey.
There are huge beech trees and old street lights from a previous era. At the checkpoint we stop for the police and hand over our passports and vehicle ownership papers. They give us a memory stick and tell us to hand it in at the next checkpoint. We drive past a statue of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, not realising that we will see an army of them in the next few weeks.
Altogether our documents are processed at six checkpoints, all with barricades. At one of them a large army lorry is coming the other way and John has to back up round the corner so it can get through. The guy who checks our vehicle insurance looks in the back of the van and grimaces. Then at the final check the guard says “Have a nice time. Do you know the way? Do you have computer navigation?” We have an A1 sized map. It couldn’t be more different from the Romania to Bulgaria border crossing where the Romanians park their Dacias, show their passports, walk to a Bulgarian shop, buy things, then walk back to their cars and drive home. It’s a good introduction to the military side of Turkey.
The road is beautiful and smooth and there’s not another car, just an avenue of bare birch trees. We pass a vast area of stacked metre lengths of beech firewood. Then the road surface suddenly deteriorates. Countries seem to try to impress newcomers at the border with a couple of miles of very good road, before the potholes and bumps begin.
Our first Turkish village is Derekoy, and we see old ladies in headscarves, huge piles of firewood, beehives, small market stalls selling vegetables, rubbish in a stream, and our first Turkish bird of prey. It could be Romania, apart from the numerous marble fixtures supplying water on the side of the road both in towns and in the country: perfect for us to replenish our supplies whenever we wish. Every village has a mosque and the people look very poor. As we descend the weather clears, and in the distance we see a thermal power station with cooling towers. It’s a new rocky landscape of red soil, small oaks, and pines. We look down over vast open country reminiscent of a scene from a Western.
We pass grapevines, a horse stud, a big flock of sheep and goats, a pony pulling a little flat cart, crows, magpies, concrete aqueducts in fields, and stray dogs. At Kirklareli we see a sign back to Bulgaristan. There are huge new petrol stations, something we will see wherever we go in Turkey, and diesel is expensive. We wonder if the most expensive fuel in Europe is what keeps the roads so empty. Mobile phone texts now cost us fifty pence, further evidence that we’ve left the EU.
We drive onto a toll motorway, so much more adept now than on our first encounter with one in Italy two years before when we bungled every aspect of it and spent a couple of hours stressed and lost, without a ticket, and unable to go forward or escape.
The rest areas are large and empty, as if the motorway system has been designed for a far greater traffic volume. We turn off at Havsa and head south. There are lots of motorbikes, cabbages for sale, and mud in the villages. It’s all very familiar. We arrive in Osmanli at one o’clock when the men are emerging from the mosque. The women are wearing baggy pants with the crutch virtually at ground level, very comfortable and hiding a multitude of sins. A shepherd is walking along the roadside with a small flock of goat like sheep.
We arrive in Uzunkopru as two fighter planes fly over. The minarets of the mosques are like needles on the skyline. We drive along the main street and it’s an intimidating flow of cars and pedestrians, with an untethered horse standing with a cart in the middle of it all. We’re shaky and tired, quite unprepared for pedestrians to be mingling with traffic to this degree, so we find a quiet suburban street as soon as we can. There’s an empty section and we park beside it, near low apartment buildings which have chimneys issuing coal smoke, and wood fired barbecues on the balconies. A woman comes out onto her balcony, throws a Coke bottle onto the grass below, then stands looking down at us for a while.
At six o’clock a large lorry with “Masallah” written on the front (“what Allah wills” – protection from the evil eye and traffic accidents) parks eyeball to eyeball with us. We’re in the back of the van. The driver gets out, walks over to the van, looks in the front, goes back to the lorry, backs up a couple of feet then locks up for the night.
At about two in the morning I’m lying awake when there’s a thump that shakes the van, and the tinkle of breaking glass. John is instantly awake and up beside the bulkhead, in time to see a man walking past the passenger’s window. Then there’s silence. We lie there wondering what’s happened and who it was. We discuss the possibility of a broken headlamp but stay inside the van for safety. It can all wait until the morning.
After a broken sleep, next morning we discover that one of the front headlights has been smashed. Fortunately it still works. Luckily we have a thick sheet of magnifying plastic A5 size, and John cuts a piece to fit. He tapes this onto the light with gaffer tape, binding bits of broken glass in place as well. Kiwi ingenuity saves the day. Cars in this part of the world have far bigger defects so we hope that this won’t attract the attention of the police. As it turns out, the repairs last for the next six months.
