Kars and Ani, 11-16th October, 2012
“What’s your name?” the children ask. “Jo”, I tell them. They don’t ask where I’m from here, they don’t ask for money like the throngs that followed us on the streets of Diyarbakır, they only smile shyly. I meet Can and Ece and others whose names I don’t quite catch. “Where are you going?” asks a young girl in a brown headscarf. “I don’t know”, I tell her in Turkish, “I’m walking – maybe to the castle…” I point up to the castle which looms over the old city. She reels off directions to me in Turkish – “and from there it’s close” she finishes, beaming.
A man in a flat-cap sits on a bench, touches his heart lightly with his right hand as I bid him hello. Later, another man in a similar cap stops me as I’m walking past, digs into his plastic bag and presents me with two small green tangerines and a hard persimmon. I touch my hand to my heart in thank you and he smiles at me with clear eyes.
I’m shy about taking pictures when people can see me. I know they won’t understand how I think their neighborhood is beautiful. In the old part of the city, shards of straw scatter over rolling cobbled streets; colourful carpets and clothes-lines dangle from windows. Ducks and chickens squabble over scraps in the dust among ramshackle houses at the foot of the castle. Not many foreigners venture here.
At the top of Kars Citadel, I sit with a çay and my last small green tangerine. My eyes drink the view. Where city edges fray into fields, the plateau continues until mountains rise in the distance. Behind me, the sun strikes the red of the Turkish flag atop the castle.
I like this city a lot, maybe partly because of our host. Halil has to be in my top ten Couchsurfing hosts of all time. We share Turkish, Kurdish and Iranian music; beer; stories and ideas.
Not far from Kars, right on the bank of the river that scores a line between Turkey and Armenia, lies the ancient Armenian city of Ani. It is a source of some heartache to the Armenian people that this city lies on the Turkish, not the Armenian side of the river. As though the Turkish state denying them Mount Ararat wasn’t enough.
Halil has already visited Ani thirteen times with previous Couchsurfing hosts, but he offers to drive us out there and see it again. “Maybe you’ll see something different this time?” I offer – “something you never noticed before?” “Hmm”, says Halil.
We spy Ararat from the road, already coated in snow. I wonder how long it will be until the white blanket extends all the way to Kars and buries its streets – the old Armenian church up to her knees in frost. The word Kar in Turkish means snow, also the title of the Orhan Pamuk novel* set in this city. It’s the book I’m reading now, one of the coincidences that drew me here.
We arrive at Ani. Halil knows the guard and persuades him to give us a cheaper price. We wander around the crumbling ruins of Ani.
Halil takes me down to the Convent of the Virgins, in a nook of the river. On the way back up I spy a deep cave carved into the rock. “What’s in there?” I ask. “Ohhh!” Halil jumps down and makes his way inside the cave. It’s not too deep, but is large enough to stand in. “See, told you you’d see something new this time!”
We scrabble up the bank with what little breath we can find and I realise we’re at a higher altitude than I’m used to. We sit on the bank to catch our breath while Halil smokes a cigarette and watch three men climb out of a car in Armenia on the other side of the ravine. The men stare out at the history of their people, unable to touch it. One of them waves at us. “See you in Armenia!” I shout, but they can’t hear me.
Three weeks later when I arrive in Armenia, I will discover there is an Ani look-out place sign-posted, which must be where we saw the men. Throughout the country, almost every postcard pictures Ani or Ararat, the mountain that sits within the borders of Turkey, yet looms over the Armenian capital of Yerevan. A history just out of their clutches, yet never let go.
For Emeé’s take on these adventures (with better pictures!) see: http://ici-ailleurs.eu/ani-and-kars/
*Unfortunately Snow turns out to be a thoroughly drab read. Get a look at the one star reviews on Amazon and you will get the idea.
Trabzon and Artvin, 7-11th October 2012
Çağatay is the best host you could wish for in Trabzon. His cheeky grin and twinkling eyes could make anyone smile. What’s more, he drives a VW campervan, and he knows everything there is to know about getting an Iranian visa in this city. “I have picture of me with Ambassador!” he tells us, grinning.
