Monday, 31 October 2011

Latvia, Georgia and Turkey Pt. 5: Doğubeyazıt, Van and Diyarbakır

Part Five of my 2010 summer trip




Links to all the parts of this travelogue:

Part 1: Riga, Sigulda and Turaida

Part 2: Tbilisi, Mtskheta and Kazbegi

Part 3: Tbilisi, Gori and Uplistsikhe

Part 4: Batumi, Kars and Ani

Part 5: Doğubeyazıt, Van and Diyarbakır

Part 6: Urfa, Haran and Adana

Part 7: Ankara and Istanbul

2nd August, 2010 – Kars, Turkey

Much as I liked Kars, I’d exhausted her major attractions and my schedule demanded that I had to be moving on, so I packed up my things, (minus Fury which, now read, I left for future travellers), and made my way to the bus station to catch my transportation onwards to Doğubeyazıt.

The journey there, some 240km, was not the most straightforward to complete. There were no buses plying the route and so instead I had to take a dolmuş – the Turkish equivalent of a marshrutka – but that only took me as far as Iğdır, a scratty town about halfway along the journey. There one of my fellow passengers grabbed me by the arm and dragged me down several crowded streets to another corner where a different dolmuş was waiting ready to take passengers onwards to Doğubeyazıt.

The driver from Iğdır to Doğubeyazıt was spectacular. The landscape had changed yet again; gone was the steppe and in its place a barren, rocky moonscape that felt decidedly Middle Easter. Most striking of all though was the great snow-capped mountain that lay to our left and over the foothills of which our dolmuş had to labour. That mountain was Ararat.

Ararat, Ararat, is there any mountain on earth more impregnated with history, faith and tragic symbolism as her? That great peak on which legend tells us that Noah’s Ark rested after the Deluge had for millennia been the very symbol of Armenian spirituality and nation. There she sits, proud and brooding, her peak a whopping 5,137m above sea level (Mt. Kazbek incidentally, was but 5,047m), dominating the horizon of Yerevan and yet, like Ani, just over the border in Turkey and frustratingly out of bounds to the Armenians for whom she means so much.

The moment I stepped off the dolmuş in Doğubeyazıt I felt as if I’d crossed over an unseen border into a different country. This place felt different to both Kars and Hopa; there was a different language spoken on the streets, everything was poorer and less-organised and the women – and there were very few to be seen – all wore headscarves.[1] It was also unbearably hot, (Kars had been a tad cooler than the places visited before and afterwards), and to my annoyance, as I searched for a hotel, I was accosted by a young and very persistent gentleman who wished to be my friend and give me a very good price on a night’s accommodation in a fashion that reminded me of the hustlers of Morocco and Egypt. Needless to say, we did not stay friends for long!

I booked into the Hotel Erzurum, a no-frills establishment that sufficed although that was about all that one could say about it. I relaxed for a while to recover from the journey, heat and hassle, and then, when sufficiently rejuvenated, headed out again to sample the delights of this new town, my first experience of Kurdistan.[2] My first Kurdish experience however, came quicker than I’d anticipated when I reached the town’s main square which I found to be full with an excited crowd of several thousand who were busying chanting “BDP! BDP!” and punching their fists into the air. The reason for all this commotion was a bus parked at the far side of the square on which dignitaries and major figures from the BDP political party were sat whilst their leader delivered a stirring speech.

The BDP, (Barış ve Demokrasi PartisiPeace and Democracy Party in English), is the latest in a long line of Kurdish nationalist parties, successors to the now-outlawed PKK, (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan – Kurdistan Workers’ Party), whose guerrillas waged a sixteen-year struggle against the Turkish government for an independent Kurdish state. Although the war was ultimately unsuccessful, (i.e. there is still no Kurdish state), things have improved and this is partially due to the Kurds seeking a political solution to their woes through organs such as the BDP. Previously the Turkish government, (inspired by the teachings of Kemal Atatürk who needed to weld a nation out of the disparate peoples of the dying Ottoman Empire and did so by stating that all inhabitants of the new country were ‘Turks’), had not even recognised the existence of the Kurds as a people, (they were termed ‘Mountain Turks’ and their language, music, festivals and culture effectively banned from national life. Now however, things are changing; the Kurds have much greater cultural and national autonomy in the areas where they live and seem to have accepted that the independent Republic of Kurdistan is not going to happen anytime soon,[3] probably the best solution when one considers the economic prospects that any Kurdish state would have compared with the vast wealth of the Republic of Turkey. Even so, judging by the rhetoric and reactions at that BDP rally in central Doğubeyazıt, all is not entirely hunky-dory with the Kurds of Eastern Turkey.

BDP rally, Doğubeyazıt

I took a taxi out to Doğubeyazıt’s main attraction, the İshak Paşa Palace, which is located some 6km out of the town. The drive, although short, was interesting. We travelled in between army bases including one where tanks were lined up under tin roofs. I decided to count them and reached forty but there were many more besides that that I didn’t manage to clock.[4]

Ever since entering Turkey, the military presence had been omnipresent and somewhat oppressive. It was not a total surprise of course, when one considers that the areas that I’d travelled through were either close to the national borders or in the areas with a Kurdish majority, (Doğubeyazıt fell very much into both categories), so a heavy military presence was to be expected, but nonetheless, when one considers that I’d just come from a militarised state that had just fought a war with a major world power and whose borders were amongst the most threatened on earth, then one must wonder as to why the military is so ever-present in Turkey which has not fought an (external) war since the Invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Indeed, the only country that I’ve ever travelled to that felt as overtly militarised as Turkey’s Eastern Provinces is Israel which is somewhat worrying when one considers that this is a country that wishes to become an EU member.

