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Pole to Pole

Day 45: Istanbul to Selcuk

Michael Palin - Pole to PoleSevim looks scornfully round at some of the passengers. Turks are nomads, she feels the need to remind us, they've never settled anywhere, they use things, destroy them and throw them away. Fall into conversation with a Turkish actor, heading south to play a series of one-night productions. He misses the sixties, when there was a wealth of good writers. I ask him if there is a National Theatre in Turkey. 'Oh yes, they do the classics,' he smiles wryly, 'in a very classical way.' I wish him well and he gives me his newspaper which is full of the news of Gorbachev's fall. He is evidently under arrest in the Crimea, but information, like everything else in the Soviet Union, is in short supply.

At half-past one we land on the continent of Asia, and fighting past the sunglass salesmen, the pretzel-pushers and the shoe-shiners - 'White shoes very bad, sir,' they cry, pointing at my trainers - we find the station and board the four-coach, diesel-hauled Marmora Express for Izmir and the south.

The train passes through brown, dry fields and open treeless country. At a military air base jets are taking off at regular intervals - an ominous sight, remembering the news this morning and Turkey's border with the USSR.

In one of the fields a group of white-veiled women are tossing turnips, or possibly watermelons, into a tall trailer. Behind them rises the first substantial patch of high ground since we left Hammerfest twenty-eight days ago. As we near Balikesir the flat plain disappears altogether and we are winding our way through tall, wooded limestone hills that give way eventually to rocky gorges.

By nightfall we are in the land of legend and ancient history. Troy is nearby, Smyrna (now Izmir) sprawls by the sea and it's quite late by the time we pull into Selcuk, a couple of miles from the ancient city of Ephesus, where legend has it that the Virgin Mary died at the age of sixty-four.

At the guest-house I have a small whitewashed room with a plain pine table and a kilim that provides the only touch of colour. Outside my window at midnight the sound of street talk merges with the incessant swish and slap of sandals on the roadway.
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  • Series: Pole to Pole
  • Day: 45
  • Country/sea: Turkey
  • Place: Istanbul
  • Book page no: 100

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