(14) Bahçesaray, Turkey: Hospitality to the power of infinity

I debated many possible titles for this post.

  • Bahçesaray, Turkey: I’m an honorary man
  • Bahçesaray, Turkey: Sleeping is hard to do when you’re pretty sure there’s a mouse in your bag on the other side of the room
  • Bahçesaray, Turkey: Holy f**k I love mountains

Wow, where do I start. At the beginning I suppose. After saying goodbye to Peter, I put my backpack in storage at the hotel and took off with a small overnight bag in search of a minibus to Bahçesaray. Lonely Planet gives one location, which I tried to scope out a few days ago with no luck. The hotel front desk man gave another location, which is where I started today. I ended doing almost a complete circle of the town centre, both on foot and in a van of a guy offering to help. After an hour of searching, I ended up at the right minibus, just two blocks from my hotel. I was told we would be leaving in 10 minutes.

After 30 minutes, we were off.

But not really. First we stopped at the main produce distribution centre of Van, where we circled around for 45 minutes and loaded potatoes into the van.

And then we were off.

But not really. Second, we headed back to where we originally took off from, and loaded a bit more. A bag of fruit was offered around. Small green things, kind of like really, really unripe plums. I was actively encouraged (pushed?) to eat four.

And then we were off.

But not really. Third we pulled a U-turn and back tracked to a small hospital, where we stopped and people got out to do who knows what. I went to a little store in the compound and got some juice and snacks. I offered some sesame crackers around.

And then we were off.

But not really. We made it a bit further along the highway and then pulled into a residential area, dropped two guys off, went a bit further, stopped for a bit, picked some things up, started up again, stopped again and picked up the guys dropped off earlier. I’m given a cup of Coke from a 2L bottle.

And then we were off.

But not really. 20TL of gas first.

And then we were off.

Kind of. We made it about 30km, where we stopped for more gas, and tea. I was plied with tea, cookies, and a small cake.

And then, about 4 hours after our original departure, we were off.

For a while. After about an hour, we stopped for lunch and prayer. A small cement pad, pointed towards Mecca, was a base for us to eat bread, cheese, and drink more pop.

And then we were off again. Scenery-oh-my-god. I love mountains. I love love love mountains. I was not disappointed. The road winds gradually ascends through lush valleys and, eventually, icefields, to a 3000m pass and then descends steeply into the interior of the mountain range that hosts my destination. The passengers get a good laugh at me when I freak out upon discovery of small, slightly fuzzy pink beetle on my hand.

We made two further stops along our descent. At one, four men got out and proceeded to walk down the mountain (to where? I thought) and then later, four switchbacks down, we waited as the four men caught up to us. They had picked some wild rhubarb-like plants (again, which they shared with me) and some wild mountain tulips, of which I was the recipient of four.

We finally get to Bahçesaray, and the town is larger than I had expected. Straddling a quick moving river, the main street is paved with bricks and men drink tea on the sidewalks.

And here’s where it gets interesting. The guidebook says there’s a small guesthouse in town, and to inquire at the restaurant on the river. However, the driver and passengers, with their nonexistent English and my incredibly limited Turkish and Kurdish, share with me that there is no hotel or pension. And that there is no transportation back to Van until tomorrow.  So the driver (from what I think I understood) offered to host me at his village (his home?).  All the passengers are nodding at me.

I’ve learned to savour ambiguity here. While I keep my guard up a bit, I find that overall, people look out for you, and genuinely want to help. Especially in this Kurdish region, I have experienced the most wonderful hospitality and generosity, without any expectations of reciprocity (to which I am humbled and often embarrassed).

So I go along with the driver. He’s young, friendly in a quiet way, and (I’ll admit) a tad dark and handsome. At first we walk through the street of Bahçesaray. It doesn’t take long to reach the ends of the town, and we turn around as I snap photos. We end up back at the van, where the passengers, plus a few more are waiting, and I get back inside, and we continuing up a valley along a rough road at about 10km an hour.

As the road winds up over a steep edge, the old woman beside me starts making faces. I have no idea what she means, but I guess that she is trying to share, “Isn’t this road scary?” I put my arm around her and squeeze her shoulders. We laugh.

On this part of the journey, one of the new passengers is a school teacher. He speaks a bit of English, and all of a sudden questions are flying back and forth through the van. Apparently, I am very interesting. “Why?” I ask. “Because you are a woman alone,” the obvious response.

I get another offer from the older woman to come to her house, but in the end I follow the teacher, Yasin, to his village. He is not from here, but was assigned here (by the computer he says) when he finished teacher training. He spoke no Kurdish when he came her four years ago, and the children he teaches speak no Turkish when they start.

In the village (Çatbayır – Turkish; Arıncik – Kurdish; turns out you can actually find it on Google Maps!) he tells me we will visit here, and then we will walk down the valley to the next village where I will stay with a female teacher. Again, I’m fine with ambiguity. I’ll carry my small bag with me and be happy wherever I end up.

The village is perched on the slope of a valley, the second to last before the road ends. All of the homes are constructed of stone walls, wood beam ceilings, and sod roofs. First stop is his small home, where, lo and behold, he has Facebook. Even in village of 150, satellite TV and phone modems are still accessible.

