Wednesday, 9 September 2009
Nomads appeal to sedentary, post-industrial people. Our lives spent with All Mod Cons in electronically wired/wire-less flats and cottages make us fret for space and the adrenaline rush of the open. There is room for romance when the horizon appears boundless. Nomads embody freedom: freedom of movement equals freedom of spirit. The title Lords of the Horizon sold Jason Goodwin’s book about the Ottomans long before readers bothered to crack the dustjacket. Nomadic life on horseback looks and sounds even more romantic than other forms of mobile lifeway, accompanied in the sedentary reader’s mind by the drumming of hoofbeats on the steppe. From the far distant horizon the dust gathers force and surges into the middle distance. Here come the nomads!
‘What’s so special about nomad love?’ ‘It’s in tents.’
Nomads appear to travel light. Their lives are about mobility and being able to carry whatever is needed for survival. No fixed address. No big-ticket items, no trunks, no unwieldy suitcases, no wheelie bags. As the Long Riders Guild website phrases it, the dream of travel on horseback is the dream of freedom, of partnership between human and equine, but it’s also the dream of shedding ‘physical possessions’ and replacing them with something else: the allure of the boundless horizon.
Why then have preparations for the Evliya Çelebi Ride largely been about two things: money and equipment? In less than a month now we will mount our horses and embark from Hersek, the traditional staging point near Istanbul where previous travellers, including Evliya, set forth for their travels into remote corners of Asia. With sponsorship now beginning to come in (see home-page for logos) and acute financial anxiety only somewhat allayed, we are now almost free to focus on the latest priority: our gear. What is this fixation with physical possessions, exactly the things we were supposed to be leaving behind? Why are we acquiring more of them?
If we were with Ercihan and the expedition’s horses in Cappadocia now, instead of scattered across Europe, North America, and the UK, we could obsess about the horses instead. But we aren’t, so we can’t. We have to leave the horses’ preparation entirely to him. He is the undisputed authority, the başbakan, the head of the official stables. They might as well be the imperial stables. He is the imperator of their domain. Besides, his horses have made camping expeditions before. They probably know far more about what we about to embark upon than we do. We have been too preoccupied with seeking sponsorship and getting official permissions to travel, to film, to have the right paperwork to show the jandarma wherever we go; we could never have found and bought our own horses and prepared them for a long-distance adventure. That was the original plan, but it would have taken years and not months. Once again, we are up against the most typical constraints of Modernity: time and money. Time is money. Money is money. Buying gear, especially from online sites, relieves anxiety because it makes us feel we are doing something to prepare for the expedition.
So we obsess about tents, torches, raingear, what to wear, how to sleep, what to take with us. We gave up on the idea of re-enacting Evliya’s tack and dress—those wonderful yellow boots!—even before we started. This will not be ‘history in fancy dress’, as re-enactment gets called sometimes on the BBC. In the first place, we couldn’t afford to acquire even reproductions of seventeenth-century Ottoman costumes and saddles. Apparently there are saddlers in Poland who make beautiful repro-Ottoman tack. But we can’t afford such museum pieces, and it would be a shame to subject them to such an expedition anyway. In the second place, we know how uncomfortable they would be likely to be unless we also (re)learned how to ride in them. Having sat on old-fashioned Turkish saddles a few times, this we know already! It might have been an idea, according to Mahir, at least to have had some of those yellow boots made, like those Evliya would have worn. But this too was not so easy to organise, and far from cheap. And there was resistance to the very idea of historical costume on the part of several participants. Surely we should use the travelling gear appropriate to travelling in the present, just as Evliya did in his day, and not inflict a fantasy seventeenth century on the local people we hope to meet?
So now we obsess about what sort of available modern saddles we will use and how best to dress practically for long hours in the saddle. What will the weather be like? Ercihan says a yağmurluk, a raincoat, is essential. Since we will be riding for at least five or six hours a day for sixty days, how best to cover our legs is also a concern. Boots or chaps? Half chaps or full chaps? Leather chaps or fleece-lined waterproof ones? Ercihan says it might even snow in the high places. Imagine camping in the snow. Sounds like Moscow Central rather than Istanbul Central. Not my idea of Turkey at all, even though we have visited in winter and autumn before, and have seen it snowing on the streets of various Anatolian cities. We have had to get four-season ‘mountain’ tents, not the usual Turkish summer tents that would let the weather in. We must be prepared for serious atmospheric conditions, for real weather. It sounds all too much like riding and camping on Dartmoor, where ‘Four seasons in one day’ is a typical experience. No wonder Orhan Pamuk is always writing about snow, and not only in his novel Snow, set in Kars. In his literary essays, it is hardly ever sunny and hot in Istanbul. It is usually raining and often snowing. This weather adds to the hüzün, the feeling of collective melancholy that he finds so characteristic of the city. What if it is characteristic of the whole country too?
