I turn down the offer of the truck driver to go to his house, switch to his car and drive the last 5 or so kilometers to do the border. Nothing too explicit happened, but he instructed me too many times to find a Dutch wife for him and at this point I just want to get out of his truck. Though I’m slightly starting to regret my choice a few kilometers down the road when my backpack starts to feel too heavy under the scorching sun.
I’m elated when I finally see the line of cars lining up in front of the Turkish border post. I spot some Dutch license plates and I try to make some small talk but the driver doesn’t seem to be impressed or even care that he’s meeting a fellow countrymen, he’s just trying to get his paper work in order.
I consider going back to that car when the Turkish border guard tells me I can’t continue on foot. I ask him how I am supposed to cross when a man in a crowd invites me into the van he’s in. He ushers me through the checkpoints. The Turkish one is unremarkable and standard bureaucratically unfriendly. The Kurdish-Iraqi check is more informal with a gun laying very casually between the mouse and the monitor of the guy who is examining my passport. He tells what I’ve already read online. If I want to stay in the territory for over 10 days I need to go to the police and that the stamp only gives me entrance to the Kurdish territory and under no circumstance am I allowed into the area not controlled by the Kurds. I agree he stamps my passport and returns it to me. The Iraqi stamp is one of the very few signs I’m in what is internationally recognized as Iraq. Outside the border post a wave of Kurdish flags flutter.
I’m surprised to hear the guy giving me a ride is a cop. Maybe I misunderstood him. He just seems so friendly and with his basic grasp of English combined with my random bits of Turkish vocabulary we are managing to actually have an interesting conversation. It’s just that all the people I’ve hung out with recently were so anti-government that it’s easy to forget there could be decent people working on both sides.
We have a kebab together before I catch public transport for the last few kilometers as he heads off to his elderly parents on their farm a few kilometers from the Syrian border. My couchsurfing host Hawar is still at work, but has told me to meet him at the teachers hostel. When I go there the guy behind the counter has no clue who Hawar is, but I manage to communicate that I would like to use the phone. Via my host I ask if I can leave my bag for a few hours, the guy behind the counter looks a bit uncomfortable, he asks if I’m carrying a bomb before agreeing.
A few hours later I meet up with Hawar, and figure out why we aroused suspicion. My host is a Syrian refugee with the accent to match his background. Turns out he’s a pretty impressive guy who fled across the border with nothing, but is now starting his own construction business. I ask him if he’d like to continue on to Europe, but he says he doesn’t want to start over again. Besides at least he”s close to his family now. Living just on the other side of the border though he hasn’t seen them since crossing the border, as a young man it’s too dangerous to go back into his home town.
I spent a few evenings hanging out with Hawer and his friends, while in the daytime I wander through Mardin‘s old city. The historical museum is closed for renovation and though there are many shops catering to tourists it looks like I’m the only foreigner about. The hawkers just seem listless not even bothering to try and lure me into their shops. In a way the town itself is an open air museum with its old churches, steep stairways between streets and old houses perched on top of hill overlooking the Mesopotamian plain.
I have to wander for a while along Şanlıurfa’s beautiful yet narrow and confusing old city alleyways until I find my hostel. For some reason these are very rare in Eastern Turkey and after having spent the last few weeks Couchsurfing I embrace the opportunity to spend some time alone. The place turns out to be the former home of an Armenian merchant. An indication of the city’s more cosmopolitan past.
I’ve heard that the city is ancient, far older than even the city’s old center would indicate. I visit a cave where local allege Abraham was hid as a baby. I join the women and children in the left half of the cave, have a sip of water from the holy source. Some women are praying alone, others are listening to an elderly woman’s chants others still are there seemingly to do no more than hang out perhaps hiding from the outside’s scorching sun.
But outside Şanlıurfa. a far more ancient site was found. I have to take a bus, hitchhike and walk to get to a fascinating archaeological site, though the theories around the structures are more interesting than the actual remains themselves which thanks to some fence work I don’t get to see up close. So I’m happy when a Turkish couple on holiday offer me a ride back into town where I visit some museums and get a chance to see detailed replicas of what I tried to see in the morning before buying some new clothing in a brand new shopping mall. Time does not stand still in Şanlıurfa.