Trabzon is infamous among backpackers travelling in the Middle-East. Here, it is said, is an Iranian Embassy not listed on the government websites, which will issue a visa in one day for a cheaper price and without any of the usual formalities.
I know from last year when Lisa and Sara travelled this way, that it’s not possible for a British citizen to get a visa, even from Trabzon, without a code from an agency. Last year this code cost me another €50 on top of the €100 I paid for my visa in Istanbul. But this year I have an Irish passport and I decide to try my luck at the Mystical Magical Trabzon Embassy.
Çağatay whisks us down to the embassy in his Mystery Machine. I am abundantly aware of how ridiculous I look. After all the kerfuffle in the morning – taking photos swathed in headscarves we don’t quite know how to wear, wishing my face would wake up properly, rushing around town trying to get them printed – I had somehow forgotten to bring a headscarf. The Iran Embassy is Iranian soil and Islamic law applies. Perhaps it’s not 100% necessary, but I want to make a good impression on the Ambassador. Emée lends me her shirt and I wrap it around my head, trying to poke the buttons under so know one will know.
The man in the small office takes each of our passports and peers at them. He puts mine to one side and hands the others forms to fill in. Emée has a French passport, Alfie an Italian one. He takes mine to a small office and I watch him show it to another man behind a glass panel. “Need code”, he tells me on his return. It’s what I was expecting, but I decide to play dumb. “What code?”
“Ahh.. Code. Website. You know?”
“No. Which website?”
He takes a piece of paper, puts it back. He picks up a pile of papers, shuffles through them slowly, puts them down. “Website. Yes. Code.”
“Ok”, I tell him. He nods, smiling.
Outside I wait for the others. We drink tea in a cafe with Çağatay and his friends and I check the internet for information. It’s going to take 5-10 working days to process my authorisation code. Staying in Trabzon for this long would be a waste of time, despite our fabulous host. What to do, what to do?
The others return to the embassy in the afternoon and come out half an hour later brandishing passports with shiny new Iran visas stuck inside. They paid €75 each total. I am grumpy. I’m already wishing I hadn’t ordered my authorisation code to be sent to Trabzon, but to Tbilisi or even Yerevan, further down the road. I decide to change it and after several emails to the tour company, manage to bargain the price back down to what it was originally – €50. I will collect my visa in Yerevan.
We leave Trabzon together with Brett, another traveller who’s also been surfing with Çağatay. Brett isn’t going to Iran, but he is heading to Georgia and it’s in the same direction as us, on our way to Kars. We split into pairs and stand in the shade on the highway. This is the Black Sea region, a favourite of Turkish people and unknown to many tourists. Turkish friends have told me they like the rain and the lush green – much of it the tea plantations that feed most of Anatolia’s caffeine addiction.
Alfie and I arrive in Hopa before the others. It’s where our paths divide. We wait dozily in a kebab salon garden adjacent the sea and the road to the Georgian border, sipping çay.
The others arrive with their lift, two very friendly guys from Artvin. They are offering to take Brett all the way to the Georgian border, then come back for us and drive us to Artvin, perhaps via a very beautiful lake they want us to see. How could we refuse?
Hakan and his friend return. They mention the lake again and Emée is excited to see it. What Hakan didn’t mention is that the 50km to the lake is largely up a steep dirt track and it takes a few hours to grumble up it in his car. The lake is a black pool in a twilight sky by the time we arrive. We go inside a small building where tea is permanently on the boil and a television shows war-struck images on Al Jazeera. I haven’t seen the news for a long time. These men are Georgian immigrants. We ply them for language lessons as we drink tea after tea after tea.
Volkan accepts an emergency couch request for all three of us, sent hurriedly from a restaurant on the way. We arrive in Artvin late and he meets us outside the university where he teaches. His parents are also visiting, apparently it was his mother who told him to host us. She seems delighted to have some more people to fuss over and in the morning we’re presented with an amazing spread. “Georgia, no breakfast!” she tells us – “Now eat!” We eat, as instructed.
