The town of Doğubayazıt straddles a famous four-laner. The Trans-European Motorway, or the “E80,” begins in Lisbon, Portugal and heads due east, exhausting itself on the Turkish border with Iran. To travel this road in its entirety is an idea that is probably more romantic in theory than in practice. The E80 runs the breadth of a continent, touches ten countries, and requires nearly 3,500 miles of asphalt. I stand on the curb outside our hotel, hands in my pockets, and watch the traffic. There are a few cars, a few more trucks, and much greasy smoke. One passenger bus rumbles through. Blue letters proclaim its line: Ağrı Dağı. It is the Turkish label for the mountain associated with Noah’s “Ararat.” Stoney faces peer back at me through the passing glass. There is no romance in this modern highway, I decide. I have become the tourist site.
Back in my room, I cannot see where the E80 ends, but Google Earth can. It terminates about 20 miles away from my position in what looks like a grainy truck stop on the Turkish-Iranian border.
This, however, is deceptive.
Where the pavement marked E80 leaves off, the Asian Highway, “AH1,” begins. I marvel at my discovery. The length of this road is even greater than the E80. From the Iranian border it crosses Central Asia, India, China, and a myriad of other places. Ultimately, it exhausts itself (with a few gasps, undoubtedly) in Japan. What a system! What a horizon-raiser! Can it be driven? Ridden? Peddled? Walked? Paddled?
I push away from the desk. Trekking from Lisbon to Tokyo seems out of the question due to political unrest (and, not to mention, my barking knees). And yet, I am reminded that it is hardly impossible. Two travelers come to mind. In fact, I am confident that they once stood on some dusty curb near my room and watched the camels pass.
The first of these is Marco Polo. Marco trekked from Italy to China in the late 13th c. AD. He followed the tracks of the “Silk Road,” a famous economic pipeline that connected west to east. I wonder what his contemporaries would have thought about the “political unrest” that he faced in his journey? I also wonder about his own experience of medieval Doğubayazıt (Armenian Daroynk?) and its snowy mountain. Marco was clearly informed by a larger sense of land and biblical memory as he wrote in his Travels:
“And you must know that it is in this country of Armenia that the Ark of Noah exists on the top of a certain great mountain [on the summit of which snow is so constant that no one can ascend; for the snow never melts, and is constantly added to by new falls. Below, however, the snow does melt, and runs down, producing such rich and abundant herbage that in summer cattle are sent to pasture from a long way round about, and it never fails them. The melting snow also causes a great amount of mud on the mountain].” (from http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Travels_of_Marco_Polo/Book_1/Chapter_3).
Marco’s “abundant herbage,” “summer cattle,” and “mud” fit into the Doğubayazıt scene quite well.
Decades before Marco Polo, however, another traveler walked portions of what would become the E80 and the AH1. William of Rubruck journeyed from Constantinople (modern Istanbul) to Mongolia and back again in the mid-13th century. Like Marco, he passed (on his return) through the region and left a written record of what he saw and heard. It is William who first draws together the great volcano and the Noah narrative for western readers.
“Near this city (Naxua, Nakhchavan) are mountains in which they say that Noah’s ark rests; and there are two mountains, the one greater than the other; and the Araxes flows at their base; and there is a town there called Cemanum [=Thamanin (*actually Arabic for eighty, not eight)], which interpreted means “eight,” and they say that it was thus called from the eight persons who came out of the ark, and who built it on the greater mountain. Many have tried to climb it, but none has been able. This bishop told me that there had been a monk who was most desirous (of climbing it), but that an angel appeared to him bearing a piece of the wood of the ark, and told him to try no more. They had this piece of wood in his church, they told me. This mountain did not seem to me so very high, that men could not ascend it. An old man gave me quite a good reason why one ought not to try to climb it. They call the mountain Massis, and it is of the feminine gender in their language. “No one,” he said, “ought to climb up Massis; it is the mother of the world.” (from http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/rubruck.html).