I had never heard of Midyat until a few days ago, but a couchsurfing host told me I could stay at his place there so that’s as good a reason to visit a town as any. As the sun sets a truck driver drops me off in town and I meet up with Osman, my couchsurfing host. We walk down the busy high street and then down some dusty back streets till we get to his flat where I’m in for a surprise. A large collection of books lines the walls of the room I’ll be staying in. As I scan the spines familiar names spring out: Foucault, Žižek, Judith Butler. I ask Osman if he’s got anything by Gramsci and he smiles and pulls the Prison Notebooks out of his backpack.
Midyat proves to be a surprisingly beautiful city full of sandstone-colored houses and old churches. It reminds me more of Lebanon than of a city like Van which I visited just a few days ago. At the weekend Osman and I set out to visit a few churches and monasteries out in the countryside where we stumble upon an Assyrian wedding and are, of course, invited to join in with the festive meal.
The buildings and people are an important reminder of the fact that a hundred years ago the demographics of this place were entirely different and to this day this part of Turkey has a very uneasy relation with the powers that be. Something which Osman, a Kurd himself, is keenly aware off as the village in which he was born has been razed to the ground by the government.
After a few hours spent in the trucks and cars of random people I get dropped off on the outskirts of Batman. My couchsurfing host is still working so I have some time to kill which is never a problem for a person with a big backpack in this part of the world as someone is always bound to invite you over for some tea. This time it’s two retired engineers who speak a fair bit of English due to the city being an oil town.
I’m only spending one night in the city as there’s nothing much to do. But a little further south lies the ancient citadel city of Hasankeyf. Though the citadel dates back thousands of years and has both significant historical value and immense tourist potential, it will soon be flooded when a new dam is constructed. That’s been the story for the past decade at least. Nothing seems to be happening at the moment, but the threat prevents the citadel from being maintained and it is now closed off after a tourist got hit by a piece of crumbling building last year.
As I make my way towards the entrance gate I’m set upon by a few touts who promise to show me around for some money. But they’re aggressiveness is off-putting so instead I go in search of a hole in the fence. Unfortunately the citadel proves hard to enter so instead I just explore the few historical sights outside the citadel proper and have some tea with a Kurdish family who invite me in and give me several handfuls of mint leaves for no apparent reason.
I keep meeting both very conservative and more secular people. Sometimes even together. The guy sitting in the back of the truck is cheerful and patient as I try to hold a conversation with my basic Turkish skills. His friend the driver is almost entirely silent and when I reach out my hand out of habit when we depart he doesn’t reach out to grab it.
I spent a day in and around Tatvan trying to find some old Armenian churches I’ve read about online. I manage to track down two churches turned into cowsheds but can’t seem to find the old monastery on top of the hill. In the pouring rain in an otherwise empty nearby village square I meet a guy in his early twenties who shows me some pictures of the place on his phone. He seems worried that I’m out in the rain with no obvious clue about the back roads through the farm fields and forests and offers to take me there. But somehow walking around through the woods with a complete stranger and no one else around doesn’t seem like a good plan. Maybe the conservatism of the place is getting to me and feeding my paranoia. The guy is puzzled and seems slightly offended. He offers to go take me to his mother’s house for tea but I reject his invitation again. He types something on his phone and shows it to me – ‘I am human’ it reads and I feel scummy for being unfriendly. In an effort to show I have no problem with him I shake his hand and walk away.
I’m staying in an flat on the campus of the local university as the husband in my host family is a theater professor. I’m not the only couchsurfer when I arrive and the family is well traveled too and they’re already planning their European summer trip. I feel very much at home as me and the other guest sip on some home-brewed beer. This cosmopolitan home seems out of place amongst the conservative outside world. On the streets of the city, men vastly outnumber women and I have to stop in my tracks when I see a girl with an exposed mid riff.
