Turkey sits in a tricky geopolitical spot, wedged between North African and Middle Eastern nations rife with civil unrest.
On the southeastern border, there’s Iran and Iraq, which are, well, Iran and Iraq. The Arab Spring, the nearly two-year-long wave of protests and demonstrations that have ousted leaders and led to violent backlash, is unfolding right in Turkey’s backyard. Then there’s the civil war in Syria, where the death toll has climbed to 23,000-plus. Turkey, formerly close with Syria, came out against the regime last year and provided support and refuge for opposition forces. This past June, Syria downed a Turkish jet that officials said had crossed into its airspace. And now add to this volatile mix the American-made, Muslim-mocking film Innocence of the Muslims, which sparked demonstrations in more than 20 countries and led protesters to burn American flags outside the embassy in Ankara.
Because of all that, Turkey’s tourism minister has predicted a two-million-person drop in the number of visitors to the country. So why, then, is a 42-year-old former kitchenware-supply-chain manager from California walking 1,305 miles across Turkey with no more than a backpack full of clothes and the equipment necessary to document his adventure?
MATT KRAUSE CONTEMPLATED FOR 10 seconds before leaving his desk job—a gig as a finance analyst with Eddie Bauer Headquarters—in 2003 to follow his Turkish girlfriend to Istanbul. He had met her on board a flight to Hong Kong. After they parted ways, Krause tracked her down—he knew her first name and the California town in which she lived—through some “Google stalking.” He found her, and they started dating.
Living in Istanbul (“Turkey: Round 1,” as he calls it) proved both worldview-altering and mind-numbingly frustrating for Krause. He put all of his money and time into a seemingly promising jewelry-business start-up. He and his girlfriend married. He found work as a niche English teacher because of his professional background. But none of his new life proved sustainable.
After the jewelery business flopped, Krause returned stateside in 2009 to another desk job—this time in Seattle as a supply-chain manager for Progressive International—with his wife planning to later join him. But their marriage, which already had been on the rocks in Turkey, crumbled to pieces with the distance.
While he came to Turkey for the love of a woman, Krause says he left with a deeper connection for the country and its rich culture and warm people. Back home, conversations about Turkey kept coming up, and Krause kept finding himself trying to convince the same non-believer. Turkey and the U.S. really aren’t all that different, he’d say, but words weren’t enough to make it stick. That’s when he realized it was time to move back—and go for a really long walk.
KRAUSE’S SEVEN-MONTH ADVENTURE began on September 1 in the resort town of Kuşadası in Aydın province along the Aegean Coast, and it wraps up in the rural province of Van bordering Iran. Walking 1,305 miles is an objectively difficult thing for any human being to do. Plus, Turkey, encircled by the Aegean, Black, and Mediterranean Seas, is home to some wild and unexplored landscapes—from pristine coniferous forests and lush river valleys to rugged mountain ranges and arid desert plateaus. He’ll wander through sparsely populated plains, trek around the largest lake in the country, and come up against debilitatingly freezing weather (between -22 and -40 degrees Fahrenheit).
Oh, and he also has no clue where he will be sleeping for the next 200-plus nights. Inspired by modern pilgrimages, like that of seasoned winter pilgrim Ann Sieben, who has traveled across Europe, the U.S., and North Africa (in the midst of Arab Spring uprisings) without a dime, Krause (his blog: "Heathen Pilgrim") is gambling on the kindness and hospitality of the Turkish people he encounters. He wants to sip tea with locals, crash on their living room floors, dance at their weddings, etc.
His thinking goes: If people, despite political and cultural differences, really are just people, wherever you go, I should be able to walk, unprotected, on my own, across Turkey and not die.
THE U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT, in a message to travelers to Turkey on its website, warns, “There have been violent attacks throughout Turkey, and there is a continuing threat of terrorist actions and violence against U.S. citizens and interests throughout Turkey” (their emphasis). Every day, Turkish security-force officials and members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist organization by the European Union, Turkey, and the U.S., are killed or injured in clashes between the two sides. After a list of, give or take, 17 terrorist attacks over the past six years—at least seven of which took place in southeastern Turkey—the State Department advises travelers to “keep a low profile,” “remain vigilant,” and refuse to deliver parcels/letters for strangers coming in and out of the country.
