On our last evening here we walked up a small valley leading away from the village center; past plots of grape vines and apricot trees orange with fruit, between mushroom hoodoos hollowed out as living quarters. For centuries people lived like this in this place. The first ones were Christians escaping persecution by the Romans. When the soldiers arrived they left their hoodoo homes and descended into vast underground cities where many died, but they survived. There are churches carved everywhere, and even a monastery. After the Christians left, or were driven away as has happened here, the Muslims moved in and are here still. Now the people live mostly above ground in villages, but some still prefer the caves.
Evening comes to Goreme
We walked through small tunnels just big enough for a donkey and cart to pass through, nowadays a small tractor. It is a landscape bursting with the memory of lives lived, centuries of history, redolent of fallen apricots and summer blossoms. We hurried back to the village and climbed steep narrow cobbled streets, past horse cart and tractor, a cat bathing in the peach light of sunset and people making for home, greetings and smiles, warm welcomes for us. We had wandered away from the otels and lokantas of the tourist center, into the myriad of serpentine lanes where the people live, the people who still work the plots outside the village, as well as those who serve the tourists. The cobbled streets hold both stone houses and carved hoodos and more contemporary stuccos. Scarved women walk arm in arm, men return on tractors, another urges on the trotting horse that pulls his cart, the horse that gave Cappadocia its name (Cappacocia means beautiful horse). We pass painted weathered wooden doors to courtyards unseen, hear voices inside calling someone to chai; a woman who shares her crocheting with Claire, but politely refuses to allow a portrait. We see a man working on a house in the light of the setting sun; he quits for the day and shares, in good English, that he has contracted to rebuild an historic house with the original stones, on a modern foundation with water and electricity. The past lives on for some in modern Turkey. As we wander back to our hotel in the fading light we see a sign, in front of a hoodoo in English: For Sale: 7 Room Cave House. Now that would be an adventure!
Underground in Cappadocia
Claire, Orkun and Bob in Nallihan
Nallihan Rest Day
I like rest days. One lesson we learn over and over is that a day or two off in a village helps the locals to get comfortable with us. This time it happened in the town of Nallihan, population 17,000. We’d been hoping for a town just like this, not too big, not too small, with a comfortable hotel and plenty of interesting places to explore.
We didn’t expect to luck into a rooftop room with a cross breeze and a terrace overlooking the city park. Our first evening, we spent like royalty up on our isolated island watching the activity below. The second night we were down in the park, having fun with everyone else. We staked out a bench after dinner, and watched the kids give each other rides around the park on their bikes, merchants closing up shop and fathers jockeying ice cream cones to their families nearby. Three young men approached with just enough English to say hello. When their banter reverted to Turkish, I mistakenly thought that was the end of the encounter. It turned out that they were discussing fetching a friend who spoke fluent English. Orkun arrived shortly afterward and translated among the group, who were as curious about us as we were about them. We learned more about the local football (soccer) favorites, heard about the hopes and dreams of young Turkish men and even got to talk politics. We also got to pepper Orkun with questions about Turkish culture that the language barrier has left us in the dark about. It turns out that it is not a grave offense to turn down chai as we had feared and that worry beads are just for fidgeting and different from prayer beads. “It is better to pray than to sleep,” Orkun said, when we asked him about the early morning call to prayer. Given the different moods of the day, I can see that an early morning prayer would be much different than a late evening prayer. We took snapshots and exchanged e-mail addresses before saying goodbye.
