Across Continents

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End of the road

November 14th, 2010

Camel - web

The exact start and finish of the Silk Roads is a subject of scholarly debate. And a very academic one at that. For one thing, they were trading routes. The flow of goods rather than people, different merchants for different stages. At best you might identify hubs, marketplaces. Perhaps Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Staging posts rather than repositories, many wares continuing on their journey much further west.

And route is probably a more apt descriptor than road, not just because they were trading routes. For I suspect that, even at their busiest, huge swathes had little by way of discernable track. Instead reliant on local merchants to ensure the smooth flow of goods. Local knowledge.

So, not an exact science. I’d settled on the eastern Turkish city of Trabzon as my starting point. And the finish? Xi’an. Whatever its intellectual rigour, its historical merits, my route had at least felt right. The path through the mountains of central Georgia, the crossing from Kazakhstan into China, through desert and into Xi’an. Intuitively at least, it seemed plausible.

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Reflections on Turkey

April 10th, 2010

I might have tired of Istanbul, but not of Turkey and its people. Waiting at the city’s airport for my flight east, my rudimentary Turkish still a bit rusty, an elderly chap, overhearing my efforts at ordering a coffee, helpfully explained that ’thank-you’ was in fact tesekkur ederim (pronounced teshekoor ederim), not merci. I thanked him, properly this time. My plane delayed into Istanbul by bad weather, it was late when I eventually reached my hotel in Trabzon. I was greeted at reception by Sena. She’d remembered me from my earlier stay with my Dad. This was much more like it.

The journey back east had given me plenty of opportunity to reflect on Turkey, and what it was to be Turkish. A strong national identity for a start. The military given equal prominence on television with the politicians. You sensed political satire was still in its infancy, and criticism of Ataturk, founding father of the modern Turkish nation, would be ill-advised. YouTube had apparently hosted a few offending clips and, despite their prompt removal, a court order blocked access to the entire site for a couple of weeks.

Authoritarian undertones? The male predilection for dark clothes certainly adds a Kafkaesque feel, but no, just different boundaries to our own, and certainly not oppressive. In fact the military would probably argue, with some justification, that they have only ever sought to protect the constitution from wayward governments attempting to undermine or erode its tenets.

But things are changing, the balance of power gently shifting towards the democratically elected administration, as tolerance by the Armed Forces of the recent arrests of senior military officers for their alleged part in an suspected coup plot would seem to demonstrate. Either way, a strong Turkey is no bad thing, providing a buffer between Europe and more turbulent nations further east. But I doubted if much of this ever had much of an impact on the lives of ordinary people. It just flickered by in the news bulletins.

Fact is I’d been made very welcome, from the moment I’d stopped to get my bearings in Edirne, my first day in Turkey. Back then, Nadir and Beckant had approached me, keen to show me their home city. They’d been Tugba in Istanbul, Zehra and her friends along the Black Sea coast, Yaren, Ali and Sena in Trabzon. And so many people in the villages who’d so often dragged me off the road, plying me with sweet, warm Turkish tea. Couldn’t ask for more. But now it was time to see what Georgia had to offer.

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