April 10, 2006

Back to Iraq Part II - The Anatolian Deathmarch

This is the second installment of a Back to Iraq series. Read the first installment here.

ANATOLIA, TURKEY - Sean and I woke at first light and headed south from Canakkale toward the ancient ruins of Troy. We wouldn’t have time to hang out in Troy, though, or anywhere else for that matter, if we wanted to make it all the way to Iraq and back to Istanbul on time.

The air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror that came with the rental car was designed to ward off the Evil Eye. Similar, yet more elaborate, designs were frequently painted on the backs of large trucks.

Turkish Evil Eye.jpg

We weren’t in the car for even a half-hour before we saw the turnoff to Troy.

“We have to stop,” Sean said.

“No time,” I said.

“It’s Troy!” Sean said. “We can’t just drive past it.”

I pulled off the road and turned the car toward Troy. Vicious dogs ran straight at the car. If I hadn’t slammed on the breaks I would have killed them. This happened over and over again while driving through Turkey.

We parked outside Troy and paid 20 or so dollars to get in.

“Hurry,” I said to Sean. “Grab your camera and go.”

Sean ran toward the "Trojan Horse" erected out front. I ran after him and snapped a quick picture.

Trojan Horse.jpg

“Run,” Sean said.

We ran - literally - through the ruins of Troy in ten minutes.

Ruins of Troy.jpg

It’s amazing how small the place is. Such a tiny little town, no bigger than a dinky modern-day village, left an imprint on history and literature all out of proportion to its actual size. Too bad we had no time whatsoever to contemplate any of it.

We ran back to the car. I damn near killed the dogs again on the way back to the main road. Do they snarl and charge straight at every car that drives past? It’s a wonder they’re still alive.

I unfurled the brand-new map we picked up from a Tourist Info office. It looked like the best bet was to drive down to the Aegean Coast toward Izmir.

We drove toward Izmir as fast as the coastal road would allow. The Aegean sprawled out on our right.

Aegean from Turkey.jpg

Wow, I thought. What a view. That’s Greece on the other side of the water. It was also discouraging, though. Sean and I were looking at Greece. And we needed to get to Iraq as quickly as possible. Iraq was more than a thousand miles away.

The road to Izmir was a nightmare of slow-moving traffic around bends in the road and through coastal resorts. We drove for almost half a day and we still hadn’t made it to Izmir. Izmir was maybe five percent of the way to Iraq. There was no way we could make it to Iraq on time at the speed.

“Shit,” I said. “We need to head inland and get off this road.”

“The mountains will kill us," Sean said.

“The coast is killing us. We have to chance it.”

I turned off and headed into the heart of Anatolia. At first the road was encouraging. Then we got stuck behind truckers doing 20 miles an hour.

“Told you this was a bad idea," Sean said.

“The coast was a bad idea, too,” I said. “We’re pretty much screwed no matter what.”

We drove into hard driving rain, which slowed us down even more. I wanted to blow up slow trucks with a rocket launcher. Get out of the way, get out of the way, we're making terrible time! Eventually the rain cleared and revealed a punishing road toward a gigantic mountainous wall.

Huge Turkish Mountains.jpg

“Oh my God!” Sean said. “We should never have turned inland.”

He was right. I screwed up, but it was too late.

“We’ll head back to the coast when we can,” I said.

We didn’t make it back to the coast until dark. This time we were on the Mediterranean. Rain washed over the road in broad sheets. Almost no progress at all toward Iraq had been made.


Sean and I woke up in a hotel room with a virus. My throat burned when I swallowed. My entire body, from the top of my head to the bottoms of my feet, was wracked with a terrible fever ache. We had so far to go and almost no time to do it. At least we were out of the punishing mountains.

But we were back on the punishing coast. A twisty little road hugged the shore which rose up so sheer from the Mediterranean it was impossible to drive more than 30 miles an hour.

Turkish Coast.jpg

“Now you see why I wanted to get off the coast!” I said.

Sean nodded silently. There was no way to win. You just can’t drive across Turkey in a normal amount of time unless you take the autobahn from Istanbul toward Ankara. We were so far from that road, though, it was very near hopeless.

I tried to sleep in the passenger seat while Sean took the wheel. There would be no more stopping to sleep in hotels. We would have to drive straight for the rest of the trip.

The food we were eating was terrible. There was no time to stop in proper restaurants. We had soft drinks, potato chips, and other crap from convenience stores. We tried to pop into a little food stall at night. Then we saw what was being cooked on a stove in bubbling cauldrons and walked right back out the door.