We explore the village, and children slowly start to accumulate behind us. At one pause I am given a gift of knitted socks and a head scarf. We stop at the mosque, where Yasin demonstrates the prayer process, from the call to prayer over the PA system, to the cleansing, to the actual prayer. The boys who have followed me in are now quiet, but stare intently.

We stop on a plaza/balcony/roof (an open flat area) where tea materializes. At this point I haven’t used the toilet in about 10 hours, but I can hold off a while longer, though I hold off after one cup. We visit the Kazim Cudi family home in their sitting room, and I become the honorary man – getting to eat and drink with the other men, while the women serve but otherwise remain outside. More tea, but also raisins and walnuts. Yasin tells me that this is a very good family, and the children are very clever.  The brother of the girl that serves us is the first from the village to go to university, studying finance I gather (“for working in bank”). Yasin believes intelligence is genetic, as all the children in this family are clever. We philosophize on nature vs. nurture. I finally get to use a toilet.

We continue our walk around the village, and I learn we will go back to the Kazim Cudi house for dinner. We stop again in the flat area, and I learn some Turkish and Kurdish, though what I think means “How old are you?” actually means “12” in Kurdish, so it turns out I subsequently keep asking children “12?” the rest of the evening, and am suitably confused that they don’t understand my question.

We head back to the Kazim Cudi home, and I play the guessing game that has come to be my staple way to connect with kids. After a few round of getting them to guess which hand the coin is in, and pretending to swallow it and knock it out of my ear, it’s the daughter’s turn. I shake the young girls fists, sniff them, hover my fingers over them as I make beeping noises, all under the pretense of investigating the coin’s location. I read the girl’s facial expression and probably end up guessing about 80%.

Dinner with the Kazim Cudi father, son, and Yasin teacher was fantastic. It’s always a pleasure to deviate from shish and donar, though I still am only eating with the men. Rice, bread, some sort of tomato omlette, bean and potato soup, and a tasty yogurt and cucumber combo. The electricity flickers off and on and a fuel lamp is brought out.

The evening closes with a laugh as I am told to try on the socks given to me earlier. I can’t even get them over my arch. The mother brings out a bag of these knitted socks and we all laugh as we find my size 9 feet are too big for all of them. I am given another gift of the largest pair of sock in the bag, along with another head scarf. The daughter that served us tea earlier returns to show me how to put on a head scarf.

It turns out I will stay in this family’s home for the night. Bedrolls are pulled out for me and one of the oldest daughters, and our sleeping area is arranged. I have a feeling that I am displacing some of the other family members to other rooms in the home. I feel embarrassed by all of the generosity. I didn’t bring anything to share or to offer as a gift.

I would have slept soundly in the dark and quiet of this small village, had it not been for the small sounds of plastic rustling. I’m aware of the crackers I’ve left in a small bag on the side of the room beside my backpack. I hear small sounds above my head at the top of my bed roll. I lapse in and out of sleep.

In the morning I realize the sounds were actually small bits of dirt falling from the ceiling and hitting the floor. My crackers are in tact, but a small pink fuzzy beetle has made its way inside the bag.

Breakfast is eggs, sheep cheese, sheep yogurt, bread, and honeycomb. Everything is from the village except the tea and sugar. Yasin has returned and joins me for breakfast before the van back to Bahçesaray and Van.

A group is present to see me off, but most of the children have already gone to school. One of the men heading down in the van is also continuing on to Van, so has been designated to look after me. I reluctantly leave the village, but wonder how easy it would be (or not?) to spend some more time up here in the future. Can houses be rented? How did the teacher get his place?

I have tea two separate times and am offered a third while waiting in Bahçesaray for a van to Van. The driver from yesterday makes an appearance and four eager men take me on a quick tour to a nearby town to show me an old bridge. Apparently it was built in 816, but what caught my attention were some bright blue butterflies fluttering by down near the river.

As we almost depart for the 3 hour trip back to Van, I wonder about Turkish land ownership laws for foreigners. I often consider running a guesthouse later in life, and have added this to my list of potential locations.

The ride back was more of the same beauty, but with way fewer stops along the way.

Back in Van at my favourite hotel, I am here one more night before an overnight train to Tehran, Iran. This morning I went back to the Bahçesaray minibus stop to confirm it was heading all the way to Çatbayır village. I bought selection of fruit and asked the driver to get the bag to the Kazim Cudi family and Yasin – my small attempt at reciprocity. He refuses my offer to pay, and as I walk away down the street, I find myself starting to cry.

(13) Van, Turkey: What did I say about staying out of large, political crowds in cities?

Now, as Peter and I returned to town earlier in the day from our road trip, we had spotted riot police. Everywhere. In groups of 20+ on the main drag, along with big police vehicles. In small groups of 3-5 around various corners. Some in plain clothes, some in plain clothes under police vests, some in full police get-up, and some with helmets and shields. Hmm.

We had been told it was for a Kurdish protest, but saw nothing going on. Eventually, we heard some chanting, so after being told once again that rooms weren’t ready, we decided to investigate.

