I’ve been told that a lot of people from Turkey who work 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 the elderly guy who’s giving me the ride. He used to work in the greenhouses just south of the town. 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 it’s city streets the city hardly feels 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, in 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 stops full of kids who 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 light is about to turn green. Turns out it’s a Kurdish family, the father of which 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 decide to pay for the last leg of the trip.

a dead town and a small town

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 the downtown Diyarbakir, and then I need four more rides to get to my destination. Two guys who gave 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 the 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 it’s a good day out and 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. His flatmate and him 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 hosts 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.

on the outside looking in

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.

on the crossroads

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.

into the cold

The language app Duolingo has given me a vocabulary equal parts useful and bewildering. But now that I’m discussing what kind of animals the driver I’m with likes to hunt I finally appreciate learning how to say ‘good morning blue rabbit’. When he’s spotted a good place to park the car he drops me off in the middle of nowhere and I walk a few kilometers down the quiet road feeling strangely ecstatic in the snowy mountainous scenery. A car stops and two men offer me a ride. Their car smells like fish as they’re bringing this morning’s catch from Trabzon to Erzerum. They give me some bread, and I get to practice a bit more of my Turkish. ‘Bread,’ I say while pointing at their gift, followed by ‘fish?’ while pointing to the back of the car.

Erzerum’s reputation is that it’s one of the most closed-minded cities in Turkey. And I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but it’s the only place during my travels in Turkey where I have been unable to find a couchsurfing host. I get dropped off close to the university and the people on the streets give a relatively liberal impression. But as I make my way towards the center more conservatively dressed people appear.

But  a conservative dress code does not necessarily imply unfriendliness. I do manage to meet up with a guy I met through the couchsurfing site and his guided tour through castle, old madrassa and a few cafes instantly transforms my impressions of the city from a rather unwelcoming place to one with excellent kebab, tea and friendly people.

small town, big man

Trabzon doesn’t have much in the way of culture. There is a house museum and a church that was turned into a mosque that was then turned into a museum that was then turned into a mosque again. But apart from that I entertain myself mostly just by walking through town and getting used to the fact that I’m no longer in the former Soviet Union which no matter where I went always gave me at least a few familiar points to orient myself by.

I’m leaving the coast behind me to head south, but my next destination, Erzerum, is a bit far away and it’s too cold to risk sleeping outside. The small town of Bayburt has a couchsurfing host so it seems like a good choice. But the truck driver giving me the ride can’t figure out why anybody would want to spend time in that town.

My couchsurfing host is puzzled too, but he’s glad to have some company at least. He’s from Turkey’s self-declared most liberal city and is counting the days until he’s done his service to the state and can leave. He can’t even buy a beer because if anybody sees him going into the town’s only liquor store his parents are sure to find out.

I guess the driver and my host are right. There’s not much to see in Bayburt. But I’m in luck. I’m not even the most exotic sight in town today, because Erdogan is holding a speech in the main square in the afternoon. People have come from the surrounding area to town, university students are bused in and the streets are busy. I’m amazed at the diversity of the people: red heads, blond people, green eyes, blue eyes. The most interesting thing in Bayburt is surely the people. At least that’s what I have to think since I can’t make much sense of the speech being given by the distant man on the stage which everybody else seems to listen to attentively.

first day in Turkey brings some slight troubles

I’m efficiently hitchhiking my way to Trabzon when I’m dropped off near the outskirts of the city of Rize. After a little walk I see the perfect spot to hitchhike. The sidewalk narrows to make way for a long driveway leading to a place besides some trees, a perfect place for cars to stop. So I stand still and stick out my thumb. A few minutes pass before a dog runs past me, a few seconds after that there follows a police officer who is running after the dog while at the same time ducking and trying the grab the animal. It’s an absurd sight, but any entertainment is quickly killed when after having caught the dog the officer’s attention turns to me.

It turns out the broad driveway leads straight to the local police station so I’m basically begging to be interrogated. I guess I’m too odd for the normal officers so I have to wait before two plainclothes men with neatly trimmed beards show up. They speak a bit of English and ask me where I’m heading. Istanbul along the Black Sea coast, I lie. My actual plan is to head to the Mediterranean through the Kurdish area but since fighting has recently been flaring up again in that area I figure the best option is to give the safest answers. It works, they let me go without any further trouble.