There were signs everywhere warning against photographing the tanks and other military paraphernalia and as these were obviously not the kind of guys you’d want to mess with I kept my camera packed away, but a short time later it was taken out and a few images were snapped of the majestic Mt. Ararat, the beautiful setting of Noah’s Ark’s final resting placed being further improved by placing a fat Stoke fan in front of it.

Stokies here, Stokies there, Stokies even as far away as Ararat!

The İshak Paşa Palace is one of the great sights, not only of Doğubeyazıt, but indeed Turkey as a whole. It was begun by one Çolak Abdi Paşa, the bey of Beyazıt Province, in 1685 and completed by his grandson, İshak Paşa, in 1784. Impossibly romantic, its architecture is a mixture of Seljuk, Ottoman, Georgian, Armenian and Persian styles whilst its setting, on a cliff top overlooking a vast plain with the city of Doğubeyazıt far below, is spectacular. Architectural historians like to compare it with the Brighton pavilion which was built at a similar and also employs a variety of exotic styles. Looking up as we approached, I had to admit that the İshak Paşa was more spectacular to behold than its English counterpart. That said though, if one were to place a block of council flats in that particular spot, they would outshine most of the world’s finest palaces.

The İshak Paşa Palace

The İshak Paşa Palace is featured in the Turkish Tourist Board’s promotional films but when we got there it seemed as if tourists were not really wanted for the grand palace doors were locked and there was no one in sight with a key. I knocked loudly but there was no response so I waited outside the spectacular Seljuk-style gateway to see if anyone would come. Very soon several people did, but they were all other tourists, mainly domestic but also a pair of über-trendy  twenty-somethings who pulled up in a small car plastered with stickers proclaiming that they were participants in the Mongol Rally.

Tourists massing outside there may have been, but there was still no action from the inside and so after about half an hour of waiting I realised that I was not going to be able to compare the interior of the İshak Paşa with the Brighton pavilion and so I got back in my taxi and returned to Doğubeyazıt.

There was little to see or do in the town itself. Doğubeyazıt is a scratty, soulless place; unsurprising perhaps when one considers that it is essentially a new town after the old city of Beyazıt was destroyed in 1930 by the Turkish Army following a Kurdish rebellion, (the name of the modern city, Doğubeyazıt, literally means East- Beyazıt, although confusingly, it lies to the west of the original settlement). It consists of one major street, Dr. İsmael Beşikçı Caddesi, along which I wandered, visiting the post office, a general store for some fruit juice and an internet café where I uploaded all my photos onto the internet so as to free up some camera memory.

Near to the dolmuş drop-off point I met a man who bade me sit with him and offered me tea. I was wary, not wishing to be subjected to the hard-sell but at the same time eager to meet the locals, but thankfully he just wanted to chat about football (Tuncay once again broke the ice for me) before moving onto the subject of an Armenian lady whom he’d met when she’d visited the town a year before. This piqued my interest – Turkish-Armenian friendships in the area where some of the worst of the atrocities of 1915 had taken place, (Beyazıt had been predominantly Armenian prior to the massacres), but he had only thoughts of friendship, not hatred, perhaps due to the fact that he rather fancied her. He asked if I would help him writie a letter in English for her, a task that I certainly did not mind assisting with and so we composed a somewhat sentimental yet heartfelt note of friendship with undertones of possible romance and I left glad that I’d been able to play a part, albeit tiny, in improving Turko-Armenian relations.

I rested in the hotel and then went out again at night to eat and stroll only to find that the Dr. İsmael Beşikçı Caddesi had been transformed. Tables now filled the thoroughfare and all were packed with people playing backgammon, drinking coffee and talking. Unlike Western Turkey though, both alcohol and women were conspicuous by their absence save for on a couple of tables occupied by foreign tourists, the first I’d encountered since Gori. I however, was still tired and in no mood to join them so after a pleasant walk up and down the street and a refuelling at a restaurant, I retired to bed under the watchful gaze of Mt. Ararat.

3rd August, 2010 – Doğubeyazıt, Turkey

My next destination was the city of Van, some 185km to the south. I was now stuck into the part of my trip that entailed constant travelling that would not abate until I reached Istanbul. Worse still, I knew that most of that would have to be covered by road, not rail, which is far more arduous. Still, best to be getting on with it…

At the bus company’s office I met another traveller, a German gentleman name Holger Brune. Holger was a freelance photographer from Bochum who was travelling around Turkey. He too had encountered the BDP rally the day before and being both a Turkish speaker – he held a Masters in Oriental Studies and his wife was Turkish – and connected with the media had meant that he’d been invited to board the bus and chat with the BDP grandees whilst photographing the whole thing, an experience that had thrilled him.[5]

My acquaintanceship with Mr. Brune however, was put on hold for the next few hours as the bus had numbered seats and there was no possibility of sitting near to each other and so instead I continued reading my latest book, a somewhat sentimental account of how the author, a Latvian ex-pat named Alexander Kosogorin, had spent World War II. Although the book was poorly written, it did tell a very different story of the war to those one more commonly comes across. Kosogorin, like most Latvians, had resented the Soviet annexation of his country in 1940 and had signed up to fight for the Germans in an all-Russian-speaking brigade which, (according to Kosogorin at least), fought very bravely against the Red Army and never suspected that such terrible crimes as the Holocaust were being perpetrated by their Nazi masters. In the end though, as the Soviets closed in, Kosogorin retreated to Switzerland before eventually ending up in Britain where he claimed political asylum and lived out the rest of his days. Having just come from Latvia made the book more real and alive – I could imagine Kosogorin and his brigade fighting in those vast forests near Sigulda – but the poor quality of the writing and annoying attitudes of the author made me glad when I eventually finished it.