John sweeps the broken glass off the road and we leave as fast as we can, feeling quite shaken and thinking that we must have upset the lorry driver by parking in his place. We decide to downplay this incident in our communications home as people will probably think we’re in danger. Before leaving New Zealand four years earlier we worked out a policy to cover situations like this. We decided that we would allow ourselves only a few minutes of grief, before moving on with a positive attitude, trusting in the essential goodness of people.
We drive south, through crops which are much further advanced than the ones in Romania; and we’re thrilled to see our favourite umbrella (stone) pines. There are also dwarf oaks and low scrub in the poor soil. Large areas of reeds have been harvested, and we see an egret and some marsh harriers.
In Gelibolu we stop on the roadside beside a marble merchant, and get straight online with the laptop. We take turns to skype our families back home in New Zealand. A pony and cart go past, a plastic sheet over the pony’s back and two men on the cart, one standing up holding a motorbike. We need to look for a place to stay.
Gelibolu is on the Sea of Marmara at the beginning of the Dardanelles, the narrow strip of water that leads to the Aegean Sea to the south. It has a beautiful port area with ships, ferries, fishing boats and nets galore. All of the shipping to and from the Black Sea has to pass this piece of coast and there’s a fascinating procession of ships coming and going. There are military sites with armed guards everywhere. We park near a small pillbox occupied by an armed soldier, figuring that the van will be safe there, and walk into town.
It’s mostly men who are about, with some younger women. The women my age all wear headscarves. We enter a market where there are ponies resting with their little carts, nosebags on, and old Turkish carpets over their backs. The owners are in a cafe. In fact the cafes are full of men.
I spot an old building with the sign “Hamam Turkish Bath”. It’s just what I’ve been looking for. I drag John in (he keeps shaking his head and muttering something about “Midnight Express”), and a male attendant shows us around.
We go back to the van to get our gear and when we return we have the bath house to ourselves. The attendant tells me to undress in the same room as John which will mean I have to walk across the foyer in a sarong. I’m not keen to do that so I undress in a room close to the bathing area. It’s very small, old and basic, a small stone bunker.
The attendant turns on the hot taps above deep basins attached to the wall at knee height. You dip the water out with a plastic bowl and tip it over yourself. They even have a hairdrier for me to use at the end. We just love it and it feels like we’ve left the headlight smasher far behind. Nothing will stop us!
We buy kebabs and walk around the wonderful shops which sell every kind of nut, dried fruit, flour, vegetable, and fish. We see no alcohol for sale. Suddenly it feels like we’re on holiday! It’s warm and there are palm trees. It’s almost Mediterranean. Turkey feels light and carefree, a contrast with the lingering residue of oppression we picked up in all the former Communist countries we visited.
The scenery on the drive down the Gallipoli Peninsula to Eceabat is all red soil, cabbages, leeks, lettuces, olives, irrigation and cypresses, and on the water, big ships, and little fishing boats flying the Turkish flag. The military are everywhere. Young Turkish men are required to do fifteen months military service, or less if they have a university degree. Conscientious objection is illegal, and it’s illegal to publicly criticise conscription or the military.
Turkey is one of the few countries which produces all its own food, plus it has enough to export as well. Agriculture dominates the landscape and the range of crops is huge: hazelnuts, quince, chickpeas, apricots, figs, pomegranates, tomatoes, almonds, olives, pistachios, wheat and lemons, plus cotton and barley. One of the things we love already is the rich patchwork of crops, and the obvious fertility of the soil.
At Eceabat we find TJ’s Hotel right beside the wharf where the ferry departs for Cannakale over on the Asian side of the Dardanelles. A room with wireless costs thirteen pounds a night, and the large breakfast included in the price consists of thick white bread, olives, cucumber, tomatoes, cheese, honey, jam and tea. There turns out to be no heating or hot water and we’re the only guests. Electricity is very expensive and most people use solar heating for hot water. It’s December 20th and we‘re extremely grateful to find this cheap home away from home at Christmas in the middle of winter. We live off canned dinners from Eastern European supermarkets heated up on our little gas stove, skyping our families and spending lots of time on the internet, occasionally looking down on the van parked on the street two floors below.
Our breakfast is served in the large rooftop bar which has a wooden Maori tiki, Australian memorabilia, WW1 shell cases, and a panoramic view over the Dardanelles and all the shipping passing by. A sign in the toilet strikes fear into our hearts: “Please put toilet paper in bins provided, not down the toilet! Turkish septic pipes are very small, you may not only block our hotel, but the whole of Eceabat!”
