- Reaching the high plains of Kars
- The Kurdish conflict and the Armenian genocide
- Stopping in rural towns and majestic Mount Ararat
- Travelling Eastern Turkey during Ramadan
- Our fist ever couchsurfing experience near Lake Van
we are now in Van, a city in eastern Turkey near the border to Iran. The last time I wrote we were in the Georgian border town of Batumi, and the contrast between that Vegas style, tropical beach city and where we are now could not be greater.
Reaching the high plains of Kars
From Batumi, we headed to the nearby border, into Turkey and then took around 4 different minibuses, Dolmus, until we reached the city of Kars. The journey was amazing: we started in the tropical microclimate of the Black Sea Coast. Then from Hopa we headed into a dessert mountain range (reminding us a lot of the High Atlas in Morocco), to then finally reach the high plains of Eastern Anatolia, vast, wild grass lands at an altitude of 2000m and higher. The people who live here are very poor, most still use horse powered vehicles and live in stone houses with grass roofs. To heat they burn dried cow pooh and make a living of kettle, cheese and honey. Kars is the “capital” of this barren part of Turkey. It is supposed to have the roughest climate of all Turkey, with winters lasting at least 6 months and temperatures below -40, no summer and only a short, 2 months spring. The reason why most people (and there are very few) come here are the 1000 year old ruins of Armenia´s former capital, Ani. They are supposed to be quite impressive, but Celia and I are not really into ruins and decided against it. So we spent 2 days wandering around town, which boasts a 1000 years old orthodox church next to a mosque, as well as a massive fortress overlooking Kars and its surrounding high plains.
The Kurdish conflict and the Armenian genocide
But the most striking thing about Turkey that hit us the moment we basically stepped into it is the kindliness of the people. You hear this a lot about many countries, but in Eastern Turkey it is ridiculous: everyone smiles at you, people come up to you to help you, talk to you, it just feels so nice. Some people will sit down next to you and, with admirable patience, try to communicate with you even if there is no common language available, and this for up to 30 minutes. This is one of the reasons why I was so keen on coming to this fairly remote part of Turkey: tourists do not come here, it is very far and quite inaccessible (at least if you are in the more popular western parts or Istanbul), and has a reputation for being dangerous because of the civil war with the Kurds. For the people who do make it our here it has the great advantage that scams are non-existent, people are genuine, friendly and hospitable. I have my theory, that the less tourists a place has, the nicer the people and the atmosphere is. This has been the case when I drove to the most remote spot of Koh Chang in Thailand, when I went hiking in the Himalayas in Nepal or when I went to the deep jungle of Laos
The war is a problem, and I read that you should not talk about it in public, not even in private to people you do not really trust. Basically, between 1960 and today, more than 45 000 people have died in this little studied conflict. Kemal Atatürk (the founder of modern day Turkey) enforced his “one Turkey, one language, one identity” on all minorites. The Kurds, who are also muslism but ethnically different, rebelled against this, as they have their own language, identity and beliefs. Especially the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), a militia, staged targeted attacks against the government and the military (and occasionally tourists). Many civilians got trapped in the middle of this conflict and millions of Kurds (there are 12 million in Turkey) were forced to flee to Western regions, where they are now marginalized. Relations have improved slightly recently, and the Kurds are allowed a little degree of autonomy. As far as I know there have been no skirmishes since 2012. Nevertheless, military presence is excessive (I have never seen so many tanks in my life as in Dogubayazit´s military base) and tensions between the two groups remain high. The Syrian conflict has not made it easier, considering that Assad seems to be collaborating with the Kurds in Syria, and the Turkish government accuses him of causing cross border instability in retaliation for the Turkish government´s support of the rebels. I am very interested in these political and historic issues but in this case I try to learn about them indirectly.
Another major issue of this area is the Armenian genocide. During World War 1, the Turkish authorities carried out what is de facto the first ever modern day genocide, killing around 1 million (estimates vary) Armenians in camps and death marches. Until today, Turkey refuses to recognize these historical facts and writing or talking about it remains a no-go. Considering the centenary of this event in 2015, tensions will again be running high. In Switzerland it is a crime to even question this genocide in public, and in Turkey authors like Orhan Pamuk who speak openly about it face death threats and are accused of “insulting Turkishness”, a crime. The border between these two countries remains closed.
Stopping in rural towns and majestic Mount Ararat
This was just a bit of history to conceptualize the environment we are moving in. It doesn´t really have direct implications for us, but it is important to be aware of these issues when you travel to places like this, where the past is crucial in shaping the attitudes of people in the present.
From Kars we headed towards Dogubayazit. However, once on the bus, we had to get off very quickly due to digestion-related problems, and ended up in a small 1000 inhabitants town in the middle of nowhere. The bus was gone and at first we thought that it was so unentspannt to be stuck in that place until the next bus would come along. So we sat down, and then the first villager came up to us, then another, then five more. After 5 minutes we had a cluster of around 15 (male) villagers surrounding us offering us drinks and fruit. Needless to say, communication was fairly difficult until the town´s barber came along, who spoke some English (I would say 50 words plus another 100 football player names). With his help we actually had a great time with all these people. Clearly, we were the main attraction of the month, as no tourist would ever stop here. A group picture was taken and we had to promise to them that we would print it out and send it to them. I reckon this day will become known as the day two tourists came to town and the picture will be framed and hung up somewhere for generations to come. So this stopover actually turned out to have been a great, unexpected experience, where we got to know a side of Turkey, or I should stress, Kurdistan, that we would not have seen otherwise.
