Experience: Turkey

After over a month of digesting all the things I have experienced during Oriental Express, now is a good time to reflect.

Turkey is a complex country. You feel it from the moment you cross the border, and this feeling does not abandon you for as long as you are in the country. It is very multi-layered and multi-faceted, and all of these layers are interweaved and connected in a thousand different ways. On one end, it is a powerful modern military state and NATO’s 2nd strongest army (or so I’ve been told), on the other end it is a myriad of different ethnicities and nationalities each with their own history, needs and agendas. On one end it is the liberal, artsy, European and intellectual Istanbul, yet on the other end it is towns like Malatya, and all the problems at the eastern borders, and then the Kurds, and Syria, and Iran, and then Islam and the religious debate, and sexual debate, and how I was advised not to make certain jokes. It is a very complex country. And as such, it is extremely interesting to explore. Not just exploring the layers, but the billions of interactions between them is really fascinating. As a whole country, I do not think any other place can offer so much depth for discovery and comprehension.

The Turkish society is extremely diverse — much more diverse than it is in Armenia, or any other place I’ve seen for that matter. Even in America I do not feel as much diversity. In fact when the Americans talk about diversity, I would say they need to check into Turkey. To have such a giant spectrum of different philosophies, religions, educations, social standings, agendas and wealth — wow! It makes your head spin!

As such, it is absolutely impossible to not find what you are looking for in Turkey.

I want to stress the last paragraph, because many ask — what are the Turks like? I can not answer that question! Depends on the Turk, I guess! But mostly, they are just like you. You know, they laugh when a clumsy child is having a hard time climbing on his tricycle, and they turn their heads after a hot chick wearing high heels or a handsome man driving a nice Porsche, and of course they run out of their cars to help when they see a motorcyclist in an accident.

Was it difficult to travel in Turkey as an Armenian? This question should really be split into two.

Was it difficult to travel in Turkey? Yes, in many ways. Traveling in Turkey is not at all like traveling in Germany. You need to bargain the prices. You need to talk and communicate, sometimes with feelings. There are sometimes not enough instructions. Most things that really matter are subtle and hidden. People mostly won’t smile at you if they don’t like you, or if they don’t know you. Driving is difficult. Gasoline is fucking expensive. People are tempered.

And this is a good moment to answer the second part of the question — as an Armenian, none of that was really difficult! In fact, every single traveler I met on my trip was having a much harder time than myself! What aren’t we used to, as Armenians — sincere facial expressions? Tempered people? Bargaining? Lack of instructions? So I would say, it is sort of difficult to travel in Turkey, but much easier for an Armenian than for a Canadian. That for damn sure!

Do not get me wrong. The last thing I would wanna do is to stand in downtown Malatya on a minaret and yell that I am an Armenian. In fact, I have lied quite a few times about being American… of Armenian heritage. Felt safer that way, especially towards the beginning of the trip. But it never made any difference. I spoke Armenian on a phone video call on the busiest streets, spent two full days with two Armenian ladies roaming outside in Istanbul, and never ever had a hint of a problem.

Again, it was not a problem for me to be an Armenian in Turkey. Not when I chatted other young guys and girls at the bars. Not when I dealed with the policemen. Not when crossing the border. Not when I asked for directions. Never. In fact sometimes in Istanbul I felt like it was a “cool” and “classy” thing to be an Armenian. Surprising, yeah? A good friend of mine told me that he feels safer when there is no special attitude towards him — positive or negative — and I agree. I am not saying it is not special to be an Armenian in Turkey (although these days it is perhaps less special than it used to be 20 years ago). I am just saying it seems relatively safe. All that I had to do was to respect the people I talked to, and smile.

I did occasionally come across some nationalist talk, but on these occasions I decided not to reveal my ethnicity.

Was my journey a brave thing to do? To some extent, I felt that way towards the beginning. But towards the end, I realized that it took me much more bravery to walk around Tenderloin in San Francisco after midnight, or, for God’s sake, to jump with a parachute. That shit is scary!

