The purpose of this journey was to circumnavigate the Black Sea. The first 2 weeks were spent getting across Western and Eastern Europe to this ancient and historic body of water. The first glimpse came on the Bulgarian Coast. We could see the sea … but between it and us were enormous Bulgarian Holiday destinations – panacea for a few million people. These shores are mostly steep and rocky. There are some good beaches, but one has to be a typical callous and corrupt politician or book years in advance to inhabit a tiny patch of the golden grains which were likely imported by truck from a riverbank further inland. Once actually at the waters edge we spent over an hour gazing back inland trying to identify our hotel. The signage would have only been visible to a local fisherman on his way home to break the news to his family that they were eating Blotched Picarel and cucumber again that night. As it was a new building even the locals were unaware of it. We finally located it by driving to the map co-ordinates that I had quite by chance recorded from Google maps months earlier at home. It was no surprise to discover we were the sole occupants. This whole coast was booming during the period 2002/07. In 2008 the European economy collapsed along with hundreds of dodgy development companies. Hundreds of thousands of European ‘investors’ who had paid their deposits on a slice of well camouflaged paradise lost their money. The half finished buildings remain – crumbling only a few years earlier than they would have due to the poor quality materials and workmanship. Uh oh – that’s likely to result in a law suite.
The coastal Bulgarians obviously have no ambition to visit Turkey. We deduced this by the virtually unused track to the boarder. Most New Zealand farms would be ashamed to send their cows down a track in this condition. Our reward came at the deserted boarder. We were farewell by a couple of Customs and Immigration officials who I feared were going to break down and weep at our passing. While one rushed off to attend to the formalities (which possibly included scanning our passports to make Black Market replicas) we stood and chatted to another who had a dear friend now living in NZ - but hating the fact that it rained all the time. We found this an astonishing attitude given that, for the past 10 days we were traveling a day ahead of storms that had most of Europe submerged in muddy water - and the night before we had marveled at the a huge storm that had probably dribbled down inside our new friends leaky home.
Arriving at the Turkish side of the border was a complete transformation of attitude. We had been lulled into thinking bureaucrats were human. Following an hour of multiple applications and the handing over of hard currency for the privilege of entry, road tax and inspection we emerged onto a fabulous highway that had no traffic. This lasted until we joined the motorway towards Istanbul. The world brightened in one respect. While stretching a leg and eating a Turkish coffee together with a gelatinous square of cheesy product that we were assured was a local favorite, we noticed out the window that a lad was washing our car. It sorely needed it but we were surprised that it had offended the sensibilities of our hosts to that extent. Turns out that this is a new Turkish custom. Every highway food establishment encourages your patronage by employing boys to scrub up your transport. An excellent idea. I think there is a code to indicate if you want the service or not. It could be that you flip a wiper blade out. I never figured it out and succeeded by indicating that a generous tip would be forthcoming on our return to HeeHaw.
During the past weeks we had been aware of Renault cars (that in spite of being French I always liked) and were surprised at their popularity in Turkey. I had believed that Reno was struggling to survive – and wasn’t surprised. Their choice of model names is enough to put of the most enthusiastic buyer. If Renault Corporation is looking for a consultant to turn their fortunes around, I’m ready. One of their ‘compact’ models is called the Symbol. A symbol of what? Anxiety or perhaps desperation. Or is it symbolic of those pot lids the aggressive one whacks together in the orchestra? The model that has me most bewildered is the Fluence. I envisage a bitter disagreement at the board meeting when the decision to name this car was being made. Was it to be Influence, Affluence or perhaps Effluence. Maybe the decision is yet to be made and in the meantime the factory continued production without the first letter.
Istanbul has 18,000,000 registered inhabitants … plus a few million unregistered people and at any given moment over a million tourists. This puts a heavy demand on the infrastructure. I am amazed that the electricity and water supply, sewage system and rubbish collection works at all. Well … sometimes they don’t but they do make an excellent effort. The toilet at our hotel flushed successfully 68.4% of the time. The most obvious infrastructural stress is the roading system. There is an amazing tangle of roads everywhere and they are jammed with vehicles most of the time. Mostly by aggressive, tooting Turks late for something. Parking is almost impossible and motion is intermittent. Some drivers are quite innovative and use the emergency lanes to good effect. There are bigger and more crowded cities in the world – we’ve driven in most of them – but Istanbul is right up there in contention for the most chaotic. The worry is that this country and especially this city is forging ahead. Its one of the worlds growth regions. Visitors that venture outside the ‘old City’ that used to be called Constantinople will be astonished. However, for me, a country boy who hates crowds and especially waiting in queue’s, a ‘Turkish Delight’ is escaping from this frenetic metropolis of honking chaos. As we flew out over the city it reminded me of the times as a lad when we looked for ‘road kill’ (usually possums) to attract eels. Turning over a bloated carcass would sometimes reveal a seething mass of maggots all wriggling without apparent purpose. With apologies to my Turkish friends – who now number many – that is my personal perception of this and most other megacities. You would probably like it.