The scenery on this leg of the trip was stark and dull, but an hour before the city of Van came into view, Lake Van filled the horizon. This vast inland sea that stretches for some 74 miles softened the dry landscape considerably and I was glad when we pulled up for a drinks break at a café on its banks and I shared tea with Holger and two young Kurds who were on their way to university in Istanbul.

The city of Van was much larger than I’d anticipated; with around half a million souls, a veritable metropolis compared with Doğubeyazıt. Holger and I decided to share a room to cut costs and we ended up paying a paltry 15 lira p/p/p/n at a budget establishment named the Otel Aslan.[6] We then took a bus out to Van Castle, a vast Urartian fortress dating back to the 9th century BC. At its foot was a Sufi türbe which interested Holger greatly since he is a practicing Sufi. After praying at the türbe we climbed up to the ramparts which were far more impressive from afar than close up. Nonetheless, the castle afforded some spectacular views across the modern city in one direction and across the lake in the other, whilst immediately below stood the ruins of ancient Van, a city that was destroyed in 1920 following the massacre of its Armenian population. Now all that remains as testament are lines in the sand and a handful of ruined mosques (two restored). It was very moving particularly in the evening light, a time that Holger informed me photographers call ’The Magical Hour’ because of the incredible pictures that can only be realised in that short period.

Ancient Van with the lake beyond

Upon those ramparts as the sun slowly set, we met an Iranian gentleman who conversed at length with Holger in Turkish about both Iran and Turkey. It was clear to see that whilst I’d had few problems with using English since hitting Turkey, speaking the language would have made the whole experience so much more rich and fulfilling as Holger managed to fall into conversation with just about everyone he came across and was constantly getting invited to events or houses. Of course, living in a country with a huge Turkish minority and having a Turkish wife helps no end when it comes to learning the lingo, but even so, I must admit to feeling a tad jealous of his gateway into the world of the Turk that was largely closed to me.

On Van Castle with the city in the background

We took the bus back into the city and decided to sit out and drink, finding a pleasant little establishment that served a wide variety of teas, not all of which were pleasant. Holger proved to be excellent company. He was exceptionally well-travelled having spent three years in his youth riding a pushbike across the USA to Mexico and having undertaken countless backpacking trips since including a lengthy one around Sumatra which interested me greatly since I’ve long harboured desires to explore that island. His three main passions in life were (in ascending order) photography, spirituality and sex and he was quite at ease in mixing all three liberally. Although happily married, he conversed freely about a variety of extramarital liaisons including one with a former student and another with a lady in her sixties who was most knowledgeable in the art of Tantric Sex. As we chatted he would regularly pause to admire a passing Van beauty and when I got home and visited his photography website, I can truly say that I have never seen such a vast collection of artistically photographed hot women.[7]

Religion wise, Holger had converted to Islam in order to marry his Muslim wife, but his interpretation of the faith was one that would lead most imams towards pronouncing a fatwa as he had a penchant for goddess worship and declared that the Kaaba symbolises a vagina. I however, warmed to it; his Islam was non-judgemental, non-literalist and inclusive, part of the beautiful and rich Sufi tradition that once held huge influence across the Islamic World but is these days alas under attack from the puritanical Salafists and Wahaabis who are more interested in following a set of rules like the Pharisees of the Gospels rather than undertaking a spiritual journey.

Following the tea we moved onto a soup kitchen where we nibbled çorba and bread into the night and saw, unfortunately, the cook get badly burnt when a pot was knocked over and have to be rushed to hospital, before retiring to the hotel for a session of folk singing. It was in truth, just what I needed; some real human contact. After days alone on the road I needed a chance to share some of the incredible places and experiences that I’d seen and enjoyed whilst so far away from home.

4th August, 2010 – Van, Turkey

Whilst Holger was keen on visiting some scenic villages near to Van, I had a tight schedule to follow, (and to be honest, wasn’t really in the mood), so I took a bus onwards to Diyarbakır, a seven-hour trip of over 400km that I neither looked forward to nor enjoyed. By now I was getting heartily fed up of the long bus journeys and empty arid scenery which was all beginning to blur into one. Besides, I slowly realised that I had fallen ill and sitting on a jolting hot bus was not the quickest road to recovery.

Dull though the scenery may have been, that trip still had its high points. For the first hundred miles or so we skirted the southern shores of Lake Van and at one point I spied the Akdamar Kilisesi (Church of the Holy Cross), a famous Armenian church and monastery situated out on a small island offshore.

The other highlight was the small town of Bitlis, unmentioned in the guidebook but fascinating to look at through the bus window. Situated in a narrow canyon and built out of dark basalt, I spied several Ottoman mosques, hammams and bridges. I would have loved to stop off and explore, but time pressed and so I stayed on board.

Nearer to Diyarbakır we travelled alongside the Tigris, one of the great rivers of antiquity that helped to sustain some of the earliest human habitations and indeed, if one believes the legends, the Garden of Eden itself. The section that I saw however, was alas, nothing special, merely a wide and stony river, the main point of interest being that the fantastically-named city of Batman was located on its banks, although like the river, the reality of that town was a lot less exciting than the images that its name might conjure up.

