Merry Christmas from Istanbul!!!!
Once famous for where Europe meets Asia, capital of the Ottoman empire and home of the Greek Orthodox church it is of course now better known for being only the 2nd international city (after Venice) to appear in more than one Bond film. And ever since 1999 I’ve wanted to have Christmas in Turkey but then Denise Richards got married to Charlie Sheen, so I thought better of it and will fly home tomorrow.
When writing these kind of emails it’s very easy to become quite solipsistic, and whilst I’ve tried to avoid that and focused on the countries I’ve visited, this one will be different and be more about me. But like the others will feature lots of irrelevant stats of my time away e.g:
No. of times I was stung by wasps, on the lips, in Pakistan: 2
The dream plan was to make it all the way to Paris overland and get the Eurostar home but I simply ran out of time as I promised my Mum I’d be back for Christmas. I could in theory have ignored that promise but on a practical level traveling in Winter is a very different beast to warmer weather and also a couple of months more in Europe would’ve left me flat broke whereas now I’m returning with at least some money.
Average spend per day: $22
And it’s not as if Istanbul is a bad place to end things; the fascinating street life, history on every corner and its beautiful ‘hills and water’ natural setting (I’m writing this with a view of the Bosphorus) means it’s been a very enjoyable last week. Whilst the capital Ankara is deeply forgettable and I decided not to head to either the Med or the Aegean I’ve done some other fantastic stuff here in Turkey. Aside from seeing Troy and Hierapolis I also headed to Europe briefly at Gallipoli to see where Mel Gibson died and the Aussies suffered their worst defeat til The Oval, 1938.
Coldest temp: -12 degrees (Central China)
Hottest temp: 51 degrees (Southern Uzbekistan)
However, the undoubted highlight was hiking around Cappadocia for a week; one of the most memorable landscapes I’ve seen on this trip, every day I found myself clambering around the gorges and valleys as the fairy chimneys and home caves of the ancient troglodytic Hittites loomed above me. It snowed a lot and whilst that made some of the descents very scary (my vertigo seems to get worse as I get older) it also added a nice counter to the natural reds and pinks the rocks are colored. And then to end everything at the ‘end of Asia’ here in Istanbul does feel quite cathartic.
No. of countries visited: 36
I do have quite mixed feeling about Turks; the ongoing problems with Kurds and Armenians I’ve written about before and like so many other countries (Iran, Israel, US etc.) the endless crass nationalistic propaganda based around the military is a deeply unattractive part of the culture. It also seems to be a pretty violent society too. Cops toting guns seem to be everywhere and reminiscent of Russians they seem to be totally unable to talk issues through with one another. In the short time I was there I saw 4 fights break out (over next to nothing), earlier this season the Turkish FA banned men from the stadiums as the fans kept fighting too much and it didn’t surprise me to see MPs starting to fight in parliament on the news one night. I said to the guy next to me they’d probably be sacked in England if they did that and he replied by saying it happens quite frequently in Turkey. But then having recently been to other Muslim countries there’s a lot to like about Turkey too.
No. of days I’ve been away: 927
Whilst I’ve never been much of an England fan I’d definitely have to disagree with the sentiments of one of English fans most famous songs: ‘With St George (a Turk) in my heart… I’d rather be a Paki than a Turk”. Having recently been to the likes of Pakistan and Afghanistan where their slavish literal devotion to a 7th century Arabian prophets version of God (or imaginary friend as Jimmy Carr would call ‘It’) seems to have caused poverty, neverending bloodshed and other not very good things, in the 21st century it’s easy to see why the West has so much invested in Turkey, in every sense of the word.
No. of volumes in my journal: 15
The idea that you can be religious (as many Turks are) but that religion shouldn’t be the basis for everything else in life is the greatest legacy of the Father of the Nation Kemal Ataturk and is much of the reason why Turkey is probably the most successful Islamic country in the world. Whilst it’s secular constitution which doesn’t allow women to wear the veil in school or in government offices and the banning of religion in politics or the law is rightly famous and perhaps a model for some of the countries involved in the Arab Spring, even simple things like seeing people having dogs as pets or having a beer in public felt strangely uplifting after the restrictive codes of behavior in the Muslim countries further East.