Silkworm crew sharing chai
Turning the Silk Worms on a Blistering Hot Day
Toward the end of a long, hot day, we stopped at an intersection to check the map and have a drink of water. Nearby, some young women giggled and tried out their English from the safety of a hedge. I decided to go closer to say hello and try to explain what we were up to. The women waved peculiar wooden trowels as they talked and tried to ask questions I couldn’t understand. When they saw I was curious about the wood tools, they led me to the long warehouse they’d been working in and showed me the bins full of silkworms. After all this time we were still on the Silk Road. They showed how they gently scoop the cocoons and turn them over in the well ventilated bins. A group of about ten women gathered around and cooed at photos of our nieces and nephews. It was a good thing we’d printed extras of Bob’s beautiful platinum blond grand niece Avery, as those photos were popular among the dark haired set. We were used to turning down offers of tea by now but somehow it only seemed right to join them for an after-work tea beneath a grape arbor, after all, our work was almost done for the day. It was wonderful to be able to sit and laugh at simple jokes and to see these women in the context of a job, a community and a way of life that seemed to suit them. I’d been disappointed to see so few women in the work force, and though a silk warehouse may not mean a bright future, it’s still a job and a place for women to connect with each other. We exchanged e-mail addresses and though I don’t know what I’ll say, I’ll try to write, I hope they remember me, I know I won’t forget them.
Tomatoes and Raki
July 28. It was just a few days to go before reaching the Sea of Marmara where we would take a ferry to Istanbul, and end our journey across Asia. We were struggling along, headed for another mile of elevation gain day, when we saw a man weighing a wagon of bright red tomatoes with a large scale that looked a small version of our truck scales in the US. We decided it is long past time for us to weigh Zippy and see how overweight he has become. We turned in and rolled up on the scales, and used pantomime to request our weight. The scale master grinned and ran inside, breaking his busy schedule to give us a weight. We got off and gingerly balanced Zippy until he returned with a weight: 60 kilos, or 132 pounds. Ouch! No wonder we have been cursing these endless Turkish mountains. That means we are carrying around 90 pounds of gear; how did we get so heavy? We were not really surprised, it happens every longish tour, we pick up tourist brochures, books, extra maps, carry lots of water, some roadside fruit, and at least a kilo of candy bars, just in case. We thanked him, and of course there was the inevitable invitation for chai. We were ready for a break, and the tomato sorting operation in full swing behind him looked intriguing. There were greetings and waves from all the men standing around supervising the women doing the work, wry smiles from them.
Waving the flies off the sugar cubes, we sipped small glasses of chai (the size of a small old fashioned jelly glass), three lumps for the glass, one to suck the tea through; we are probably burning 5,000 calories a day in the mountains in a six or seven hour pedaling day, and grab any source of calories. After we finish the tea, between bouts of hilarious pantomime about who-knows-what, I noticed a nod of the head from our benefactor, and a boy arrived with an icy cold tea glass of raki. Raki is the anise flavored liquor favored by the supposedly non-alcohol drinking Muslims of Turkey, purported to pack quite a punch. It is, among other things, a sort of test of manhood to throw down as many of the three or more ounce glasses as offered. With a half day of hills left to us I wasn’t about to get into that! I managed to graciously decline, liberally using the word rampart, which means steep, mountains etc. as an excuse. In the end I poured half in his glass toasted him and we threw the contents down our throats with élan, fast new friends. Claire did not mind that she was left out of this particular male ritual; she is such a lightweight she would have been down for the count. Even though I got by with only a couple of ounces of the stuff, we both noticed I took turns a little wide until I’d sweated it out of my system. I do not recommend it as a performance enhancement substance.
The boy soon returned with at least two kilos of tomatoes as a parting gift! You can imagine the desperate pantomime I went through to avoid lugging those up the next mountain; we accepted two which we ate later with cheese and bread, our favorite lunch. Next a supervisor came around and indicated he wanted us to see the tomato sorting operation, and please bring my camera. This surprised me, since many Muslims decline a request to have their image made, citing the Prophet, the Koran. Lively banter went on all around us as we were escorted, like the surprise visiting dignitaries that we were. We took everyone’s picture, some of them twice, particularly the big boss to the glee of his underlings. Then we rode away waving, and wondering, as we have so often on this journey-of-a-thousand-languages: what the heck just happened?