Diyarbakır, when I got there, was big, much bigger than I’d expected. Of course, as the uno0fficial capital of the Kurdish lands, I’d known that it would be a fairly large place but after disembarking at the modern bus station on the edge of town I was surprised that the ride in on a local bus took in about five miles of densely-packed apartment blocks and by the time we arrived at the large square outside the ancient city walls it was growing dark. I alighted and got accosted by two hawkers wishing to both be my friend and sell me a hotel room for the night, but I fended them off by heading into the medina and, after getting slightly lost, found myself at a hotel which was pleasant enough and charged me 35 lira p/n for bed and breakfast. By that time the illness was really kicking in and I was shattered and so, even though the hour was but eight, I flung myself gratefully into bed and got lost in chaotic dreams.

5th August, 2010 -  Diyarbakır, Turkey

I awoke from a night of disturbed dreams feeling somewhat better but still rather queasy. This was not helped by the free hotel breakfast of cheese, tomatoes, bread, olives and cucumber which I could barely stomach. Still, it was sustenance and thus refuelled I stepped out to explore the city of Diyarbakır.

Diyarbakır is a Kurdish city. Its population is predominantly Kurdish and when the PKK and the insurgent forces in Iraq were dreaming of establishing an independent Kurdistan, the Diyarbakır was always going to be its capital. However, as I walked through the narrow streets of the Old City that sunny August day, I did not feel the atmosphere to be Kurdish in the sense of Doğubeyazıt or Van, but instead distinctly Arabian and Middle Eastern.

The reasons behind that were obvious. Diyarbakır is a typical Middle Eastern cuity, surrounded by walls, its dense medina criss-crossed with hundreds of tiny, twisting alleyways along which one can get lost in minutes. It is also a Roman City, neatly dissected like Jerusalem into four quarters by a north-south road and an east-way way. But there was nonetheless, one big difference between Diyarbakır and Fez, Jerusalem, Marrakesh or any of the other ancient Middle Eastern medina cities that I’ve visited and that is the very stone that she is constructed out of. The forbidding dark grey basalt of the walls is predominant, (most Middle Eastern cities seem to be built out fo honey-coloured or light-grey stones), but ornamentation is provided by alternating the basalt with an almost-white limestone so that the mosques and their minarets look like accessories to some heavenly game of backgammon.

On the main north-south drag I came across the Hasan Paşa Hanı, a 16th century caravanserai that has been beautifully restored since the troubles of the 1990s and now houses some upmarket cafés and shops. I could have spent all day lounging on a chair there, watching the world go by out of the glare of the midday sun, but I pressed on, through the bazaar, to the city’s most impressive mosque, the Ulu Cami, which was built in 1091 by the Seljuks but incorporates a much earlier Byzantine church and is said to be the oldest place of Islamic worship in Turkey. The Seljuk courtyard was magnificent with some stunning carving, but I went into the mosque itself and sat in the part which had once been a church to enjoy the quiet and try to imagine what the layout had been like prior to its conversion to a mosque, a task which proved to be virtually impossible.

The Hasan Paşa Hanı

The Ulu Cami. The original church is the taller part of the building in the centre

After the Ulu Camii I headed for the Cahit Sıtkı Tarancı Museum, a restored traditional house set around a courtyard that was decidedly pleasant and reminded me of the ethnographic museums of the Balkans.

Having had a taste of Islam, I then headed along the east-west road, past the curious Four-Legged Minaret of the Kasım Padişah Camii (1512) to the area of the city that best gives a taste of Diyarbakır’s other religion, Christianity. There are very few Christians in Diyarbakır today, but once there were many and the few surviving churches act as a testament to the faith that once dominated the region. The Keldani Kilisesi was an incredible building dating from the 3rd century and used by the city’s Chaldean community, an ancient church that practises the Syrian rite but is in communion with Rome. Next I sought out the Armenian church but that was closed for restorations and so instead I popped into the Esma Ocak Evi Museum, a 19th century Armenian mansion whose curator enthusiastically gave me a guided tour and then demanded a hefty donation for the service.

I wandered slowly through the twisting alleyways adorned with PKK slogans towards the kale, stopping at mosques en route, (the wudu fountains were perfect for keeping me cool and hydrated!). The main attraction of the kale itself is another mosque, the Hazreti Süleyman Camii which dates from the 12th century and is particularly revered by the locals since it contains the tombs of several Sahabeh or Companions of the Prophet, (these were warriors who had been killed taking the city for the Muslims soon after Mohammed’s death). When I got there the place was teeming with worshippers, (who were all far more interested in the tombs than the mosque itself), but the building was nothing remarkable save for an extremely slender minaret.

After the kale, I went back to the centre of the Old City and then ventured into the south-western quarter where the Meryem Ana Kilisesi is located. The incredible church is one of the oldest in all Christendom dating from the 3rd century but built on the foundations of a 1st century BC Pagan temple and it is used by the Syrian Orthodox – or Syriac – Church, one of the few Monophysite churches left in the world.[8] I had never before been in a Syriac church, (there is one in Jerusalem but I hadn’t had time to visit it), so I was interested to see this, one of the closest physical, liturgical and theological links with the misty years of the Early Church.

The door was locked when I arrived but a crowd of local children rang the bell repeatedly until the priest came. I apologised for the intrusion but he said that it didn’t matter and happily gave me a guided tour. During this he explained that the Syriac liturgy was in Aramaic which enthralled me as this is the very language that Christ Himself spoke. I asked if he wouldn’t mind reading a passage from one of the Gospels for me and there, in a spot where Christians worshipped less than a generation after Christ, I heard the message that He preached in the very same words that He used. It was a moving experience.