Shortest time in one country: 4 days (Brunei)
Longest time in one country: 5 months (India)
In recent years its economy has been doing very well but the governing party is much less pro-Western compared with previous governments and draws its support from the more conservative countryside. Whilst the recent shift away from being allied with Israel is understandable, their relaxing of the ban on the veil and pushing other Islamist policies as well as their appalling press freedom record means Sarkozy and others putting the breaks on them joining the EU is probably justified, even if it has some in the West quite worried about the countrys’ future direction. As the designated ‘bridge to the Muslim world’ from Europe and America its geopolitical role is crucial to hope for closer integration with their Arab neighbors so ultimately the West has to persist in trying to encourage the Turkish brand of Islam throughout the Middle East and let people there have the individual freedoms that Turks enjoy and Pakis don’t.
No of times I phoned ‘the family’: 2 (both Xmas Days)
Perhaps the stat which stands out the most (aside from how I didn’t follow that Bob Hoskins BT ad too closely) was how long I’ve been away for. It works out to just over 2.5yrs which, unless you’re a gypsy (in which case you won’t be able to read this but I hope you liked the pictures!) is a long time to be on the road- to put it in some sort of context, MJ was still alive when I left England.
No. of times I thought about returning home: 1 (when Orient drew Arsenal in the cup)
As you can probably imagine my thoughts about returning home are very mixed; on the plus side I get to see my dog and Leyton Orient and I’ll no longer have to deal with some of the negative sides of traveling. Certainly no longer having to carry ‘my life in my pocket’ (passport/cards etc.) will be appreciated as will sleeping in the same bed and I sincerely hope I don’t have to exchange a word with a taxi driver or cop for a good while. I have taken a heck of a lot of risks on this trip in different ways; hiking solo in various wildernesses, going to Afghanistan etc. and somehow I’ve come through essentially unscathed. I couldn’t get an insurance policy for the last year of the trip so not getting my passport or money robbed (tho other stuff was) during that period and even more importantly never getting injured or ill (that’s cos I’m vegetarian) over such a long period has been crucial in the success of the trip. I have been very lucky.
No. of times I was robbed: 2 (1 minor, 1 major (and that was on day 17!)
But then on the downside I’ll have to shave more frequently than ‘when I can be bothered’, live a life more ordinary and having to get a job has the inevitability of an unloved season (poor me). Of course 2 and a half years is a fair chunk of my life to leave in Asia and so the smallest things are getting me quite emotional about finishing the trip; put it this way just listening to China Girl by Bowie nearly brought me to tears a couple of days ago thinking about China! In writing these emails I can only hope the interest and enjoyment I felt in traveling in the region came across.
% increase in No of tattoos: 100%
The reason I write these is based on the idea that if you’re gonna go away for so long you probably should make a bit of effort to let people know what you’re doing, but if you managed to read every word of the 36 (I think) missives plus the ‘bonus’ sporting one then you probably have both a cushy office job and can consider yourself amongst the more loyal members of the immediate McKendry family. Thanks Mum!! But I hope the overly passionate polemics about issues you’ve never heard of and gratuitous digs at Michael Howard and Hilary Clinton haven’t been too unbearable and maybe you even enjoyed the odd line. No? Oh well.
I started with a Bond reference and so I’ll finish with another (very laboured) one by saying it won’t surprise anyone who’s known me longer than 10 minutes that I’ve had the following haiku tattooed onto me:
“You only live twice,
When you are born, and when you
Look Death in the face”
And with what I’ve been privileged enough to see and experience I end this trip safe in the knowledge that it will take the hooded one a moment longer to stare me down.
For the final time,