I cannot finish a post about Turkey without writing about the hospitality. I have lived in a Caucasian country all my life and we are all big on embracing the Caucasian hospitality, or the Armenian hospitality. I have always been skeptical and cynical about it. In fact I could never quite understand what this hospitality thing is, until I experienced Turkey. You just simply have no idea.

Hospitality is getting the Coke free at the gas station only because you said “I’m really thirsty” when paying for it. It is two people you never met spending an entire day with you in forsaken Erzurum just so that you don’t feel lonely or lost. It is the hundreds of cups of tea I drunk when asking for a direction at a store. Hospitality is when you go to a barber to style your hair, and he splits his kebab in half, wraps the other half with his own hands in the remaining bread, and instructs that his apprentice gets fresh tomatoes from the store around the corner so that your kebab does not feel too “naked”. The most amazing thing is, it is not a special attitude towards an Armenian guest who is visiting. It is an attitude towards everyone — a guest, a neighbor, and a friend just walking by. We don’t have that. And Georgians don’t have that. We are focused on something else.

Turks are wonderful people. Just like all the other people in the world. Yes, just like all of us.

Will I go back? Absolutely! I missed the Mediterranean part of my journey because of the accident, and I am definitely riding back. Hopefully with friends, and a bigger motorcycle!

Steve Jobs Motorcycle

Steve Jobs in 1982 riding his 1966 R60/2 BMW Motorcycle

Steve Jobs in 1982 riding his 1966 R60/2 BMW Motorcycle

“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.’ It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

—Steve Jobs, 1955-2011

Rode 600 freaking kilometers t…

Rode 600 freaking kilometers today, some of it off-road (kudos Georgia). In Yerevan. Loved #orex !

Day 18: Trabzon

Trabzon is a seaport. As such, it has a really awesome feel somewhere between Istanbul and the oriental version of Booty Bay.

The difference is stunning — I don’t know whether it is the sea or something else, but after Erzincan and especially Malatya, Trabzon is so full of life and energy! It is so very beautiful, too!

The first thought that occurred after riding in was — “I am gonna stay here for a while.” And I did!

In fact, I stayed in Trabzon for three days — a day longer than I stayed in Ankara. That makes Trabzon city number two after Istanbul on my trip!

The streets carefully laid out of cobblestone, the revolting omnipresent smell of fish, the pubs and the noise make it such a pleasant place to be for any pirate… or adventurer!

Experience: Driving in Turkey

Driving in Turkey is challenging. Although the roads are mostly very nice, the driving habits of the local drivers are outrageously bad. According to Lonely Planet: Turkey, Turkey is statistically the world’s number one when it comes to the annual number of motor vehicle accidents.

Now, by saying bad driving I do not by any means imply reckless driving. Or fast driving. Or outlaw driving. I mean just that — bad driving! There is driving outlaw, when you break the laws but still know exactly what you’re doing. And then there is just simple bad driving — when you have no idea, do not check your mirrors, drive in the middle of the lane without being aware of the surrounding vehicles, break unexpectedly, and, perhaps most annoying of all, honk your horn twenty milliseconds after the traffic light turns green. Give it a second!!!!

Yielding? Forget about it! Turn signals? I think the total amount of times I’ve seen anyone use their turn signals on an intersection for a week in Istanbul did not exceed 10. No, I am not missing a zero there!

I always thought that the Armenian drivers are really bad. We definitely break the rules when we feel like we realize what we are doing, and we like driving fast. But driving in Turkey is like a race of survival — there is absolutely no way anyone anywhere can convince me that a bus driver who pulls his wagon straight on a motorcycle at his right possibly knows what he is doing. He just does not appear to give a damn even to check his mirrors. And the worst part is, the police does not seem to be doing anything about it. They just accept it as a fact of life.

If I were to be the head of traffic police in Turkey, I would declare all driving licenses void and start a new process of harsh driving exams. You know you are doing something wrong, when in a neighboring country where the vast majority just buys their driving licenses without any exam at all, people drive better by degrees.

However, speeding on a freeway is punished harshly. When a policeman gives you a ticket for exceeding the speed limit by 3 km/h, you just wanna scream your lungs out — “Dude, have you been to Istanbul?!” But he writes the ticket anyway, and I have noticed that a lot of Turks get the speeding tickets. Also, it goes without saying, there does not even remotely appear to be any corruption when it comes to driver–officer interactions.

