Other & miscellaneous

Overlanding the Silk Road

Norman Handy

Overlanding the Silk Road



A noise in the street outside the hostel most have woken me as it was early and my alarm had not yet gone off. I looked out the window and down in the street was the expedition vehicle that would be carrying me through Central Asia, along the Silk Road for the next five months. I was too excited to go back to sleep. I got up and went outside into the cool dawn with the sun just rising over the roof tops of the back streets of Istanbul, not far from the centre.
The vehicle was a converted Scania four wheel drive truck. It was distinctive and unmissable, as it was painted bright yellow.
Along both sides were windows covered by clear plastic that could be rolled up to allow uninterrupted views and a breeze on hot days. I was soon joined by other passengers and we were due a briefing, but we were all keen to get on the road and out of town. There was a brief health and safety chat and a basic introduction to Habibi, the name given to the truck, as all expedition vehicles by tradition, have a name.
It was an overcast day and as we started to drive the 300kms towards our evening stop, it started raining. We should have had great vistas across the Sea of Marmara but the rain obscured the view.
My journey had started nearly three weeks earlier. The proverb ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’, a quote from the Chinese philosopher Laozi 604–531BC, often wrongly attributed to his contemporary Confucius 551–479BC. Although I was going further than just a thousand miles, it is still true. My journey to retrace the Silk Road from west to east would start in earnest in Istanbul. My first steps were to reach our initial gathering point in East Croydon. I thought it incongruous that this long exotic journey from London to Beijing, through Central Asia, over which trade f lowed and the armies of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane plundered and murdered, should start with the first night in a Holiday Inn in East Croydon.
Leaving the Channel Tunnel, we visited the Tyne Cot First World War cemetery, then onwards, via some great European cities
such as Bruges, Heidelberg, the beautifully preserved walled medieval city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber and the equally beautiful
city of Prague. Then via Budapest, through Romania and Sighi?oara, being the place of exile for Vlad Dracul. He was the
father of the much better known Vlad Tepes aka Vlad the Impaler and popularly but incorrectly, also called Dracula.
After passing through Bucharest, there was Nessebar in Bulgaria, a pearl of a resort on the coast of the Black Sea. We crossed
the border from Bulgaria into Turkey. On maps, the European part of Turkey doesn’t look very big, but that is because the rest
of Turkey is so large, being six times larger than England so that it dwarfs its small European portion. European Turkey covers
the same area as South East England and it is 250kms to reach Istanbul from the border, the same as Northampton to Dover.
I had already had an adventure in reaching Istanbul but we left it and were travelling along the shore of the Sea of Marmara. It
was raining so there was not much of a view, but this gave me a chance to look around the inside of the truck. There was an intercom
and a buzzer. A short push on the buzzer and the driver, previously introduced as Malcolm, would stop when it was possible and safe. A long buzz was an emergency stop and he would stop straight away, wherever we were, so be warned.
Access to the main body of the truck was via a short series of steps that dropped down at the back of the truck that were secured in the upright position when the truck was moving. Down either side of the back of the truck, facing each other, was a row of seats with locker space underneath for personal bags and rucksacks. Above the seats was a wide shelf with elasticated netting stretching across the front meant for day packs, water and the like. At the end nearest the cab, there was an elevated row of four rear facing seats. Behind this was a flat area the width of the truck and perhaps a metre and a half deep. This was known as ‘the beach’. The roof immediately above this could be opened and people could sit on the f loor of the beach with their head and shoulders outside to look out and being quite high up it would give a good view. But it had been emphasised that the hatch was only to be operated by the driver whilst stationary.
Not everyone has the luxury of long overland trips so some people would be leaving us en route and equally others would be joining us en route. The majority of the briefing was re-scheduled for that evening. Meanwhile Malcolm was driving the truck and Grace, our guide sat in the front. Of the group that met up in Istanbul, I already knew Peter, Matt, and Sally who had made the trip with me from London and would be going all the way to Beijing.
