Turk Stops: From Europe to Asia Across Anatolia

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By PARAG KHANNA

Since the days of Genghis Khan almost a millennium ago, Turkic peoples have wandered, rode horse-back and conquered their way westward towards Europe. The Ottomans made their final assault on Vienna in 1687, and more recently—and politely—Turkey has applied for membership in the European Union (Brussels will decide its fate in early October). Few commentators of late have understood Turkey outside this Euro-centric prism, focusing on breast-beating protests at every setback in the Europeanization process. This analytic error results from the same oversight most tourists commit when visiting Turkey, namely confining themselves to Istanbul and the Aegean coast alone.

But geography is indeed destiny. Like Russia, Turkey straddles continents. Though Turkey is integrating economically with Europe, it remains strategically and culturally anchored in Asia, where it shares borders with Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. In other words, Turkey is firmly part of Asia even as it becomes Europe’s frontier. I decided to drive from Ukraine through the Balkans and across Turkey (taking Turkic migrants’ route in reverse) into the Caucasus to explore countries sitting between an expanding empire (Europe) and a receding one (Russia), while bordering the world’s most unstable region, the Middle East. The Turkey I found was by no means experiencing an identity crisis at the hands of Brussels bureaucrats, but rather thriving as it builds bridges in all directions—as only Turkey can do. The dynamism of Turkey’s 80 million strong citizens and millions of expats in Europe can be felt all the way from Serbia, and certainly in Bulgaria, where signs for Istanbul appear even before those for Sofia. Though Bulgaria is due to join the EU in 2007, it still suffers endemic corruption, a non-starter economy, and the lowest birth-rate in Europe. The only sign of life is on the Black Sea coast, where cinderblock hotels have sprung up like a post-Communist Costa del Sol. Upon seeing how Turkish businessmen—and their Russian counterparts—are literally buying up what is left of the brain-drained nation, I dubbed my itinerary “Istanbulgaria.” Turks dominate the motorway heading towards the Edirne border, forming endless caravans (in both directions) of cargo trucks and diaspora vacationers heading to and from Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. The TEM highway to Istanbul, built by the military as an emergency landing strip, is a shining example of Turks newfound ability to manage what has always been a haphazard country. Perfectly paved and offering stunning views, the TEM has EZ-Pass tolls, allowing you to comfortably and efficiently glide into Istanbul in time for dinner—leaving Europe’s economic and political malaise behind. The population of Istanbul alone is greater than that of the countries Bulgaria, Serbia and Bosnia combined, making it the real commercial capital of a swath of wayward countries from Budapest to Baku. Despite its unruly size, Istanbul today is spiffy clean and bursting with construction and consumerism, making it little surprise that the Turks elected Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the former mayor of Istanbul, to be their prime minister in 2002. The city today imports the best of architecture and design from Paris to Dubai. Unlike Parisians, however, who despite knowing English go out of their way to obfuscate and condescend, Turks remain the epitome of unfailing friendliness and service, traits quickly dying in Europe if they ever existed. And best of all, prices in Turkey are as low as one would want to pay in Europe but can’t. My anglicized German friend and I checked into the Beyaz Saray, a boutique hotel with a superb hammam on the European side of the Bosporus, facing the Grand Bazaar and University, with the staggeringly immense Haghia Sofia and Blue Mosque down the slope to the Marmara Sea. Visitors to Istanbul should make these sights in the Sultanahmet district their first stops, crowned by a tour of Mehmet the Conqueror’s magnificent Topkapi Palace. Over lunch at the Hotel Marmara next to Taksim Square, a young politician turned lobbyist told me about Turkey’s restless economic growth. Booming trade with Russia, Syria and Iran have validated the government’s policy of normalization with its neighbors, inspiring a nascent national discourse on “Plan B,” namely how Turkey should position itself if EU membership gets delayed further and Turkish national patience runs out. In many ways, European Union membership is a rubber stamp Turkey may simply not need a decade from now. European and Turkish corporations are already building Istanbul’s skyline into an impressively lit and far more stylish version of Frankfurt, and Istanbul already hosts a Eurasian stock exchange. The dozens of economic