The pedestrians are a different story. You think in Yerevan people cross the street wherever and whenever they feel like? Meet Istanbul. It is like an arcade game called “Dodge the Kamikaze”, and it gets pretty old and stressful after several minutes. If I had to live in Istanbul (which I would absolutely love to) and commute on a vehicle to work every day, after about a month I would probably become some sort of a disturbed psychotic maniac.

Now the good news: the roads, on the other hand, are mostly extremely nice. Their quality may vary inside towns, but the freeways are very good, and the signage/markings is great. Closer to Istanbul area they are nearly perfect. After driving for about 3,500kms, I did not encounter a single pothole. It just impresses you when you see the process of laying down the roads in Turkey. I know some Turks complain about the quality of their roads, but they should know that their roads are not worse, if not better, than those in California..

One thing to watch out for on the roads is the reason of my accident. This is, in fact, a good tip, that I would appreciate to have before starting my journey.

In cities where it does not rain very often, the exhaust gases from the cars’ pipes come out and accumulate on the tarmac. I do not understand why we don’t have that problem in Armenia, but in cities like Erzurum or Malatya at some point you feel like riding on ice, not asphalt. For cars it is perhaps not a big issue, but for a two-wheel vehicle it is very easy to skid or lock the wheels. Always watch out for that and drive slowly on slippery surfaces!

Also I am assuming that if rain started with the road being in that condition, it would just be wise to pull over and wait for about 15 minutes till the nasty layer of chemicals is washed off the surface.

And the final tip is, when driving in Turkey, stretch your imagination and expect everything from every member of the traffic. I mean it.

Driving in Turkey has definitely made me sweat. But it was also a good exercise of defensive driving and good reaction. If you are into that kind of stuff, you may actually come to enjoy it!

Day 17: Erzincan

Erzincan looks like a very typical small American town, if there ever was a small American town with muslim population.

Chariots and horse carts are not allowed on the main street!

Somewhere along the road I came across cars that looked like lottery prizes. Turned out they were actually wedding cars.

See the boys in front of the car? Those are the “çocuklar”! They have nothing to do with the wedding, they are just there — street kids — to ruin the party.

How do you ruin a wedding party as a çocuk? Easy! You jump on the hood of the cars!

One of guests of the wedding finally lost his temper

The çocuk army was dispersed in a blink of an eye!

Just as the cars started moving, however, the çocuks resumed their attack, catching up after the cars in traffic and… jumping on their hoods on the fly, right there on the 3rd lane!

The way the surrounding people reacted to that made me realize that this was a standard çocuk procedure, or perhaps a scheduled squad training.

Time to eat something! Oh wait, not really… Time to eat something is at about 7:30pm.

The thing about relegious fasting is, in my understanding, that people should exercise humility and disregard hunger. They should behave and feel in a way that they don’t care about food, and take some pride in that. That is my understanding, and it might be subjective (as all religious affairs for that matter). But that is not the way things actually stand here!

Starting from about 6:30, almost all tables at all restaurants are occupied — not even reserved! Folks sit around tables and do nothing, anticipating food.

There is nothing on these guys’ table except for water, which they don’t touch. The time on my camera when I took the photo was 7:06pm. Guess what they are looking at — kebabs being rolled to be ready just in time to break the fast!

Erzincan is a pretty active and loud oriental town. But you should see, or rather hear it, the second people are allowed eat something. A noisy town a minute ago, suddenly not even the dogs bark! Everyone starts eating!

And so do I.

Yum!

Day 16: Malatya

The planned leg from Göreme to Malatya was the longest in the journey: more than 415km. Google Maps’ directions was giving me an estimate of 6 freaking hours for arrival, but I wanted to get there much earlier, so I was driving a little fast.

Somewhere in the middle of my path, I noticed an automatic speed radar and dropped my speed to about 100 km/h. After the accident, my speedometer gauge did not work, so I had to figure the speed out purely based on perception and experience.

