Tag Archives: Adventure

Bored in Korea? Read a book!

Slide1Teakettle Mountain, the story of one loser English teacher’s quest to not be a loser, has been re-released on amazon.com. Check out the story reviewers are calling “a joy to read”—available now for $2.99, less than a third the cost of a cup of coffee in our adoptive homeland!

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When Video Games Saved My Life

Hasankeyf Re-Redux

In the arid gorge there was such absolute silence I found myself thinking I was the only person alive in the world; diagonal cliffs and mountains slashed away from me in every direction, and so forceful was the heat and the light of the summer day that I could not hear the wind.

Tonight as I write these words in Korea, listening to Afrocubism in the cozy warmth of my one-room apartment, a Turkish rug on the floor, an electric guitar in the corner, a camera on the table, stacks of unread books on the fridge, with the pale green lights of forty-story high-rises flickering on and off like little televisions outside my window, and the dim roar of engines seeping in through the walls and the glass—as I sit here in the midst of my civilized life—the quiet and the stillness of that moment in Hasankeyf still overwhelms me.

Where I was alone.

The ancient city is built into and hollowed out of several massive soaring cliffs, which look like enormous beehives from a distance thanks to the thousands of caves that people made there over thousands of years—most of the last inhabitants moved out about five decades ago, but I still found a few places here and there that were locked from the inside, with beautiful red carpets hanging on the rock walls and lining the floor which I could see through a rounded window or two.

Then there were whole villages built on top of the cliffs, out of sight of the tourist town below, and all of them were built entirely out of the mountain rock—some of the richer manors had at least two stories and several large rooms, but all of them were deserted, so far as I could tell. At one point I was scared off by a ghost or a homeless person who, in the terrible silence, was making the sound of one stone grinding against another in the depths of an enormous stone palace, which indeed is quite terrifying when you are alone and imaginative in a strange ancient place. Many rooms and homes were still charred black from when the Mongols came and destroyed the city hundreds of years ago; on the other side of the planet, at around the same time, Korea was occupied by the same people, and Busan was probably used as a base for the Mongols’ failed attempts to conquer Japan.

The vast cliffsides on the river.

I had worked my way up to these abandoned clifftop villages, which even possessed a large ancient Seljuk-style mosque (its rectangular minaret differing significantly from the typical rounded Ottoman spears you see poking at the sky everywhere in Turkey) and a vast ruined graveyard with beautiful Arabic inscriptions on the smashed tombstones, by squeezing inside a little hole in the bottom of the cliff that I found just by wandering along the riverside; I climbed quite a long while up a long stone stairway and was periodically plunged into absolute blackness; all of the stone steps were solid and worn out of the rock, but in some places there were windows opening out onto a steep drop several hundred feet down to the hungry rocks and pebbles clacking about like fish in the rapids; sometimes the stairs were so close to these windows that I had to do some serious maneuvering to keep moving forward; these might be called ‘birdshit acrobatics’, as they involved scraping my bare hands in huge piles of stale, stinking, barnacle-y guano. I was able to wash my hands when I got back to the hotel, but my dignity remained tarnished forever. Still, to use the favored English phrase in Turkey, it was no problem.

The way to the top---and this is looking up.

Incidentally, at this hotel, which was the only hotel in Hasankeyf, I found myself arguing with a random Frenchman about who could have the only single room in the place to himself; he wanted it, I wanted it, but by some rare and very atypical luck, I had the key, and no force on Heaven or Earth, not even the three-pronged lightning bolt of God himself, was going to deprive me of it; the Frenchman’s really amazing English philippic was lost on the ears of my Turkish host, whose comprehension of the language was best illustrated after both of us simply walked away from the Frenchman in the middle of his endless and very intellectual exploration of why he deserved the room and not me—striding through the last sun of the evening, the Turk said of the Frenchman, “He is many problem”, sighing and shaking his head. That night, after so many vicissitudes, I slept alone.

Near where I got myself trapped with two pups.

Speaking of keys, the adventure with the dogs has already been enumerated, but I should say that, along with my two canine companions, I was locked inside the ancient city and really unable to escape; the vast half-medieval / half-steel gate was surrounded by scaffolding and steep death drops on all sides, and the lock seemed to require a key that I did not have; after much shouting toward the deserted road and town of stone beneath, and a brief encounter with a helpless but very pretty Istanbulite, I was resigned to spending the rest of the (still) very early morning locked in Hasankeyf, parched, dying of thirst, but I wasted much of my youth playing video games, and didn’t bore my way through countless Tomb Raider-style door puzzles for no reason; the time indeed came when video games saved my life; eventually I somehow figured out that there were some latches or levers you had to pull or push to open the door; I pulled them, or pushed them, I don’t remember; something clanked, screeched, rolled; the door swung open; the dogs rushed free without thanking me for anything—like most people—and I was able to run back to the hotel and the annoying Frenchman and guzzle down enough water for ten Ians and ten rabid dogs.

Of course that same day I think I left for Van, and, eventually, Kars, where I would make the acquaintance of my first Nazi.

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Rabid Dogs And The Garden In The Desert

Remains of an Armenian village just outside Yuvacali, Southeastern Turkey.

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.

Some of the nomads, who were very hospitable and perhaps unusually quiet, as I cannot remember any of them attempting to speak to me.

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.

Hasankeyf, slated to be inundated at some point in the future; here I almost lost my hotel room to a Frenchman, and almost caught rabies, and certainly got fleas.

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.

From The Garden In The Desert

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.

One of the boys who volunteered to join us as we wandered a monastery that may have been visited by Jesus.

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.

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The Carrier Hoax

The USS George Washington

So the question is a legitimate one: how did the author of these words find himself detained—pleasantly detained—in the shadow of an enormous aircraft carrier docked on the eastern coast of South Korea? And why were his polite, civil, and curious detainers so excited (at least initially) about the possibility that he of all people could be a real spy or a real terrorist sent in from some cave on the other side of the planet to blow up the goddamn ship and send its flaming wreckage sinking down into a pit at the bottom of the sea?

Continue reading

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