Peter was a retired director who had run his own brick laying company who lived a few miles from me in West Sussex. Matt was a doctor and was taking a break from his final full qualification on the job to undertake this trip. Sally came from Bristol and since leaving university had worked in the care industry for a few years and was now in between jobs. I would learn the names of the other passenger en route.
The last passenger to join us in Istanbul was Rebekah who was travelling on an English passport but was originally from Bangladesh. She was barely five foot high but instantly striking as she was dressed in a stunningly bright traditional sari.
After a couple of hours travelling we made a short stop at Tekirdag. Whenever we stopped in a town during the day, for any length of time, we always left two people on board as truck guards for security. This probably wasn’t needed here but in other areas it was essential. We took it in turns so everyone had a chance to stretch their legs and do some shopping or sight-seeing. We would be camping and cooking our meals communally so cook groups didn’t do truck guard as they would be busy shopping for supplies for whatever they had decided to cook.
The town has a harbour in the bay and a pleasant waterfront. The rich agricultural land nearby is well renowned for its cherries and grapes, used for wine and distilling raki, a popular aniseed flavoured spirit. No one really wanted to spend any time exploring in the rain and therefore it was just a brief stop. We stayed on the main road that by passes the town of Gallipoli and headed down the peninsular to Eceabat arriving early afternoon where we going to camp for two nights.
The sea route from the Aegean Sea at the eastern end of the Mediterranean to the Black Sea requires shipping to get through the Dardanelles which is 61kms long but only 1.2kms to 6kms wide. Then it traverses the Sea of Marmara some 200kms long and 75kms wide before it then has to negotiate the even narrower Bosphorus straits at Istanbul. The road hugs the south eastern side of the peninsular and as it had finally stopped raining we had a good view of the shipping in the narrow strait and of Asia on the far side. On the eastern outskirts of the Eceabat is the Boomerang Bar, a beach front shack of a bar and some rough ground, mainly shingle next to it that can accommodate some tents that would be our camp site.
We were here for ANZAC Day, (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) a national day of remembrance for Australia and New Zealand that commemorates their soldiers that have fallen in battle. Originally it was held for the troops that died during the Gallipoli campaign and was first officially named Anzac day just a year after the first landings were made. The commemorations have broadened and are now not just for those that fell in Gallipoli but Australian and New Zealand troops that have fallen in both the First and Second World Wars and other conf licts such as Vietnam and more recently Afghanistan.
Anzac day is observed on 25th April as the anniversary date of the Gallipoli landings as this was the first major engagement of large numbers of the Australian and New Zealand forces. When war broke out in 1914, they had both been dominions of the British Empire for thirteen and seven years respectively but they still signed up to fight in this European war. Some 60,000 Australians and 18,000 New Zealanders died during the war but their national identity was largely forged during the violent conflict of the First World War (strictly speaking it was called the Great War at the time and only became popularly referred to as the First World War when there was the Second World War).
Small scale commemorations were held from the f irst anniversary onwards but by 1927 in Australia, a National Day of Commemoration was established with dawn services which were adopted in a similar format from 1939 throughout New Zealand following lobbying by the New Zealand Returned Soldiers’ Association, the RSA.
The popularity of remembering Anzac Day had continued to increase and it is a public holiday in both Australia and New Zealand. I knew much of the First World War history before arriving here and within the group were several Australians and New Zealanders. The time I visited was the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War and the 99th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings. There was huge demand for the 100th anniversary of the landings in 2015 so numbers were restricted for safety at the Anzac Commemorative Site on North Beach and decided by ballot. Therefore, just 8,000 Australians and 2,000 New Zealanders (roughly in the same proportion to those killed)
and 500 official representatives of all nations were accommodated and eligibility requirements apply for all places and the lottery had already taken place for the following year.
