- Lake Van and Akdamar Island
- Meeting interesting travelers
- Stereotypes and reality of religious conservatism
- The ups and downs of couchsurfing
- A quick visit to gritty Diyarbakir
- Heading on – Cappadocia is waiting for us
we are now in Göreme, in the heart of Cappadocia, a part of central Turkey that seems to be taken straight from a fairy tale. Last time I wrote, we had just arrived in Van, a city on the Eastern shore of lake Van.
Lake Van and Akdamar Island
This gigantic lake, which is around 120km wide, is set at 1700m of altitude against the backdrop of massive volcanoes. It is particularly striking, because its turquoise waters pose a clear contrast to the arid, yellow mountains surrounding it.
The main attraction is an island, Akdamar Island, around 30 minutes with a ferry from the Southern shore. The Armenian, who were one of the many people that conquered and occupied parts of Turkey for a while, built a church on Akdamar around 900 AD. The first problem was getting there: the ferry only takes off when 20 people have arrived and we were the first. After quite a long but pleasant wait we boarded the ferry and arrived on the island. While most people here visit the church and then chill on the beaches, we headed straight for the top of the island, from where we had a beautiful view on the entire lake.
Meeting interesting travelers
On the way, we met a Danish traveler, and I have to say that when you travel in these regions, the people you meet on the way are very different from the ones I met in Asia or the Americas. This solo traveler had just come from 2 weeks in Iraq. He had previously been to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, etc. It was so interesting talking to him and the main message we got was that the media depict a certain idea of a country, but actually you can always find parts that are safe and amazing to travel, exactly because nobody else goes there. In this case he visited the Kurdish areas north of Mosul, and explained how he only met one other tourist and in 2 weeks only managed to pay for his own food once…
Talking about crazy encounters: we were hosted by this rather insane character recently (more of that later) who has hosted more than 900 couchsurfers in the past 5 years. He told us about these two French guys who walked (!!!) from France to Beijing in 12 months, passing along his house. They didn´t even have a tent, and refused to take any transport. That is hardcore.
Also at his place we met these two Belgians who left their country and are hitchhiking the world for an indefinite amount of time. While casually asking why the woman´s English was so good she explained that she had spent a year doing a masters in England. Where: Cambridge. Which masters: MPhil in Development Studies. Exactly the one I will do… The world is small. She even took the same courses I want to take.
Stereotypes and reality of religious conservatism
Anyway, before we met these Belgians we were in Van. It was Celia´s and my first couchsurfing experience. I had hosted two Chileans in Rome, but due to weird flatmates/little space I haven´t been able to do it since. We got so incredibly lucky in Van. With hindsight, we would never have picked a guy without any information, not even a picture and no references. Well, we did, and it was so great. Onur, our host, is a 26 year old engineer from Western Turkey. He moved to Van 2 years ago and lives there with his colleague Nuri. They signed up to couchsurfing on Friday and on Monday we were there. During the day, when they had to work, Celia and I headed out to explore the lake and Van. Then in the evening we would head back to their Toki (the name for government built, quite new and nice settlements) and have the post-Ramadan dinner together. They cooked really nice food, mostly spicy, meat and veg based dishes. Always accompanied by my new favourite drink, Ayran: yogurt mixed with water and a bit of salt. Drinking it all the time now. After dinner, we headed out to different cafes and they showed us how locals socialize. Usually you sit down, get a Narguile, order a big pot of tea, some fruit and nuts and chill.
It was particularly great because both of them are open-minded, quite liberal Muslims, which allowed us to ask very direct questions. To our astonishment, even in the very east of the country, which is by far the most conservative part, we saw groups of women socializing in the evening and smoking narguile. This is not to say that women here can do what they want, but we realized that our expectations of and opinions on Turkey, especially with regards to religious customs, were quite misplaced and at times simply wrong. I have seen more burkas in one day where I lived in London than on this entire trip taken together. Even in the east, 2/3 of women did not wear head scarfs.
Interestingly, this could be or probably is a result of Kemal Atatürks (literally “the Father of Turkey”) reforms in the 1920s: following the religious rule that characterized Turkey for centuries, he aspired a Western Turkish society and introduced various reforms to this end: a new, Western alphabet was introduced, Arabic words replaced with French ones and most of all the wearing of any religious clothes banned. And this from one day to the other in a Muslim country. Some people were even hanged for not complying and despite certain revisions it is up to this day illegal to wear religious clothes in public places (any ministries, universities, etc.). Over the years, this might have had an impact on society, although it remains a very controversial and debated issue.