His father drives us to the highway. He is worried about us. Emée left them a thank you postcard calling them her new Turkish parents and now he feels a duty of protectiveness. He hovers in his car near where we’re standing, fobs off a truck when it wants to stop. “Kamiyon, no!”
“It’s ok!” I tell him.
“She is my daughter!” he tells me in Turkish. I groan.
Our asphalt ribbon winds it’s way over, under and up to the city of Ardahan, high on a plateau. The sign tells us we’re now at 1,800m. Our driver Veysel has a lazy way of driving, his hand flopping nonchalantly onto the wheel, rounding the corners. “W.O.W!” says Alfie, if only to say something other than our repetitive chorus of “güzeeeeeel!” – the Turkish word for beautiful is the one we use the most.
We wait in a layby, fob off two young boys with bicycles – “But what are you doing here, Abla?” they ask me, using the Turkish word for ‘big sister’. We climb into the black car that stopped for us. Our ride out of town is from Van. He plays Kurdish music for the short ride to the crossroads, looks delighted when I show him my red, green and yellow bracelet – the Kurdish colours, from Diyrbakır where he studied. We get out and take a photo all together. “He just pinched my ass!” Emée tells us as he drives away and I wonder if it took him the whole 12km ride to come up with that ploy.
One more lift and we’re in Kars. This city has been calling me.
3-7th October, 2012
We stayed four nights in Mersin with a Kurdish friend from last year. Actually, with his friends, in a flat of musicians in a tall noisy tower-block across from the sea. Electro-pop music juddered up the building from the bar below in the evenings. We drowned it with the sound of trumpets and piano.
I mentioned to our host that we would travel through Kurdistan. His reply was immediate – “There’s no such place.”
I wasn’t even referring to the controversial area which is inside Turkish state borders, but to Iraqi Kurdistan, which now has it’s own regional Kurdish Government and is, in fact, called Kurdistan. And his best friend is Kurdish.
Our truck driver on the way to Mersin, İyigün (who the hell would call their son ‘Good day’?) mimed shooting when I told him the friend I was on my way to visit was Kurdish. “I want to kill all Kurdish”, he said with a scowl.
Fast forward five days. I peer over Emée’s shoulder as she leafs through a book on the short stool next to me: Diyarbakır, City of Stones and Dreams. We are in a small, damp, çay cafe somewhere in the ramshackle stone labyrinth that makes up the old town in the South-East of the city.
Diyarbakır, unofficial capital of Turkish Kurdistan – that place that doesn’t exist – is said to be the ‘castle’ of the PKK – the Kurdish Workers’ Party, who have been leading an armed struggle against the Turkish state since 1984. On the way from Mersin, we began our journey with Turkish drivers. Of course, they asked where we were going – “Oh no, very bad people. Very bad place. Dangerous. Why you want to go there?” At some point we seemed to cross some invisible line and the tone changed entirely – “Ahh, Diyarbakır! Very nice place. Very nice people. Çok güzel!”
We are staying with a man named Hassan, a Turkish hippy version of Gandalf from Lord of the Rings. He is even mentioned on Hitchwiki:
“There’s an old hippie living in Diyarbakır who owns a cozy place called Cafe Mahya, close to the Ofis Mosque. He is very active on couchsurfing, hosting hundreds of people every year.”
Everywhere we wander in this city, children tail behind us; men stare. “Hello! hello! my name is? my name is? moneymoneymoney…” comes the chorus from the kids.
We try to answer patiently – “My name is Jo, what’s your name?”
“My name is Ayşe. Money?”
People here are not used to foreigners. Women and men approach us on the street – “Where are you from? Welcome! Welcome! Do you like our city?
“Yes”, we tell them, “Çok güzel!”
All the towns in Kurdistan have two names. The one we are headed to is marked on my map as Tunceli, but those who live there know it by it’s older, Kurdish name: Dersim.