The Gallipoli land campaign began with an amphibious landing on 25th April 1915 and the last troops had all been evacuated less than a year later. The long and narrow peninsular is the northern side of the Dardanelles strait and the major shipping route, ultimately to the Black Sea. The Western Front in Europe was static and had been reduced to trench warfare all along the line from the Belgium coast to the Swiss border. There was political pressure for an end to the deadlock. The aim for the Gallipoli campaign was to capture Istanbul knocking Germany’s Ottoman ally out of the war, open a route for shipping supplies to the Russia and pull Greece and Bulgaria, both formerly occupied by the Ottomans into the war on the Allies side (both were initially neutral but Bulgaria joined the Central Powers of Germany, the Austro – Hungarian Empire and Turkey in October 1915 with a bribe of more land on its western border with Serbia. Greece only finally joined the Allies in June 1917).
Before the war, Germany had helped with training and re-equipping the Ottoman military and had sent general Otto Liman von Sanders to Istanbul. German diplomats had offered an anti-Russian alliance and supported their territorial aspirations in Caucasia and Trans-Caspia then spheres of Russian inf luence and in north-west Mesopotamia which was a critical oil supplier for the British navy through the Anglo Persian Oil Co.
On 27th October 1914, Ottoman ships attacked the Russian harbour at Odessa and sunk several ships, declaring war on 31st October 1914 and later invading the Caucasus with Russia declaring war on 2nd November. Britain and France declared war on Turkey on 5th November and fighting also began in Mesopotamia following a British landing to occupy the oil facilities in the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile the Ottomans prepared to attack Egypt in early 1915 to occupy the Suez Canal and cut the Mediterranean route between the Allies in Europe and India and the Far East.
Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia appealed to Britain for assistance against the Ottomans, who were fighting them in the Caucasus and the outline of the plan for the Gallipoli campaign began. On 19th February 1915 the first attack on the Dardanelles began with a strong Anglo-French naval task force. The outer defences were shelled destroying shore batteries and the entrance cleared of mines or so the navy thought. On 18th March 1915, the main naval thrust up the straits was launched. The task force attacked and the firing from the shore batteries was much reduced but newly laid mines sunk or damaged several of the ships as they tried to manoeuvre in the narrow straits.
Meanwhile, the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) were stationed in Egypt on their way to the Western Front but were reformed into the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). These were joined by the French Oriental Expeditionary Corps and British 29th Division to form the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force that was to carry out the amphibious landings on the peninsular under General Sir Ian Hamilton.
The planners under estimated the ability of the Ottoman forces and the tenacity of its commander. Other problems were the lack of vital intelligence, the rugged terrain, the difficulty of supplying an attacking force from distant supply bases and training. An opposed landing was not expected so the troops had not practiced a landing under fire. A forward base was established on Lemnos, a Greek island not far from the peninsular where some rudimentary practice landings were undertaken.
The Ottoman Fifth Army under General Liman von Sanders was assigned for the defence of the peninsular. They had four weeks to prepare between the naval engagements and the actual landings. Mustafa Kemal, then a 34-year-old lieutenant colonel familiar with the Gallipoli peninsula believed the most vulnerable points were at Cape Helles at the southern tip of the peninsula where British navy could concentrate their fire from three directions and Gaba Tepe on the Aegean side of the peninsular but at its narrowest point allowing attacking forces the shortest route to overlook and therefore command the straits themselves but he was over ruled.
The German General, Liman von Sanders concentrated his forces at Besika Bay on the Asiatic coast plus some troops on the north end of the peninsular with just a few troops at Capes Helles and scattered along the coast. Large numbers of troops were held in reserve. The Allies planned to land British troops at Capes Helles and advance up the eastern coast to Kilitbahir, Anzac troops were to land at Gaba Tepe, later to be renamed Anzac Cove and cut the peninsular in half whilst French troops would make a diversionary attack on the Asian side before withdrawing to the Cape Helles.