The delay means I get to Trabzon when the sun is setting. I haven’t heard from my couchsurfing host and when I finally find the only hostel in town it turns out it’s only open in summer. Luckily I took a screenshot of the name of a cheap hotel, but I have no idea where the street is. I follow increasingly busy roads till I get to the central square and find the hotel. I’ve not been in town long but just this short walk already gives me the impression of a place unlike any of the cities I’ve been visiting previously. More people, cars and definitely more shops. In a way the central shopping street, with its lack of cars and chain stores selling affordable goods to the masses who are there not only to buy what they need but also to be entertained, even kind of reminds me of similar streets in my home country.

a long way for a short visit

My intention was to spend winter in Tbilisi, but then my sister invited me and the rest of the family to visit her in Beirut where she is currently living with her husband. Flying would be boring and too easy, but the direct overland route from Georgia is cut off due to the Syrian civil war. After a little research I come to the conclusion that trying to hitchhike a boat over the Mediterranean would be too much effort and too risky since I have to be in Beirut by a certain date. Luckily there turns out to be a ferry from the south of Turkey to the north of Lebanon.

After spending two months working in a hostel owned by a strict Georgian Orthodox New Zealander I head out one cold November morning to make my way southeast and by the end of the day I’m in Batumi on the coast of the Black Sea. The city prides itself on its modern architecture but what interests me most are the ruins of and old Roman fort a few kilometers out of town.

After having crossed the border into Turkey I feel a bit apprehensive. The scenery is beautiful: mountains to the left, the Black Sea to my right. It doesn’t look so different from where I was yesterday but I’m definitely in a different place. I’ve spent the last eight months or so in the former Soviet Union where I could count on using Russian to get around. I’m far from fluent, but at least I can keep a conversation going. I feel that the nine levels of Turkish Duolingo I have completed up to now have in no way prepared me for explaining what I’m up to to quizzical drivers. I get lucky on my first ride though. Two of the people in the car speak Russian. They question me extensively on living standards in the Netherlands. They’re curious about the price of petrol, bread, housing and the minimum wage. I tell them I haven’t been home in a while and have to guess most of the answers but still their questions continue. By the end of the ride I feel a little less sad about not being able to have elaborate talks with fellow passengers anymore.

unexpected sights

The owner and his wife are a friendly couple. I speak Russian with them but they also know an obscure language native to that area and once again I get the impression that every new place I visit in Azerbaijan has its own language and distinct history. Something which is confirmed to me when we take a walk in the woods run into some blond kids, which according to the owner is not a rare sight in the region, and see some abandoned churches.

The next day I head to visit more historical highlights in nearby places. I get lost in the woods trying to find the ruins of a castle and when I finally find the remnants of a brick wall I deem it good enough thinking the path is too steep and slippery to continue. I am rewarded o my effort down when I run into an English speaking family who invite me to share their lunch before I visit a nearby village with traditional architecture and a church before I had back into town the catch a bus back. I have some time before it departs so I decide to visit the local museum dedicated to the president’s father but the doors are locked. I meet a guy outside who says the museum is never open so instead I hang out in the park also named after the president’s father.

The road to the border goes through a sleepy country side for the first dozen or so kilometers not much traffic, but I feel like I’ve been taking too much public transport recently. However when the third or so bus is approaching me after having walked a few kilometers with very little luck I wave it down and get in. I manage to find another ride before being dropped off with a few kilometers left to go. I start walking uphill until exhaustion prevents me from continuing. When a young soldier in a car passes and sees the state I’m in he quickly offers me a ride up to the border.

Sheki, small but surprising

I wake up when the sun is already shining down on me. Still groggy from sleep I decide to put off hitchhiking for a while and walk towards the city. After a kilometer or five I’m offered a ride by a couple of tourists I met two days earlier. They’re already sharing the car with two other tourists and I’m glad it’s only a short ride into town.

But when I get there I understand why tourists would want to go there. I get dropped off by a lovely old mosque and when I head up the bed and breakfast I pass an old caravanserai Later in the day I visit the 18th century palace of the local khan. It’s smallish but incredibly lavishly decorated with flower patterns and battle scenes. I end the day with a visit to the local museum which still follows the pattern of almost every ex-Soviet museum I’ve been to. Starting in the stone age and ending with a display of locally produced goods.

The bed and breakfast owner hands me a phone number of a place in my next destination. When I ask him why I wasn’t able to find it online he says there used to be a network of homestays which were linked up through a program set up by a Peace Corps volunteer, but that organization had been kicked out of the country and the network had disintegrated. When I arrive at the new place the owner tells me I’m the only guest he’s had this season. It’s late August.