A Guest in a New Land

The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.
Alan Watts

Crossing into a new country is like an amazing assault on the senses. It is the unknown and the unexpected; it is searching for, and unlocking the doors within the soul; it is when the everyday becomes amazing; it is the beating heart of the traveller finding a new rhythm in a strange land.

Everything feels new, fresh and foreign. You can turn a corner and find yourself struck dumb by the incredible monuments, but if the everyday life of people makes you stop and stare, that’s when you really know something has changed. The little things grab the attention in a way that gradually fades as you become accustomed to the culture.

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For me, when I passed from Greece to Turkey, it was the music blaring from the cars with what I can only describe as “Eastern” melodies; the yoghurt “shop” with the little old lady inside a tiny hole in the wall behind a screen – I mean she really is selling only yoghurt! It’s the delicate, gold-decorated glasses of çay which have replaced the small white cups of coffee in every cafe. And inside those cafes l notice the strangest thing – the bins are placed under each table and the table leg rests inside the bin, holding it in place in a functional and unique way. It’s a ridiculous thing to be aware of, but it IS completely new, and totally different!

I had stepped through the wardrobe into a new world, where everything is strange and exotic. And the people going about their everyday lives captured my imagination in a way that Greece no longer could. That is not to say that Greece held no more magic, for there are so many places still to explore and discover – more than enough to last a lifetime in fact. İt is more that I craved something new – in one sense Greece had become too comfortable.

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A person does not grow from the ground like a vine or a tree, one is not part of a plot of land. Mankind has legs so it can wander.
Roman Payne, the wanderess

When I arrived in Turkey, my plan was simple: follow the Sultan’s Trail, in the footsteps of Süleyman the Magnificent. There is now a trail running all the way from Vienna and I was going to join up for the Turkish section, from Edirne to Istanbul.

Sitting on the modern day border with Greece, protected by the river Maritsa, Edirne is of great strategical importance. Historically this region, Thrace, has been invaded, ravaged, plundered and pillaged again and again by invading armies.

Before it was known as Edirne, it was an important Roman city, named Adrianopolis, or Adrianople. The fourth century AD was a time of great upheaval in the Roman Empire. The Huns were rampaging beyond the borders, and this led to a huge host of Goths arriving at the doorstep, asking to be given refuge within the borders of the empire. What followed is often seen as the beginning of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It is a story which would not be out of place on the big screen, combining history, intrigue, betrayal and colossal ineptitude, and ending with the defeat of the Eastern Roman army and the death of the Emperor Valens at the battle of Adrianople in 378 AD.

For me this story  is a special significance: it just so happens that I wrote my university dissertation all about it!

And so the idea of travelling through this area was born some 10 years ago, as I sat in Liverpool, dreaming and picturing the land I was now seeing.

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Travel brings power and love back into your life.
Rumi

During the Ottoman times Edirne was the second city, and it is filled with fine examples of Ottoman architecture, notably the quite spectacular mosque of Süleymane. It was here that I first heard the chorus of the call to prayer, as I spent the day exploring. It was 12.30, and I was stood on the far side of an overflowing river (10 or more times a year the river floods here, covering the bridges and the fields), admiring the majestic minarets of the city. There was a haziness to the air and a calm as a shepherd passed me with his flock of sheep, framed by an old mosque, now a medical museum. Suddenly, the first muezzin let out his melodic call, signalling the time for the midday prayer. And then he was seemingly answered by all of the other calls across the city, and for the next 5 minutes their voices intertwined, weaving a harmony which seemed to capture the moment so perfectly. I stood enthralled, entranced, and couldn’t move for sometime afterwards.