After a couple of hours, the bus did finally arrive and we headed on to our original destination, Dogubayazit, known for three reasons: first, it has a gorgeous castle on top of a mountain overlooking the plains. Second, it is one of the main Kurdish rebellion cities, which can be seen now by the massive military presence in town, and third it is at the base of Mount Ararat, 5200m, the highest mountain in Turkey. It is an impressive sight, since the town lies at 2000m and you can see this volcano, a cone shaped beast rising up high into the sky, with its peak dusted with snow. This mountain is supposed to have provided Noah and his numerous animals with shelter when floods inundated all the rest of the land, thus it is quite important for Christians, especially Armenians, who can only marvel at the mountain from their side of the border but cannot access it because of the above described issues. We spent a night here, in the one and only Hotel Ararat, marvelling at the peak and counting down the hours until sunset. Why? Ramazan…
Travelling Eastern Turkey during Ramadan
Every year, during the so-called Ramadan, or Ramazan in Turkish, for 30 days Muslims around the world refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, sex and gambling from sunrise until sunset. Children, pregnant women and the elderly are exempted, or better, it is up to everyone whether to do it or not, and if you are not able to do it nobody will force you to. Also if you are at war or travelling you do not have to do it. And as a foreigner, nobody really expects you to take part. However, our own experience so far is that while we could in theory eat and drink during the day, it feels extremely awkward to do so while nobody else around you is (and it is quite disrespectful and impolite to do this in front of people). In practice this means that people get up at 2am to have breakfast, then they fast until 7.45pm. Restaurants are closed, caffes don´t sell tea, etc. You can, of course, still buy bread, fruit and vegetables during the day, but then you would have to go somewhere inside to consume them. We have tried to get into it, and have so far had a breakfast in the hotel and then fasted until the evening, which was already quite hard. Now that we do not stay in a hotel anymore but at people´s homes (who are doing Ramazan), we won´t even be able to have breakfast and have to fast all day until the evening. The hunger, I find, has a peak around 3-5pm, where you think you could eat a cow, then it comes down and by the time you eat you find yourself being full after half of what you would usually have for dinner (your stomach shrinks…). The biggest challenge, however, has been drinking. It is not super hot (around 25-30 degrees), but it is still very hard not to drink in front of people. This means that you will only have 2, maybe 3 occasions throughout the day where you can drink water. I find this much harder and got headaches at the beginning. But from what I get you get used to it after 4-5 days. And we have at least 2 more weeks in Turkey during Ramazan, so we better get used to it. My digestion is also finding it quite hard, as my stomach just doesn´t know what´s happening…
Now some of you would say that we should just ignore it and drink, and maybe eat. But imagine you are in a city of vegetarians, surely you wouldn´t eat steak and sausages in front of them. It would just feel extremely wrong and disrespectful not to adapt. On the plus side, once the sun sets, it feels really nice, as if you have achieved something and the little food that you can eat tastes even better.
Our fist ever couchsurfing experience near Lake Van
From Dogubayazit we took the bus to Van, a city on the Eastern shore of Lake Van, an absolutely massive lake. It looks surreal, probably the most beautiful sight of this trip: turquoise water at 2000m altitude against the backdrop of dry, yellow volcanoes up to 4000m high, amazing. The weather here is perfect and every evening the sun sets on the Western shore, into the water, colouring the surround mountains in orange and red.
Van has had a difficult past: in 2011 a massive earthquake struck, killing 600 people and making another 45000 homeless. In response, the government built a new town, Teki, on top of a nearby mountain. Within one year, accommodation in big houses for around 200 000 people was built as well as dozens of mosques. It is really impressive how they managed to do that.
Also, we are now couchsurfing, finally! For those who don´t know it: couchsurfing is a community where people offer a place to sleep for free to strangers. Sounds weird, it is just great! It exists all over the world and can range from simply getting a couch, to actually spending lots of time with the host. In Georgia we tried, but nobody replied to us. In Kars and Dogubayazit there were no hosts. Here, we are currently hosted by 26 year old civil engineer Onur from Adana and his friends. He lives in Teki, the new town on top of the mountain. Before meeting him, we only knew his name and address. So we searched for him on Facebook and found this profile of a 50 year old with a massive moustache. In Van, we were waiting for this guy to turn up. Then a young, really friendly men saying our names shows up instead. Turns out that the facebook guy is a really famous actor in Turkey and has nothing to do with him… Orun spent a semester in Germany and is planning on doing his masters there. He picked us up from Van, we drove to his place and had post-Ramazan bbq with them, followed by water pipe, tea and some great conversations. We are his first ever couchsurfing guests and he this is the first time we are being hosted. While he has to work during the day, him and his friends are really trying everything to accommodate us and make sure we have the best possible time.
Tomorrow we will take a ferry and explore the lake. It will also be the first day of proper starving. For the evening our hosts are organizing a good place to watch the match as well as another great dinner!
Next time I write we will probably have moved East, as we do need to get to Athens in some way.