The far southeast of Turkey largely consists of black rocks and endless plains of yellow scrub; it is so dry and dusty in the summer you cannot go more than thirty minutes without gorging yourself on a liter of water; thousands of years ago it was a garden, a paradise, soaking wet, lush, green, and populated with a veritable bestiary of exotic animals, but the coming of agriculture (which may have been invented here) hastened the destruction and exhaustion of the environment and reduced the place to a wasteland, which was nonetheless populated by plenty of human beings by the time I arrived—as our species’ tenaciousness is second only to that of the common cockroach.
My guide Mehmet and I drove back and forth through this place for a few days, visiting one amazing set of ruins after another, as well as a family of nomads and an enormous rabid dog—I swear this thing was the size of a lion—which attacked our car when we were driving very slowly over an unfinished road. Mehmet was pretty nonchalant about this and I had to shout like a fool for him to roll up his window, as the monster was trying to jump inside and tear his throat out—and when we met the nomads I kept my eye on this thing, as I could still make it out in the distance, a small vicious dot wandering around through the walls of rippling heat that were broiling up out of the earth like a furnace. The family wasn’t too concerned about the dog either.
I encountered more than a few animals that seemed or actually were dangerous while I was out in eastern Turkey; once, while I was locked inside the ancient ruins of Hasankeyf, I almost had to do battle with what I thought was a rabid dog; to make a long story short, I climbed up a cliff to get inside these ruins, and didn’t want to climb back down again, as I nearly lost my life in the process (I’ll tell the whole story another time), and the only other way out was through a gate that seemed to be locked until the afternoon (this was early morning, thanks to my jetlag); there were two dogs who were also locked inside with me, waiting for the gate to open so they could go free; they started barking at me when they saw me, one started running over to me, and I had to pry up a heavy metal pipe lying on the ground, as I seriously thought it was going to attack; but both of them turned out to be very nice, and just desperate to leave; I probably got flees from petting them. Eventually we escaped—but again, another time.
As Mehmet and I wandered the wide plains and the half-desert we came to a manmade canal of rich blue water flowing like liquid crystal, like a stream of diaphanous ice, through the sand and the grass and the rocks; this was Turkey’s GAP Project, an effort on the government’s part to enrich the southeastern wastelands with water. And indeed in some places you could see farms of green towering corn extending over the hills and into the horizon, all from these cement canals of beautiful, magical water. Yet the people I saw still lived in the most abject poverty. Everyone was dusty and dressed in rags; in the cities it was a common site to see horsedrawn carriages, though the carriages had rubber wheels and all of the horses were thinner than fashion models; most of the people walking along the roads tried to hitch a ride with us, and in the small towns we passed through—most of which consisted of only a handful of houses—it truly did not seem as if anyone was doing, or had ever done, anything.
There was absolute silence. At the historical sites there was invariably a pair of children asking for me to photograph them for money; they would pick up pieces of pottery, attempt to sell them to me, and then smash them on the ground in anger when I refused. Outside of Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district and perhaps the tomb of Ataturk, which I did not bother to visit, the government does not appear to care about its immense wealth of antiquities—something other nations would die to have, as my current home, Korea, has already lost almost everything that belonged to its past, and lives in a sort of cultural twilight or purgatory, where no one really knows or cares at all about the thousands and thousands of people who came before them. This is a common trait of most nations, but it’s easier to have an awareness of the past when the wrecks of time literally surround you wherever you go—as in Istanbul, as in Rome—and it’s possible that even the most ignorant inhabitants of these places have a stronger historical consciousness than their fellows living here in the vast cement octopus that is Busan. Plus, there’s all the money from tourism, obviously.
Despite all the complaints and criticisms, adventures in eastern Turkey were a dime a dozen; almost everything else I did on that trip could have been accomplished by a band of little old ladies, but upon venturing into the parched landscape surrounding the apartment complexes of Urfa—after an eighteen hour bus ride from Antalya!—I truly came to a place that had not yet been entirely consumed and themeparkified by tourism, perhaps the sole self-centered benefit of Turkey’s disdain for its own riches.