Top Gear fans, “Good News!” “What?” “It’s the new Dacia Logan!”
I stand outside Terminal 1 of Istanbul Airport, an hour after having departed my hostel. Two days in Istanbul and I have had time to process and contextualize my Iranian experience. Now, it’s time for some adventure. I’d initially planned to be in Iraq at this time, but escalations between ISIS and Kurds on Turkey’s southern border have quashed those dreams with no safe overland egress into Kurdistan.
So too were my motorcycle dreams dashed as I came to find, much to my consternation, that even scooter rental in Istanbul is twice the price of a small car. It’s an insurance issue, apparently the Turks value life higher than vehicle damage, what rubbish…
And thus, I have settled, or so I think, on a cute little mini.
I’ll dash around the hills of Turkey in a svelte but miniscule Citron C1 or jump crests in the lithe if lowly Ford Fiesta. At bear minimum I’ll carve corners in a tactile but homely Mazda 2, ferociously rowing through gears trying to keep the little 1 liter in the power.
As it turns out, this too in a “no.”
After failing to locate the for the “Holiday Auto” rental car booth I notice a curious asterisks at the bottom of my contract: “meeting point: Vodaphone booth” it reads. I call the number, “Ello, Ah, no worries, no problem, my friend my friend, you wait, 10 minutes I be there, ok, no problem”. Ah ha… 10 minutes later I’m on the phone with someone who sounds like he’s called Dmitri. I walk up and down the pickup area outside airport looking aimlessly for him. Finally, I spot him running toward me like an excited bowlegged Huey waiving a clipboard with my full name spelled out in 32 point font. “Come with me!” he instructs. We bound down the curb towards a grouping of cars double parked in a fire lane, he looks at me with a wink “Escalade, me!” he exclaims.
We pass the Escalade and a sand-red-haired miniature man in overalls with black teeth pops out of the car in front of it. He sandwich shakes my hand and smiles with his tongue. They place some paperwork down on the hood and get to writing, “Your car” he excitedly says. “This one here?” “Yes, this one, very nice.”
I look it over. It’s about 20 feet long, boxy and featureless. It takes up the space of a school bus yet is so benign you might walk into it before you noticed it sitting there. Seriously the U.S. needs to stop spending so much money on invisibility cloak R&D and just buy a fleet of these things. What the hell is it anyway, I think? We inspect the car, I don’t even see a badge or a logo. It’s more like a car stencil really, something you might use as a guide to teach small children to draw generic car shape in crayon, like the preverbal hand tracing for a turkey on Thanksgiving. We finalize formalities.
The inside is cavernous, I could make good money running immigrants across boarders or stashing clowns if it came to it. Come to think of it, I could probably transport a whole traveling circus or rent space to two competing food trucks that could operate concurrently in the massive space. I throw my bag in the back, the door tinks shut with the solidity of a shredded aluminum can.
Then I see the badge, Dacia. Boy, Richard, James, and Jeremy would be so proud of me right now.
I click the dinky shifter into first and turn the key. The mighty 2 liter 90HP diesel clatters to life. Stabbing the throttle the chassis twists, the lights inside dimming as power is momentarily rerouted to driving the wheels and the whole shell aches and creeks. The dash layout is an exercise in the most magnificently executed beige, almost impossibly conventional, so average in fact that surely no other car has actually been this bland before, making it in fact quite bespoke.
With that I’m on my way! An hour or so in stop and go traffic provides a perfect opportunity to evaluate the transmission. How a clutch can be so disengaging yet require so much brute force is unknowable to all but the most highly lauded of Nobel scientists. The speakers play from my iPod in a tinny-rush of paper flapping oration and all the controls are cleverly couched in Turkish so no alterations can be made. As we inch along the eight lane highway we cross the mighty Bosphorous Bridge - crossing from Europe into Asia.
About 100 miles outside Istanbul, Turkey begins to come alive. Broad, low hills dip and roll. The little Dacia scrounges for traction as I bank hard into wide left and right hand sweepers. The tires clamor for grip like giant blocks of Jell-O and the steering, loading under the weight of the twisting chassis slings the steering wheel back and forth in my hands as if tugged by a million rubber bands. The body twists so severely that it feels as though the doors are opening slightly on the opposing side of the turn like an expanding ribcage in a deep side-bend.
As far as the eye can see the ground is awash in burnt orange as pines, oaks, and ferns begin their fall theatrics. As quickly as the scenes beauty arises it subsides, subsumed by thick green smog emanating from the distance. As I approach smoke stack after smoke stack release noxious fumes into the sky. The clouds of filth billow upwards then crash back to earth under their own weight splashing out along the horizon as far as the eye can see. All around the factory grounds pillars of smoke plume into the sky as farmers burn leaves, garbage, and other waste at its periphery.
This is unfortunately not an uncommon scene while traveling. Beautiful gorges and vistas engulfed in suffocating filth. The earth decimated and the people stricken, beleaguered, and destitute. We in the U.S. have gotten very good about keeping these harsh realities out of mind and backyard; off shoring factories, masking externalities, and burying our trash. Yet make no mistake, we contribute more to this type of activity per capita than any other people in the world. No doubt whatever is going on here, a significant percentage of its yield or output is likely going to the United States. Sometimes I wonder if we were to return the harshest costs of our excess to our own backyards how quickly our behaviors would change.
Driving up and out of the besieged valley I close in on my first stop, Safranbolu, an old Ottoman outpost. A World Heritage site, it is said to be completely intact and the best remaining example of an Ottoman-Turk city left in existence. Reverting and backtracking after a wrong turn I approach the city from on-high with a clear view plane of its entirety. It looks… meager, bleak. Really, nothing special at all; a messy collection of pastel colored multi-story block buildings in various states of disrepair. The unified red tile roofs all that differentiates the city from the sprawl of Istanbul. Yet, upon entering a narrow ally in search of a hostel its charm becomes apparent.
I have been looking at “New Safranbolu” which is in fact a big messy, ugly city much in the guise of Istanbul sprawl. In contrast “Old Safranbolu” is a roughly 20 block affair comprised entirely of historical Ottoman structures with their big wood frames filled in with mud brick and straw. Those that are refinished are sharpened around the corners, covered with a sheet of white paint and decorated with rich wood window shutters, doors, and little false balconies at each window. The remainder crumbles into the hillsides. Streets are knife-edge cobblestone and roofs are terracotta red.
Cute form a distance to be sure, but on closer inspection its charms wane. The locals can’t seem to be bothered by anyone. They are hearty bunch, big and square, their accents belies some Russian mingling or ancestry, which could be the problem. They seem cold, dissatisfied and bruiting. The buildings while quaint and housing cute little courtyards are brittle and cold. I attempt for a few hours to find a canyon hike I have been told about but am unable to locate the trailhead, or for that matter the canyon. If no one in town can point me to it I rationalize, it couldn’t have been that good anyhow.
Tomorrow, I’m off to Cappadocia, land of fairy chimneys, cave-villages, natural hot springs, bath houses, and hot air balloons. The little Dacia and I are getting to know each other; utilitarian, good on gas, adequate power to keep the dial around 150, and a personality just starting to reveal itself. He just might get a name yet. Perhaps Sir James May is on to something.