and political reforms undertaken in the name of the European drive are now being justified for their own sake, not as concessions to Brussels. Culturally, Turks are becoming reacquainted with their pre-Republican past, centuries of Ottoman glory which, if slowly recaptured, make compromising Turkey’s national interests in the name of joining a united but ineffective Europe seem strategically undesirable. At nightclubs such as Reina in the posh Ortakoy district, one sees that young Turks are perfectly comfortable wearing the latest in sexy European fashion while dancing to Turkish pop stars and DJs. Turkey would never be as pliant as Poland. The wafer-thin Bosporus Bridge, which opened on the 50th anniversary of the Republic’s founding in 1973 and is an architectural marvel in its own right, is one way to leave the European side of Istanbul by car. We opted for one of the efficient ferries crossing the Marmara Sea to get a head-start on the drive south to the Bodrum peninsula. Along the way, we stopped in Ephesus, the best preserved Roman city of the eastern Mediterranean. Not yet colonized by the international jet-set, Bodrum is where the impressively global Turkish elite heads to relax in style. At Turkubuku beach on the north side of the peninsula, dozens of small villa resorts dot the hillside, converging downwards on a long boardwalk of swank bars and upscale restaurants. Every meal in Turkey can be a healthy eater’s dream come true. We enjoyed a non-stop procession of healthy salads, spinach pide and grilled lamb kabobs. By day, jet skiing, yachting, stress-free lounging on the beach and bikini-dancing at the Havana Club are favorite pastimes. In one of the large English language papers, a commentator noted that Turkey’s intelligentsia was too busy enjoying the Aegean to worry about influencing European public opinion in the midst of the most tense period in the country’s negotiations with the EU. As far as I could tell, it is the EU, not Turkey, which is having an identity crisis. From Bodrum to Ankara, the genteel side of Turkish culture becomes even more visible. Honey stalls line the road, which opens to vast sunflower fields, and people mingle at coffee shops in small villages. Even Ankara, a superbly modern metropolis of four million offering all one would expect of a cosmopolitan European capital, has a mellow, easygoing vibe. The Gordon Hotel features a complete gym and a Finnish bath. At establishments such as the Random bar, young Turks gather to watch sports, debate the news, and drinks liters of Efes beer. The stern, angular architecture of government buildings is softened by fountains and flora lined the sides and centers of long boulevards. Crisply uniformed army officers stroll between meetings, exuding confidence and competence. Historically, they have proved to be more adept managers than their civilian counterparts—each government since the “postmodern coup” of 1997, which ousted the anti-Western prime minister Erbakan, has been careful not to cross the secularist redlines the military protects. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, an army commander who rose to become the revered founder of the Turkish state out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire, never wanted the military to control the state. At his enormous mausoleum on a hill overlooking downtown Ankara, we followed two dozen goose-stepping soldiers for fifteen minutes through the center of the compound as they paired off to change various guard posts. Increasingly, the relationship between Ankara and Istanbul today resembles Washington and New York: frequent shuttle flights ferry NGOs, CEOs and politicians back and forth, a cast which represents a new checks and balances in the Turkish state. Ataturk—one of the few historical leaders still respected as much at home as abroad—would have approved. The major highlight of the Cappadocia region of central Anatolia is Konya, famous for the mausoleum of the great poet and mystic Rumi (1207-1273). Inspired in 1244 by a wandering Persian mystic, Rumi began an outpouring of literary spirit which ended 25,000 rhyming couplets later. The famous whirling dervishes perform their hypnotic mevleva sema dance here throughout the month of December for thousands of pilgrims who come to celebrate his life and teachings. Rumi is crucial to understanding why Turks turn up the volume during Galatasaray soccer matches when the call to prayer beckons from minarets, and why in Turkish music videos champagne flowing in quantities to rival American rappers’. The Islam preached for centuries by the region’s many Alevis is liberal and syncretic, fusing Sufi and Shamanist elements, and shunning fundamentalism. It is an Islam compatible with Ataturk’s insistence on an enforced secularism in which the mosque is subject to state control. Wearing a veil has been made illegal in government offices and universities, a move otherwise