Another bend in the same road
July 23, 2012
At walking speed, arrival is a process that happens very slowly. It is not a single moment, a switch from ‘there’ to ‘here.’ Over the course of these seven months (two hundred and twenty-four days, to be precise), I’d arrived in Istanbul many times, my imagination outpacing my body, flowing ahead through mysterious landscapes that only existed in my mind, though villages with meaningless names I hadn’t yet learned to pronounce, and stopping abruptly at a postcard image of minarets, domes, and water. But my arrival in the city I’d thought of for so many months as ‘the end’ was a more subtle and complex thing. There was no signpost that said ‘You are now entering Istanbul,’ or ‘Welcome to your destination’ or ‘Well done! You can stop now!’ I arrived as many times in reality as I did in my imagination. I am still arriving.
Part of me arrived when I saw the skyscrapers – an image I hadn’t expected, somehow – a cluster of abstract rectangles shimmering on the horizon. But they were still almost two days’ walk away, following the hard shoulder of a surprisingly empty autobahn. I stopped to rest in a truckers’ cafe, a tarpaulin stretched from an old VW van propped up on bricks by the road, and was offered lifts by everyone – ‘You can be there in forty minutes!’ They were perplexed when I turned them down, but accepted it as a foreigner’s strangeness, and whenever they passed me on the road – shuttling to and from the stone quarries scarring this stretch of the Black Sea coast – they blasted their horns and waved from their cabs. It felt like a victory parade.
I arrived more convincingly the next day, after a last night sleeping out beside a Roman aqueduct, when I realised that at some undefined point the fields and patches of forest had ended and the shapeless sprawl of industrial parks, cement factories and auto repair shops had bled into the outer suburbs of Istanbul itself. I followed a smaller but busier road, past mountains of gravel and razor-wire fences where chained dogs gnashed their teeth outside kennels that looked like tiny slums, breathing in exhaust fumes, covered in yellow dust. I rested in the air-conditioned cool of a petrol station cafe, where businessmen with tucked-in shirts sipped coffee and checked their Blackberries, trying to work out what I was feeling. I wasn’t feeling anything, besides vague bodily pain. A man pulled up a chair at my table. ‘Hello! I saw you walking by the road. What are you doing?’
‘I’ve walked here from Holland.’
‘Oh. Great,’ he said.
From there I inched my way into the city, running on the momentum of exhaustion, fuelling myself on fizzy drinks wherever I could find them. Gradually it started to feel more like a place where people lived and worked, with tree-lined streets and takeaway shops, kiosks, food stands, mini-markets, jostling traffic through which people weaved with a kind of unconscious grace, tea-sippers on plastic chairs, functional modern minarets that looked like telecommunications infrastructure. I asked directions from a man who led me up a hill so steep it felt like the kind of hill that only exists in anxiety dreams, getting steeper and steeper until it’s so steep it’s impossible to get back down – I’d had this experience trying to scramble up a cliff a few weeks before, which added a weird déjà vu to this phase of arrival. From the top, I made a long descent through a cityscape that felt unreal, its horizons always hidden by buildings, people relentlessly moving about from one place to another.
I arrived in Istanbul again at my first sight of the Golden Horn – the impossibly-romantically-named inlet that curves off the Bosphorus, around which cluster the ancient streets and stairways of the Old Town – and knew I couldn’t stop walking then until I had reached the water. I arrived when I saw the Bosphorus itself, its clear light and its wheeling gulls, the white ferryboats churning their way between Europe and Asia. I arrived when I stepped off one of those boats and felt the silent, secret pleasure of knowing I had walked across one continent and was now standing on the edge of another – a pleasure I didn’t quite know what to do with, so kept it to myself. And I also arrived when I saw the skyline that had existed for months in my mind, the postcard image that marked ‘the end’ – the fantastical domes of the Blue Mosque, even vaster and stranger than I’d imagined, great bubbles of stone rising between minarets that looked like insects’ legs, a bizarrely arachnid, crustacean architecture that told me, more than anything else, that I was in a wholly different place from where I’d started.
But that arrival wasn’t the end. As the city takes shape around me, becoming at the same time more familiar and more complicated, I keep arriving in different ways, and each arrival brings another moment of wonder. There are many wonders here – some great, like the mosques and palaces, and the endless beauty of the bright water, and some so small they reveal themselves only slowly, and with walking. The steep alleyways and crumbling buildings, the Arabic inscriptions in stone, the washing on the balconies, the skinny cats on doorsteps. The tool-sellers’ streets, where old men with Islamic beards squat by glittering displays of drill bits, padlocks, screws, bolts and coils of razor-wire. The roadside stands selling mussels with lemon juice, the fried fish sandwiches by Galata Bridge, and the fishermen on the bridge’s upper level reeling silver fish to their deaths, flapping like tiny flags. The dolphins in the Bosphorus, following ferries and sometimes, I’ve been told, submerged submarines from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. The ornate golden stands of shoeshine men that look like Ottoman treasure caskets. The hubbub of bars in the alleys of Taksim, the click-click-click of backgammon games, the innumerable buskers of Istiklal Avenue, down which two million people walk every day. The children tobogganing on broken slats of wood down hills of polished cobblestones in tumbledown Balat. The mosques lit up like glow-worms at night, and the rooftop bars from which you can see the spreading lights of the city against the impenetrable blackness of the water. The shoes of dead people, placed outside windows by the families of the deceased to be taken by whoever might need them.
On my first night – another landmark of arrival – I went through exhaustion, then blankness, then great sadness at realising my walk was done. But no walk is ever done. I haven’t stopped walking since I got here, because Istanbul is a journey in itself. Happiness began to build inside me when I realised something very simple, so simple it perhaps sounds corny, but only because it’s true. The end is not the end. No journey is ever finished. When you arrive, you discover that what you’d considered the destination is just another bend in the same road.