Not knowing quite what else to do in Yerevan I hitch over the mountains to Goris. One of my first rides of the day are a father and son who are heading to their gold mine in Nagorno Karabakh. The fighting seems to have died down there but I’ve been told the border is still closed to foreigners. They seem to be puzzled by Azerbaijan’s claims on the territory and blames the Turkish government for inciting the troubles. I’ve heard it said that the people in power on both sides of the conflict keep it going in order to deflect criticism. Something which rings true when a couchsurfer in Yerevan tells me the fight against corruption is less important than the conflict over Karabakh.
Goris is a derilict old industrial town with a main road built by German POWs after 1945 but it lies between an elaborate cave complex and one of the country’s most famous monasteries served by the world’s longest cable car ride. This modern piece of equipment filled with tourists from different European and Asian countries seems out of place after having walked alone for a good hour over muddy roads to get to the caves. A glimpse at the potential tourism boom some investments in local infrastructure could bring.
After returning to Yerevan I collect my visa, go out for a few more beers with a few more couchsurfers and hitch to Georgia, the border with Turkey is closed so a little detour is needed via Gyumri and Akhaltiskhe in Georgia. The distance is covered piecemeal. Most people just seem to be going to the next town or village as is typical in poor rural areas: the farmer and her son going into town to buy medicine, the grandfather looking after his three grand kids because their parents are working abroad, the twenty something and his two friends who tell me that if I was his girlfriend he would not let me travel alone, the out of place yuppie couple in a Mercedes from Batumi, the delivery guys who let me ride in the back of their now empty van after a day out running errands and a few others and a few other people whose combined stories provide an interesting, though superficial insight into local life.
I’ll be spending a while in Yerevan as I need to get an Iranian visa here I’ve also been to the town before so I don’t feel like I need to check off all the tourist attractions. Instead I spent my days walking around the city’s well laid out streets, eating ice cream and meeting up with fellow couchsurfers.
The consular section only works in the morning and since my brain holds other office hours I need a few attempts before I get to the right place with all the right documents. When I enter I see another tourist wearing a headscarf, I wonder if that was yet another thing I ought to have paid attention to, but the nice lady on the other side of the glass doesn’t seem to mind. She tells me to come back in a week.
In the meantime I’ve decided to take a few daytrips out of town. To yet another monastery, this one picturesquely situated on a peninsula on lake Sevan and I join another couchsurfer in an ultimately fruitless effort to visit a fish festival in a nearby village. We give up after even the people at the town hall seemed puzzled by our information that this international event is supposedly taking place in their village.
After having flown back to Tbilisi from Beirut and spending a few more months hanging around town I head out again now that the snow is starting to melt in the Caucasus. My plan is to head out to Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh, but a few days before I head out to the highway the frozen conflict there heats up. The war seems to stay limited to the disputed territory however so I just change my plan slightly. Still, the situation is unpredictable, making it difficult to distinguish rumor from fact. The first guy giving me a ride once I cross the border warns me off taking certain roads as a few cars have been shot at. My next driver has no idea what the first driver was talking about and assures me there’s no fighting within Armenia proper.
The next car is occupied by a businessman and his driver. The guy used to be a linguist in Soviet times but now works on cellphone technology. He tells me about the decline of industry in the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His stories illustrate a visible fact as we drive past abandoned factories on atrocious roads.
My first few days in Armenia are spent in the popular resort town of Dilijan. As the town is situated in the mountains, local tourists flock here when the cities become unbearably hot in summer. But during these early April days it seems I’m the only tourist around. I’m the only one using their hands to clutch a camera rather than crossing themselves as I enter the many monasteries around.
Though I am theoretically only a day or two’s hitchhiking away from my destination, Beirut, the fighting in Syria forces me to take the long way round. So I hitch to the port city of Mersin to catch a ferry to the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.
The hitchhiking goes surprisingly smoothly, but it does mean I have three full days to kill before the ferry in Mersin, a city with not much to do. I buy my ticket and walk around. Luckily the historically significant town of Taurus is an hour’s train ride away, and I spend the day exploring old Roman baths and a few places connected to the apostle Paul. The sights are markedly different to those in the Kurdish area or even the conservative heartland I have been visiting in the past weeks. It hardly even feels like the same country.