Outside the Meryam Ana Kilisesi

In the courtyard outside the church I met two fellow tourists, both Turks from Istanbul who, by their appearance, looked very secular and Kemalist. We left the Meryam Ana Kilisesi together and the waiting kids guided us across the road to another church, a newly-established Protestant house of worship. As it was, this new building was of little interest to me being both familiar and not always impressed with both the Evangelical style and theology. However, as the pastor enthusiastically handed my two companions copies of the Gospels in Turkish, I had to admit that whilst the Syrian Orthodox Church had been beautiful and moving, it was also stagnant at best and – with but seven families attending these days – dying at worst, whilst the Evangelicals were growing, enthusiastically promoting the Way of Christ. Who therefore was better keeping the commandment, “Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples”?[9] I knew the answer and it did not make me comfortable.

By this time I was tired of sight-seeing, so I exited the Old City and walked in the shade of the great basalt walls to the place where the buses left for the newer districts of the city. Still slightly ill, I craved some Western food to settle my stomach and recalled passing a fast food establishment on my way in on the bus the day before, so I jumped on another bus and headed out to modernity.

Unfortunately, I got on the wrong one and instead of fast food restaurants I was treated to a grand tour of the soulless modern estates of apartment blocks that house the majority of Diyarbakır’s population these days. Still, I appreciated the chance to sit and the cooling effect of the air con but half an hour later I admitted defeat and jumped off at Ekinciler Caddesi (Modern Diyarbakır’s main shopping street) and went for a kebab.

That evening, after a rejuvenating nap in my hotel, I headed back to my favourite place in Diyarbakır, the magnificent Hasan Paşa Hanı which once stabled camels and now serves coffee. Relaxing in one of the comfortable chairs with an apple tea and a nargile, I began to reall relax and enjoy the ambience, a truly Middle Eastern ambience that I found altogether agreeable.

A local Kurd named Ahmet Sezer came across and talked to me. He was friendly and intelligent lad who proved to be good company. I told him about my trip and my intention to visit Urfa next because of its connections with the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) but to my surprise he was dismissive and doubted the city’s holiness. He questioned how they knew that Abraham had actually been born in a cave there as there was no historical evidence to support it and instead told me that I should go to the Göbekli Tepe instead. I had never heard of this site and he explained that it was a prehistoric temple that had only recently been excavated and was now considered the oldest building in the world. I promised to seek it out if I had time, but to my regret I did not and missed out the chance to look at this remarkable place.

Our conversation moved onto politics and Ahmet expressed a dislike for Atatürk because of his refusal to recognise the Kurds as a people, but at the same time he was glad that the killings were over even if he did agree with most of the aims of the PKK. Finally he recommended that I try menengla kahve, a coffee made from pistachio nuts and without caffeine. It was indeed excellent and capped off a thoroughly enjoyable evening. I left, nargile smoked and coffee drunk feeling much better than I had when I’d woken up that morning and that night I fell into a beautiful deep sleep.

[1] A note should be made here as to how the Kurdish women wear their headscarves. Rather than tying their hair back in a ponytail, they pile it up on their heads and then wrap the scarf over it. The effect is a little akin to that of the headdresses of English women in the Middle Ages.
[2] May I just state clearly here, that my use of that term does not in any way infer that I support an independent Kurdish state. I merely use it as a geographical and cultural label, largely because, as I have already discussed, this part of Turkish is markedly different in culture to the rest.
[3] A similar story can be told about the Kurds in neighbouring Northern Iraq. After decades of oppression by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime they now enjoy a considerable degree of autonomy.
[4] To put this into context, the British Army has around 400 tanks in total and the Turkish Army around 3,000 so this was a considerable base.
[6] The name Aslan is of course famous in the West as being that of the great talking lion in the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis. The word however, is actually the Turkish term for ‘lion’ and was also applied to great leaders of the Seljuk and Ottoman Eras.
[8] Unlike the vast majority of Christians who believe that Christ has both a divine nature and a human nature, the Monophysites maintain that Christ is only divine, (the word ‘Monophysite’ literally means ‘One Nature’). During the early years of the Church there was much debate over this matter and at times the Monophysites held sway over the majority of the Christian World. These days however, they are few in number and their churches are declining. Aside from the Syrian Orthodox other surviving Monophysite churches include the Armenian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Church and the Ethiopian Church.
[9] Matthew 28:19

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Latvia, Georgia and Turkey Pt. 4: Batumi, Kars and Ani

Part Four of my 2010 summer trip




Links to all the parts of this travelogue:

Part 1: Riga, Sigulda and Turaida

Part 2: Tbilisi, Mtskheta and Kazbegi

Part 3: Tbilisi, Gori and Uplistsikhe

Part 4: Batumi, Kars and Ani

Part 5: Doğubeyazıt, Van and Diyarbakır

Part 6: Urfa, Haran and Adana

Part 7: Ankara and Istanbul

31st July, 2010 – Batumi, Georgia

I awoke at the crack of dawn with the Black Sea lapping the trackside outside the window. I had not slept well which was annoying since one of the main advantages to sleeper trains, (and especially ex-Soviet ones that are wider and warmer than most) are that you can usually get a decent night’s kip aboard them.

We pulled into Batumi and I was in two minds as to what to do next: Should I stay and explore the city or just head straight for the border? In the end my fatigued state, heavy rucksack and the fact that I knew I’d be having a long day ahead of me on the Turkish side triumphed over the delights of a city that promised little culturally, it being but a village before 1878, so I took a marshrutka out to the Georgian-Turkish border post at Gonio, some 19km further on. And in the end, I was glad that I had made that choice.

