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A whirled experience outside Istanbul

Rick Gunn
Birds fly over Istanbul at night. / Photos by Rick Gunn / Special to the Tahoe Daily Tribune
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Editor’s note: This is one in a series of journal entries from Rick Gunn, a South Lake Tahoe photographer, detailing his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is soliciting donations for The Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org. To read his complete “Wish Tour” journal, go to rickgunnphotography.com.

It looked as though we were about to touch down on another planet. Staring out the window of an eastbound bus, I alternated my vision between the darkening landscape and a pair of handcuffs that attached a military officer to the man sitting next to me. A heavy particulate clung to the air. As I watched, it darkened from a dusty concrete to a deep gunpowder. I looked out over the rooftops that spanned the city. Vast and daunting, they coated the hills like reptilian scales.

The bus came to a stop, and I stepped into a city of 20-million people.

I unloaded my equipment, and a host of black eyes descended upon me. Uneasy with the attention, I moved my things to a pool of florescent light beneath a nearby phone booth.

A woman appeared from out of the darkness – scarved, and serpent-like, she attached herself to nearby wall. As an impossibly-dirty toddler wove the space around her legs, she fixed a hawkish stare.

“Where am I?” I asked a passerby.

“Otogar,” she said with a colorless expression.

I kneeled down and opened my guidebook: “Otogar, page 134.”

It read: “The area around Otogar is pretty dodgy. … Don’t make the mistake of going for a stroll outside.”

A sharp fear bristled within my chest. I looked up to see that a small crowd had gathered around me – their faces gaunt and desperate. Behind them stood the woman. Her stare like that of a witch. As the others mumbled their possible dealings with me, the woman pinched her index finger against her thumb, then press them against her lips.

“Hasheesh?” She whispered quietly, then flashed a broken smile.

I gathered my things, and pedaled quickly into the night. This was my introduction to Istanbul.

“There is someone here for you …” A voice awoke me the next morning. It came after a knock at my hotel door. The door swung open and revealed the smile of a Turkish man. “Hello, Reek!” the man said.

“Hi, Mehmet,” I replied groggily. He approached and greeted me as all Turks did, a hug followed by a kiss on each cheek.

I had met Mehmet (Mohammed) Cimen two weeks earlier on a sailboat. Having grown up in Istanbul, he’d agreed to show me around.

We toured the cavernous interior of the Blue Mosque, built by Sultan Ahmet in 1606, and the Aya Sofia, built by the Roman Emperor Justinian in the fifth century. We rambled through the old town, sailed along the Bosphoros, and wandered the catacombs of the Grand Bazaar.

A few nights later, we slipped into the Mevlana Egitim Cultural Center, and took a seat on the edge of a large, wooden dance floor. As the room quieted, a dozen men, cloaked in white, filed into the room. While they sat in a state of meditative silence, I opened my program.

It read: “Man’s very existence means the revolution of atoms, the circulation of his blood, his coming from the earth and returning to it, and his revolving with the earth itself.”

When I looked up, the room had blossomed into movement.

The Sufis whirled endlessly, holding one hand up to receive God’s beneficence, the other towards the earth, ceaselessly pivoting around a center point within the heart. When they were done, I again looked to the program. It concluded:

“The whirling dervish, who represents a man’s spiritual ascent, grows through love, deserts his ego, to be of service to the whole of creation – to all creatures without discrimination, in regards to belief, class, or race.”

A day later, Mehmet and I boarded a bus to his home in Ankara, where I would wait for my visas for my journey across the Silk Road. Mehmet welcomed me into his home, where I was introduced to his wife Julia, daughters Damla and Sanem, and their ever-lovable golden retriever known lovingly as Oliver.

I walked the streets of Ankara and bided my time as I often had – struggling between feelings of being more than, or less than, human. Somewhere within, it felt ironic that I’d held the ability to pedal a bicycle half-way around the planet – and the inability to maintain the simplest of relationships. All the while I was haunted by a single word. That word was “impossible.” It came via e-mail, putting to rest the idea of returning to someone special. Someone I admired. In a strange way, it brought a sort of sorrowful freedom, and the confluence of my energy was diverted from the pursuit of another, into deep pools of creativity.

As I walked with Mehmet among the tea-shops and backstreets of Ankara’s old town, I effortlessly created soulful images of gypsy children, cloaked-women, shopkeepers and merchants. It occurred to me that, after 14 years of daily newspaper photography, I was once again inspired.

I carried that inspiration 300 miles south to the region of Cappadocia. It seemed a landscape gone mad. An other-worldly rock-garden that had me walking in slack-jawed triangles. It was first occupied by settlers in the Bronze Age – the Hitites took to the area in 2000 B.C. and began digging out thousands of dwellings amongst the gloriously twisted rocks.

As I walked around a community fit for hobbits, elves and gnomes, I descended into a kind of photographic deficit disorder. Busy nullifying my shutter release button, I was brought back to the present by a voice.

A voice that spoke a magic word. That word was “Single-track.”

It came from a man standing over a fleet of late-model mountain bikes.

His name was Umut Gundogdu, a mountain bike guide and owner of Andromeda tours.

“Merhaba!” he said, as he put his hand into mine. We sat and discussed mountain-biking over Turkish tea.

The next afternoon, I joined Umut and his friend Tolga Kanik, as we hopped on our bikes and headed out into the stony folds of landscape.

We moved like bullets across an open valley, sweated up a crest, then took in a view. Then we pointed our wheels down hill and let gravity have its way. We blasted down rollercoaster singletrack, then twisted beneath rock formations of such variant colors and shapes, they’d have given Jerry Garcia pause.

Towering spires, fairy chimneys, and eroded basaltic fields resembling melted wax, all had me feeling as though I was cycling through a Salvador Dali painting. The ride finished down a series of swales, tunnels, dips and drops. As my blood raced in hurried circles, I stared down at my spinning wheels.

It seemed to bring a recognition – an honoring – of all those things in motion: my friends, family, emotions, the seasons of my life – Turkey and its Sufis – all of them spinning endlessly around a center-point within my heart.

May 16-30, 2006

Istanbul, Ankara, Goreme.

Mileage log: 9655

elevation: Sea level-400 ft.

“If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.”

– Alphonse De Lamartine

“I searched for God and found only myself. I searched myself and found only God.”

– Sufi proverb

“All people are a single nation.”

– The Koran


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