Thursday, December 16, 2010

Gelibolu, Turkey

Friends: Just when I thought the weather couldn't get any worse, I rounded a bend into an even fiercer gusting wind lashing me with an even thicker barrage of rain, utterly deflating what little thrill remained of bicycling along the storied Dardenelles, that narrow channel that separates Europe from Asıa.

The steady stream of ships heading to and from Istanbul and beyond to the Black Sea and Russia brought back memories of bicycling along the Yangtze River in China. It too was a major waterway that had a long and storied history going back centuries and in present times was clogged with huge freighters transporting all manner of goods. In both it wasn't just a scattered few freighters, but freighters strung across the waterway and closely stacked bows to sterns as if they were drafting one another.  It almost looked unrealistic, like a Hollywood dramatization to exaggerate the quantity of ships. It was frightening to think there was so much stuff being transported.

I could hardly dwell on it as I worried about staying warm and in motion.  The lashing wind was just one of my problems. It wasn't much above freezing and I was getting soaked. I had given up on my wool gloves long ago, as they were too saturated to retain much warmth, and had resorted to my heavy winter gloves with plastic bags over them.  My fingers were barely functional, not that I was doing any braking or even shifting.

It was utterly ridiculous to be biking in such conditions, just how I like it. When I saw a pair of police cars with lights flashing coming towards me, I thought they were coming to my rescue.

I was hoping when I'd ferried across the Dardanelles yesterday from Çanakkale that the weather might at least be drier.  I thought there might be a "Straight Effect," with more precipitation on the eastern side of the straight,  similar to Lake Michigan's "Lake Effect," producing more rain and snow on eastern side of the lake. There did seem some initial validity to the theory, but it may have been more due to an "Afternoon Effect" of the sun gaining some strength, even though it failed to make an appearance.

I was able to bike through the Gallipoli Battlefield National Park, just across the Dardanelles, without being rained upon, though the weather remained sultry and windy. I had the park virtually to myself. It extends over twenty miles, but I contented myself with the five mile stretch through the heart of it, the part thickest with monuments and cemeteries and where the worst of the WWI fighting took place. There were climbs steeper than ten per cent, made much steeper by the stiff head winds, up to the ridge where trenches between the invading Allied forces and the Turks lay no more than twenty-five feet apart.

The several month long battle in 1915 was one of the more horrific and hard fought of WWI, or any war, resulting in more than 50,000 deaths on both sides. Atatürk, as a colonel, led the Turks successful defense and his heroics led him to being promoted to general and fully launched his career. There are a number of plaques with his quotes stirring his troops to fight. Every Turk knows his command, "I don't order you to fight. I order you to die. In the time it takes us to die, other troops can come and take our places." He himself took a bullet to the heart that was deflected by his watch. The location where it happened is a sacred site to the Turks.

High on one ridge with a panoramic view is perhaps the most noteworthy cemetery, Lone Pine, devoted to the 5,700 Australians who died there. A lone pine stands in its center. It was planted in 1990 from a seed germinated from a pine cone an Australian soldier sent back to Australia in 1915. Quite a few New Zealanders lost their lives as well at Gallipoli. Many Aussies and Kiwis make pilgrimages to Gallipoli, inspired in part by the acclaimed movie "Gallipoli" starring a young Mel Gibson by Australian Peter Weir.

I had my quietest campsite of the trip on the fringe of the park, distant from any main road or human habitation or dogs, feeling no reverberations whatsoever from the hell on earth Gallipoli had been for tens of thousands during this campaign.

A hell of my own awaited me. I had to take down my tent and pack up in a drizzle, only slightly less fun than setting up in the rain. I was resigned to having to seek out a hotel if the rain didn't let up. It only got worse, meaning now I had wet socks from yesterday as well as the ones I was wearing.

It took three hours to reach the next town--Gelibolu--22 miles away. When I saw signs to a ferry wharf I was fully prepared to hop aboard if there was one to Istanbul 175 miles away. But no, the ferry just crossed the Dardanelles. With a population of 29,000 and as a gateway to the National Park there were several hotels to choose from.

The first I tried was closed. The next one had no electricıty. Finally, the third had a room and it came with a heater, just what I needed. I strung a clothes line in front of it and hung up my gloves and three pairs of just washed socks and draped the rest of my clothes around the room. The heat didn't extend much beyond a foot from the heater, but that was enough.

I had bought a paper the day before to stuff into my shoes that night to draw out the moisture, as the candle in my tent didn't generate enough heat to dry much of anything. I needed the rest of the paper today for my truly soaked shoes.

On page five of the paper were a couple of paragraphs on Turkey's prime minister Erdoğan finishing second to the head of Wikileaks in a poll of Time magazine's readers for its Man of the Year. That should have been page one news. I had no idea he was receiving so much attention back home or that there was such a strong Turkish community voting on such matters.

He recently sent a couple of fire fighting planes to help Israel douse its worst forest fire ever. Perhaps that brought him some extra attention. It has been a prominent story here, as Israel and Turkey have effectively cut off relations since last May when Israeli commandos killed nine Turks on a Turkish boat trying to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza. Seeking resolution to that issue has been a top story ever since.  The Turks are demanding an apology and reparations to the families. Everyone has reacted with great favor to Erdogan's gesture helping Israel with its fire fighting.

If the winds don't let up, it could take me four days to reach Istanbul, less than 175 miles away. I notice British Air has bargain Christmas Day flights. If I can switch my flight home from Athens a month later without much penalty, I may have to do it. It wasn't part of the plan to be biking this far north in December and January. I'd be somewhere in the warm and sunny climes of the Middle East if Syria hadn't denied me entrance. I've been very glad to get to know Turkey better, but I don't need much more than the two months I've had.

Later, George

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