The genesis of an adventure
In Full Moon Over Noah's Ark, author Rick Antonson sets off to scale Mount Ararat, the supposed resting place of the Bible's famous ship. But first, he must contend with Turkey's unreliable railways
The following is excerpted from Full Moon over Noah's Ark by Rick Antonson.
Encountering Mount Ararat on his way to Asia in the latter part of the thirteenth century, Marco Polo wrote: "In the heart of Greater Armenia is a very high mountain, shaped cube-like … It is so broad and long that it takes more than two days to go round it. On the summit the snow lies so deep all the year round that no one can ever climb it." Others before me had proved Marco Polo wrong on the latter point, and I hoped to join their ranks. But first I had to extract myself from my lodgings.
Halim had promised to drive me to Kayseri, an hour away, where I could catch the overnight train to Tatvan. While squaring up the bill for lodging, I noticed an entry for "transfer."
"What is this?" I asked.
"It is for the taxi," Halim replied. "You have the train station to get to." "Yesterday you said you'd drive me," I reminded him. Prompted by his blank stare, I added, "All the way."
"Did I?" His eyes peeped inward as though ogling his mind to find a posted note. Then: "I did." He handled a cup of coffee, which looked very small in his large hands. He made as if to sip it, but set it down. "Let's go now."
He scrunched my oversize pack into the back seat of the compact car and sprang into a conversation about politics as we drove off. "These are better times in Turkey, but the outside world does not see. You are going where it is unsettled. You should stay here. The Kurdish part, it has terrible fighting near where you head. Think about this. Climb your mountain but don't stay longer. Return to Cappadocia."
I took it as a warning as much as an invitation.
The day before, I'd had a brief look online to check the latest travel advisories. One U.S. advisory stressed that "travellers should avoid public transportation in eastern Turkey, particularly on inter-city routes." That made me wonder about how best to handle the 10 days that were open to me once I was off the mountain. Should I travel north to Armenia rather than attempt southeast Turkey and its possible access to Iraq? Despite Halim's warnings, I felt the desire to be where I should not go."That," said Halim, waving his hand in front of my face as we drove along, three fingers pointing as one to the south, "is Turkey's second-highest mountain. "We call it Erciyes Daı. You will attempt to climb the highest at Ararat. This is more beautiful."
"It looks stunning," I said. "And that makes it all the more intimidating."
"Mount Erciyes is the backdrop to Kayseri, which is city I will show you. First go to train station in the town centre. Check for sure we have time."
The train station was set back from the street to create a stately arrival point. Large letters designated it TCDD, the Turkish railway. We entered the station, encountering more noise than people, a testament to the level of Turkish conversation.
Halim took my ticket and led me to the ticket booth. He spoke directly to the agent on my behalf. What might otherwise have been a prolonged discussion on my own became a blunt, "Train's late."
"How late?" I asked, concern slowly rising in my throat. "Not much. Only four hours."
"Ask him please if I'm booked all the way to Tatvan on the train." "Yes, of course," he said. "That's where the train goes." I took his assurance; it backed up my suspicion that the Istanbul rail agent had been wrong. As a traveller I tend to seek information that reinforces what I want to believe, correct or not. According to Halim, the train on this day was running freely all the way. I asked no further questions. Why would I, having heard the answer I had wanted?
Hesitant, Halim turned to the agent. When their banter had ended, Halim faced me, saying, "Maybe they will stop train in Elazig. It seems uncertain. If you get off, be careful there. They will smile while shitting you." It was a phrase I didn't understand, yet its caution was implicit.
Turning to more positive considerations, he smiled. "You must now have the best sausage there is. In the world. It is here in Kayseri. Special. I will take you." I'd expected him to disappear after depositing me at the station. "Leave your big bag here. Check it. Then we drive. You can walk back here. Time is your friend."
Our car argued for its right of passage in traffic around a large square, circling twice so that Halim could orient me. "The market. That you do. After I leave. It is right there." His hand flashed in front of my face. "But first we find sausage." His nudging of the car into a parallel parking spot was a feat accomplished by near misses but done with finesse.
"There," he said. I followed his stare toward a storefront window displaying stubby links of meat, none of them looking obviously special to a visitor like me. Inside, a horizontal case held a sequenced exhibit of black to increasingly lighter coloured tubes of foodstuff.
The butcher smiled at a compliment from Halim – there was humour in the air. Within a minute, four different types of cooked sausage, each shortened by previous slicing, were pulled from the display. With his knife he slivered pieces from three of them and a much thicker ration from the fourth. Halim popped two into his mouth; chomping away quickly while advising me, "Go slow. Taste."
By the time the fourth slice was in my mouth, I was wishing for bigger bites of the spicy lamb and herb-imbedded beef. I could imagine the sizzling smell of it over a grill. It was enough to make me believe this actually was the best sausage in Kayseri, maybe the best in the world.
"Goodbye, Rick," Halim said as I was buying supplies for the train trip. "You can get bread around the corner." He was getting ready to leave. "Walk. You have to walk. But first get the bread. Then walk. Take extra for the train." He then forgot to leave, instead taking me to find cheese to go with the bread I was yet to find and the two days' worth of sausage varieties I'd purchased. Soon my daypack was stuffed with provisions.
