When I first came up with the idea of retracing Gertrude Bell’s journeys around Turkey I fondly imagined myself cantering across the Anatolian plain on horseback. This was in spite of the fact that I can’t ride and that one short venture into a Cappadocia valley in the hoofprints of French explorer Paul Lucas had ended with me dangling shame-faced beneath the horse’s neck.
That wasn’t what really put me off though. That task was performed by a reread of Tim Severin’s Crusader which describes how the author bought an Ardennes heavy horse to ride across Europe to Jerusalem on the trail of the First Crusaders. Gripping as the story was I couldn’t help but think that it was mainly about the logistics. The horse and looking after it completely dominated the story, something I didn’t really fancy for my own adventure.
The last nail in the riding coffin was remembering my last visit to Diyarbakır. Gertrude’s photographs show its magnificent walls standing alone and unencumbered which is hardly the case today. Indeed what I most remembered from that last journey was the time it took the bus to crawl through endless suburbs full of TOKİ and other apartment blocks. Gertrude had stabled her horses in the Hasanpaşa Hanı, these days a popular breakfasting venue. Where, I wondered, did I think I was going to put my own horse? And where was I going to find food for it anyway?
Back to the drawing-board then. Bearing in mind that Gertrude often camped, my next thought was to buy a camper-van that could double up as accommodation. Sadly that idea barely survived a glimpse at the potential cost of fuelling it in a country that has the world’s second most expensive petrol. There was also the issue of safety in remoter areas. Would I really feel confident parking it in the middle of nowhere in places such as the surrounds of troubled Cizre? Gertrude was never travelling alone but I would be. Wouldn’t I be courting far too much attention of the unwanted kind?
In any case the truth is that my trip will be as much about exploring big conurbations such as İstanbul, İzmir and Adana-Mersin as it will be about rural areas such as the Turkish Lake District and the Tur Abdin. In such places any kind of private transport is likely to prove an expensive inconvenience, great for carrying books, maps and extra clothing but otherwise more trouble than it’s worth.
One final consideration also came into play. Gertrude was travelling around Turkey during its first great railway age when the Belfast to Baghdad Railway was under construction. So now I’m back to what’s most familiar to me anyway. Unless something changes dramatically I will be travelling around using a mix of buses and trains (interestingly I will be travelling during Turkey’s second great railway age as high-speed railways are being laid with impressive rapidity) with taxis and hire cars to get to the places public transport really doesn’t reach,