The streets of Van seem very much like those of any other midsize Turkish town that I’ve visited. The same shops, the same cars and the same anonymous mass of people. Though at least I can kill a few hours exploring a huge citadel perched on a hill top.
Unlike the city, the lake called Van is stunning, however. An enormous mass of water with a backdrop of snow-capped mountain peaks. Together with the family and the other couchsurfer I take a ferry to an old Armenian church on a small island in the middle of the lake and we spent the afternoon having a picnic in the incredible scenery.
It takes a while to find the address of my couchsurfing host in Doğubeyazıt though not because of unfriendliness. Three times I’m offered unsolicited help and I wonder if that reflects the fact that I’ve arrived in an entirely Kurdish city. I’ve had very good experiences with Kurdish folk, but my host is less enthusiastic. He’s an ethnically Turkish gym teacher who has to teach in the city for a few years before he’s free to settle down where he wants. He tells me he feels outnumbered and unsafe outside.
There’s only one reason to visit the town: a magnificent palace set in barren mountain scenery. Though the Russians carted away the imposing entrance gates after having conquered the place in 1877 most of the building still stands and is in remarkably good shape.
I leave for Van in the afternoon. I’d rather have waited another day as I don’t think I can make it before sundown and I don’t like to travel at night, but my next couchsurfing host is organising a picnic tomorrow morning. Though it doesn’t take long to find a ride the driver has some business in a small mountain town. I drink endless cups of tea and try to chat with a few of the local kids but I’m made uneasy by the approaching nightfall. As the ride goes on the driver starts to get weirder, and keeps trying to steer the conversation in a sexual direction. I don’t know if he’s actually hinting at something or just messing with me. I’m very relieved when I see Van’s city lights up ahead.
I share a room in the teachers’ dormitory with a depressed young English teacher from the other side of Turkey who can’t wait for her mandatory service in the east of the country to be over. I’ve been told Kars has a gloomy reputation in Turkey, cold and far away from anything remotely interesting. The fact that a lot of the architecture was built when the Russians were ruling the place can’t do much to diminish its Siberian reputation.
However, the city’s not far from one of the country’s biggest archeological sites, the former Armenian capital of Ani. After having bought a new phone I hitch the 50 kilometers even further east and spend a few hours wandering amongst the ruins of the old churches as I try to imagine what the city might have looked like when it was the mightiest place in the region.
My journey further south east through some stunning mountain scenery is helped along by two men from the Azerbaijani enclave on Nakhichivan. I would expect these former Soviet citizens to know Russian, but as it turns out Turkish proves to be more useful, but just barely. I have no clue why they’re on the road, but at one point we stop at a cafe where we drink some tea while one of the guys drains the car’s gas and gives it to the cafe owner along with some vegetables in exchange for a few banknotes. I figure it must be a very low-level smuggling thing as gas is a lot cheaper in Azerbaijan. But even though I can hardly tell what they’re saying and I can’t work out at all what they’re up to, I’m glad that they’ve stopped to give me a ride.
After having spent the night in Georgia I set off towards Kars in the northeast of Turkey. The few rides proceed easily enough. Though the landscape doesn’t alter drastically I’m once again confronted by a language barrier and I’m relieved when I end up with a friendly truck driver who speaks a bit of English. I trust him to the extend that I don’t even pull out my phone to check where exactly he’s heading as we approach the city.
This turns out to be a huge mistake as I notice my telephone is gone seconds after he drives off – it must have fallen out of my pocket. For a moment I don’t know what to do as I have no clue where I am in regards to the city center. So I walk down a road and think I will wave down a police car, no I’ll wave down a taxi and chase him down… A police car is the first option to present itself. It quickly stops after I flag it down and in my extremely limited Turkish I explain that my phone is in a white truck.
The guys tell me to get in the back as they head towards the highway. As they slowly drive on I think they should turn on the flashing light. Instead, via a telephone call to a colleague who speaks English they discover my phone wasn’t stolen or anything, but that I’m just a careless idiot. We drive to local police station which luckily enough turns out to be a place recommended to me by a couchsurfer: a teacher’s dormitory which doubles as the cheapest hotel in town.