How to keep everything as light as possible is another concern. We really don’t want to carry more than the bare minimum on our horses. We will have small saddle bags, and those can barely hold tethering ropes and water, perhaps some bread and cheese. Taking advice from a seasoned horseback traveller, Robin Hanbury-Tenison, we will have a ‘support vehicle’, lent to the project by the Avis-Koç company. Ercihan will be bringing two helpers along, to drive and cook and also help us with the tents and the horses. The support vehicle is called a kamyonet, literally ‘lorry-ette’ or ‘truck-ette’. It will have Ercihan’s ‘camping box’ fitted on top of it. This apparently has a kitchen, and it will be quite full already with provisions for the horses, the most important thing. Our baggage had better be totally minimal, since it will have to include at least seven tents, each with mats and sleeping bags, our overnight kit, some changes of clothes (not many!), some human provisions as well as horse ones. The horses will have woven Turkish feedbags for their hard food. Won’t they need the inevitable rubber bowls for water too?
Another preoccupation that has required purchases is how we will record the trip in its every detail. This last requirement is the most interesting but also the most worrying. Besides notebooks and pens and sketchpads and cameras, we now have a recording device with which to produce broadcast-quality radio copy. To avoid anybody bringing a laptop, Mac and I are refusing to bring ours. I wonder how many laptops and mobile phones will need to be charged at every opportunity. Mac has bought a Power Monkey we can use to recharge phones and cameras. That needs charging as well, but not so often. We hope.
This trip has been organised mostly by email. Does it actually exist apart from screen images and email messages and files exchanged, apart from websites and images of the Ride projected long before it has taken place? None of us knows all the other participants. Ercihan has met most of the people going on the ride. Caroline, Mac, Andy Byfield, and I know one another, and we were the original team who first had the idea to make a long-distance ride across Anatolia. Our plan was to commemorate, and re-enact, not the plethora of Western travellers who will have gone before us, but those less well known trail-blazers, Eastern, Ottoman travellers. We would unlearn Orientalism, the Western grid of perceptions regarding the East, as we went along, as we entered in, as we learned from the local culture. We would do what Edward Said has accused many Western scholars of not doing – attempt to leave our previous assumptions behind and learn from the other. Having done some homework, it became clear that Evliya Çelebi was the Man to Follow. Not only did he wear a ring inscribed ‘Evliya Çelebi, World Traveller’, but he carried letters of introduction that described him as ‘a man of peace’, and a man who hoped ‘to study the many nations and races of mankind’ as he went along, recording the stories, dreams, histories, jokes, lies, and fantasies of the people he met along the way.
When Caroline introduced us to Mahir, it was exciting that he had had the same desire to follow Evliya on horseback. Mahir has often spoken about Evliya on his radio show, ‘Adeta Dörtnala’ (Walk and Canter) on Acık Radyo (‘Open Radio’, the Istanbul equivalent of PBS in the States). Mahir also knew Andy Byfield, as it happened; they had even ridden together. Leyla will be teaching, so she won’t be riding with us but hopes to join us along the way. She was introduced to the group by Caroline. Her knowledge of Anatolian village culture has already elicited some great stories we will be following up. It was Patricia who introduced most of us to Ercihan, and Ercihan who got Susan and Thérèse to come along. If Françoise Joe finds the funds to come along to make a film, that will fulfil a dream she has had; we met six months ago at the Istanbul Centre in Brussels, courtesy of Andy Finkel, journaliste extraordinaire.
Evliya’s manner of travel included companions as well as servants, and far more horses per person than we will have. In fact the ratio is totally different from ours: when he set out from Mecca in 1671, he took with him three companions, eight servants, and fifteen horses. We will be a motley crew of nine, without any ‘servants’ as such. Two people will travel in the support vehicle, and there will be seven or eight horses, one horse per rider, with possibly a spare horse. There will be masses of baggage in the luckless kamyonet, but we won’t have pack saddles to struggle with.
Evliya clearly loved travelling for its own sake, and also recording everywhere he went and what he saw and heard. He was a self-styled nomad who wrote the equivalent of a blog in his ten-volume manuscript. He appears never to have been in a hurry to get anywhere unless he was on an official mission. Then he could make tracks, for example going between Istanbul and Diyarbekir, and back again, in a matter of days. But left to his own devices, he accepted invitations to visit people, he followed up suggestions of interesting sites to see, he hung around for days at a time enjoying hospitality, he exchanged gifts, and then he took to the road again.
Evliya was a very civilised nomad. He will be a hard act to follow. Maybe we should have done more to imitate him in our plans for re-enactment. Maybe we should at least have worn those yellow boots.
(Picture: Gavin Hamilton, James Dawkins and Robert Wood discovering the ruins of Palmyra, 1758. National Gallery of Scotland)