Again Flypaper dragged me on an evening cruise. This time on the Bosphorus. She used the wily tactic of flashing a brochure that featured an eye-popping dancer clad in a few strips of transparent tape. Oh dear, what with Flypaper begging for night out and my being conscious that I do need to do some research for this blog, I reluctantly agreed. Flypaper scoffs at this. She says the reluctant agreement was shouted over my shoulder as I sprinted out the door to get an early front row seat. That front row seat did eventuate and it seems I caught the eye of that dancer. It was horrific and I still lie awake at nights remembering my terror and near suffocation. First she buried my nose in a place that I think should have featured a further strip of tape – then I found myself under the canopy of her long hair. I groped around trying to find a way out and am eternally grateful that Flypaper rushed in and rescued me.
During our visit to Istanbul the international news was full of the protests that were occurring. Those that sent me emails saying they saw me wrestling with police and throwing back teargas containers were mistaken. I have learned by now that influence is better than direct action. (We were at the back pushing the more radical elements forward.) We left Istanbul and drove to stay with friends in the capital city Ankara about 5 hours inland. Again the journey was educational and With HeeHaw galloping at best pace I learnt the tactic of weaving across 4 lanes of traffic including the emergency services lane to maintain good progress. Ankara is much more civilized. There are only 4.3 million people and they all live in modern high rise apartments in 2,500 sqkm (that’s about the population of New Zealand in an area the size of Auckland & Christchurch combined). They are also much more subdued in their protest. Each night at 9pm the neighborhoods erupt with a cacophony of noise as the householders open their windows and beat pots together. Those with timid babies make do with flicking their lights on and off. It was wonderful to be among people who are making the statement that they don’t like the political environment in which they exist and want improvements. God give them strength.
As I mentioned earlier, Turkey is forging ahead economically and it’s uncharitable to criticize their efforts. However, downtown the next day we witnessed thousands of riot police being bussed into the city centre to subdue the even more thousands of protesters that had their own huge fleet of busses. There is room for improvement in terms of corruption and human rights – but I am reluctant to criticize a country that is doing many of the things I believe my own country should be doing. I will say however, that I am less than impressed with the attitudes of the ruling classes throughout the whole of this greater region. Living in the home of a successful local person provided a wonderful insight to life in a fast emerging economy – and we learned things about Turkey’s history that are not taught in our own education system.
The return to Istanbul a few days later was also educational. We found ourselves in a traffic jam that was caused by a truck overturning on the motorway. Following that, our GPS took us to the wrong address – an address where we had planned to leave HeeHaw while we flew to the Caucuses for 2 weeks. We showed a local person at random in the street the address and asked for directions. He spoke not a word of English but bought us a ‘Chi’ and telephoned our contact – then climbed into our spare passenger seat and directed us to our destination. This is the sort of hospitality that is universal in Turkey … and indeed, in many other places we have visited. It’s an example we must all embrace. With HeeHaw safely stored, another guy transported us in his private car for 2 hours through rush hour Istanbul to Ataturk Airport and found our hotel for that night. The following morning we exited Turkey by plane for The Caucasus without problem.
Our destination was Yerevan in Armenia. Unfortunately Turkey and Armenia are having a spat that goes back to the mass murder of Armenians by Turks in Eastern Armenia during World War 1. (An event most Turks regret but the politicians’ ignore). To this day there is no diplomatic recognition between the countries and in 1993 Turkey closed the common boarder. Even our imminent arrival did not motivate the parties to relax and we could not even fly from Istanbul to Yerevan. That meant a flight to Tbilisi in Georgia followed by a very rough 6 hour car journey back through the Armenian boarder. The chauffeured transport was arranged by our Caucuses tour company. The driver was a guy in his 20’s who spoke a little English but preferred silence. I analyzed him as a conservative. It wasn’t his modest clothes (plain pale blue shirt as opposed my own United Nations flag with special anti-sunstroke collar), it was the fact that he constantly drove the struggling Corolla either on the line between lanes or on the center line of the road. He seemed to either not be able to make up his mind or wanted to keep his options open. After observing a few ambitious passing maneuvers’ by other drivers he told me in a disgusted tone that Georgian drivers were all crazy … then proceeded to demonstrate that he was a fine example. Of particular interest was the fact hat he had a clear understanding that if you want a car to go faster you select a higher gear. Every car travels quicker in 5th gear than (say) 3rd. However, he had not done lesson 2 that says if you wish to accelerate briskly you select a lower gear and thrash the heart out of the beast. Consequently, when we saw a passing opportunity – usually a questionable one – he selected 5th gear followed by full throttle. Our subsequent sluggish acceleration left me with breathing problems and a strong desire to remove him from control. I suspect that his corpse would have raised questions I would find difficult to answer and the resulting incarceration would upset our travel itinerary – so I did the local thing and uttered a rapid prayer. That worked.
He did have an amazing skill. He was fluent in horn language - a virtuoso performer - to the extent that we could understand the language as well. There was a toot for excuse me, others for hello, thank you, get out of the way, goodbye and many others. The more strident one that said, “You rotten #@%&*#@% that was my piece of road” was clear, precise and glorious to hear.
Our arrival in Yerevan, a city few have heard off, culminated in an unscheduled city tour due to our driver being lost - and the eventual halt outside a hotel that appeared to be closed for renovations. It wasn’t closed – but should have been. To compensate, the staff were wonderfully obliging and gave us a modest (Soviet era) top floor room overlooking the city and featuring a view of Mount Ararat. Had we been there during Noah’s arrival we would not have noticed due to the blanket of smog that limited our view to a few kilometers.