Orhan, tell us something about your early years and how your interest in travel developed.
Since my childhood years, I wanted to live the “difference”. There wasn’t any town left in Turkey that I didn’t visit. In those years, there were 67 provinces in Turkey. (Now there are 81). I only hadn’t seen Muş, an eastern province. I took the bus to go to Muş and I arrived there after a 17-hour-long journey. In those years the only transport means was the bus and the money was limited. I never told my mother about this trip. She would be very angry!
Travelling is freedom. Travel is a journey to the unknown. Travelling people can overcome the challenges and open the door to lifelong achievement.
My mother told me that when I was in the primary school (10 years old) and I had told her “I have reached this age but I haven’t seen Europe at all”.
You are now 66 years old and have almost completed every country in the world. How did you manage to achieve this? When did you take the decision to visit ‘everywhere’?
Since my high school years I wanted to step in every country. In time this has turned into a passion. This even resulted in a competition among the members of Turkey Institution of Travelers. Some of my friends increased the number of countries and tried to reach me. This motivated me even further. I tried to reach every county within a specific schedule by planning everything in advance. I have completed visiting the 54 African countries. The biggest issue with African countries was the visa difficulty. Some countries didn’t even have any representatives in Turkey. But I found the solutions one by one without giving up.
Which countries have surprised you, negatively or positively, compared to what you expected before?
The country that impressed me most in “a positive” way was undoubtedly the Kingdom of Bhutan. It was as if I had been suddenly beamed up to 100 years ago. First of all, cigarettes, which I hated most, weren’t sold there. Hunters, whom I consider as assassins, were prohibited there. Trees weren’t cut, huge concrete buildings weren’t allowed, professional football that hypnotizes masses wasn’t popular in that country. Instead they were involved in traditional archery, and the number of visitors allowed was not so many in the country. This was because they believed that as the number of tourists would increase, their culture would be corrupted soon. The important thing was the happiness of people.
Actually every country that I visit makes me happy, because happiness lies in details. Even the taste of a sugar, green hairpin of a little girl, a music tune from the street, the corner of a cafe with red table cloths, colorful clothes hung on the street are interesting for me. Because of this I become happy everywhere. But I don’t like summer resorts where half naked people walk around in flip-flops and lie down like lizards around swimming pools. Just like Acapulco in Mexico, Varadero in Cuba, Bodrum in Turkey and Brisbane in Australia.
Tell us a couple of travel stories which you will always remember.
Of course I have experienced many interesting things. Even though I had Afghan visa in my passport, the Russian police didn’t let me enter through the border while passing from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan. I tried everything, I gave gifts, I begged, I even showed my books in an appealing manner, but the man didn’t say “yes” no matter what. And I took his photo saying I would take action against him. Then they put me in a cell. I was kept in the dark with water sounds around me for 12 hours. They took the film from the camera (in those times there were film rolls). Then they sent me back to Uzbekistan. When I returned to Turkey I found out that the region was under the command of “General Dostum” and thus the visa from Afghanistan wasn’t valid, but they weren’t able to declare it officially.
While going to a typical native village on Papua Island in Indonesia, we had to pass through on a wood block. I slipped and fell into the water, but actually it was sewage. When I arrived at the village of course I smelled very bad. I took off and throw away my clothes, the peasants washed with water hoses. I went to the bazaar immediately and bought new clothes.
How do people in the world react when you tell them you are from Turkey?
I don’t like it when I am asked the question “Where are you from”, I pretend not to hear it. I think this is a kind of discrimination. The important thing is approaching people with kindess and respect to traditions. This kind of behaviour opens all doors. Other than this, it is not important where you come from.
I have never been treated badly in any country because of being a Turk, except for Iceland. I was sitting at a café with Icelandic young people 20 years ago. I learnt that some pirate ships coming from Algeria during the Ottoman Empire times reached Iceland and killed many people, took girls as hostage and sold them as slaves. Since Algeria was considered as “Turkish” in the Ottoman times, Icelandic people were full of hate towards the Turks.
Are there many explorers like yourself in your native country?