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because he had no place he could stay in without getting tired of it and because there was nowhere to go but everywhere,
keep rolling under the stars…
Jack Kerouac

As I travel, I am constantly asked certain questions: what do you eat? Where do you sleep? Here is an account of my first few days in Turkey, which should answer some of those questions…

In Edirne I was given a grand welcome by everybody – once again unable to communicate, I was enjoying the confusion which comes with trying to explain what I am doing to the startled and questioning faces of the locals. And there is a theme which started from my first morning and has continued all the way along the road: incredible generosity and hospitality, unlike anything I have encountered before. My theory that the further East I travel, the more I will feel this, seems to be true.

People were constantly offering tea and food  and I was taken around the city by a couple of young guys, who excitedly introduced me to their friends and gave me a taste of the speciality of Edirne – superb deep fried calf’s liver. I stayed with Engin and his brother Osman, who run a bike shop and host travellers at their home through a website for touring cyclists: Warm Showers (normally only cyclists, but they made an exception for me!).

Edirne Cığer - deep fried calf's liver
Edirne Cığer – deep fried calf’s liver

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After a few days exploring the city I set off in search of the battle site, some 7 hours north west of Edirne. I don’t really know if I ever found it, but actually I just wanted to see the countryside, and imagine how it must have been with huge, hairy Goths swarming all over the fields and hills. The day was spent with barking dogs in the villages, strange looks from villagers, and rolling fields of green and brown.

As the day began to fade, I followed a dirt track with the idea of trying to find somewhere to sleep for the evening. I arrived some 6kms later at a tiny village filled with little farms, chickens running in the streets, sheep and goats bleating in the courtyards. A man milking his cows looked at me quizzically and I explained in my broken basic Turkish what I am doing. I asked if I could have some milk and he motioned (through mime) that he didn’t have anything to put it in. I knew there was a good reason for always carrying cups! Searching within my bag I found a suitable receptacle which he proceeded to dunk into the container, handing  me a glass of fresh and frothy, still warm, milk. I downed it gratefully, savouring the flavour after a day walking.

Then, just as I was wondering where to go next, a man drove past on his tractor, stopped and, with a huge smile, motioned with his hand towards his mouth – the universal sign for “lets eat”! I jumped on the back of his tractor and above the droning of the motor, he introduced himself as Ergun. We drove through the village, locals staring wide-eyed, and children yelping in excitement and following on their bikes. Arriving in the courtyard of his house, I jumped down and introduced myself to his wife and father, as the kids came to a screeching halt on their bikes. They all stared at me as if there was an animal escaped from the zoo standing in front of them, or an alien from a different planet. Ergun told me I could stay with them for the night. But first it was time to eat…

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I was motioned into a room with a roaring wood stove, where half an hour later the family gathered round for dinner. 3 generations of men (Ergun, his father, Hasan, and Josef, his son) sat as the women served (more cultural differences), bustling around with dishes, to and fro from the kitchen, bringing glasses of çay and freshly cooked pide – Turkish flatbread – appearing on plates, dripping with melted butter. The family didn’t speak any English, so I took the chance to acquaint my ear with the Turkish language and practice some phrases I had written in Edirne. Glasses of çay were refilled constantly and again I couldn’t help but notice the difference here – in so many times in the villages in Greece I had been plied with homemade wine and tsiporo. Not that I’m complaining I should add! It was just another one of the differences between the two countries which I was very aware of in my first days in Turkey.

Once the men had finished eating and had left to go to the local cafe, the women sat down to eat as well. I sat on the sofa, taking all this in, slightly confused by all the newness, and the constant attempts at communicating in a new language. I felt my eyes growing heavier and was shown to a room with a bed and blankets and collapsed into a weary but happy sleep.

In the morning it was once again time for food! I was given the full Turkish breakfast, something which I am becoming increasingly used to, and very grateful for, and another big difference to the Greeks (Greek breakfast being coffee and a cigarette!). Then, with a supply of bread, cheese, olives and a huge pot of homemade jam, I set off on the road, in search of the Sultanlar Yolu – the Sultan’s Trail.