If asked to pick a low point on the trip, then there is no doubt whatsoever that it would be going through the border controls between Georgia and Turkey. In fact, in my entire life, I have never encountered a border even close to being as gruelling and absolutely miserable as that one. In a nutshell, I spent close to three hours in the full glare of the blazing hot morning sun, rucksack strapped onto my back, wedged in a mass of disgruntled humanity in a squash worthy of the old Boothen End on a Saturday afternoon but without the long-ball football as entertainment. Turkish border guards marshalled the Georgian (and Armenian) hordes like sheep, using truncheons when necessary and at times also when not. One woman passed out from sunstroke; I was surprised there weren’t many more. It was hell, and at the end of it all there was still a lengthy taxi ride into Hopa, the first Turkish town on the Black Sea. Still, at least I got through it all and as I sat with a tea and kebab in Hopa’s bus station, I managed to reflect awhile on the little country that I’d just left whilst anticipating what was to come in the big country that I’d just arrived in.

Georgia was not quite what I’d anticipated, but then again what had I expect prior to my visit there? A kind of Balkans in Asia perhaps, and in some ways that proved to be the case with its mish-mash of ancient peoples, cult of the strongman and warrior, rabid destructive nationalism, strong sense of traditional wrongs, long memories, fantastic scenery and decaying communist heritage. At the same time though, this was no Balkans; the scenery was far wider, more barren, too arid, and the culture different also. Yes, it was Orthodox Christian with splashes of Islam, but the Christianity here was more Asiatic and Pagan whilst the people, with their swarthy faces, jet black hair and pronounced features, looked more Iranian than European.

So it was both familiar and alien at the same time, but most striking of all was the welcome, the warmest that I’ve ever received in a foreign country and a sure reason to return someday soon. I felt that in my six days I’d merely encountered the tip of the Caucasian cultural, geographical and ethnographical iceberg. There is still a lot of Georgia to explore, plus both Armenia and Azerbaijan, not to mention the many Caucasian Republics within the Russian Federation. Yes indeed, as one famous strong man once put, I’ll be back.

But that was looking back to the place I’d just left, what about where I was now, for should a traveller not be looking ever forward? I was now in the Republic of Turkey, a country that I’d visited once before, back in 2003. Then I’d spent a freezing winter’s week exploring the delights of Istanbul, Ankara and Konya and I’d left feeling that here, like with Georgia in 2010, was a place where I’d only just touched the tip of the iceberg. Well, now it was time to add a little more flesh to the skeleton.

And the first bit of that new flesh was Hopa, the around which was green and lush and reminded me more of Corfu than anywhere else that I’ve been. It was very Mediterranean and noticeably wealthier than Georgia had been. However, after Hopa, where next? My original plan had been to travel from Gori to Borjomi, then Akhaltsikhe near to which I would cross the border and then end up in the small city of Kars. I was now however, over a hundred miles west of that city and the maps showed no major roads going in that direction. Would it be feasible to try and rejoin my original route or would I be better instead heading for Trabzon or Erzurum?

As luck would have it, there was the occasional bus running from Hopa to Kars and what’s more, one of them was departing in under an hour, so I booked myself on it and settled down for the journey. What followed was one of the most incredible bus trips of my entire life.

For the first hour or so, the coach climbed, up the green slopes and inland towards the town of Borçka (very Balkan in appearance) and then Artvin. I slept for much of this section, recouping from the rigours of a poor night’s sleep and the hell at the border, but at the bus station outside Artvin I got off, refreshed myself with some ice-cold water from a running hose outside the building and fell into conversation with a major in the Turkish Army who liked football, had recognised the sacred red and white stripes of Stoke City FC and wanted to talk about Tuncay.[1] After football we moved onto each other. He was travelling with his wife and young daughter (Merva), and was a native of Izmir on the coast but had been stationed to Turkey’s remote eastern provinces for five years.

Pulling out of Artvin we climbed steeply and enjoyed one of the most incredible views that I have ever seen. Across the valley of the Çoruh River an absolutely enormous dam – the Deriner Dam[2] – was being constructed. It was fascinating to see the work in progress after having seen several finished dams, (including the Borçka Dam which we’d passed forty minutes before), but what was most remarkable about this was the sheer scale of the project; it was unbelievably big! The dam wall itself, half-built when I saw it, will be some 249m high when finished, making it the fourteenth highest in the world.[3]

For the next fifty miles or so, our journey was greatly affected by the new dam. We travelled along dusty roads running down the bottom of arid river valleys, spectacular rock formations towering high above. Gone was the lushness and greenery of the area around Hopa; here all the rocks were bare and the colour of sand. I was reminded of some of the harsh landscapes of the Albanian Highlands or the Atlas Mountains.

But these valleys are soon to disappear, to be flooded as the waters rise behind the new dam, and with them, so too will the road disappear. A new road was being constructed high above us on the valley side and at one point in a most lonely spot indeed, we were stopped by a traffic light whilst the rocks above were dynamited. They came cascading down onto the road before us, boulders the size of cars kicking up a huge dust cloud that took some time to clear. When it eventually did, a bulldozer was fired up and the way before us cleared of debris, whilst a lorry flowed behind and sprayed the surface with water to keep down the dust. That done, the light changed to green and we continued on our way.

We stopped at a small roadside eatery where I drenched my face in ice-cold water and then enjoyed some tasty çorba (lentil soup) with bread. I was reading Karen Armstrong’s History of Islam and the proprietor, by both the title and picture of a mosque on the cover, asked if I was a Muslim. When I replied in the negative, he was nonetheless pleased that I had decided to take an interest in his religion and he proudly announced that as well as being the owner of the restaurant, he was also the village imam.

At Penek we joined the main road east to Kars and were subjected to a police checkpoint where my passport was scrutinised. I was reminded that we were now getting near to the tense areas of Turkey, for not only was the Armenian border close, but we were also entering the lands settled by Kurds.

