Crossing the Bosphorus

Istanbul, 12.08.2019

In the past three months I had crossed the borders of Europe and Asia repeatedly. In the Urals and the Caucasus I criss-crossed from one side to the other. From Çanakkale to the Gallipoli peninsula it was a short 30 mins crossing over the Dardanelles on the car ferry, avoiding the big cargo ships that pass this waterway constantly in both directions. On the Asian side several monuments commemorated the war that raged here a bit over a century ago. Big guns on display, hero monuments, and the oversized images of Mustafa Kemal Pasha, the “father of the Turks”. If this was Central Asia, I’d probably have dropped a comment about “Soviet style glorification of the war and their dictator.” Atatürk was no dictator, but the omnipresent veneration throughout the country – on buildings and cars, in shops and restaurants and hotels and homes, and of course public buildings, the many statues – was remarkable. And felt awkward from a European perspective, where glorification if leaders recalls horrors of the past. From the ferry I could see the fortifications on both sides of the waterway. Once on the European side, I drove for about two hours over the Gallipoli peninsula. From Eceabat the road leads through a valley to the West, where a war museum greeted me on the other end with a plane and guns on display in front of it. From there a small road led up the hills, over several ridges. There were cemeteries everywhere, Turkish and British/Australian/New Zealand, monuments, statues, and trenches. Every few meters a sign explained what happened on that particular stretch of road in 1915-1916, how many soldiers died, how brutal the action was at that point. Left and right of the road trenches were still visible, some tunnels too, and as I was standing reading in some cases I stood at a point where 104 years ago the killing must have reached extreme levels of brutality. If I ever had made it to where I was standing now, at the time I would have gotten shot in seconds. Now crickets chirped, a slow breeze helped with the heat, and Turkish tourists explored the area with their kids. The cemeteries told the same story I had seen so often during this trip, of boys in their early twenties losing their life before it had even really started. White stones in endless rows, on them names, ranks, dates the Turks added the hometown too. And the majority of the dead could not be identified. The same thoughts I had had at my grandfather’s cemetery in Alsace came up – what does it take to not be able to identify a dead soldier? I had reached Europe, and the war scares had appeared immediately again. It’s not that on the Asian side nobody got killed in the past. The stories of the silk road cities were full of atrocities, slaughter and barbarism. But no cemeteries, no remembering happened this visibly there. While in Europe it was everywhere.

The road left the trenches and cemeteries towards the center of the peninsula. About half an hour later the Porta Caeli vineyard appeared on the same hilly landscape. Dense vineyards of different varietals of grapes, in the middle of it the winery and hotel. My stop for the night and next morning. Since Troy, a strong wind kept following me wherever I went. And also here, on a terrace overlooking the vineyard in the last light of the day, a strong breeze refreshed the evening very pleasantly.

The next day in the late morning I repacked the Mini in the heat. To my astonishment the coolant liquid was again below minimum levels. I filled the last bit of Tajik liquid I had left and hoped for the best. Istanbul was just half a day’s drive away. The last bit of unpaved road led through small villages on the hills. Men sat in the shade if small cafés. Families strolled the fields. Lazy dogs slept in the shade of trees, I almost drove over one but my reflexes saved it in the last moment. The ferry back to Asia at Gelibolu had to face strong wind and waves, the Mini got covered in salt water. The ride around Bursa towards Istanbul was rather unspectacular, city traffic nit as bad ad I expected. I remembered in 2013 to have driven forever out of this city, now in no time the bridge over the Bosphorus appeared. The crossing was short, right after the bridge the road led downhill to Besiktas and along the water. Everything felt familiar, and I recognized even the road uphill through the small streets to the hotel. Cats were everywhere. I was exhausted, but forced myself to go eat something. It was Eid al-Adha holiday, and I expected most places to be closed. Not here. And in the small side streets, shady types where standing waiting for who knew what in corners, avoiding the yellow street light. Trans and gay guys, tourists, young and old locals, women of dubious intents. Istanbul of many faces. After so many weeks of countryside and resort monotony, it felt good to be in a more diverse and raucous and gay and urban setting.

While nightlife was on, pretty much everything else wasn’t. This gave me no chance to get any of the items on my to do list done, except one – have a good time on my one day in town. My friend Hakan picked me up for brunch and we spent a day on the Bosphorus, and the evening barbecuing at his sister’s place with a dozen of friends of theirs. Wonderful food, good wines, excellent company – what more would I have needed as a finale to my time in Turkey?

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