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In the last year and a half I have walked through the incredible, dreamy Tuscan hills, followed spectacular mountain paths and lost myself in the varied flower filled landscapes of the Peloponnese and Crete – rich, colourful worlds. Travelling through Thrace in March is none of these. It is flat, earthy, brown and uninspiring. And the Sultan’s Trail reminded me of all my old frustrations with following marked trail – so many times it just stopped in the middle of nowhere, or took me along the main road. But what the land lacks in beauty is made up for tenfold by the people.

That first day I walked all morning through the rain and mud, following a track through sludgy fields, my feet growing heavy with the cloying, clinging mud, which had increased due to the heavy rainfall of the last few weeks. After an hour and a half of this, another small village appeared on the horizon, the mosque minaret rising in the centre. Arriving exhausted at the cafe, I was welcomed with smiles and warm çay. Every man, young and old, who entered came to greet me and welcome me to the village. And then I found myself following a man to his home where I was shown to a room ready prepared, especially for me. A warm stove, a cosy bed, and clean pyjamas were laid out. I was incredibly touched and somewhat speechless. I must have looked in need of a rest and a wash because I was shown to a hot shower and then invited to sleep. Throwing out any ideas I had in my mind about continuing, I accepted their generous hospitality. After a rest I was served dinner – chicken and potatoes which tasted as good as anything I have had the pleasure of eating – the earthiness of the potato and the sweet creaminess of the chicken in a delicious broth. Simple and natural as it should be.

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Over the next 12 days I learned the Turkish meaning of misafir – a guest. Not once did I sleep in my tent. Instead I slept on pull out beds in the doctors surgery, I was invited to stay in houses, put up in a hotel, and on one occasion a group of young guys carried a sofa across to the local cafe so I could sleep next to the stove, out of the cold.

In every village I passed I was invited to drink çay, and I was never had to cook a meal – wherever I went people offered me food. And with the aid of my notebook, I began picking up some basic Turkish – enough to make conversation, in a land where nobody really speaks English. In the evenings I would sit watching the men playing OK, backgammon and cards, trying to understand the rules (unsuccessfully!).

On top of all this, for the walker, travelling here means never having to worry about washing. Even in the smallest villages there is a mosque with hot water where you can wash and clean. This is something to treasure I can tell you!

And so I got steadily closer and closer to Istanbul, the cars increased in number and the roads got busier, until I arrived on the outskirts, following a goat track over a hill from the North West. As I crested the top of the rise, I was greeted with a scene out of the apocalypse: towering apartment blocks, smoke, and an endless expanse of roads, concrete, cars, building-works, and everything else that comes with a city of 20 million people. For a moment I wondered why I was there, but with a deep breath, I followed the track downwards.

Following a canal next to fields filled with buffalo, I stared in astonishment at the urban sprawl of a city holding twice the population of Greece. I met Ali Ali (that’s how he introduced himself), a smiling shepherd and watched Syrıan refugees scratching around looking for wild greens in the fields. They were some of the happiest, smiling people I have come across on my travels.

Ali Ali the shepherd
Ali Ali the shepherd

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As dusk fell, feeling increasingly bewildered, I entered the confines of the only city in the world that spans 2 continents, and the keys to so much history…

Soundtrack for these days:


5 thoughts on “A Guest in a New Land

  1. Excellent and evocative, David! By the way, misafir (which my spellchecker wants to write as misfire) is originally an Arabic word meaning ‘traveller’. As all those who travel are traditionally treated as guests by the sedentary, it comes to mean ‘guest’ – but in modern hotels it even gets to be translated to the modern mind as ‘customer’ – which shows how far we have come from the principle of hospitality as instituted by ‘our father’ Abraham. x

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  2. Even if you feel like being blind yourself, like the guy on the video, do you also feel all your followers behind your back ? We are a full croud I believe 🙂

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  3. Indeed, as they sang in Liverpool, “You’ll never walk alone…”. Ithaca is far behind and retreating. Excellent! It seems you are developing a power to your stride and to your writing style. Always a cracking read.

    May your adventure continue unabated!

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