Oltu, Turkey to Göreme/Cappadocia, Turkey– 836 km this section (Total Mileage: 10,852 km/40,075 km)
My route cycling west across Turkey.
I entered Turkey ten days after July’s failed coup attempt. Earlier this year, when I first announced plans to pass through Turkey, I received messages from relatives and followers concerned about the risk of terror attacks and kidnapping.
At the time, I told them I’d avoid the Syrian border region, where most of the violent attacks have taken place, and hop on a bus if I ever felt that I was in danger.
Like nearly everywhere else I’ve traveled, though, I haven’t once felt threatened or harassed while in Turkey.
And despite several recent bombings in the country’ southeast, including one that killed 11 people on Friday, I think it would be a mistake to define life here in those terms. I’m sure that “Are you sure you want to travel there, with all the violence?” is primarily an expression of concern, but I think it also misunderstands what this violence actually means in this place.
Recent events have changed the lives of those who have lost loved ones, and many of the people I met in my first weeks here seemed tense and worried. But the same has been true in the US in the wake of mass shootings. It doesn’t mean that this is a violent place. And even though terror attacks in Turkey have claimed more lives than in the US, road traffic still presents a far greater risk to my body than terrorism.
Violence takes on many meanings, wherever it comes to pass. I’ve met people here whose lives have been touched by violence, but those stories aren’t mine to tell. In their place, I’ve collected some pieces of life here, as I’ve seen it–in the name of recognizing the ways in which we all turn each other into something far away, and of remembering that life everywhere is life, no matter how different:
At one point in our conversation, a man who sold me döner kebab in a town near Turkey’s northeastern border paused a moment, looking tired, and said, “Our military here is no good.” Then he grabbed a soda from the fridge, placed it in front of me, smiled, and asked if I had any siblings.
On another evening, a kilometer outside of a small town called Üzümlü, I found myself with 5 thorns in my tire. Too hot and tired to patch it with such a small distance left, I began walking my bike into town to look for a hotel. A group of police officers saw my sorry state and told me to meet them at their station up the road. There, they poured me tea and insisted on spending the better part of an hour patching my tire. One of the officers stood vigilant with a sub-machine gun, while we passed the time chatting about families and travels.
In that same town, I made friends with a man named Üzayir. He’s an agricultural engineer, about my age. I ended up staying for three days, and on my last night in town we went for tea. It was a cool night, and much of the community sat out in the terraced yard of the town’s central tea house. Canvas sheets hung between the trees, reflecting the light of colored lanterns. It was bright and airy and the kind of space that dissolves any memory of conversation. We watched the old men as they walked to the mosque to pray.
I’ve seen more people commuting on bicycles here than in any of the countries I’ve visited so far. Separate bicycle lanes like this one are not yet widespread, but certain cities (like Konya, in the southwestern region) have extensive networks of bicycle paths.
I don’t have a gauge for typical levels of Turkish nationalism, but flags have been everywhere, strung up across main streets and covering the sides of apartment buildings.
My first glimpse of the Euphrates River. 90 percent of its water originates in Turkey, flowing down through Syria and Iraq to the Persian Gulf. Prior to the most recent outbreak of war in Iraq and Syria, the river was a source of contention between the three countries, as Syria and Iraq accused Turkey of hoarding water. Beginning in 2006, a 3-year drought helped fuel massive cityward migrations in both Syria and Iraq and made food less affordable for people across the region. This worsened tensions between the Tigris-Euphrates states and contributed to the Syrian Civil War and the rise of ISIS. Studies have shown that this drought was at least partially fueled by climate change. Fully a quarter of violent struggles in ethnically divided areas are preceded by extreme weather, suggesting that climate change is likely to foment its share of future violence. (An interesting update on the Tigris-Euphrates situation here)
The landscape of eastern Turkey gave me flashbacks to Tibet: A pass every morning (albeit much smaller than their Tibetan counterparts), and a chilly descent every evening.
Still, I remembered the highlands fondly once I moved further west. Many stretches of highway that I’ve passed have been melted into deep troughs and sharp ridges. Several of the people who I’ve met in Turkey have remarked at how unusually hot it’s been this summer, and the record books agree. Models predict that regions of the Middle East and North Africa will experience hotter and hotter weather in the decades to come, to the point that some areas may become uninhabitable.
Even the 95-degree days of southern Turkey have kept heat’s human impacts at the front of my mind.
First, there’s the physical: Drought-resistant crops and multicropping get a lot of attention in the debate over our agricultural future, but much of our lost production will likely come from our own limitations. Especially in the tropics and subtropics, where extremely hot days are more and more common, and especially in agricultural systems more dependent on human labor, our biology will make it impossible to work on the hottest days. Less wealthy areas of the world will bear the brunt of these impacts, and the less privileged among us will get a harder chance at prosperity.