Vangölü Ekspresi," the public address system blared as the train neared, followed by, "Van Gölü Express," for those of us who were linguistically challenged. It was dusk. The announcement raised my hopes of reaching Tatvan. I went in search of a bathroom, walking by the same weary farmer I'd noticed here earlier in the day. His face was lined with stories but not worries, or so I thought when he looked my way. Unfamiliar, contradictory smells came from the bag he held on his knee. The smells intrigued and repelled, and I ultimately was glad to gain distance from them.
Train arrivals often spark a flutter among people suddenly repacking luggage that has sat dormant for hours.
The bustle organized itself as everyone moved to the coaches. The lone platform agent glanced at their tickets and answered their questions. When he looked at my ticket, he briskly pointed down the line. Was it my imagination that I heard him say, "Over there, silly foreigner"?
Climbing into the vestibule between two carriages, I leaned into the designated one, slunk along the aisle, and spotted my assigned quarters. Shouldering open the door, I dragged my bag in behind me, whiffing a suddenly familiar odor. And there, on my bed, already made down for the night, sat the elderly farmer from the train station, his various foods arrayed. His unibrow scrunched into an arch as he watched my arrival, conveying his own disappointment at having to share space.
Eric Leinberger & Rick Antonson
"Rick," is how I introduced myself, strangely feeling like I was his inconvenient companion.
"Ick." He smiled, offering his hand. "Rick," I corrected, taking his grip.
He smiled. "Ick. I, Murat." He said this with a mouth full of cheese and held out a napkin with a chunk of it for me to sample. It was off-white and dry. Against my impulse, I accepted it, but was rewarded: a tentative nibble brought forth a gush of a lovely, salty flavour.
With night coming, Murat was at meze, the early stage of a meal between the appetizer and a starting point. He was well into his eighties, I thought. His face was a gray-brown brindle with hooded, friendly eyes that conveyed understanding, though his sideways glances showed he was confused about my presence. The makings of his meal were strewn over a towel on his side of the compartment. He'd been preparing for his own on-board of privacy. The towel held slices of red pepper and bread crusts that had been pulled apart.
A large dish of slop sat flat on what was clearly now going to be his bed-seat. It was the source of a rich smell that permeated the room. It looked to be part soup and part gelatin.
"Pudding?" I asked. "Noah's Pudding?"
The dishevelled gentleman pounced on the words, replacing them with "Aure." He offered to share his bowl, passing it toward me and asking, "Ick?" It was a soup of leftovers, traditionally concocted from what Noah's family might have found on the floor of the Ark: dribbles of barley, leftover vegetables cut and dropped in a pot of other remainders, along with dried fruits mixed with assorted nuts.
We traded more food before Murat dozed off. My sausage was a hit, as were the breads. We exchanged cheeses, and between the two of us there were six or more varieties. We lapsed into sign language and repeating basic words to understand one another, happy in our struggle to do so.
I woke with a start, my heart pounding. One week before climbing Ararat, I dreamed that someone ahead of me in our climbing queue lacked oxygen, had fainted on the steepest part of the climb, and had fallen back onto the rest of us. We collapsed, domino-like, everyone tumbling down the mountainside.
I put the dream down as a check on any overconfidence, nothing more. I tramped the train end-to-end, walking off my anxiety as well as the lure of sleep by pushing through heavy metal doors and into windy vestibules where the metal floorboards duelled, demanding my concentration as I stepped into another carriage. Our coach's layout of compartments soon gave way to curtain compartments of bunk beds where only random snores betrayed passengers rocked to sleep. I jostled past these bedsides, careful not to fall in.
Murat was awake when I returned, sitting upright and looking uncomfortable. There had been a train announcement, but I hadn't understood it; nor could I hear it properly when it was repeated in English. Murat pointed at me with a confident directive. "Elazig." I did not want to know what he meant.
A porter knocked on the door, asking for tickets. His English was good, but his news was bad. "You will get off at Elazig," he said. Murat nodded. "There are track repairs," the porter explained, not sounding sincere.
"But … Tatvan," I said. "I want the ferry connection."
"I wish you good luck."
"I need to get to Tatvan," I continued. "And then to Van."
"Bus. You will get on a bus in Elazig. It will take you to Tatvan. No train to Tatvan. Bus." He smirked. "Don't make plans. Just live."
When we were alone, I told Murat – who could not understand my comments except the key crossover words in our respective languages – about my intentions. "I will travel from Tatvan to Van and to Doubeyazit. Then climb Mount Ararat."
His brow furrowed. "Ararat?"
I made climbing motions, clutching at the air as if it held rock sided grips. I indicated a pinnacle by forming my fingers into a steeple.
Murat shrugged his head while saying "Ararat?"
And then the light went on in my head's lexicon. "Agri Dagh," I announced.
He grinned. Mimicking my climbing pantomime, his smile faded, "Ick. No."
He found an English crossover word that yanked my heart into my throat with his tone. "Danger."
Excerpted from Full Moon over Noah's Ark by Rick Antonson. Published by Skyhorse Publishing. All rights reserved.