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Replying to "Çay in Çankiri" By Piers Letcher

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Posted 30 December 2003 - 18:15

"Çay in Çankiri" By Piers Letcher

Çay in Çankiri

Looking for a respite from a rough journey, these travelers get both less and more than they expected.

LATE IN THE EVENING THE CROWDED BUS GRINDS TO A HALT in Çankiri. Two hours and eighty miles north of Ankara, we are the only passengers dismounting onto a sidewalk almost as wet and muddy as its Ankara counterparts. Fog swirls above the deserted, ill-lit streets.
It's not quite what we expected. Back in Ankara, that afternoon, we'd explained to the cheerful woman at the capital's Tourist Information Office what we were looking for: a twenty-four-hour layover in a thriving, cosmopoli- tan city, on the way to the Black Sea. She recommended Çankiri.
"How big is it?" we asked. "Smaller than Istanbul," she had replied. "Smaller than Ankara.
Less than a million people. And it has a great mosque." It sounded perfect. We badly needed cheering up after endless days of bus and train travel a6ross inland Turkey, plagued by melt- ing snow, muddy streets, and a country introverted by a long win- ter. Our best moments had been glimpses through steamed-up windows-a woman washing a sheet in a stream, stretching out her arm as the train roared by, looking up for a moment; a man leading a donkey to a brook to drink.
From the Tourist Office w(;d walked back to the Otobils Garaj with a newfound optimism. Çankiri would have busy caf6s, music, and conversation spilling out onto colorful streets. It would have the exuberance of Istanbul. We'd floated above the knee-deep mud, shrugged off the weight of our heavy bags, and ignored the filthy water flying up from the wheels of taxis. In the warmth of the bus station we'd drunk beer and eaten chocolate biscuits.
But now it looked as though the blue town sign we had glimpsed in the bus's headlights was right and the Tourist Office was wrong. Not [email protected] population was less than a million (by something like 961,000 heads)-but in all the important de- tails, and explaining why there is only one hotel recommended in our pamphlet; it's probably the only hotel.
We find the place easily enough, and check in to our five-dollar room-though if they'd asked fifty dollars we'd still have had to take it--setting out immediately in search of dinner. Fortunately, one of the town's two recommended restaurants is right next door.
Inside it's selectively crowded-all the tables along one wall are fully occupied, with the rest of the vast room empty, save for a ca- nary in a cage by the window, and several huge plants, including potted palms and a giant free-standing rubber tree. Palm-side, we are seated in splendid isolation from the other diners. We order a selection of Turkish salads, pita bread, and beer, and wolf it down, hungry and tired after twelve hours on the road.
Nickie goes off in search of a washroom, and while she's there a sweet old man pops over to our table and puts a baked potato on each of our plates. I smile at him and he rubs his two index fingers together gleefully as he returns to his table, bubbling away incom- prehensibly in Turkish. Once again I wish I had any Turkish words beyond hitfen, mersi, su, ekmek, fay, and bira.
Already full, we eat the potatoes out of politeness and toast the old man across the way. While we're doing this, a plate of peeled fruit arrives-bananas, chopped oranges, sliced apples, mandarin segments, and a small bunch of grapes (these, washed locally, will later be my downfall). The fruit is delicious; a fitting end to a full day, and we eat it quickly and greedily. Perhaps too quickly. For as soon as the first plate is finished, a second, larger version arrives, along with our benefactor. He toasts us with raki; we return the compliment with beer. As if to test our stamina, a waiter is summoned, and a mountain of freshly made potato crisps and mustard is brought to our table.
More rubbing of fingers, and laughing, and we suppose this means we are good friends, since we have no common vocabulary with this smiling-eyed genie.
In a continuing effort to be polite we force these down-they are delicious; it's a tragedy we're not hungry-and I make a fool- ish comment about how nice the bananas were. An entire bunch arrives from nowhere, shortly followed by more beer, a platter of sweetmeats, sticky cakes, and more raki for monsieur.
We do our best, but we're feeling as plump as Thanksgiving turkeys, and worrying too about this uncalled-for generosity. In a fit of guilt-there are still mounds of food left on the table, even after our valiant efforts-we ask for the bill; it seems the only av- enue of escape, and escape we must, or we shall burst.
The bill comes to around ten dollars-expensive compared to what we're used to-and the old man insists on paying, despite our protests. He says he'll see us tomorrow and we part in regal style, much bowing, waving, kissing, and smiling; we don't dare say that we're leaving tomorrow.
Knocked out by generosity, we head up to our unheated room, after cadging four extra blankets apiece from the management. Through plastic-sheeted windows-poor man's double [email protected] we can dimly see and hear a stream gurgling pleasantly past, over- shadowed somewhat by a huge siding and shunting yard, in fun operation from dusk to dawn. There is much clanking and whistling throughout the night; though it doesn't interrupt my sleep, it merely disturbs it-the train shrieks transposed into minor nightmares, the stream to imagined rainfall.
At 7 A.M. we check out and walk to the train station; the streets are wet and muddy still, but attractive now with shafts of weak sunlight washing through the fog and turning the dirty cobbles pale gold. The ticket office is closed, however, and we're told to come back at an unspecified later time-though there is a train, it seems, heading to the Black Sea at midday. We knock on the sta- tionmaster's door and ask for left-luggage in nearly fluent sign lan- guage. He offers us a corner of his office a treat, as everyone else in town is staggering around with what look like sacks of potatoes, and nowhere to put them.
