Thousands of miles and a country
It is two months since I wrote my first thoughts about embarking on a ride across Türkiye, while still at the time in Greece. I did not expect two months to go so fast and I did not expect two months to be so full, or - despite my expectations of the trip - to leave me so much to consider.
I just re-read my last post, to see where those words left me and if they held up. Firstly I will say I’d have written sooner. Never before I don’t think has writing while on a trip offered me more support or understanding. But there simply wasn’t the time. The hills I had anticipated were bigger than anticipated. The political, emotional, philosophical grappling that is always a feature of my rides and riding were bigger and perhaps more unruly than I’d anticipated. The days were shorter and the hours of light too brief, the evenings too wearied by the miles. The cold was colder. The dogs were too many, and while the dogs were far more numerous than the villagers warning of wolves, one warning of a wolf is already more than enough.
The Turkish kitchen was there as a sort of warming insurance policy. The occasional Turkish driver there as something of a national support team as dark came down fast and on a wild pass before a city I needed to reach. As always, at the end of a day I had to write so much down, but I do not like to turn on a computer, and the impulse to record as I go always leads me to a notepad. There were never the hours or evenings enough to do both. I have cycled far before and covered longer distances, but the primary obligation in this project was always to record as best I could, and for the benefit of next year’s book, the country and society of Türkiye on the cusp of its 2023 centenary, rather than to pedal miles. It was a lot. It was, in all honesty, and perhaps naively, more taxing than I expected.
The book, I hope and of course am determined, will have to do it all justice, though this too is an emotional labour and in some ways an intellectual one. I have to sift the random from the representative, have to find the cause for pessimism I find in one encounter with the optimism I know exists from others. History is never neutral, something is always happening, but right now a lot of history is currently happening. Inflation, political change, foreign policy and economic orthodoxies exposed or tested, conflict, global expectations of democracy, global hypocrisies; so many currents of the world cross, rise or fall, that it is hard to know where to place one single country amongst it all. Asking someone their thoughts of the Turkish Republic today gives answers radically different to what they were one year or three or ten ago.
In many ways, and I entered this project with my eyes open to as much, but maybe not open enough, it is an unnatural tendency to look at a single country in the first instance. In the case of Türkiye, and certainly by bicycle through everything, it is impossible. I am hesitant too, because placing one country under the microscope for analysis feels like a minor injustice, especially when it is hard to say precisely where one country stops and another begins, where the empire was and the state is, where the bloc is and was to be, what is global and what is national, where does any legitimacy borders might have get replaced by their overt prejudice?
Greece, Türkiye, areas once occupied by Italy, passing the boat to Cyprus, riding border stretches beside Syria, Azerbaijan, Iran. Finishing my route beside the ruins of Ani and looking across a gorge at the Armenian flag and a joint Armenian-Russian watch post. So much is here.
I remarked to a friend before leaving that ignorance is a useful editor in travel writing, because ignorance gives you both brevity and discovery, and discovery is far easier and perhaps more engaging to write and read than a complex distillation of knowledge. I started out with a fair amount of knowledge and understanding of Türkiye, and now I have vastly more, but so much so that the process of distilling it all now feels daunting. Naturally the acquisition of greater knowledge generally exposes us anew to our own ignorance of all that we don’t yet know and understand, so perhaps I will be saved yet by my ignorance.
I returned from Kars - an old, eastern Turkish city of considerable Russian history - with a sleeper train that clattered through Anatolia. I spent a few nights in Ankara, and am now back in Istanbul. The return back to the Turkish city and people I know best here was long and somewhat sleepless, but still I keep having to remind myself that I have not crossed a time zone. I am not in fact jetlagged.
A few more writing projects await in the new year, when I will be a more regular correspondent again. For now I have a manuscript to finish, and having previously joked that the book would be channelling the spirit of urgency in the War of Independence, that certainly doesn’t feel so far wide of the mark right now. The bicycle, a deadline, and a great mass of information colliding with ignorance. We’ll see what it can produce.
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