Man with home-made hand driven trike; as fast as we could jog; Iznik
A dig at a Roman theatre in Iznik unearths skeletons
Roman theatre in Iznik
A Typical Day
We haven’t yet described for readers a typical day on a bike tour of Asia. That’s because there isn’t one. A routine never established itself because the rules kept changing. One of the best aspects of bike touring is that you have to stay flexible in your plans because so many variables are out of your control. As I like to say, hope for the best, but plan for the worst. The worries of one day should prepare you for the next, but they don’t. If you get up early to avoid the heat, you’ll encounter headwinds, or hills. Will there be enough water along our route today? Should we carry extra food, or not? Is the town we’re aiming for likely to have a hotel or should we be ready to bush camp? Each of these variables swung wildly from country to country. In China for example, street food was readily available, even in the early mornings but in Turkey, we’d buy breakfast food the night before. Water was widely available at roadside fountains across most of Turkey but would inexplicably disappear if the geography changed. Lunchtime could find us at a roadside café playing animal charades with a baffled cook, or we might find a good shady spot for a picnic (good shade could be a rare find in some places). When hot water wasn’t available for a shower in the afternoons in Turkey, we’d wait up late for it in the evening or if it was hot enough, we’d jump into a cold bird bath as soon as our riding was done for the day. Traffic could be inexplicably heavy one day and lighten up the next. Large market crowds sometimes drove us to get our goods and go rather than linger, where in other villages we were nothing more than a passing curiosity. Nasty road conditions could mean a change in route plans on the fly. And weather or illness might mean an unexpected day off. The constants in our life were: ride, eat, sleep, write, take photos, look, listen. And for the rest, as friend Jack Lange taught us: “It is what it is.” Thanks Jack.
Iznik, Turkey, once known as Nicea. Inciralti Sarayi, the Palace of the Senate:
Birthplace of the Nicean Creed
Remnant wall, Palace of the Senate; a most important historic site, seldom visited by Christians
I stand beside a crumbling wall beside Lake Iznik. There is an inconspicuous interpretive sign commemorating one of the most important events in Christendom: the Council of Nicea, convened by Constantine The Great in 325 A.D. The decision made on this spot inexorably led to the Crusades and ultimately to the divisions today between two of the great religions of The Book, Christianity and Islam. After much heated argument, Christian leaders voted that from that day forward, Jesus was the same as God; more than a great prophet and teacher, but God come to earth. The Christianity most of us grew up with is a result of that decision. To learn that it was made by men, three centuries after Jesus’ death was jolting. That politicized decision ended, perhaps forever, the possibility of the Christian West and Islam living in peace. If Jesus were God, then there was no need for more prophets, thus the conflict with Islam was unavoidable.
Standing beside that crumbling wall was a moving experience for me. The teachings of Jesus have been central to my life since I heard them sitting in my grandfather’s pew at Humphrey’s Memorial Methodist in Tornado, West Virginia. Would Jesus the teacher see Muslims as enemies? Many Christians mix Jesus up with the Old Testament angry god of revenge: eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. If the Muslim world continues to feel threatened with Crusade, the result could be a nuclear return to the Dark Ages.
For their part, the Islamic world must stand up and cut from the body of Islam the small minority who espouse violence against others as the will of Allah. We were treated with respect in our travels through the Islamic world, and very often we were shown a sincere desire to connect. I will never forget the man in Azerbaijan who took me to a stream and showed me how a Muslim washes before prayer. He shared that manly ritual with me, knowing I was Christian, risking ridicule or misunderstanding to share something very close to his heart. If more Westerners could kneel with him beside that stream and wash with him, share food with his family, they would know him as friend; his is the true face of Islam. The suicide bomber you see on television is not Muslim, but madman.
Claire sharing one of the many roadside wells in Turkey with a young local woman and her son
Sunset over Lake Iznik
Burkas on the march
Turkish children posing for pictures after a seaside performance