Silk Road (1): If Turkey is in crisis, it’s not obvious visiting it

One year after I left HSBC, and after more than 20 years in the business, I have finally left London with my family to seek other opportunities. We are currently on our land journey to Asia where we plan to relocate for the foreseeable future. That last one year in London went fast into organizing the trip, getting my tennis coaching credentials and actually enjoying time spent with the family. We even managed to squeeze in 6 weeks in our beach house in Italy!

We plan to follow the Silk Road as much as possible without taking any unnecessary risks by visiting certain places along the route. I am typing this at the moment from a very modern and fast train in the middle of Turkey but we started the journey in Italy, of course, the Marco Polo way, on September 1 and stayed for a few days in my home country, Bulgaria. The fact that my parents live one hour away from the Turkish border made the bus trip to Istanbul very easy and convenient. In fact, if it was not that the border crossing takes unreasonably long (due to the fact that Bulgaria is part of the EU and Turkey is not – the incredibly long queue of trucks is a stark warning to what perhaps awaits at the border between France and the UK after Brexit), using Ataturk Airport instead of Vrajdebna Sofia Airport might have been a more efficient option for most people living in Bulgaria close to the Turkish border.

Istanbul is as magnificent as always and as I remember it from visiting it on numerous occasions before both for work and pleasure. In fact, even more so because the ancient history and culture are very well blended with the modernity of the present times: public transportation (bus, tram, metro, ferry) is very efficient and much easier to navigate than many other European cities; getting tickets for attractions is straightforward; even the bid/offer spread in some foreign exchange bureaus is better than some professional retail platforms I used while trading for my own account in London this past year (BTW, best ones I came across are around the Spice Bazaar – that makes exchanging and using physical cash, still infinitely better than withdrawing local currency from a foreign based account or paying by credit card)!

The contrast between ancient and modern is indeed striking when it comes to religion. We were in a small barber shop in Besiktas in which the TV was showing scantily dressed women dancing provocatively on Turkish pop music while the mosque loudspeakers across the street were blaring the daily prayer. The locals in Istanbul still do not get dressed that much differently than the locals of any European Mediterranean country. Are there more women wearing burqas than what I remember from previous visits? I noticed the fully-covered ones but they were mainly in the touristic part of the city and I wonder how many of them were actually foreigners – in fact, London’s Knightsbridge has probably more of them than Istanbul’s Sultanahmet.

If Turkey is in crisis there is absolutely no sign of that in Istanbul… except that everything is much cheaper for a EUR/USD-based foreigner. And when it comes to the service industry at least, Istanbul is no different than London, for example: most of the personnel is foreign. Reality is slightly different than that, of course, for just like London is not a good representation of the UK, Istanbul is not one of Turkey either.

We crossed the whole country west to east all the way to the border with Georgia. We saw small villages and bigger towns. Especially in the villages we would struggle to see women who were not covered. Not the burqas that we know but the square headscarves. But then again, the reality is not that dissimilar in many villages in Bulgaria and even in some European Mediterranean countries: I feel this is more a question of generations’ customs than religion.

Our journey across Turkey was mostly by train. In fact, we are doing this trip the ‘old-fashioned’ way, the way I remember my school years: a backpack, hostels, and public transportation as much as possible. I want to see these countries not through the eyes of the Ministry of Finance or the central bank, which is the way we used to do it in the business, but through the people and their daily lives. I also want my kids to understand how privileged and lucky they have been so far.

Istanbul-Ankara was a modern, fast train with Wi-Fi and all the amenities. The train station in Istanbul, strangely enough, was just two tracks one hour away from the city center. Ankara’s one, on the other hand, was a modern spacious building, resembling more Heathrow T5, but right in the center of the city.

Ankara-Kars is an overnight train, slower and less modern (no Wi-Fi) than Istanbul-Ankara but better than London-Glasgow (friendlier service, fridge with complementary food and drinks and slippers!), for example (compared to when I last did that journey about 5 years ago). We used the time on the train to just look out and reflect. In fact, we did this for hours and we did not mind because it brought back memories from when we used to do that kind of travelling with our parents on long journeys. When I say ‘we’, I meant I and Georgia. Our kids’ attention span is infinitely smaller and their idea of entertainment profoundly different. Not that there was much of it (they do have to study on our trip) but they had to constantly be reminded to leave the digital distractions so easily available to them.

The one thing that stuck me while passing through the interior of Turkey was the heavy presence of the military: there are military barracks literally in every town we passed. Kars, itself has a few. We arrived late in the evening and while walking to the hotel we merged with the backpackers’ ‘crowd’. Kars is the eastern-most large city for visiting Georgia and Armenia (latter indirectly as the border is closed). There is heavy influence of either Armenian or (further northeast) Georgian culture. If you are looking for a financial or economic crisis, you are not going to see any traces of it in Kars either.

The drive to the Georgian border was through what I can best describe as the Switzerland of Turkey: the landscape changes from flat arid land to picturesque mountains literally immediately. The Turkey-Georgian border crossing would have been straightforward too if it was not for walking in no man’s land for half a kilometer under torrential rain (and make-up cover). By the way, the queue of trucks waiting to cross the border was at least twice longer than at the Bulgaria-Turkey border crossing.