“I’m afraid of someone shooting me or slitting my neck on the side of the road,” said Krause, admitting he shares the same fears as everyone else. “I’m afraid of drunken teenagers beating me up at night. I also have an irrational fear of scorpions.”
Still—even with all the unrest in the region, warnings from locals on his blog, and a pretty strong suggestion from the State Department—Krause considers these fears overblown. An easily-created perception that’s just not all that true.
“If I had a dime for every time the State Department issued one of these generic Cover Your Ass memos, I'd be a rich man, and I'd have been too afraid to ever come to Turkey,” Krause said. “Those memos are the voice of fear, not of danger.”
He has a point. While its neighbors are certainly more dangerous and especially unpredictable at the moment, Turkey is one of the most stable and democratic nations in the region. Since liberal economic reforms of the 1980s, Turkey has enjoyed impressive economic growth (currently the world’s 16th largest economy) and greater political stability. Turkey, a parliamentary representative democracy, is also a member of Western organizations like the Council of Europe and NATO. Current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has amped up Turkey’s reputation and influence in the Middle East. And in addressing the civil war in Syria, the country has strengthened its relationship with the U.S.
Despite the warnings and whatever reputation the country holds, 757,143 Americans traveled to Turkey in 2011. Even with uprisings sweeping North Africa and the Middle East, a total of 426,593 Americans visited Turkey between January and July of this year alone. Granted, most tourists do stick to cities like bustling western metropolis Istanbul and southern resort hot spot Antalya (both continuously rank among the world’s most popular travel destinations).
However, in southeastern Turkey, considered the hotbed of terrorist conflicts, the few foreigners killed or injured are rarely the targets of terrorist activity. Most deaths and injuries come from getting caught in the crossfire. As the State Department says: “The PKK conduct operations throughout southeastern Turkey regularly carrying out attacks that are primarily focused on security personnel. Occasionally, however, attacks injure or kill civilians.”
While the “occasional” injury or death may not be reassuring, motor vehicle accidents—not terrorism (not even “caught in the crossfire” kind)—are the number-one killer (32 percent) of healthy Americans traveling abroad. According to the State Department’s available online records (from October 2002 to June 2012), a total of 16 Americans in 10 years have died by non-natural causes in Turkey. Six of those died in motor vehicle accidents. None of them were killed by “terrorist action.”
ON SEPTEMBER 13, KRAUSE could see the iconic travertines of Pamukkale, marking the end of the first of nine legs of his trip. So far he’s hung out with imams and spent the night in bus barns. He was invited to enjoy the feast at a traditional circumcision ceremony, rest in the shade while eating watermelon and dried figs, and attend his first-ever village wedding. He’s learned to rest and wash up at mosques. (They’re “like truck stops with religion.”) So far, Krause says, his trek has confirmed what he knows and loves about Turkish generosity and hospitality.
That doesn’t mean it hasn’t already been tough. In the first week, Krause walked 36 percent farther and with a pack 10 pounds heavier than he had originally trained for. He screwed up his foot, and it cried uncle until a few days ago. He had to lighten his pack, leaving winter clothes in certain towns and then taking a minibus to go back and pick them up, making sure he first walked the distance and stayed true to his plan. If a bum foot and some logistical problems this early into the trip sound potentially goal-upsetting, Krause doesn’t appear all that concerned. “Absolutely I will continue,” he said. “I’m hell-bent on that. I would never forgive myself if I stopped.”
Still, despite a trying first two weeks, the roughest part of the trip is yet to come. Krause has yet to hit what many, including the State Department, would consider the most dangerous leg of his journey—from the province of Diyarbakır to Van’s border with Iran—during which he will confront a climb up to 7,600 feet (the highest point of the trip), rural villages that are fewer and farther between, and what is considered to be a terrorist stronghold.
No one can know what lies ahead, including Krause, who’s never traveled to eastern Turkey. And that’s sort of the point of all of this.
“There’s nothing but terror on the news. That is no way to live, and it’s not the reality. We need to be less afraid of the world. So here I am, walking through a Muslim country on the border of the Middle East.”
Alyson Neel is a freelance journalist and women's rights activist in Istanbul, Turkey, with many passions, including gender, politics, running, good government and farming. Her next goal is to run a marathon.