The ups and downs of couchsurfing
Coming back to our hosts: Nuri and Onur did everything they could to ensure we had a memorable stay. They didn´t allow us to pay for anything, for example, even if we tried. Nuri should get the nickname John Wayne: nobody draws his credit card as quick as he does. We had no chance… By the end of our stay they had even organized for us all to go to Nuri´s family in Malatya for the weekend (around 500km West). We were really looking forward to it, however, Nuri was assigned a shift on Sunday and so we had to drop it. I hope, we will see them again, as I want to show the same hospitality to them that we experienced in their home.
And now, let´s come to our second couchsurfing experience. We were heading to Diyarbakir and wrote to around 10 hosts. One replied quite quickly and as I explained above, he was super experienced, had around 270 reviews of which 268 were positive. Well, we should have looked at the other 2… So we arrive at the bus station, and kindly, he decided to pick us up. When Hasan approached us I knew it had to be him: imagine a 60 year old mix of Jesus and Gandalf. So we drove to his place and quite early (too early) he started explaining his life philosophy: nudism as freedom. Before you get dodgy thoughts: we do not think he was an exhibitionist, as he asked us whether it is ok for us if he is naked and after our very hesitant reaction he always had boxer shorts on. But he did stress in various conversations how important it is for him to be naked. Along with some other weird and disconcerting stories we decided rather soon to shorten our stay in Diyarbakir and headed off the next day. Hasan was a kind host, and it was very nice of him to pick us up. Also, I believe that anyone should be allowed to do as you please in your house. So I don´t blame him. But he was just not the right host for us. For the next host in Istanbul our research is going to be more thorough.
A quick visit to gritty Diyarbakir
Diyarbakir was really cool. It is more than 7000 years old (!!!) and famous for four things. First, it is the capital of Kurdistan. This is the city where most of the demonstrations and skirmishes happened in the past 50 years. The situation has come down now, but you still get weekly demonstrations. Also, you can tell by people welcoming you to Kurdistan on the street and trying to sell you Kurdistan football jerseys. Secondly, it is famous for its city walls. As you will hear at least 15 times a day, it has the second longest wall in the world after the Great Wall of China (I would bet that Israel has kicked them off the second place). They are really impressive, up to 20m high, black walls. Along with its 70+ defense towers it made Diyarbakir one of the most feared cities in the Middle East. We took a walk up there, but not a long one, as we have heard and read that it is the most popular place for theft and robberies. The third reason it is famous is the climate. It is the hottest city in Turkey, with thermometers hitting the 60s regularly. When we were there it was around 45, and we were drinking water continuously that just seemed to evaporate at the same pace. And last but not least: it is the home of the watermelon! Legend goes that the Sultan once received a specimen of more than 100kg that could only be opened with a sword. Every year they host a competition and the winner last year was nearly 50kg. Not 100, but still very impressive.
We only spent a day here and most of the time we were in a beautiful, Middle Eastern kind of Bazar, with cafes on the upper floor overlooking the square and sheets of cloth providing essential shade. It was the only place where we could bear the heat. We did walk around a bit, marvelling especially at how they make their kebabs, with proper wood coals (see pictures!). Diyarbakir felt quite Middle Eastern, much more than any other place we have been to on this trip. But the heat was just too much, and we were quite happy leaving early.
Heading on – Cappadocia is waiting for us
Moving on, the main means of transport in Turkey are buses. On short distances, you use Dolmuses, or minibuses, which are not very comfy and cover all shorter (up to 300km) distances. For the longer ones, we take the incredible long-distance buses. In my entire life, I have never taken a bus as good as the one from Diyarbakir to Göreme. It´s basically like a plane. Screens in every sear with films and games. A steward going up and down with refreshments. And really comfortable seats. Even Wifi! I slept like a baby on that overnight bus. And Celia was by far the most excited about the screens in the entire bus. We cannot wait for the next 13 hour trip to Istanbul!
Moving west also means that Ramadan has become less of a problem. From our impression now, only the East really sticks to it. In Van, it was really awkward to even sip from a water bottle on the streets. We found it quite hard to adapt and where wondering how people would do it in hotter places. In Diyarbakir people already seemed to care less and here it´s definitely more relaxed. People eat and drink, or at least some, making it easy and ok for us to so in public. I still think that Ramadan is just not possible in places like Diyarbakir. If it has 45 degrees and you have to work from 8am till 6pm you cannot survive without water… Food I kind of understand, but water… While I did like the waiting for sunset and then sharing food with Onur and Nuri, I do think that it must be very hard for many people and I also think it´s a shame that we are here now, because street stalls are quite non-existent at this time of the year.
For the next days we are planning on exploring Cappadocia, which looks insane. I didn´t know that such landscapes even existed. At the same time, we are out of tourist-scarce Eastern Turkey and right in the middle of tour groups and backpacker groups. The problem with this is that I have a theory, and it is quite bullet proof claiming that the less tourists you can find around you, the nicer the people will be. We will see.
I am off to bed now, early wake up tomorrow to go hiking before noon, otherwise we will be roasted in these dry valleys.