The Place that Doesn’t Exist

3-7th October, 2012

Mountains of Kurdistan

I mention to our host that we would travel through Kurdistan. His reply is immediate – “There’s no such place.”

We’re staying in Mersin with a Kurdish friend, in a flat full of musicians, in a tall noisy tower-block across from the sea. Electro-pop music judders up the building from the bar below in the evenings. We drown it with the sound of trumpets and piano.

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.”

Our host in Diyarbakır (picture by Emée)

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.

Sleeping in the çay cafe

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.

With our Kurdish Amca

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.

The most dangerous road in Turkey

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.

Emée playing trumpet to the open road

Read more adventures in Kurdistan:

7 thoughts on “The Place that Doesn’t Exist

  1. Hi jo. Sounds like you’re having an amazing time. I just wanted to respond to your story about a host not accepting money.

    I have a friend who has family in rural south asia. She had a rant at me once, that was a response to having read an account in the New Internationalist of a privileged westerner who had a chicken killed for her while a guest of some rural poor people in south asia.

    The account of how this family would not accept anything in return, made my friend quite angry. She said that the tradition for great shows of hospitality in rural communities comes from a context of reciprocity. If you pop round to my house, and end up getting fed much of my families’ protein quota for the week, that’s okay, cos at some point I’ll be round your house and you will do the same for me. This reciprocity is not possible for travellers passing through, so when she is visiting relatives, here is what she does:

    – happily she is vege. When she gets her hosts to properly understand that she truly does not want them to kill a chicken for her, she sees visible relief on their faces. A chicken is not just a one off source of protein, it is a significant protein supply that lasts for years unless you get an important guest.

    – it is improper for hosts to in any way seem eager to accept gifts. But this is not because they don’t want or need them. There just needs to be a big elaborate dance before they are accepted. My friend says if they are going to refuse a gift 5 times, you just need to insist 6 times. When she keeps up with her insistence, she knows it is appropriate and not offensive, she just has to really put the effort in.

    – Other strategies she uses include giving the money to a child. (I find it interesting how odd I found this. In our individualistic culture a gift to a child would be understood as a gift to that individual child. In a communal culture it is a gift to the family.) I can’t remember if she would leave money behind. Probably.

    Once she thought she was only making a short visit to some relatives, and she gave them some money, and then they stayed longer, and in that time one of her hosts had been collecting/borrowing cash, and as she was leaving she got presented with a greater amount of money than she’d given them. Gutted. So it’s an extremely subtle and convoluted load of etiquette, and easy to make mistakes. But it quite wound my friend up that a load of privileged westerners travel round areas with rural poverty, taking but not giving, and believing that it is okay behaviour.

    I would be really interested if you chat to anyone about whether it is possible to leave people money in a way that would not offend them. I guess the most reliable source would be someone who understands rural/communal culture, but is not in a position where etiquette demands them to tell you it’s fine to just accept stuff.

    I can’t remember if I’ve said any of this to you before, and I’m really sorry if I come across as patronising.

    Rache xx

  2. Hi!
    I just came across your blog and already love it! I recently was kind of bit by the hitching bug! I live in Edinburgh and recently hitched to Amsterdam. I am planning on hitchhiking to Morocco over Spring Break, and I really want to go to Turkey and Armenia this summer!
    I think your pictures are amazing, and so is your journey. I really want to do a hitch to anywhere sometime in the future, and I am curious about what you think about safety and hitchhiking.
    To be honest, I never had any issues, or even any scares so far when I was hitchhiking. Anyways, I now intend to start back reading your blog, it seems like you have amazing adventures!

  3. Your hippy host in Diyarbakır look awesome! Haha! This makes me want to travel the Middle East, I’ve done Asia and written a website about it. The Middle East is definitely my next mission.

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