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Mountaineering and Misadventures in Turkey and Afghanistan
Reading travel accounts, one sometimes questions why the travellers struggle on against all odds with such little apparent enjoyment – and then declare their great love for the places and people visited. It is one of life’s essential paradoxes that difficulties are more engaging than successes. They are certainly easier to write about, as these books testify, and make for more interesting reading. After all, there is nothing so pleasurable as other people’s misery, except perhaps one’s own recollected in tranquillity.
The most striking lesson to be taken from these books is the elusiveness and brevity of joy and the inevitability and duration of misfortune. This is evident even from their titles. Both Frances Oliver and Penny Young find it hard to write more than a few happy paragraphs at a time, swiftly following them with pages of satisfyingly detailed disgruntlement.
In other respects the books differ greatly. Frances Oliver writes of her first ventures in Asian travel with her partner, Dux Schneider, in the 1960s. The book reads as a diary, sparse and episodic, of a year’s travelling and climbing, mainly in Turkey, with a brief trip to Afghanistan and a period of sickness and recuperation in Antalya. This is interspersed with material from other sources and her own commentary, added some 40 years later.
Oliver captures the innocence, uncertainty and slight paranoia of the novice traveller. She lists the massive quantities of equipment and supplies (including 30 bars of Kendal Mint Cake) packed into their Land Rover. What follows is an account of an inauspicious introduction to Turkey and its culture, which nevertheless formed the basis of a deep and lasting relationship. In the process we gain an insight into the passionate nature of Dux, and his frequently turbulent relationship with the writer and the rest of the world.
Oliver tells of a series of largely frustrated attempts to find fellow mountaineers, money transfers, official and unofficial assistance and suitable mountains to climb. We are taken on a tour of remote locations in eastern Turkey and given a picture of unchanged lifestyles among its villages and nomadic groups. The pair’s interactions with these people, the inevitable misunderstandings and occasional affirmations of shared humanity, form the narrative of the book. Oliver describes how the hospitality of “the almost aggressively friendly Turks” can overwhelm the will of their guests. There are frequent passages that will resonate with any traveller in rural Anatolia. One painful episode concerns an oppressive and antagonistic guide – or, more accurately, guard – who contrives to obstruct, starve and isolate the couple as they trek through the mountains of Hakkâri in search of a good peak to climb.
In contrast, parts of the tour are celebrations of the bounty and beauty of nature and the blessings of simple human kindness. There are idyllic evocations of mountain-top panoramas, Side on the Mediterranean and Band-i-Amir in the Hindu Kush. Oliver excels at creating cameos, relating snippets of conversation with a fleeting cast of extras: the drunken, self-pitying Pakistani businessman; the intrusive probing of the nomadic women; the villagers’ poignant and misplaced faith in their guests’ medical skills. There are moments of comedy: the Afghan border guard perusing their passports upside down; Nigel, their travelling companion, eliciting the unwanted affections of a police chief. The overall impression, however, remains one of recurrent pain, frustration and discomfort described in well-observed detail, like a lover taking pride in the details of a stormy relationship.
Jaundiced in Antalya is a fascinating patchwork of scenes from rural Turkey before the huge changes which were soon to overtake the country. Equally absorbing is the picture of a young woman struggling to maintain her own and her partner’s objectives in an alien and intractable world.
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