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Word Travels - Esrocking Eastern Turkey by Robin Esrock
Esrocking Eastern Turkey
by Robin Esrock / Published October 31 2008
Excerpt from Robin's blog on
Robin Esrock in TurkeyThe last time I arrived in Istanbul, I took the airport subway, met a friendly professor who showed me the way to my overpriced hostel by walking me through four steamy city blocks and the crowded bizarre in the upper 30C heat. This time, the van dropped us off at the far more civilized Hotel Arcadia, offering stellar views of the Hagia Sofia and the ever-spectacular Blue Mosque. There was much to reflect about, returning to Turkey after three years of adventure, in which my transformation from backpacker to travel writer has been complete. But first I'd have to finish up writing my articles about Romania, and upload my blog and photos in a weekly ritual that cements the end of that particular journey. The discipline of writing and updating my website weekly has served me well since the very beginning of Modern Gonzo. It might be the very reason for its success. The 6th century Hagia Sofia will have to wait, as it has done so, across empires and invasions. First I have work to do.

Around sunset, golden hour, the crew heads over to the spine that splits these two incredible ancient buildings. It is exactly as I remember it, although there appears to be busloads of more tourists clutching guidebooks. We tend to visit some pretty unusual destinations with this show, so Istanbul in high season comes as something of a shock. People stare and take pictures of Julia and I as Sean knocks off writing and "establishment" shots, which will end up in fast-paced montage sequences. People see the big camera, and reckon we must be famous. We have both got used to the staring. You have to if you want to be on TV.

The golden setting sun is lighting up the Golden Arm, so we head back to the hotel rooftop terrace to film a timelapse. A cold Efes beer is in order, but the hotel charges $6 for a half a glass, while down on the street it is $2 for half a litre. Paul and I pop downstairs, buy some cold beers, bring them upstairs to the camera. The staff tell us this is forbidden, but we point to the camera and say we have to wait for it to finish. We get away with a lot this way. Sean's Golden Rule for Shooting: Get the shot, then ask for permission. Better to say sorry than not get any shot at all.

Blue MosqueDining at an overpriced Sultanahmet patio restaurant, pencil sharpenings of nostalgia blow across my office space. It is liberating in a sense to see something familiar, only I am not the same person. Like the last time I visited by home in South Africa, it's emotionally disorientating. I didn't think I would be back here so soon, if at all, but it looks the same as when I left it. It's been a long day with a country-hop, so the exhausted crew heads back to the hotel. I pop into the Bauhaus, a hostel I stayed at before. I don't know what I was expecting on the rooftop bar where I spent a couple nights those few years and thousands of miles ago. It has been remodelled, a couple young backpackers sitting on pillows, sucking on a nargila, listening to Jeff Buckley. I could join them, but I'm not a young backpacker anymore. Buckley hits his high notes, and I realize that I belong in a hotel, not here. Not now, while we're working. We have a mid-morning flight to Adiyaman, so there's no point in unpacking. A power shower paintstrips my skin, I notice my leather wristband (once my hat band) smells terrible, so I soak it in a glass of shampoo, where I'll forget it the next morning. I'm sharing a room with Paul, which works great since we both don't snore - something that can't be said for other members of the crew. We see a promo for Nat Geo Adventure on TV. Turkey will see me on Word Travels, Turkey will see what my impressions of this visit will be. We flip the channel, watch some Olympics in Beijing, and tune out.

At the domestic terminal, Sean's efforts to sneak everyone into the business class lounge are unsuccessful (sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't) so I write up a story for MSN from the gate. I've got various deadlines looming, and more added to the pile every week (I aim for three stories a week). Sometimes they just flow out, sometimes I have to hunt the words, laying traps, dangling carrots. Being online is essential for speedy research, but sometimes I just use the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which I have loaded on my laptop. It doesn't mention anything about Mount Nemrut, my story/segment for this episode, which is an encouraging sign. The view from the spacious emergency exit row (again, sometimes we get it, sometimes we don't) shows stark, dry terrain, melting in the sun. The pilot executes various turns and the lands the small jet at speed, earning Sean's disapproval - you don't earn Elite status without doing a lot of flying, and Sean discusses flights the way a sommelier might discuss wine. The dry, hard heat is exquisite. The B-cam wants my reaction and I rattle off a couple lines - I feel like the roof of your mouth after you burn it with hot cheese. Or at least, that's what I try to say. It comes out like: I feel like ....a....a cheese, hot cheese, on your mouth, inside,, like pizza..." - demonstrating the challenge of being able to type the words, but not always able to verbally express them. This happens to me quite a lot, and I'm often kicking myself when I see the final product. "Of all the things to say, Robin, you idiot..."