After reading this we’re never quite sure whether this applies to every toilet in Turkey, and we’re nervous about it.
Outside there are planters made of concrete, about four feet high, in the shape of kangaroos, with a plant in the pouch. Down the road is the Hotel Crowded House, another indication of the huge influx of Kiwis and Aussies that occurs every Anzac Day on 25 April. The Turks hold their Gallipoli commemoration on 18 March, the day they defeated the British Navy in the Dardanelles.
Next day we read in bed. It’s very cold and we ask for a heater. The young men running the place respond quickly, removing the heater from the reception area, and taking it up in the lift to our room. It’s too large and gets stuck in the doorway, quite entertaining at the time, but disappointing. We become accustomed to having cold showers.
Later, John goes into a shop to buy some beer and strikes up a conversation with a tour guide who seems to know all about New Zealand’s record of following Britain and the U.S.A. into war. He reels off a list: the Boer War, WW1, WW2, Korea, Vietnam, ticking them off on his fingers. John retorts “But we didn’t go to Iraq” and he replies “You people may be starting to learn”. He concludes by saying “Politicians bullshit” a number of times and indicating that ordinary people don’t want war. John agrees. The legendary bond between the Anzacs and Turks is very apparent. Later John names photos on the laptop, and I read “The Iliad” in preparation for Troy.
After a couple of days the weather clears and we head towards the cemeteries and memorials on the Gallipoli Peninsula. We see a jay in a huge ancient fig tree and an elusive bird of prey that keeps flying just out of our reach. Big forests of umbrella pines soften the landscape, and thick stands of cypress make a spiky contrast. At the national park headquarters the museum is closed for renovation. Some souvenir stalls are open and we buy “Gallipoli: a Turning Point” by Mustafa Askin, who is from a village near Troy, just across the water. He draws parallels between the Gallipoli campaign and the Trojan War, both fought on some other pretext, but really about who controls the Dardanelles. The man selling souvenirs asks where we’re from then gives us two pieces of shrapnel and a British 303 cartridge case.
There’s a poem on display by the Turkish poet and politician Bulent Ecevit, written in 1988, which draws a parallel between the Ottoman and British Empires:
GALLIPOLI A POST WAR EPIC
“What land were you torn away from
What makes you so sad coming here”
Asked Mehmet the soldier from Anatolia
Addressing the Anzac lying near
“FROM THE UTTERMOST ENDS OF THE WORLD I come
So it writes on my tombstone”
Answered the youthful Anzac “and here I am
Buried in a land that I had not even known”
“Do not be disheartened mate”
Mehmet told him tenderly
“you share with us the same fate
In the bosom of our country
You are not a stranger anymore
You have become a Mehmet just like me”
A paradise on earth Gallipoli
Is a burial under the ground
Those who lost their lives in fighting
Lie there mingled in friendly compound
Mehmet then asked an English soldier
Who seemed to be at the playing age
“How old are you little brother
What brought you here at such an early stage”
“I am fifteen forever” the English soldier said
“In the village from where I come
I used to play war with the children
Arousing them with my drum
Then I found myself in the front
Was it real or a game before I could tell
My drum fell silent
As I was struck with a shell
A place was dug for me in Gallipoli
On my stone was inscribed DRUMMER AGE FIFTEEN
Thus ended my playful task and this is the record
Of what I have done and what I have been”
A distant drum bereaved of its master
Was weeping somewhere around
As drops of tears fell on it
With the soft rainfall on the ground
What winds had hurled
all those youthful braves
From four continents of the world
To the Gallipoli graves
Mehmet asked in wonder
They were English or Scotch
They were French or Senegalese
They were Indians or Nepalese
They were Anzacs
From Australia and New Zealand
Shipsful of soldiers who had landed
On the lacy bays of Gallipoli not knowing why
Climbed the hills and slopes rising high
Digging trenches cutting the earth like wounds
To shelter as graves those who were to die
Some were BELIEVED TO BE BURIED
In one cemetery or another
Some were IN GRAVES UNKNOWN
All had ENTERED INTO REST
In the language of the tombstone
At the age of sixteen or seventeen or eighteen
Under the soil of Gallipoli
Thus their short-lived stories were told
As inscriptions on tablets of old
Buried there Mehmet of Anatolia
Without a stone to tell
Consoled them saying “brothers
I understand you so well
For centuries I also had to die
In distant lands not knowing why
For the first time I gave my life not feeling sore
For I gave it here for my own in a war
Thus the sultan’s fief tilled for ages with my hand