As we are walking out through the waiting room, trouble ar- rives in the form of one brown and two gray uniforms. Brown points at me; the grays approach. One flashes ID. "Polis," it says, and
s ' does he. This seems serious. Hard-eyed and tight-lipped, the
o other one says "Passports!" Nervous as always before the law, I fumble for them. One of the officers unfolds a piece of paper. My name is on it, rnisspelled, and I'm already searching for a loophole. But the passport number is indeed mine. A sick feeling settles in my stomach, probably fear-though conceivably an early grape twinge. By nightfall I will be very ill.
We are asked to sit, while Authority passes judgment. The man in brown-who turns out to be the local sheriff--stands guard, with his hand on his holster. Time passes. Nickie is convinced it's something to do with not paying for dinner. I insist it's a routine check-but like Josef K. in Kafka's The Trial, I can't believe we're innocent. The seconds tick deafeningly past on the station clock.
And then, with no explanation at all, we're handed back our pa- pers and dismissed. We burst outside, suddenly aware of the mean- ing of freedom.
We search for picnic food, finding the untouristed streets of C,ankiri less rewarding for shoppers than the market square in Orgdp. You could buy anything there-fruit, vegetables, pots, pans, copperware, rugs, carpets, blankets, detergent, cosmetics, toiletries, clothes, bread, any kind of tinned food, tea, coffee, water, alcohol, pasta, rice, and dried wheat. Anything, that is, ex- cept Turkish Delight. So it's with real delight that in Qankiri we finally find what we've been looking for--softer and sweeter than any yet.
Our pamphlet says we must see the mosque, the museum, and the castle o we do.
The Ulu Cami-Great Mosque-was built by "Turkey's most famous architect," according to our pamphlet (presumably Mimar Sinan in the sixteenth century). It turns out to be a quiet place- they have to unlock it for us. Inside, it's richly decorated and full of stunning carpets.
The municipal museum, not far away, turns out to be a dusty collection displaying everything from crocks of coins to a mar- velous two-foot-long Roman vase, to Ottoman costumes and embroidery. The "ruins of the eleventh-century casde"-vestiges, really-are a steep, stiff walk, out of town. There's not much to see, but the exercise does us good.
As we walk back down the partly cobbled dirt street a door opens, and from it appears a woman bearing the night's slops, held well forwards, steaming vigorously in the morning light. With no further ado, and having reached the middle of the road, she sloshes the contents into the street and retreats indoors. It's the real thing, lumps and all. So much mud, I had thought, and so unusually fra- grant. The streets serve as open drains, running down to the pleas- antly gurgling stream outside our bedroom window...
We're distracted from our malodorous reverie by an old woman waving a teapot and cackling "@:ay! (@ay!" Feeling adventurous, we accept the offer-it's not often you get the chance to meet Turkish women at all, and it's a nice change from the all-male teahouses.
Carefully removing our shoes-the custom suddenly makes perfect sense-we crowd into a toasty room and sit where we can, on a pair of beds set at right angles in the corner. The eight-by- eight-foot room is also the kitchen-a basin with ramshackle cup- boards underneath and a pipe stove, which doubles as the cooker, complete the furnishings. The kettle goes on to boil.
We are joined first by a thirty-year-old woman and three chil- dren, then, as word gets around, by four women in their early twen- ties, five more children, two young men, and an ancient fellow with a knobby walking stick. With nineteen of us in the room it's crowded but convivial. We speak no Turkish and they no English, so instead we share sign language, cigarettes (still universal currency in Turkey), postcards of home, and drawings from our notebooks. They offer us fay and kalwalti, a delicious breakfast of bread and pale homemade cheese; we break out our biscuits and Turkish Delight. And we finally understand with an awful certainty that the rubbing together of fingers is Turkish for "Just Married!" On this trip Nickie's been wearing a wedding ring to fend off unwanted ad- vances from young Turks-even though we're not a couple, let alone married. But last night we were treated like honeymooners.
As we make choo-choo noises to let our hosts know we have a train to catch, there's a knock at the door. It's the sheriff. We cower. But no, he may be the sheriff, but he's also the husband of one of the women. He laughs and smiles, shows off his sheriffs badge, and walks us back to the station. Whilst done in the friendliest of ways, it's still like being run out of town. The sheriff stops and chats to various people; we suspect he's telling them "Don't worry; I'll see that they're on the next train out."
And indeed we are. The sheriff buys our tickets and hands them to us for two dollars apiece, helps us recover our bags from the sta- tionmaster, and waits with us for the train. A small and curious crowd forms around us, and we field their questions as best we can.
Finally the train steams in, all screeching brakes, disgorged smoke and swarming passengers, a once-a-day theatrical moment for (@ankiri. We climb on board, and finding no seats we eventu- ally settle guiltily for a pair in first class-only to discover that the sheriff had bought us first-class tickets.
As we heave out of the station on the start of the endless jour- ney to the Black Sea, we see the sheriff strolling up the platform. On either side of him are the two gray-uniformed policemen. All three are laughing.
Piers Letcher has been travelingfor twenty-five years and travel writingfor twenty. British-born and educated, he has spent most of his adult life in France eschewing alliteration. He has published more than a thousand newspaper and magazine articles and a dozen books, including Croatia: The Bradt Travel Guide and Eccentric France, a guide to France's bizarre buildings, ridiculous royalty, quirky collections, impossible inventions and peculiar people (both published by Bradt Travel Guides).

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