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.
Not knowing quite what else to do in Yerevan I hitch over the mountains to Goris. One of my first rides of the day is from 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 blame 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 derelict 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. It’s a glimpse of the potential tourism boom some investment 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 Akhaltsikhe 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 grandkids because their parents are working abroad; the twenty-something, and his two friends, who tells 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 running errands; and a few others 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 has 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, and 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 seem 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.