The Silk Road, China

Friday, 20 April 2007

Turkey - The Marco Polo interchange

Reluctantly we left Syria for Antakya (ancient Antioch), which had its heyday as Silk Road town under the Romans. From here we follow in the footsteps of Marco Polo, leaving the the northbound Silk Road in an arc across central Turkey and then pick up the main Silk Road that connected Constantinople with Persia.

Two overnight bus journeys took us across Turkey, first to Malatya and then to Van. The former is an unremarkable town, famed only for its apricots but is a good stopping point to explore nearby Mount Nemrut. Here we stood at the top of a 2000m+ snow capped mountain, and stood next to some huge ancient statues of king Antiochus admiring the a breathtaking view of the vast plains of Anatolia.

Van is one of the most easterly towns in Turkey and is a University town and gives it name to a kind of cat that has one blue and one green eye. We took a boat to an island on lake Van to see an old Armenian church; one of the few that has (just about) survived the Turkish government's attempt, on the grounds of 'nationalism,' to move on and 'forget' the Armenia atrocities of the early 20th Century. I was disturbed to read that Turkey has found it easier to deny Armenian history in South East Turkey and to destroy (or deliberately allow to fall into decay) monuments that provide evidence of it.

Military presence became more noticeable as we headed east; a reminder of the troubles with the Kurdish insurgent group, the PKK. "There is no problem with the Kurds... Turkey is full of Kurds," a local told us. "It's just Syria playing games - giving money to these people so that Turkey remains weak." A sweeping statement that we didn't believe tells the full story, but perhaps a policy that does not appear inconsistent with the Syrian government's support of Hezbollah in Lebanon against Israel.

Turkey is a country of contradictions. Our route through the conservative, religious centre and east had lead me to expect a completely different world from Istanbul and the Mediterranean coast. But the competing draws of modernisation from the West and the strong traditional Muslim values stretch deep into the country.

"We want to be like France, England and Germany," Kemal told us - a small man of about 50 in bell bottom jeans, a massive moustache, shoulder length hair and a sweep over that failed to conceal a bald patch. And the evidence was there on the streets of Malatya: western clothes shops and more mobile phone shops and Internet cafes than I have seen anywhere, let alone in a medium sized city.

Other more religious Turks would disagree with Kemal. We chatted to a barrister over Kebabs one evening, who clearly adored football (as do all Turks) but as a devout Muslim clearly found his faith causing friction with some aspects of looking west in the name of modernisation.

So it seems that the combination of fierce nationalism, an obsession with modernisation and Islam leave Turkey somewhat isolated. "No country is our friend because we are in between the Arabs and the West..." Kemal told us. But nevertheless, he had great plans for his country: "Turkey will be a great country; we have everything we need - tourism, oil...we can be the world's greatest nation on our own."

For us, it had provided a sharp contrast to Syria, with a bigger dose of Western culture (and prices to boot) and scenery that lead us to believe that we had already arrived in Central Asia - vast green plains that gave way to an almost lunar topography, which was enveloped in a blanket of snow as we climbed towards the 5000m+Mount Arrarat. In fact, the surroundings of the palace above Dogubouyazit (the frontier town near the Iranian border) looked almost Tibetan!

But for now... onwards to Iran - a country with more in common with Syria, perhaps?


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