From then on the landscape changed again. The craggy dry valleys were gone and in their place wide sweeping steppe reminiscent of Kazakhstan or Mongolia. I saw a ruined Armenian church and a host of villages that could have been several thousand miles further east. This was Silk Road country with vast treeless spaces, villages of yurts and other settlements made of strange squat stone cottages with turf roofs.

It was around five when we eventually pulled into Kars, a small frontier city of around 75,000 souls that recently gained some literary fame as the setting for Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow.[4] I found a basic hotel for 20 lira a night and then walked out, heading for the old part of the city and the citadel (which was shut). Below the citadel was an amazing Armenian church that had been turned into a mosque that I ached to look inside, but that too was off-limits; this time because a TV company was filming there.

Former Armenian church, now a mosque, Kars

I headed into the centre where I took a very welcome and invigorating hammam before retiring to an establishment named Café Kristal for my tea which consisted of a rather tasty yet unusual dish called pili which involved pieces of meat on the bone in a soup which one sucked off the bones before drinking the juices. Nice! Thus fulfilled and tired, I made my way back to the hotel, as I drew near viewing the proceedings in a large restaurant across the road from the hotel where I wedding was taking place and women in garish dresses and too much make-up, (but very few headscarves), milled around with men in sombre suits and serious expressions on their faces whilst all the while a band played cheesy pop-cum-folk music very loudly on a bad sound system.

1st August, 2010 – Kars, Turkey

There was a man waiting for me when I came downstairs from my room. He had a car with a cracked windscreen and he wanted to take me somewhere. I went with him even though I was a little reluctant to do so. After all, I knew that he would hurt me where it was most painful: in the pocket.

I had come to Kars because of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. In that novel, detested by many Turks because it lays bare some uncomfortable truth about their country, it is a semi-mystical place, cut off from the world by heavy snowstorms, a place that felt like it was on the edge of civilisation, the very end of the road. To paraphrase a much more famous work of literature, I’d unofficially decided that if one seeks the real Turkey, then one must journey even unto Kars, and so far she had not disappointed; the desolate steppe that surrounded her spoke of the end of the world whilst he grey fortress and shabby apartment blocks spoke of defence against both the harsh winters and the forces of evil that periodically spill over from their hostile eastern neighbours.

But if I’d come to Kars for Kars, then I was unlike the majority of her few tourists, as for them the city is merely a base from which to go further. For Kars is not in fact, the end of the road; the road continues for another 45km until it hits the impenetrable barrier of the Armenian border, closed since the Russians withdrew in 1920, firstly due to Cold War mutual suspicions and then, after 1991, due to political wrangling over Turkish refusals to recognise the Armenian Genocide of 1915. But just shy of that border, (and in the eyes of many, on the wrong side of that border), lies the ruined city of Ani, once the capital of an Armenian state.

Ani was selected by the Bagratid King Ashot III to be the site of his new capital in 961 and it remained the capital of the Armenian state until the Byzantines took over in 1045. Then, in 1064, the Great Seljuks took over, then some local Kurdish rulers until in 1239 when the Mongol Hordes poured across from central Asia and emptied the whole city whose fate was finally sealed in 1319 when an earthquake destroyed much of what was left.[5] In its day though, Ani had been one of the great Silk Road cities with bazaars, grand churches, hammams and mosques, a place where East and West met and some of the most important discoveries in human history were passed between the earth’s two greatest cultural entities.

I hadn’t know what to expect of Ani save that it would cost me a lot (60 lira) to get there, which is why I’d ummed and arred about hiring a driver to take me out there, but in the end I’d figured that I’d never be in Kars again so this truly was a once in a lifetime opportunity and as such, worth staking up the cash. And in the end I was glad that I decided to go.

Ani was amazing. It’s hard to put one’s finger on why, but it was. Perhaps it was the setting with windblown steppe all around and the rocky canyon of the River Arpa separating the ruins from the country that they once lorded over? Or perhaps it was those ruins themselves, vast eerie, empty churches inhabited only by birds, lines of stones on the ground that were once houses, shops, a hammam? Perhaps instead it is the fact that it had been an Armenian city and the Armenians are now all gone, wiped out by a holocaust unrecognised and untalked about in Turkey, whilst their tiny, truncated successor state now lies across the river, the descendents of the builders and residents of Ani able to look at but not touch their once-great city, yet another symbol of their pain and loss? Or perhaps it is because it is a potent symbol of human fallibility; how even the most solid and prosperous cities can be flattened by man or God, how the huge cathedral whose scale has to be seen to be believed, now sits empty every Sunday, the whole country virtually devoid these days of followers of the faith that once dominated it. As the Bible itself says, To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up.[6]

I wandered around Ani for three hours, it could have been three more, but by then my feet were giving way and my stomach rumbling, so I retired to the taxi and returned to Kars, my mind full of one of the most remarkable spots on earth.

The enormous Cathedral of Ani. The scale does not come across in this picture but each of those stone blocks is half the size of a man.

Ani, desolate and spectacular

The novel Snow by Orhan Pamuk centres around a poet and journalist named Ka who has just returned to his native Istanbul after twelve years of political exile in Germany. He travels out to Kars, (the title of the book in Turkish is their word for snow, ‘Kar’ which has added meaning), in the depths of winter to investigate a series of suicides. The deceased are all ‘headscarf girls’, i.e. young ladies who wear the hijaab and live a conservative lifestyle somewhat against the teachings of the secularist Kemalist state. The Islamists say that this leads to a happier, more fulfilled existence, yet if that is the case, why are these girls being driven to end it all, especially when one considers that suicide is forbidden in Islam? As the snow thickens and cuts Kars off from the world, Ka discovers that all is not so rosy in conservative Kars as the powers that be would make it out to be.