As I am hitchhiking the last sixty or so kilometers to the boat I keep noticing the cultural shift. In the ruins, where a family make a short stop to show me the amphitheater, a couple who speak to me wish me well, ‘luv’, in their cockney accents, as they moved to London forty odd years ago. And on my final ride I speak to a successful self made businessman who I initially assume must be critical of Erdogan since every other English speaker I’ve spoken to recently seemed to be. But I quickly realize I have to be careful of what I say now that I’ve left Turkey’s east behind me.
My couchsurfing host has some business in Hatay, a part of Turkey I had not heard of until crossing the border a few weeks ago. But since several people have tried to convince me to visit I can’t turn down the serendipitous offer of a ride. He isn’t going all the way to my destination of Antakya. So I need one more ride. Luckily a local judge and his driver quickly respond to my raised thumb. The judge speaks excellent French, having studied in Paris and Brussels. I try hard to dredge op the remnants of my school French and manage to cobble together a few semi-coherent sentences. It’s mostly the judge who talks. If I run into any trouble in the region all I have to do is call him, he assures me – he knows everybody and will be able to solve all my troubles.
In several ways Hatay is an appendix to Turkey. This relatively small stretch of land which borders Syria to the east and south and the Mediterranean to the west was incorporated into the young Republic of Turkey well over a decade after its independence. A lot of the people I strike up a conversation with have an Arabic and/or Alevi background. And maybe it’s just because I got lucky finding a great host on couchsurfing, a young teacher originally from Ankara, but Antakya seems more friendly and open than all the other places in Turkey I’ve been to so far. However, people tell me tourism and trade is declining rapidly now that the border with Syria is shut.
Though Hatay didn’t ring a bell, the old name of the city I’m in does sound very familiar: Antioch. The name conjures up connotations with early Christianity, the crusades and Monty Python. There are still a few old churches in town, one rumored to be one of the oldest churches in the world, plus a charming old town with narrow alleyways and hidden courtyards and a huge new, but empty, museum.
My couchsurfing hosts pick me up from the bus station. They’re cosmopolitan well educated middle class inhabitants of the largest city in Turkey’s east – a type of people I haven’t couchsurfed with in a fair while. Together we go to an old caravanserai which is currently serving as a popular hangout for the city’s well off. The old courtyard is now filled with metal chairs, a sound system and hookahs with health warning stickers.
Walking around Gaziantep over the next few days, I find a few more places which despite being old are still perfectly integrated into the modern city. In the places I’ve been to recently old buildings were usually just left to disintegrate further, or at best a flag was stuck on top and some measures were taken to prevent further decay, but in Gaziantep old market stalls and mosques seem to move with the times.
The comforts of big city life seem fragile, however, when I see kids with big bags slung over their shoulders. They’re Syrian refugee kids trying to supplement their family’s income. The war, which rages only 50 kilometers away, has brought child labor back to Turkey. Understandably in a city this size, the conflict generates a variety of opinions in Gaziantep. My couchsurfing hosts tell me that sometimes celebrations break out in some parts of the city after an ISIS victory. But when I ask them how the war has impacted them most of all they tell me that the Syrian refugees have driven up house prices. Which seems like a callous complaint, but perhaps also an understandable one that indicates how normal and almost mundane the effects of the nearby war have been on the city.
I’ve been told that a lot of people from Turkey who live in my home city of The Hague come from this part of Turkey and that information becomes an anecdote when I end up speaking Dutch to an elderly guy who’s giving me a ride. He used to work in the greenhouses just south of The Hague. His Dutch is a little rusty and most of his vocabulary relates to the growing of vegetables. But it’s still a lot better than my Turkish.
Malataya is an ancient city with not much to show for it except for the local museum. Walking around the streets, I don’t feel as if the city is older than a few decades but it’s nice enough for a day. Luckily the next day is a Saturday and I join my couchsurfing host and his flatmate, two university students, on a trip to an ancient valley with some waterfalls. We end the day as a lot of days have ended recently, in a cafe surrounded by people playing backgammon and drinking tea.