UrfaWe're on a seven night, seven different hotel streak. 21 episodes in, this is a new record for us. Cluj Napoca to Bucharest to Istanbul to Adiyaman to Diyakbar to Mardin to Sanilurfa. Even though I travel light, sometimes, when we arrive late and leave early, I don't even unpack my bag. Just brush my teeth, rinse in the shower, head on out. My story/segment is Mount Nemrut, where ancient statues of the gods witness a spectacular sunrise, until the sun crosses over a burial mound and a mirror image of the statues gaze upon the sunset. It's the kind of story where the photograph will sell it. Anyone seeing the golden light cast across the giant bust of Apollo is bound to say "where is that!?", and the same holds for the show. You'll see Robin bathed in light, energized by the history of this former temple, the breathtaking views of the surrounding desert. In the show, you'll see glimpses of the journey to get there, and hear me talk about my life as a travel writer, and how it all began. It starts at midnight. I wake up early, a combination of nerves, energy, and the tired residue of jetlag. Call time is 2am, so I spend the next two hours finishing my MSN article, replying to email, doing some research, reading my book. The plan is for the crew to wake me up, as they have done so, so many times in previous episodes. This time I ambush them, stuffing my backpack and pillow under the sheet, hiding in the bathroom when they enter, and jumping out just as they realize something is wrong. Sean gets totally spooked, but the true professional that he is, he keeps on shooting.

2:30am, we take off for the 2-hour drive to Nemrut. The energy that prevented me from sleeping vanishes now that I am awake. I daze and doze. I watch Lost Boys 2 on my laptop, which is a truly awful movie, but keeps me occupied as we drive into the dark early morning. We stop for tea, but I'm eager to move, there's still the hike up to the Eastern Terrace, where we'll need to grab our seats for the sunrise of a lifetime. We still need to film me getting out the car, walking along on the trail, my thoughts, my expectations - the stuff of television that always takes longer than we think. I originally planned to hike the whole way, but 16km with a TV crew in plus 40C heat is a good enough reason to plan something else. It's only 500m from the car park to the terrace, and as I walk along the cracked stone path, the sky begins to brighten, announcing the arrival of a new day. Although we have left the busloads of cruise ship tourists behind, there are about 50 people already on the terrace, mostly Turks, wrapped in blankets to shield the cool mountain wind. Cameras are ready, all face east. Behind them are the gods built to honour King Antiochus 1, ruler of the Commagene kingdom around 60 BC. Large 10m statues of the gods he worshipped, their stone heads decapitated but mostly intact, face the sunrise. By placing his own statue with the gods, the king hoped to join their greatness, for the sun to rise below his feet. The statues are of an eagle, the Commagene messenger of the gods. Fortuna, the goddess of luck and fortune, still bearing her grapes and pomegranates symbolizing fertility. We see the bust of Apollo, the God of light and reason, and the partly damaged face of Hercules, born to Zeus and a human mother. Of course, Zeus is here too, the King of the Gods, as well as the lion Aslan, signifying greatness. Finally Antiochus himself, on the throne itself, an equal of the gods. The decapitated bodies sit against a tumult of broken stones, a 50m high pyramid painstakingly placed by human labour over the final resting place of the king. Behind them is a relief with ancient Greek inscriptions, detailing the reason behind the statues, the final wishes of the King that people should have faith, worship the gods, and enjoy their time atop the mountain. Mount Nemrut was only discovered in 1881 by a German engineer, and the translation of the inscription revealed some time later.