I am the founder president of Travelers Club Turkey for 16 years The purpose of founding this union is bringing travellers together to allow them meet each other and share their experiences. We believe that we are one of the most active unions in its branch. You can find more detailed information about our union at www.turkiyegezginlerkulubu.com website.
The biggest reason for me to hold on to life is the desire to “be on the road” inside of me.
What do your friends and family think of all these travels?
Because of my travels, I divorced my wife in 1988. Since I was working at the university, at first my frequent travels drew reaction, but then they got used to this. When I was offered to be head of the department, I told them I would accept this only if they wouldn’t prevent my travels and I have been the Head of Mining Engineering at ITU for 9 years. My group of friends consists of my frequent travelling friends, therefore I have no difficulty with friends. Usually we travel with the members of Travelers Club of Turkey. However I have travelled many times alone.
Give us a few gems of your own country that not many foreigners know about.
Here the advantages of couchsurfing emerges. You can’t get to know Istanbul just by coming here with a cruise ship and a rushed sloppy tour. The real interesting aspects of the city are the side streets, away from tourist groups. Talking about Istanbul, eating the traditional “zerde” dessert in Vefa Bozacısı, Zeyrek Kahvehanesi or a typical restaurant in Sütlüce will leave a deeper impression in mind. There are hundreds of mosques, churches, museums, many are similar to each other, and you’re confused. I think that it takes to be inside the social life of a particular country to be a real traveller.
I add young people, who become my guest via couchsurfing, to my life for a few days. They listen to my conferences at schools, come to the university, attend radio-television programmes, go shopping with me on the side streets, drink real Turkish coffee.
In terms of geography, the whole of Mardin province, Adıyaman Nemrut Mountain Tanrı Sculptures, Ani Remains in Kars, motorbike tours in Canyons in Erzincan Kemaliye and the tonnes of green in Artvin Borçka across Turkey should be experienced.
Are you active on the internet? Do you have a blog and you use social media?
Of course I use the internet. I have written 17 travel books. I also have a special book telling the secrets of plentiful traveling. (Gezi Rehberi – Travel Guide). I believe that I really provide great service through these books. This is because what a British or French tourist or a Turkish tourist wants to see or enjoy are different. For instead, we arrived at an antique city which was British Guide Book rated by 5 over 5 after a 4-hour-long journey on the desert, but there was nothing interesting. We see this kind of remains all over Turkey, but we don’t really recognize. So instead we could have stayed in Kashgar and joined the lives of local people there. I try to announce my trips to my traveler friends via whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter.
What are your travel plans for the rest of this year? Which countries do you still have left to see and what are your longer-term travel plans?
I have up to six travel plans in 2017. Some of these are standard trips with the union members, I will make some of them alone and I will make a few trips with 1-2 friends. These trips will include Tunisia, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, Iran, Lapland, Egypt and Georgia, but the most important among all is obviously the trip to Pacific Islands with 3 friends, a place where I will be visiting the 3 islands where I’ve never been to before. We will hit the road on August 1 and visit Kiribati, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and Christmas Islands. I have been to Fiji before. Kiribati gave us a hard time regarding visa. None of these countries have been visited by Turks before. Because of this, I am so excited. After visiting these countries, the number of countries – the way I count countries – I haven’t visited will be down to five: Tuvalu, North Mariana Islands, Micronesia, Niue and Nauru.
And a final question we always ask – if you could invite four people from any period in human history to an imaginary dinner, who would they be and why?
An interesting question!
The first one would be John F. Kennedy. I could ask him why he was killed. Or I would want to know if he was murdered because he had thought of shutting down the cigarette plants.
The second one would be Nicola Tesla. I think he is the most remarkable scientist of all times, but he was insulted and misjudged due to his lifestyle.
I would meet the founder of our Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. I admire him, we owe him really so much as the Turkish nation. It would be great to hear about his life and the challenges he had to overcome from him.
Finally, I would like to meet Jeanne Moreau, whom I admire watching her movies since my childhood. I used to watch her movies with admiration. She has an attitude and charm of her own.
The photographs accompanying this interview are from Orhan’s private collection and show him in various locations in the world – try to guess where!