Has now become for me a motherland
You who died in this land you did not know
Are no more foreigner or foe
For the land which you could not take
Has taken you to her bosom too
You therefore belong here
As much as I do”
In Gallipoli a strange war was fought
Cooling off the feelings
As fighting became hot
It was a ruthless war
Yet breeding respect
In heart-to-heart exchange
As confronting trenches
Fell into closer range
Turning foe to friend
As the fighters reached their end
The war came to a close
Those who survived
returned to their lands and homes
Leaving the dead behind
Wild flowers wave after wave
Replaced the retiring soldiers
Wild roses and mountain tulips and daisies
Were spread as rugs on the ground
The wounds of fighting on the earth
The sheep turned the bunkers into sheds
The birds replaced the bullets in the sky
Nature with hands holding the plough instead of guns
Captured back the battlegrounds
With its flowers and fruits and greenery
And life returned to the soil
As traces of blood were effaced
Turning the hell of the battlefield
Into a paradise on earth
Gallipoli now abounds
Of burial grounds
A paradise on earth Gallipoli
Is a burial under the ground
Those who lost their life in fighting
Lie there mingled in friendly compound
“Lying side by side”
As “friends in each other’s arms”
They may “sleep in comfort and peace”
In the land for which they died.
We see a large statue of a Turkish soldier carrying a wounded British officer in his arms and there’s a story that goes with it. At Chunuk Bair when the trenches were only about thirty feet apart, a ceasefire was called after a bayonet attack. A badly wounded English captain lying between the lines cried out for help. The Turks hoisted a piece of white underwear as a signal to cease fire, and a brave unarmed Turkish soldier walked out, picked up the wounded man, carried him to the Allies’ trenches, then returned to the Turkish side. This is a legendary and oft repeated image, as is the one of an Anzac soldier giving water to a wounded Turk.
We hear the rumble of thunder, eerily like guns. The snowy mountainous islands of Samothraki and Limnos (Greek), and Gokceada (Turkish) lie to the west. The rolling hills of the Gallipoli Peninsula have been planted in a range of plants all less than three metres high, like a huge garden.
In Anzac Cove at the Lone Pine cemetery and memorial we find our friend’s great uncle’s name. He was twenty two, an Australian. It’s very peaceful there with just the tapping of a stonemason’s tools echoing up to us from a new monument being built some distance away.
Next is the Turkish memorial, with its tribute to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk whose bravery and brilliant leadership were an essential element of the Turkish victory over the Allied troops. The famous speech he made to his soldiers is quoted here: “I am not asking you to attack, I am ordering you to die. In the time which passes until we die, other troops and commanders can take our place.” In that particular battle virtually all of his 57th regiment was killed, but they won the day. The monument is a tribute to the bravery of the Turkish soldier. Mustafa Kemal was immediately promoted after his inspired decision making and leadership during this battle.
While we’re visiting Chunuk Bair, the scene of the Allies’ big defeat on 1 August 1915, we hear the call to prayer from a mosque. The view down the coast from Anzac Cove to North Beach is breathtakingly beautiful in the light rain. We’re tempted to stop and have a fossick in a sloping bank two metres high with bare soil and exposed strata. A derelict pillbox stands on the hillside.
We stop to have bacon sandwiches and fruit cake for lunch and John gathers pebbles and sand from the beach. We get our first view of the Aegean and Greece. The sky is dramatic – grey, blue and black, with shafts of light, above a strip of silver sea. Dwarf holm oaks dot the landscape. The Sea Cemetery has Australian and New Zealand graves, with some of the fallen “believed to be buried in this cemetery”. We look up to Chunuk Bair and it’s spectacular, steep and impenetrable like “badlands” or mine tailings.
We pass a flatter terrain with laden olives, orchards, walnut trees, the odd tiny house, and a small bird of prey which could be a merlin, holding something in its feet. The soil is beautiful and there’s a second crop of sunflowers, with a row of Lombardy poplars.
We drive through Buyuk Anafarta village and there are roses, tractors, a spotted woodpecker, and Turkish flags flying everywhere. We see a hen harrier then two big birds of prey cruising along the sea front landing on conifers. They’re white tailed eagles. As usual there are not many women are around. We realise that it was at this time in December 1915 that the Allies evacuated Gallipoli.
This is an extract from the ebook White Van Acting Suspicously.
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