"I can't deal with that right now," I said.

"It looks like Orc food," Sean said.

An old man stood by the side of the road selling bananas in troglodyte country where some people lived in caves tunneled into the ground and the cliffs.

"Want some bananas?" I said.

"Yes!" Sean said.

I pulled off the road. "Quick, get those bananas," I said.

Sean rolled down the window and handed the old man a dollar. The old man gave us bananas. Real food at last.

We passed through great-looking towns that I could not tell you the names of. Turkey is packed with wonderful places that hardly anyone in the States ever hears about.

Turkish Coastal Town 1.jpg

Turkish Coastal Town 2.jpg

The virus was killing me

“We need a pharmacy,” I said.

“No time to stop,” Sean said.

“If we’re going to drive all day and all night we can’t be feeling like this," I said. "We’ll drive off the road and kill both of us.”

We stopped at a pharmacy and bought medicine.

We also stopped at an Internet café. Sean and I wouldn’t be able to take our rental car across the border into Iraq. We needed someone to pick us up and take us to Dohok. So I sent an email to one of my fixers and tried to hire him for the next day. I asked him to please send someone else to meet us if he wouldn’t be able to do it himself.

Sean and I got back in the car. A few hours later we could stop at another Internet café, check the email again, and continue to work on our Iraqi logistics. We didn't yet know that there would be no more Internet cafes.

I felt amazingly irresponsible trying to put an Iraqi itinerary together at the last second from the road while sick with no time.

“If no one picks us up,” I said to Sean, “we'll have to hitchhike or flag down a taxi.”

“Hitchhike in Iraq?” Sean said.

“Sure,” I said. “It’s the Kurds in Northern Iraq. They’re cool.”

Sean didn’t say anything. I knew how dubious what I suggested must have sounded to him.

“Are you okay with that?" I said. "Will you cross the border if no one is there to pick us up? We'll figure something out. Trust me. Trust the Kurds. Trust the universe. We’ll be fine.”

“Alright,” Sean said. We else could we do?

We continued the punishing drive on the coast, in the rain, malnourished, sleep-deprived, and wracked with a terrible illness. It was unspeakable.

"Holy shit, look at that!" Sean said as we drove past some hotels on the side of the road.

"What?" I said.

"A sea castle," Sean said. "Wait, you'll see it again in a second."

"Holy shit!" I said and pulled off to the side of the road.

An otherworldly sea castle appeared to literally float off the coast of the Mediterranean. I had never even heard of this thing.

Turkish Sea Castle 1.jpg

Turkish Sea Castle 2.jpg

"Wow," Sean said. "Look what they have. This country is just amazing."

"Yep," I said. "We need to come back here and visit it properly."

"Let's go, let's go," he said. "It's getting dark."

It was, indeed, getting dark. The cold medicine we bought at the pharmacy seemed to have no effect. We were both sick as dogs and had no time to stop at a hotel to sleep.

BANG. We got a flat tire. I pulled onto the shoulder.

"So much for Iraq," Sean said.

"Wait," I said. "We might have a spare."

I popped the trunk. We did, indeed, have a spare. It was a real spare tire, too, not one of those bullshit spare tires that you can't drive more than 30 miles an hour on. The only problem was we had no jack.

Sean and I walked across the road and ducked into a store where a man sold yard tools. The store owner did not speak a word of English. Darkness was falling. Sean drew a picture of a blown out tire on a pad of paper. The man indicated he didn't sell tires. I grabbed the pad of paper and drew a picture of a car propped up on a jack.

The man called a friend of his who showed up on a motorcycle with a car jack. Without saying a word or even looking at us he jacked up our car and changed the tire for us in two minutes. I handed our savior twenty dollars.

"Thank you so much!" I said. He rode away on his bike.

And we were off. The whole flat tire incident only took half an hour. What incredible luck. We just might make it to Iraq after all.


We drove all night, taking turns at the wheel in the dark. At some point we finally left the Levant and approached inland Turkish Kurdistan. Most of the traffic on the road had slacked off. It was mostly just us and some truckers. Towns grew poorer and farther apart. Syria was only a few miles off to our right. Turkey didn't look remotely like Europe any more. We were deep in the Middle East now.

"I can't drive anymore," Sean said. "You have to do it."

I got behind the wheel and drove as far as I could until 3:00 in the morning.