Now we are three. The most recent addition to our party has been chasing us through Turkey since leaving the Balkans some days ago. I’ve been emailing him since Istanbul. On meeting us finally, late one night at Hassan’s place, he told us he has three names and we can pick one: Antonio, Luca and Alnair. We decided to call him Alfie.
A series of coincidences led me to Dersim. It just kept popping up in blogs and conversations. If Diyarbakır is the castle of the PKK, Dersim is perhaps their homeland. All around there are mountains harboring freedom fighters. We pass tanks and armored vehicles, heavy weapons loaded and aimed at mountain ranges. We drive by and stare, too nervous to take a photo.
We don’t know anybody in Dersim. In response to a call-out, a text message arrives from Hassan, our host in Diyarbakır. He tells us of a çay garden where we can pitch a tent. We cross town and take a dark, downhill slope to the deathly quiet main road that runs alongside the river. The gush of water is the only sound. A man walking the other way with hands in pockets calls out – “Where are you going?”
“This way”, I tell him, and we continue walking. The following day I will receive an email from a friend in response to my query on where we might stay – “Do not camp outside, or stay on the road after dark!”
We find the çay garden on the other side of a slim metal bridge. Our heavily-laden footsteps clang across it and a man opens the door to greet us. We go inside. I ask if there is tea. There is not, but they can make it for us. It seems they were just about to close. I begin a long-winded explanation in Turkish, stretching my language skills to the depths of their ability – “a friend in Diyarbakır told us there was a place we could put a tent…” I later realise I confused the word çadır (tent) with çanta (bag), but anyway they manage to understand us. They take us outside to a concrete area and the younger man shows us his own tent, erect on the concrete. It looks hard and uncomfortable. “This is great! Thank you, thank you!” We tell the men. “But… if you want, you can just sleep inside”, the older man tells us. “Really?” We all settle down on the floor inside the cafe, begin unfurling sleeping bags and roll-mats. The men bring us piles of blankets, offer to make us tea again – this time almost insisting.
In the morning a breakfast spread is laid for us: cheese, olives, egg, jams, bread, butter and of course the endless çay. After breakfast we take photos with our new friends. I press some notes into the palm of the older man, who I’m now calling Amca (uncle) and of course he is horrified and pushes them back. No, no, we are guests. He even drives us to the road in his own car, saving us a thirty minute walk with our bags.
We are taken fast from our hitchhiking spot, in a large minibus filled with Kurdish men and women. We are unclear as to whether this is public transport or not, but they say “no money” and invite us to their house. We only just hit the road, so we politely decline and wave them off when they drop us outside the turn to their house.
Our next truck driver, Erul, is Turkish and nervous. His eyes dart across the mountains as he takes us along the winding road to the North, away from Dersim. “This is the most dangerous road in Turkey”, he informs us, between stealthy sideways glances. I am not surprised. I’m sure I remember reading something on Middle Eastern Tales about a truck being turned over and set fire to somewhere around these parts. It was carrying food supplies for the Turkish military.
Graffiti on bridges:
“1 Mayıs’ta anlara DHF”
“1 Mayıs’ta anlara dehzu partizan”
“TKP’YE” (The Communist Party of Turkey)
“Vietnam’a hoşgeldin!” – Welcome to Vietnam!
I attempt to scribble them into my notebook as we rush past, but probably some of the spellings are wrong. TKP, I later discover, are the Communist Party of Turkey. The first two are largely a mystery to me, but later I find they are a reference to the Demokratik Haklar Federasyonu – The Democraic Rights Federation, which, according to their website – “wages the struggle against imperialism, comprador capitalism, feudalism, fascism and all other reactionary trends, armed with a scientific socialist ideological and political stance.”
We see one last piece of graffiti etched into the mountainside as we sip tea with Erul in a small roadside cafe:
“Her şey vatan için” – Everything for the Fatherland. Above it is the Turkish crescent moon and star. We are out of the Dersim region now and almost out of Kurdistan.
Another ride takes us up and away out of the Kurdish region and into Turkey proper. The change is somehow palpable, and our lifts dry up.
Read more adventures in Kurdistan: