Turkey: Dining with the gendarmes in Turkey’s Cappadocia

This article about a late-night visit from Turkish gendarmes is part of a series inspired by, and detailing, a cycling trip through Turkey, west to east, from Greece to Georgia (part of a larger trip from France to Azerbaijan). The other pieces can be found here and here.

Coaches rumble like big gnats, spilling bodies out onto the gravel; my socks are dry.

—Cappadocia, Turkey, 2018

The bell-heads of rock formation are so far from irksome it is euphoric, and otherworldly—sprouting like so many stone balloons out of green grass, sunning themselves in the calmness of late afternoon, housing birds whose songs, resonating in the valley, remind of witches, of waterlessness and somehow of Lou Reed. And pigeons, I suppose. Stalking among the chimneys are four adults, adult yet intrepid. Yet? Yet and but like children snooping and climbing for the first time, explorers. Coaches rumble like big gnats, spilling bodies out onto the gravel; my socks are dry. It is all dry and all of a piece, except the bodies.

I settle myself down atop a grassy bank of cliff overlooking Göreme. One side of the town is soaked in orange. The other casts long shadows towards me. As the sun inches and spreads over the horizon I cook my pasta, a healthy nutritious portion including vegetables and cheese. It feels good to fill up on hot food on the edge of a cliff overlooking an alien moonscape surrounded by stalagmitic protrusions of rock and bank and grass. I eat pasta and as I finish it I hear the call (the Ramadan call, followed by another).

Meanwhile, three jandarma boys have been preparing their feast over an open fire a short way up the track, also watching the dying sun, stomachs rumbling. The call—their call, to me—is abrupt and is not a question: I am invited, therefore I go. We share words in bits and pieces. Güzel ma? Evet, çok güzel! For it is indeed very beautiful. Ben İngiliz, I am English, an öğretmen, teacher, which is the easy answer. Bisiklet, yes, that’s me. Alone, for now –yalnız. Would I like to yemek? Yes, please, of course. Tamam, teşekkürler. I was secretly hoping something like this would happen, though truly it is always a delight and a surprise.

Şaban, Ali and Ramazan are in their late twenties. They wear dark green trousers and light green shirts, have clean-cut jaw lines and the peculiarly hyper social energy that comes with intense anticipation. They are in charge of counterterrorism and rural policing. On paper this is impressive but in reality it seems to amount to drinking lots and lots of çay, insistently offering bad route advice to cyclists (“The highway! It is a perfect road for you”—it’s not) and laughing sententiously.

Tonight though, it means eat and eat well. They have prepared an enormous tray of raw salad sprinkled heavily with mint, flatbread is heating on the fire, the spicy sausages are being torn apart and distributed along with lamb chops with blackened ridges, garlic bombs are sitting in the embers and whole chillies on the grill. They pour ayran and, of course, tea. After ten minutes of frenzied feeding, I am fuller than I would like to be, and laughing deeply. It is almost frantic, our cheeks bulging and aching so that speech hurts, and yet we are giggling, oil dripping down our chins and mixing with salt and yogurt and a minty fragrance riding on the air.

When I rise in the morning my phone says 04:55. I think really? Is it not absurd? For it is absurd. Sure, I have been waking with the sun, but to be awake actually before five seems madness. But still, I rise, and a faint dawn warms the tent, the inside glowing a soft orange tinged with green. Somewhere outside there is a hum, as if building works have started far away. The sun has not yet poked its head over the distant hills, but I need a pee, so I put on clothes and unzip the tent.

Balloons over Cappadocia
Hot air balloons rise and jostle over Cappadocia’s Pigeon Valley, at 5am on a May morning

Immediately I am awash with apricot warmth, the sky melting steadily into peach-pink at its edges, a single solitary supine cloud hanging purply far above, a limp puppet hung from the stars. The first of a hundred balloons lumps up over the lip of the cliff, almost sighing, like a bubble underwater, expelled by some gaseous deposit. Then comes a second, racing after its sister. They fill the sky slowly, jostling for space in three dimensions (Humans are not used to this). Some rise in momentary panics and inflate with hot bursts of the flame-drum, while others merely hover, pacific, almost bovine, so that as a whole they take on the aspect of a school of jellyfish—swarming, bubbling, colluding.

With me on the cliff is a family with two children. I wonder at these people who have travelled here, to this spot, to witness this spectacle, kids in tow, in the gloom of early dawn. It is remarkable because the young ones do not fidget. There is no hunger or impatience, only a soft marvelling at the hum and silence of the morning.

Together we stand stock still, mouths slightly agape, not really smiling as such but definitely sharing something; in each other’s company but happy to leave it at that, happy for nothing to happen but the gentle being, here, for an extended moment, as the sun inflates the sky and warms a hundred flame-filled buoys, along with our hearts. And we share this—me, the family, the thousand passengers and the people still in their beds, asking nothing and finding it peaceful.

It strikes me that many aspects of Turkish life have to do with sharing. Giving and asking nothing in return. Roadside trees plump with white mulberries or bright yellow loquats, picked and squeezed by the afterschool rush. A pot of fresh tea and a trough of aubergine stew—meals shared between families, fellow workers or with a cyclist who happens to be passing through.

People share their homes, their goats’ milk and dolmas, their strawberry bushes and vats full of olives, share tobacco and rides and handfuls of plums, share the shade of a black pine, share eyeglints and stories, handshakes and menemen with heaps of parsley, spades of heaven, tomatoes and eggs, and pomegranate syrup in little blots on your çiğ köfte making it oh-so and lip-smackingly tah-tah-tah so that you want to sing, somehow, with the sweetness of it all. And those dust-coloured flop-eared mongrels who just wanted to share the space, that family with two little ones, and all the balloons jostling for room in three dimensions, sharing and reflecting each other’s light.


That’s how I found myself dining with the Turkish gendarmes in Cappadocia.

This article also appears on Medium, along with two others written about a bike trip through Turkey:
We Live Under The Same Sky
A Midnight Visit

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