"You have to drive now," I said. "I'm going to go off the road if I drive any farther."

"I can't drive anymore," Sean said.

I stopped the car and got out. My teeth instantly chattered. It was absolutely frigid outside. If we napped on the side of the road we would shake inside our coats.

"We can't sleep now," I said as I got back in the car. "You have no idea how cold it is here. We need to find a hotel."

But we were in the absolute middle of nowhere. Even though it was dark, I could tell we were in the desert. All I could see were rocks and scrub in the headlights.

I drove, slowly so I would not kill us. We found a Turkish trucker motel. What looked like 900 trucks were outside.

"I'm stopping here," I said.

"I don't want to spend the night with a bunch of loud truckers," Sean said. The parking lot was awfully loud.

"There's nothing else out here," I said. "It's either the truckers, the cold, or I kill us on the side of the road."

We went into the trucker motel in the middle of the Turkish wasteland on the road to Iraq. It was exactly as grim inside as you would expect. A twitchy man on the night shift checked us into a room.

"Sozpas," I said. Thank you, in Kurdish.

"Are you sure you're speaking the right language?" Sean said. "Are we really in Kurdistan?"

"I don't know," I said. "I think so, but I'm not sure. Anyway, he did not seem offended."

It was four o'clock in the morning. We set our alarm clocks for six. Two hours later we woke. I felt exhausted and needed to sleep for a week. My eyes burned from the light. But I felt great at the same time. My fever had broken. It was time to head into Iraq.

Read Part Three.

Post-script: If you like what I write, don't forget to pitch in. These stories don't write themselves.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at April 10, 2006 10:41 PM

Arghhh -- where is the whole story? It's too good to put down ...

Really too bad about the sickness. I'm sorry for you.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Libertay Dad at April 10, 2006 11:56 PM

Too long to write in one day. Glad you're enjoying it. It's fun to write about, but was grueling to experience.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at April 11, 2006 12:10 AM


Look on the bright side, it could've been the Andes. Real young, real rugged are the Andes.

So, are you turning this into a book?

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at April 11, 2006 12:28 AM

Alan: So, are you turning this into a book?

Yep. I need more material, though. I should have it by the end of the year.

The book will be longer and far more in depth than the sum of these blog posts and articles. The pacing of a book is totally different. A lot of stuff I never write about on the blog will be in the book.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at April 11, 2006 12:36 AM

An otherworldly sea castle appeared to literally float off the coast of the Mediterranean. I had never even heard of this thing.
"Wow," Sean said. "Look what they have. This country is just amazing."
"Yep," I said. "We need to come back here and visit it properly."

If you are interested in Turkey, I'd recommend you to visit Dick Osseman's pbase site with over 8.300 pictures of the whole country.


Posted by: Ulus at April 11, 2006 02:43 AM

This really isn't fair. Now I know what it was like to live in the 19th Century when Dickens would write a chapter a week in the newspaper. People kept buying just to read the story. However, they couldn't be immediately satiated because the product they desired to consume had not yet been produced.

I guess it's like having to watch the new season of "24" on TV. The DVDs sate one's addiction, but they also destroy relationships, schedules, and jobs for a 24 hour period.

On a separate note:

The Michael Totten I know can barely move after he's gotten 8 hours of sleep. I hope Sean did the driving after the two hours of rest.

It's incredible your body didn't start breaking down after the junk food, lack of sleep, lack of movement, and illness.

Posted by: lebanon.profile at April 11, 2006 06:36 AM

Regarding, "Vicious dogs ran straight at the car." You might wish to take a look at Edward Manson, The law relating to dogs, published by William Clowes and Sons, 1893. I don't think it was specifically about Turkey, if memory serves, it was about Eastern Europe. It has been quite a few years since I read the book but it talked about the different classes of dogs. Vicious guard dogs who would let loose at night to protect the house but had to be enclosed during the day. Vicious dogs that would be protecting livestock. All the various rules and customs which governed when and how dogs would run free. I though it was fascinating.

Posted by: mark at April 11, 2006 07:32 AM

Great post Good luck to you.

Posted by: Montreal at April 11, 2006 08:38 AM

The "floating castle" you passed is Kizkalesi at Silifke. The name means "Maiden's Castle" as there are legends about it. The most popular one being: Princess is predicted to die of snakebite; Dad builds castle on island. Snake comes in with basket of fruit; you know the rest. More prosaically, it might be only a medieval military site to keep watch on the seas.