Then there’s the psychological aspect. The US government’s Global Change Research Program found that “The impact of extreme heat on mental health is associated with increased incidence of disease and death, aggressive behavior, violence, and suicide…for those with mental health or psychiatric conditions,” and “There may be a link between extreme heat (climate change related or otherwise) and increasing violence, aggressive motives, and/or aggressive behavior.”
And as hot days of cycling drag on and repeat themselves, I find myself imagining a world driven mad by heat. Pedaling down a melting strip of asphalt, I’ve reached further extremes of emotion than at any point during my journey so far. I wake in my tent, so hot that I’m gasping for air, and start off the day dizzy and dull. I find myself angry at the littlest things, swatting and growling at flies that try to steal my sweat, less willing to reach out and try to talk to those around me. Ice cold showers in the evening provoke euphoric fits of laughter. A day of rest returns me to myself, but in moments it feels like an almost dangerous kind of madness.
And this must be nothing compared to the heat so hot it has held Iraqis prisoner in their homes for much of the summer.
In The Long Summer, Brian Fagan discusses how the last 15,000 years of unusual warmth and climatic stability have given rise to the complex and populous civilization that we have today. A longer, more volatile summer is coming now. I wonder what it will mean for us–not just for our livelihoods, but for our humanity, for the way in which we relate to one another.
Thunderstorms sweeping off the Black Sea offered temporary respite from the heat, though they had a tendency to hit just as I reached the top of a pass.
The light after a storm.
Roadside solutions: Countries around the world have been electrifying their trains for decades now. Most of the tracks that I’ve passed in Turkey and Georgia have been electrified with systems like the one visible in the right of this image. Freight rail electrification in the US reached a peak of 5,000 km (3,100 miles) in the late 1930s, but today electric freight is “all but extinct.” Because they use so much less energy than trucks (~95% reduction per mile) and because their routes are set, trains may hold the most immediate potential to feed renewables into our shipping systems. Groups like Solutionary Rail are now pushing for expanded electrification in the US.
The road into Kapadokya/Cappadocia, the central region of Turkey that is famous for its underground cities.
The call to prayer echoes through Göreme, a magical town built among pillars of rock.
From the roof of the hostel where I stayed in Göreme, I counted 24 solar hot water heaters. I eulogized the Chinese tube-style ones (mid-foreground, with white horizontal tank) in a previous post, but my hosts told me that panel-style hot water heaters are nice because they constantly circulate the water through the building and eliminate any delay at the tap. As of 2013, Turkey had a total installed capacity of more than 10 GWth (thermal gigawatts, as opposed to electrical), one of the highest in the world.
Alternating layers of soft and hard stone made the cliffs of Kapadokya ideal for carving impenetrable fortifications.
The earliest caves here date back to the Hittites (1800-1200 BCE), but their biggest era of expansion came when early Byzantine Christians arrived seeking refuge from religious persecution.
Many of the caves housed churches or monasteries that invaders would have sought to destroy.
In other places, residents dug entire underground cities. This is the ventilation shaft of Deninkuyu, the deepest of the area’s underground cities. It reaches 55 meters (180 feet) into the earth, and may at one time have provided air to 20,000 people living below ground.
Residents protected the entrances to their cities with meter-high stone discs. According to local guides, early Christians built these deeper cities primarily as refuges from invading forces. They would spend months huddled below ground, waiting for their attackers to leave and surviving on preserved food.
With the violence of a climate changed world on my mind, as I crawled through these little corridors, I thought, This is why we need action on climate change. Growing up, I walked freely through my world. I rode my bike around my hometown, and the worst that ever happened to me was petty theft or a minor concussion. I know I was lucky to live my early years like that. Not everyone has that chance. But in today’s less-violent world, more and more children have grown up free. What would it be like to live a part of your childhood in a musty cavern, sealed from the world by a 3-ton stone disc? What would it be like to grow up in fear?
And back above ground, breathing fresh evening air: How much of the violence of climate change is inevitable? For a certain level of warming, is there an implied level of violence, or can we find a way to recall a more peaceful culture, to remember each other’s humanity and step back from the need to get ours?
For me, a salvation from violence would start by refusing to write each other off, not out of any particular faith in humanity, but out of uncertainty and hope, and not despite our vast difference, but because of it.
The road winds on, but I’ll leave you with a quote from Ray Bradbury’s 1975 classic Dandelion Wine. An old man in Illinois, trapped in his bed by illness, calls a friend in Mexico City and tells him to put the receiver to an open window. The passage follows:
He wanted to say, “You’re still there, aren’t you? All of you people in that city in the time of the early siesta, the shops closing, the little boys crying loteria nacional para hoy! to sell lottery tickets. You are all there, the people in the city. I can’t believe I was ever among you. When you are away from a city it becomes a fantasy. Any town, New York, Chicago, with its people, becomes improbable with distance. Just as I am improbable here, in Illinois, in a small town by a quiet lake. All of us improbable to one another because we are not present to one another. And it is so good to hear the sounds, and know that Mexico City is still there and the people moving and living….”