About a kilometer after the radar, the police pulled me over. Just like that — a cop pointed at me with a finger and said in a mike — “Sıfır dört üç dört APA”. That is “Zero four three four APA” — my license plate. I knew I had to stop. There were three policemen again.

“Hi, I speak English, what is the problem?” I greeted the policeman

“Merhaba” This time around none of them spoke any English.

“Hello! Is there a problem?”

No response, shows with fingers that he wants my driver’s license. I give it to him.

“Motosiklet?” he wants to understand whether or not I am allowed to ride a bike.

I point at the “A” letter under my photo, then turn the license around and show the legend for “A”: motorcycles, mopeds and other motorized vehicles on two wheels.

“Tamam!”

“So, what is the problem?”

(no response, talks something with his colleagues)

“Problem?”

“Speed.” he then makes a gesture suggesting that I get off the motorcycle, take off my helmet and follow him.

As we approach their car, he takes a piece of A4 paper and writes “99” on it, then draws a circle around it. “Limit!” he says.

“OK, I know, but what was my speed?” I point at myself

“102” he writes on the paper above 99.

What the fuck, seriously! Is he kidding me? I put a minus sign between “102” and “99” and write at the bottom — “= 3!”

He nods.

“Üç (3) kilometre!” I say, amazed and pissed

“Evet, üç kilometre” (Yes, 3 kilometers)

“??!”

“Üç kilometre — problem! Bir (1) kilometre — problem!”

“Amerika — problem yok (no problem), Almanya (Germany) — problem yok, Ermenistan — problem yok, ama Türkiye — problem?? Üç kilometre!!” (Yes, my Turkish is that good at this point.) I get really upset. Usually, +5–10% is always disregarded everywhere in the world!

“Evet, Türkiye — problem. Bir kilometre — problem.”

I ask him to follow me. I show the broken speedometer gauge. Then I take out my accident report filed by the Turkish traffic police. He reads it attentively, and nods.

“Speedometer yok!” (No speedometer) I say. “Ama üç kilometre — problem yok!”

He nods in empathy. Tells my story to his colleagues. But they don’t change their minds.

“So how much do I have to pay?” I make a gesture with my fingers of paying money

“Hayır!, Hayır!” (No!, No!) I think he gets me wrong. He shows me a document where it has instructions in Turkish and English. The 3rd point says that foreign drivers pay the fine at the customs when exiting the country. Then he writes on the paper — “TL 140″.

God damn it!

Some time later I arrive at Malatya. The roads are as slippery as they were in Erzurum, but I feel myself a seasoned rider now and there is no way I will have an accident. The city looks crappy starting from the moment you enter it. The streets are dirty, people look somewhat annoyed and the whole environment feels unwelcoming. I stop and open my Lonely Planet book to find a good hotel. Then put the address in my Android and navigate to it using Google Maps. The place where I arrive does not even remotely feel like there could be any hotel there.

I get off the motorcycle and approach some people to ask for a hotel. Nobody even answers my “Hello”, as if I don’t exist. Spooky!

I get on the internet, and find allegedly the best hotel in Malatya. Ride there through really chaotic traffic, and woah!

Malatya is what Yerevan’s Malatya market would be, if it was separated as a town on its own. It feels like a huge dirty market, that is so intense that even in front of the best hotel in the city some folks are selling sport shoes, and you actually have to twist around if you wanna enter the building.

This photo is not just a random view. Even the first floor of the mosque looks like it hosts a market of goods of some sort.

Downtown Malatya

 

Some unknown motorcycle — Kanuni Tiger!

I think this is Mustafa Kemal, although I am not sure.

The central square reminds of some Armenian town, but I can’t remember which one exactly.

Bicycle and motorcycle general mechanic

Chicks in Malatya

And of course, red apple! Target the right crowd for your outfit!

I was extremely hungry, so I stepped into some steakhouse, where they said that all tables were reserved although it felt like they were just giving me shit because my hair looked messy. I went to the restaurant next to it, where I had 2 crappy lahmacuns and was asked to pay 25 liras for that — most I ever payed for food for one person anywhere in Turkey, including Istanbul.

I walked back to the hotel and decided to never visit Malatya again. Simple as that.