taken only by France. The signs of Turkey’s inherent Asian-ness become far more visible as one drives towards Erzurum, an old Seljuk fortress city. The region’s more Central Asian inspired, angular Seljuk architecture is evidence of a more austere time in the Turkic people’s westward migrations prior to Byzantine influence. Young or old, most women wear headscarves, and men have beards and wear pakols. Truck horns become melodic like in the Middle East or South Asia, and when asking for directions, we were forced to interpret a typically Asian gesture, the inverted arm pointing indeterminately (usually in the opposite direction to where we were going). Street names are both unknown and irrelevant. Tractors replace the car as the vehicle for inter-village transport, and every twenty kilometers or so you can stop at what we called “Turk stops,” make-shift cafes serving fresh and strong chai. (There’s the famous coffee too, of course, but I’m Indian.) It is east of Ankara where the other Turkey begins, the bulk of the country few Americans know but most would recognize and appreciate instantly, as it is the Turkish version of the Wild West. The distance between Geneva and Istanbul is less than that from Istanbul to the Georgian border. The Turkish equivalents of Greyhound are perhaps the world’s most luxurious busses, outfitted with individual TV screens, reclining seats. They criss-cross to all cities in the country with ease and efficiency, and at a fraction of the cost of driving or flying. Due to a strategic energy reserve tax (to guard against unpredictable fluctuations), the price of gas is higher than in Europe. At Erzurum some might travel East towards Lake Van and even Mount Ararat (17,000 ft.) near the Armenian border, the mythical landing place of Noah’s Ark. In the late 1990s, Turkish efforts to develop the Kurdish-dominated Southeast and win the hearts and minds of its people seemed to be paying off. Investment and tourism picked up, and the Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the nefarious PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) was captured and imprisoned. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, however, made the region unstable once again, with Kurds on both sides now cooperating in planning and executing attacks on Turkish military and tourist sites. This is precisely the scenario which led the Turkish parliament to reject U.S. basing rights for the Iraq invasion, and certainly one reason why the novel Metal Storm, in which the U.S. and Turkey go to war over control of northern Iraq (with the U.S. actually nuking Turkey!), is the country’s current reigning best-seller. Driving northeast from Erzurum we began to feel the crisp, cool mountain air as we climbed continuously on glorious hairpin roads. Though occasionally bumpy, the roads cut through Alaskan-like canyons with steep walls revealing millennia of natural layering and molding at the hands of nature. At a spot check near the Tortum Falls, a traffic genderme pondered whether two scruffy men in a Swiss-plated car were Georgian smugglers or Kurdish guerillas. Deciding for none of the above, he suggested we stay at the Hotel Barcelona in Yusufeli, from which we soaked in the panoramic Kachkar mountain scenery to the steady flowing crash of the Coruh River’s rapids below. The Kachkar region has been a cult destination for rafters and kayakers for some years, and together with its fine skiing opportunities could become a major tourist province for Turkey. The Black Sea climate affords the Kachkar region a far higher tree line than the Alps. North of Yusufeli, we hiked on mountains towering near 3000 meters altitude, yet with grassy fields. Our last stop before crossing to Georgia was the city of Artvin, an army depot and university town build into the mountainside. The Artvin region belong to Russia from the Russo-Turkish war of 1878 until 1918, and features numerous 8th century Georgian churches. Today, however, the winding approach to Artvin features engineering marvels woven into a pristine natural setting, all representative of Turkey’s current push for self-development: wide tunnels, high bridges, and hydro-electric dams. As Turks reconnect with their brethren from Bosnia to Bishkek and plays a greater role in affairs to the East, a certain neo-Ottomanism has begun to complement the drive towards Europe. In fact, the Bush administration still touts Turkey as a model of secular Muslim democracy for the Arab world. Much as in the Balkans, entering the Caucasus one continues to feel the Turkish entrepreneurial spirit as a force for regional stability. The biggest section of the newly opened Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline runs through eastern Turkey to the Mediterranean, making Turkey Eurasia’s new “energy bridge.” And as we neared the Georgian border, we waited behind dozens of eighteen-wheel Turkish trucks. Link to Article