What I remembered from the book is that all the headscarf girls were from shabby apartment blocks on the poorer fringes of the city. This interested me since my foray into the centre the evening before had revealed the locals to be quite secular and Kemalist in their dress, probably due to the fact that there’s a large military presence barracked in the city due to the nearby borders with Armenia and Georgia. So it was that I took a walk out through the grid-iron blocks of streets to the Kars Museum which lies on the very edge of town.

Turkey’s apartment blocks are distinctive. There is a tradition of covering them with tiled mosaics which softens the harsh angles and drab concrete. These examples however, did not look any poorer than the examples in the centre although the population had definitely become more conservative. A lot of girls wore multi-coloured headscarves and I saw one – the first of my travels – in an all-encompassing chador similar to those worn in nearby Iran. I was in the land of Snow! Then, beyond the apartments came the traditional houses, one-storey, unplanned and built of stone. And they were definitely the dwellings of the city’s poor.

Turkish apartment blocks covered in coloured tiles. This example is in one of the new suburbs of Diyarbakır

The museum was a good one with extensive exhibits on all aspects of Kars’ history, (save for the Armenian Genocide of course), and local culture and customs. After perusing and recovering from the sun, I headed back out, through the apartment blocks of the suicidal headscarf girls to the city centre and a well-earned meal.

After my meal I continued with my walking, firstly to a photo shop to get all my snaps put on disk so I could free up camera memory for some more and then up to the post office which, when I got there, was shut.

The post office is on the opposite side of town to the museum, up on the high ground in an area completely different in character to that which I’d left. Here stood the bureaucracy of the military and governmental forces that control the area, housed in late 19th century blocks guarded by unsmiling soldiers. Kars, although once the Armenian capital (before Ani) is in many respects a modern town built by the Russians between 1878 and 1920 when they controlled the area, and in the bureaucratic district this was evident; the architecture and ambience of the place being far more akin to Moscow than Marmaris.

I walked up to the citadel which was now open. It was pretty complete although a lot of the buildings within the walls were 19th century additions. Near to the gate there was a shrine to a Muslim holy man whose tomb had a Turkish flag draped over it. I wandered in and wondered what it was that he had done in his life but alas, I never found out.

As always with castles though, the best bit about this one were the views from the top. From the keep one could see across the scattered city to the railways lines, then onwards to the steppe beyond, stretching all the way to Armenia. Nearer to, there was a huge, (perhaps 30m high), statue of two stylised figures facing one another. One assumes that it represents some sort of friendship, but between whom? The army and the locals perhaps, or possibly the Turk and the Armenian? Neither seemed too likely.

Strange statue on a hillside near to Kars.

Down below, in-between the statue and the castle, was a collection of Ottoman Era buildings clustered around a stone bridge linking the two banks of the river. Several of the buildings had domes which made me wonder if they were perhaps hammams and I vowed to investigate them later.

I met three young men on the top of Kars Citadel. They were Rafet Mercan, Hûseyin Çöllü and Ali Zeybek, all soldiers from Turkey’s west, (Istanbul I seem to recall), who had been posted to Kars for three years. The posting was only a month or so old and it was summer so they were quite enjoying it but all were dreading the harsh winter and the prospect of such a long time in a town where there’s so little to do.

Rafet Mercan, Hûseyin Çöllü and Ali Zeybek; the cream of the Turkish Armed Forces

After exploring the citadel I climbed down and checked out the Armenian church where the TV company had been filming the day before. Built between 932 and 937 as the Church of the Apostles, it was turned into a mosque in 1579 and had remained one ever since. Inside it was peaceful and pleasant and it was not hard to imagine what it had been like when in use as a church.

I then went on to check out the domed buildings and stone bridge that I’d seen from the citadel ramparts. The buildings were indeed deserted Ottoman hammams and, to my delight, one had no door so I wandered on inside and explored the empty rooms, imagining what the place was like in its heyday. That little corner of Kars was my favourite, forgotten and picturesque and with the stone bridge traversing a rushing river it was almost Balkan in its ambience.

Ottomon Kars: an 18th century stone bridge and ruined hammams beneath the ramparts of the citadel

By the river I found a tea garden where I decided to retire for the day, my feet aching after all the walking. I ordered myself some tea and a nargile and wiled away several hours smoking, reading Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History, drinking and watching the world go by. It was altogether civilised and pleasant and I was altogether happy. Yes, I’d arrived back in Turkey and so far I was finding it better than all expectations.

Part 5: Doğubeyazıt, Van and Diyarbakır

[1] Tuncay Şanlı, Stoke’s only decent flair player for more than twenty years and a member of the Turkish national side. He previously played for Fenerbahçe before moving to the UK.
[3] And the tallest that I’ve ever seen. The nearest I’ve come to that is the Kurobe Dam near to where I lived in Japan (186m). The Light of the Party Dam that I discussed in my Albanian Excursions travelogue is 152m whilst the Zhinvali Dam that I passed in Georgia is a piffling 102m. For comparison, the Eiffel Tower is 324m high.
[4] Although a massive success worldwide, this novel in particular and the man who wrote it in general, are not well-liked in Turkey itself. Due to his comments on the Armenian Genocide and the treatment of Kurds, Pamuk is disliked by the Kemalist establishment who accuse his of “insulting Turkishness” whilst the subject of the book – the suicides of girls who wear headscarves and the negative connotations of political Islam – have made him unpopular with the Islamists as well.
[5] Lonely Planet Turkey, p.555
[6] Ecclesiastes 3:1-3