You most definitely should have taken the express highway from Istanbul to Ankara, then the express highway to Adana (a few miles past Silifke). It would have saved at least a day's driving, but you would have missed a lot of the fun. Part of the majesty of the Middle East is the uncountable opportunties to do things that you're glad to have done, but never--ever--want to do again.

Breathelessly looking forward to the next installment of the Trials and Tribulations of Totten!

Posted by: John Burgess at April 11, 2006 09:31 AM

Wow! Wow! Wow! Wow!

It's the pictures that get me. I just love, love, love the pictures.

Posted by: Jane Woodworth at April 11, 2006 09:47 AM

Thanks, MJT

I for one am going to buy the book so long as it has lots of pictures.

Looking at that picture of the sea castle, my imagination transported me to Alexander's siege of Tyre.

Posted by: JBP at April 11, 2006 09:54 AM

You allude to something that has struck me on my overseas jaunts. For you this was a wild adventure. Memories that will last a lifetime. For the truckers, it was home. Familiar.

Great story. Looking forward to the rest.

Posted by: Jeff at April 11, 2006 11:09 AM

I'm sorry, it sounds like Eris blessed quite a bit on that journey... I tried my best to keep her otherwise occupied.

However, it's my guess you picked her up in Troy, she always likes to show off her handiwork.


Posted by: Ratatosk at April 11, 2006 11:24 AM

Turn back!

Posted by: Ash at April 11, 2006 11:42 AM

Having just returned from 3 weeks driving around (western) Turkey, including seeing the solar eclipse, I wish I could adequately covey to you how very much of this amazing country you are missing in your crazy quest! It was my first time there, but it won't be my last. You need to go back when you aren't on a mission, hear?

If you want to, let me know if and when you are coming back to the western part, I'll be glad to make some suggestions of what to see and do based on my recent experience. I didn't even bother with Troy... there are much better historical sites, such as Ephesus, and Pergamon.

Good luck!


Posted by: Sherlock at April 11, 2006 11:46 AM


I know, I know. I'm going back, definitely. My wife fell in love with the place instantly, too.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at April 11, 2006 11:56 AM

The blue in those pictures of the seacastle are amazing.

And good for Sean for making you stop at Troy!

Posted by: DodgerGirl at April 11, 2006 12:33 PM

Possibly the most interesting travel blog post I have ever read. I'm going to need to link to this! Great Job!

Posted by: Catholicgauze at April 11, 2006 01:44 PM

Really great post. I never realized Turkey was so beautiful. That picture of the island castle is amaze.

Posted by: anna at April 11, 2006 02:16 PM

You are absolutely, certifiably, INSANE! Oh my Lord I am on pins and needles waiting for the next installment. You just crack me up and I'm definitely going to buy your book. Maybe I should stop reading your blog...I stopped watching 24 so I could buy the whole season on DVD and not have to wait for each episode. :)

Posted by: Megs at April 11, 2006 05:24 PM

I drove that road myself many years ago, but I wouldn't have dreamed of trying to do it on an autobahn schedule. Are you sure you're not moonbat insane? And the whole thing sounds a lot like life: it's the part you miss while you think you're on your way somewhere. I'm looking forward to the rest of your crazy trip!

Posted by: quixote at April 11, 2006 07:59 PM

This is like a novel! Great writing, cool floating castle. I like all of the un-p.c. comments. Go Mike, go!

Posted by: Adam at April 11, 2006 11:00 PM

Judging from the looks, I'd say that sea castle was probably built by the Venetians. I know they did have a number of fortresses in that area, and it resembles some I have seen elsewhere in the Aegean.

Posted by: 74 at April 12, 2006 02:36 PM

Michael, I hope the writing goes well. It's a part of the world that could use some exposure in the west.

Ratatosk, Eris does not bless, she loses interest. The effects are often mistaken for a boon.

Remember, pterodactyl spelled backwards is very hard to pronounce.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at April 12, 2006 07:37 PM

Ah, Kiskalesi. I remember getting terribly drunk on raki with a couple of BBC guys and renting a row-boat for five dollars US to get out to the castle. Beautiful place, definitely recommend it if you ever get the chance.

I'd heard the snake in the fruit basket legend as well.

Posted by: bryan at April 16, 2006 01:14 AM

At a minimum you should carry a supply of vitamin C powder.

Posted by: bear at April 16, 2006 01:14 PM

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