The landings were made on six beaches, five around Cape Helles and one at Anzac Cove. One of the landings was virtually unopposed and troops spread in land as far as Krithia village but lacking specific orders to exploit the situation, the commander withdrew to the beach. The main landings below the Seddulbahir fort faced determined resistance from well-placed defences and only a few Allied troops survived the initial landings.
At Anzac Cove, the troops met some resistance but pushed on up the beaches towards Chunuk Bair. The defenders were too few to halt the attackers from seizing the beaches but inflicted heavy losses as they withdrew up the beach fighting all the way. It was here that Mustafa Kemal gave his well-known order “I do not order you to fight, I order you to die. In the time which passes until we die, other troops and commanders can come forward and take our places.” The whole campaign is the subject of the 1981 Australian film ‘Gallipoli’.
After the landings by the Allies, little was done to take advantage of the situation and the attack lost momentum which gave the Ottomans time to bring up reinforcements. Mustafa Kemal counter attacked and whilst unable to repulse the attackers, inflicted casualties and confined the attackers to their beach heads. The ANZAC commander ordered an attack from Russell’s Top and Quinn’s Post towards Baby 700. The troops advanced a short distance during the night, under a combined naval and artillery barrage but in the dark became separated and after coming under heavy fire along their exposed f lank were eventually forced to withdraw having suffered about 1,000 casualties.
On 19th May, 42,000 Ottoman troops launched an attack on Anzac Cove in an effort to push the 17,000 Australians and New Zealanders back into the sea. Lacking sufficient artillery and ammunition, they relied on surprise and weight of numbers for success. Their preparations had been seen by aerial reconnaissance and they suffered 13,000 casualties, of which 3,000 men were killed against the Anzac casualties of 160 killed and 468 wounded. Operations at Anzac Cove from early June onwards returned to consolidation, minor engagements and skirmishing with grenades and sniper-fire.
At Cape Helles, the Allied attempts to capture Krithia or make any significant advances led military planners to consider an alternative plan to capture the peninsular. This new plan called for a breakout from the Anzac Cove front to capture the high ground on the Sari Bair Ridge and Hill 971 above the cove.
The Allies planned to land two fresh infantry divisions at Suvla Bay 8kms north of Anzac Cove with a joint advance on Sari Bair from here and from Anzac Cove with Australian troops advancing on Hill 700 from the Nek and an attack on the summit at Chunuk Bair by New Zealand troops along Rhododendron Ridge, the Apex and the Farm and lastly Hill 971 would be attacked by a combined force of Gurkhas and Australians.
The landing at Suvla Bay took place during the night of 6th August against light opposition but the British commander, Lieutenant General Frederick Stopford had limited early objectives and failed to take further objectives against limited opposition, waiting for artillery support. Ottoman reinforcements arrived and took up positions on the ridge above to pin the troops down on the beach and stalemate was achieved and an opportunity to advance the campaign was lost.
There were diversionary attacks at Cape Helles that achieved nothing of strategic value. Another Anzac attack at Lone Pine captured the Ottoman trenches but early attacks aimed on the peaks at Chunuk Bair and Hill 971 both failed but Chunuk Bair was eventually captured on the morning of 8th August. The delay in capturing this peak cost the Australians dearly as their attack on the Nek on the 7th August went ahead anyway.
The artillery bombardment finished seven minutes early and the Ottoman machine gunners were ready. Four waves of Australians charged across no man’s land on a front no longer or wider than a tennis court and just one soldier from the first wave reached the enemy trenches, all the others were mown down by machine guns and it is a testament to the bravery of the soldiers and the stupidity of the commanders that despite the failure of the first two waves, the next two waves went ahead into certain death.
The attack on Hill 971 never took place after the Australians and the Gurkhas lost their way during the night. The New Zealanders who were holding their positions held on for two days until relieved by British troops but a counter offensive swept them from the ridge and any chance of a successful outcome for the attacks was lost.

Format: 13.5 x 21.5 cm
Number of Pages: 354
ISBN: 978-3-99048-708-2
Release Date: 02.02.2017
GBP 15,80
GBP 9,99