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Genghis Khan, the Orient Express and I

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My travels began with Genghis Khan – at least that’s what my father told me as a child.

He said we could trace our family roots to the Golden Horde and to the Mongol Khan, or prince, who swept across the plains of Asia and into Europe, violently subduing everyone in his path. We are Tatars, he would tell me, and we are nomads.

My own travels haven’t included much rape and pillage but I have always felt the call of the journey, the need to move, to be wherever I wasn’t.

I come from a family whose geographical roots are so tenuous they might as well not be mentioned at all. My father, he of Golden Horde descent, was himself issued of murky circumstances, the Turkish son of a Muslim second wife from Jordan, born on an Italian ship barely inside Turkish territorial waters, inexplicably packed off to Saudi Arabia as a child to live with nomadic tribes and plucked back in his teens to attend military school. As a pilot he was stationed in the UK and eventually moved to Paris, where he met my mother.

My parents, as they were when I was seven

My parents, from mid-20th century photo albums

Her history was equally checkered, born of a Dutch Jewish mother and a French father – he and his six brothers had each emigrated from their native Provence to a different country (he got Egypt). My mother grew up and came of age in the heady Cairo and Alexandria of the 1930s and 40s, navigating back and forth to Europe as though it was her back yard.

Eventually joining the bohemian crowd in Paris, she met a handsome Turk and I was the immediate outcome.

By now you’d think their nomadic streak would have dampened in favor of the good life in Paris but no, at five weeks my mother bundled me onto the Orient Express to Istanbul. My father was arriving by car, the quintessential road trip of the 1950s, deemed too long and tedious for a virtual newborn.

That's me - ready to roll.

That’s me in my Moroccan shesh – ready to roll

My father was an engineer and moved so often with his work that I rarely finished a school year in the country I’d started it. We lived in Canada for a few years, long enough to become citizens, but I grew up in Spain, the country to which we returned after each move.

As an adult the moves continued, back and forth across the Atlantic, until I finally settled in Geneva. Or so I thought because in my forties, I decided to throw in the towel and become a nomad myself, roaming in search of the will to settle down.

It took more than three years to find that will but even now, seemingly settled in an old French farmhouse not far from the border with Geneva, I still roam, leaving home to traipse the world at every opportunity, not by choice, but by genes.

It’s not my fault. Just blame Genghis Khan. Or the Orient Express.

This post is Day 2 of the #Indie30 challenge – 30 Days of Indie Travel, by Bootsnall. 




  1. Sheila Archer on April 3, 2014 at 11:11 pm

    What an incredible and marvelous history, story, life!!!!!!! What beautiful pictures of your parents.
    Best regards,

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on April 3, 2014 at 11:20 pm

      Thanks Sheila! I love seeing my parents in their 30s – that’s what they looked like when I was a child…

  2. Eve on April 4, 2014 at 7:05 am

    Thank you for clearing that up for me.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on April 4, 2014 at 7:09 am

      Hi Cuz, It’s a complicated history and since my parents are no longer around I can’t ask for details, just repeat what I remember them telling me over the years. Someday if I have time I’d love to look into this family history and do some proper research!

  3. Caroline on April 4, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    Wow, great story Leyla, thanks for sharing! 🙂 This explains it all, then! 😉

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on April 4, 2014 at 6:43 pm

      You’re welcome! I cherish my nomadic soul although it’s constantly at war with the Taurean in me who wants to settle down with her feet planted firmly on the ground… 😉

  4. Gayla on April 7, 2014 at 10:54 am

    I’m fascinated by genealogy and so enjoyed reading your story, Leyla. What a wonderful, diverse, and exciting history! I often wonder from whom I inherited my wanderlust; maybe someday I’ll find the source…
    Interestingly, I just visited Istanbul last week for the first time and made a point to stop into Sirkeci Terminal; I just had to see the terminus of the Orient Express 🙂

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on April 7, 2014 at 11:13 am

      Knowing where the wanderlust came from helped me a lot as I was growing up because I felt so different from people around me. At least I could say it wasn’t my fault! There IS something magical about Istanbul, about the layers upon layers of history that have been piled up, which gives me hope for the future given the rough patch it’s going through right now. For me it is probably one of the most culturally and historically rich cities in the world and I never get tired of it.

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