Out of Istanbul

"Out of Istanbul: A Long Walk of Discovery Along the Silk Road" by Bernard Ollivier. Skyhorse Publishing/provided

OUT OF ISTANBUL: A Long Walk of Discovery Along the Silk Road. By Bernard Ollivier. Skyhorse Publishing. 320 pages. $24.

With the pilgrim route to San Juan de Compostela under his belt, 61-year-old French journalist and travel writer Bernard Ollivier trained his sights on the most ambitious hike of his career.

From Istanbul, on foot, along the ancient caravan route through Turkey and Iran to China.

This inaugural English translation of Ollivier's 2001 memoir is the first installment of three chronicling his challenging three-stage journey from the shores of the Bosporus to the former imperial Chinese city of Xi'an.

Ollivier began his trek through Anatolia in 1999, avoiding highways and intending to end the initial stage deep within Iran. But after an eventful and often grueling 1,020 miles through Turkey, much of it in rural mountain country, a ferocious case of amoebic dysentery near the Iranian border brought him up short. Temporarily.

The climax of the book lends it an episodic feel, with Ollivier having completed “only” part of an epic 7,200-mile odyssey. But it is no less absorbing for that.

Ollivier believes the world's oldest form of transportation “creates and instills harmony,” allowing one to commune with strangers on a more intimate level and hone self-awareness. “Solitary walking forces us to confront ourselves, freeing us from the limitations of the body as well as those of our usual environment that restrict us to conventional, acceptable, and pre-packaged ways of thinking.”

This certainly seems to have been the case for Ollivier. He trekked through “meadows, orchards and hazelnut-tree Edens,” but also through squalor, disease and extreme poverty. Almost without exception, in the villages he was met with remarkable hospitality, despite speaking little of the language — a testament to the Muslim tradition of generosity toward travelers.

“My appetite for new landscapes is inexhaustible,” he writes. “I'm like an unfaithful lover: each new beauty draws me in, effacing the one before. Hardly have I had my fill of one dreamlike vision, when the next one — and that one alone — grabs my attention. For me, happiness is always hiding, just past the next plain, behind that rocky outcrop ... around the next bend in the river.”

Yet Ollivier laments at one point that each village begins to seem like the last, and that the excitement of discovery is beginning to wear off. Some readers may feel the same.

Turkish villagers were astonished that anyone would attempt to walk the width of their country, peppering him with the same questions at every stop. It became tiresome, but not as oppressive as the hassling he faced from paranoid army officers and some local constables. In the cities, by contrast, his sojourn captured the attention of the media.

Ollivier refused all offers of a ride until illness and horrid weather made it necessary. Offering a philosophy of walking and its passage to reverie, he also celebrates other explorers through history who traversed territories on foot, while inserting asides on Turkish history.

As engrossing as Ollivier's journey can be, it suffers from an unavoidable weakness. His observations on Turkish politics and culture are now 20 years old. That may be adequate for village life, which seems timeless, but for the nation as a whole, it's very much old news.

Though he would be the first man to travel the Silk Road entirely on foot, at least since Marco Polo, Ollivier never thought he was trying to “accomplish some great feat or act of prowess,” but rather to force himself “to slowly digest all that my life has been.”

He can be judgmental, though not without cause, as in the subjugation of rural Turkish women. He can romanticize. And he admits to the impediments of Western prejudice and imperfect understanding. Ollivier is candid on the perils of solo travel, especially hiking through a country then torn by armed conflicts and beset with banditry.

But his notion that landscapes experienced at eye level “seem larger, more majestic, more impressive” is borne out within.

“I still stubbornly crave fresh encounters, new faces, and new lives. I still dream of the faraway steppe, of wind and rain on my face, of basking in the heat of different suns.”

Reviewer Bill Thompson is a writer and editor based in Charleston.

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