My first ride towards Gaziantep is perfect, a history teacher who speaks a bit of English. My next ride is the polar opposite, a truck driver asking for sex. I get off as he has to stop for a light as we ride through a town. No matter, only a few more dozen kilometers. A car full of kids stops and they tell me to get in. Usually I like to talk to the driver a bit before throwing my lot in with some unknown person but the traffic light is about to turn green. Turns out it’s a Kurdish family, and the father speaks a bit of Italian. I quickly establish a bond by calling Erdogan one of the few Italian swearwords I know. Unfortunately they’ve got a local destination and they drop me off by a small bus station. I decide to call it a day and pay for the last leg of the trip.
The road to Elâzığ isn’t that long, but I don’t get to my destination till after sundown. It takes a few hours to get to a good hitchhiking spot from downtown Diyarbakir, and then I need four more rides to get to my destination. Two guys who give me a ride offer to buy me some shashlik, but luckily I have learned how to say ‘I am full’ in Turkish, probably the most used phrase of my trip.
There’s not much to see in Elâzığ itself, but it’s situated next to an imposing old castle and village which have been inhabited since the Iron Age. Combined with the local museum they make for a good day out and I get back in the early evening to hang out with my couchsurfing host and his flatmate.
Though he did not have any references from other guests nobody else in the small town offered to put me up. Initially the conversation is fairly standard. He and his flatmate tell me that they are from the west of Turkey but since they weren’t the best students they got stuck having to pursue a university degree in this frustratingly conservative part of the country. Eventually the flatmate leaves and my host and I are left. After a few minutes he awkwardly asks me to sleep with him. I turn him down, sleep with a knife next to my bed and leave early in the morning without waking him up. I don’t know if it was just dumb opportunism or a misunderstanding of what couchsurfing is about but I resolve not to stay with guys who have no references again.
I’m a few kilometers away from downtown Diyarbakir. Taking public transport would make sense were it not for the fact that I don’t know which bus goes where. But walking down the street with my big backpack I am a pretty obvious oblivious tourist. A dolmuş stops beside me and tells me to get in. I mention the name of the square and the driver nods. He refuses to take my money.
On the other side of the square are the city walls of the old town. On my side there are endless numbers of police barriers. This morning the historically and architecturally significant old town was put under curfew and no outsiders are allowed in after fighting got out of hand. A young man stands besides me and notices me trying to process what I see. A helicopter flies overhead. There are 7,000 terrorists in there, he says.
The hostel turns out to be an NGO that uses spare space to house visitors. I hang around for a few days waiting for the old town to reopen. But the police barriers stay put. Instead I spend my time walking through town, hanging out on the banks of the Tigris river and meeting with people I find through couchsurfing. I walk with them through the hipper part of town, listen to traditional music and walk right up to the city walls knowing that on the other side of the massive brickwork a battle is raging. I can hear the occasional explosions as helicopters constantly hover overhead. It’s a strange sensation, on the one hand wanting to steer clear of disaster tourism but on the other hand not wanting to be intimidated. Not quite being able to decide whether as an outsider I have no right, or every right, to be here.
I’ve been warned against going to Diyarbakir. A prominent Kurdish lawyer was killed in the city just a few days ago, and some expect street protests to escalate into widespread violence. Others, however, tell me that it should be ok as long as I don’t do anything dumb. And I’m still not sure so I’ve decided to spend a few days in Bingöl where I can either choose to go south further into Kurdish areas or go west and avoid potential conflict.
Bingöl has a university, but not a cinema. It feels as conservative as Ezerum, but at least that place had some incredible architecture. This city was largely destroyed in an earthquake and some damaged houses still stand, now serving as temporary shelter to some Syrian families.
I find out though that even a city with no conceivable tourist sights still can be a fantastic place to visit as long you meet the right people. I’m staying with a university student and her flatmates, who do their best to make me feel at home. We spend most of our time hanging out at backgammon cafes and and drinking tea. My host is Kurdish, as are her friends and through them I get a first glimpse into their incredible hospitable culture. I find their openness in discussing politics a relief after having some rather guarded conversations further north. But they also have mixed ideas about me traveling down to Diyarbakir. However, after a few days it doesn’t look like large scale protests are going to happen and a few people I messaged through the couchsurfing site tell me the city’s ok for visits so I chose the southern road.