Mount NemrutThe sunrise lives up to its reputation, a perfect golden yolk cracked against the rim of mountains on the horizon. Wind muffles the fireworks-like oohs of the small crowd, who appear just as transfixed by Sean's camera as the sunrise they've been waiting to see. I take dozens of photos of the busts in the blue pre-dawn light, but once the sun lights them up, I repeat every shot. Within a half hour, the crowd has dispersed and we are the only people left on the terrace. Over a packed breakfast, our guide for the week, the enthusiastic and energetic Sherif, tells us that domestic tourism markets Nemrut's sunrise, not the statues. Westerners come for the history, Turks for the sunrise. Sean crosses a shaky chain fence to get a better shot and a man appears with the usual "forbidden" tune. We sing our note from the Turkish Authorities explaining our purpose, and the guard moves away, none too pleased that us foreigners can break the rules that no doubt anchor his life. It's amazing what we have to do sometimes to get the shots to make a place look incredible. We are shooting with very limited assistance from the Turkish Tourism Board because they told us they were already supporting several TV productions this summer and had no more budget. They did give us a letter though, which we've used several times already as over-keen officials pop out of nowhere ready to shut us down. Sherif disarms them, and they fade away, somewhat annoyed. We're only trying to capture the best possible images we can.

By 9am, we are filming a timelapse as the sun hits the statues on the western terrace, a duplicate of those on the east terrace. Here, the gods will watch the sun set beneath their feet. I scramble up some rocks, take in the view around me. This is Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers, the mighty Euphrates and the Tigris. Geographically, it is an area that constitutes modern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, a salt-shake of Syria, and a splash of Iran too. This is the cradle of civilization, where Biblical empires rose and modern humanity evolved. A spark of faith catches fire here, and burns into the religions that shape much of our lives - Judaism, Islam, Christianity. Ancient ruins, caves, aqueducts, walls and bridges abound everywhere. No wonder Turkish tourists are down the mountain shortly after sunrise. Seeing 2000 year old statues is not all that new. Considering the epic history here that gave rise to religion and modern civilization, stretching all the way back to 6000 BC, I expect the region to be lush and fertile, not dry and parched, baking in temperatures that crack 50C in the summer. The air feels like its blowing out of a hair dryer. Not for the first time, I wonder how people coped in the old days without air conditioning.

By 10am, we're finish up and head back to the van, the cool mountain breeze at 2200m dissapating as we descend lower along the path. I've been up for 10 hours already, and my attempts at sleep are futile on the drive back to Adiyaman. With the completion of the Ataturk WT Crew in TurkeyHydrolectric Dam, a vast project collectively known as the Southeastern Anatolia Project, the geography of the region has changed. Powered by the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates, cheap electricity and water for irrigation have been made widely available, and the heat notwithstanding, the region is on fire. Five years ago, Adiyaman was a city of 80,000. Today is closing on 200,000. Julia's Lonely Planet, although not the most recent version, does not even feature the city in the region. We pick her up, head over to a restaurant where we feast on an 8-course meal that easily ranks amongst the most damn delicious I've ever had. Grilled chicken and lamb skewers, kofta, roasted eggplant, various traditional casseroles, fresh pita out the oven, various dips and sauces, salads that taste like salads nowhere else. Turkish food, when done right, is in a class all its own. I gorge in an attempt to induce a food coma, for we've got a 3 hour drive ahead of us before we reach Diyarbakir Even with the air-conditioning cranked, and the back row to myself, I sweat, scrunch up , and suffer no sleep. Finally we arrive in Turkey's hottest city, a city that has been conquered by the Hittites, Assyrians, the Meds, Persians, Macedonians, Seleukos, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ilkhanide, the Akkoyunlu Seljuks, and the Ottomans. It has a 12m high city wall built by the Romans stretching 5.5km. I have been awake for 20 hours, crusted in sweat, my eyes like drops of blood in the snow. I don't want to know about walls, or dinner for that matter, I just want to know about bed. By 10:30pm, I am asleep. We have an early 8am departure to check out the ancient black basalt walls, and head onto the next stop of Mardin.

By now you're getting the picture. This isn't a holiday, although we do get some time off. This isn't a sightseeing trip, although we do see a lot of sites. This isn't work, because I do play a lot, and this isn't play, because I work pretty hard too. In the end, all I can say is: This is television.

Continue reading Robin's report from Eastern Turkey at his website:

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