There were 1000+ people walking down the street, a few with banners, many dressed in green, red and yellow, and they all held up their fingers in a V. A man with an earpiece tells Peter and I to move aside as the crowd begins to pass our patch of turf on the median of the town’s main street. Everyone wants us to take his or her or a child’s picture (sorry, we aren’t journalists). The crowd ends their walk at a main intersection, where a large bus with photographers and speakers on the top. A variety of chants ensues, and eventually a series of people begins to talk. The crowd alternates cheering, booing, and holding up their V signs. All and all very peaceful, and actually a bit boring as we have no idea what’s going on.

Eventually a young man comes up to us and helps us understand. He’s a student from the local university, and he explains to us that the main speaker is the president of the main national Kurdish political party. The rally is in support of peace after recent violence directed towards some Kurdish youth. He tells us that five Kurdish university students were killed last week in Tehran, and explains some other recent deaths and imprisonments. He explains that the people here want peace. That people are people whether Turkish, Kurdish or any other combination of culture, country and religion. A ‘why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along?’ sort of rally. The V signs I saw earlier, I realize, are for peace. At one point in the rally, a moment of silence is held. I’m struck as the thousands of people in the street stop, hold their heads down and their hands up in peace signs. The moment of silence is broken in chanting.

Eventually the rally breaks up, and people disperse on foot. The riot police, who didn’t seem to make much of an appearance, disperse as well – on buses.  The end. I now know how easy it can be to get interested in checking out large crowds in cities. I’ll have to hold that tendency in check once in Iran and Kyrgyzstan.

Later that afternoon (after our rooms are “ready” but we still have to wait for the bathrooms to get cleaned) Peter and I headed to our final destination of choice in the city – the infamous Castle of Fun. Or in reality, the Castle of Van (Van Kalesi). We get dropped off with some Turkish tourists at what seems like the entrance, but there is no one to collect tickets, and we are encouraged along a fairly precipitous path up the side of a rocky hill, though a hole in the barbed wire fence. We are followed by would-be children tour guides, but Peter and I have had enough of kids after our experiences yesterday and earlier this morning. Van Kalesi encompasses the old city of Van, destroyed during WWI. Almost nothing is left of the old city, but some interested remnants of the castle wall remain. Eventually we realize that the main ticket entrance is on the other side of the small mountain, and we have inadvertently scammed the system. I think I would have been more impressed with the kalesi had I not been so tired. Remember, I had been up since shortly after 5am with a really crap sleep.

The evening ends with a hot shower (finally! thank you!) dinner (please, anything but shish or donair) and dessert. Peter and I are parting ways tomorrow, so I rip some movies and episodes of Lost from his harddrive and we make plans to meet for breakfast before I try my luck at finding a minibus to the remote town of Bahcesaray, and Peter finds a bus to Kars.

The soft bed could not come soon enough.

(12) Around Lake Van, Turkey: Shotguns, volcanoes and hand jobs

Peter and I left around 11 from Van for our lake road trip. I was sooo excited to rent a car. It’s pretty expensive in Turkey – it cost about $75 for 24hr rental (hence leaving at 11am – we could spend the night part way around the lake and catch a few more hours of sights in the morning) plus gas, which turned out to be about $100 to fill up the tank (gas being over $2/L).  Ahhh, but the freedom!

Peter and I ended up being really suitable travel partners. We both enjoy photography, taking things as they come, wearing khaki, and taking up people on strange opportunities. Not that I have traveled with people much before, but I’ve always considered myself an independent traveler (read: I generally don’t like traveling with people and suspect they wouldn’t like traveling with me). But once in a blue moon it works, and these few days with Peter worked great (thanks Peter!).

The first leg of the road trip involved me testing my defensive driving abilities getting out of the city, being shocked at how much it costs to fill up the tank, and stopping by the roadside repeatedly to snap shots of the breathtaking scenery. Turquoise blue lake, snow capped peaks, lush green valleys, and picturesque rolling hills.

Soon we made it to the turn off to our first and main stop of the day: Nemrut Dagi (pronounced Nemroot Daowuh). 13km up a slowly ascending gravel rod to the rim of a volcanic caldera. We really have no idea what to expect at the top.

About half way up we spot a man in a suit walking down the fairly remote, barren road with something long and narrow in his hands.

“I hope that’s a stick,” Peter says.

“I don’t think so,” I respond.

It was a shotgun. We joke briefly about coming across a dead body, but then don’t think much more of it.

At the crest of the caldera, I am slightly confused but gasp at the beauty. It’s not what I was expecting the caldera to look like (my last caldera, Mt Bromo on Java in Indonesia was filled with sand and was a flat 10km across save three smaller volcanic cones sprouting near the centre). However, the view of the volcanic lake and surrounding geology is stunning.

As we pause at the pass to take photos and enjoy the sites, a car comes up behind us.

“I hope they don’t have a shotgun,” I joke. “Wait a sec. The guy in the passenger seat is the guy with the shotgun.” He and his two friends get out of the car, and fire a shot down the slope into the caldera.

They turn to us with friendly faces and wave us over, offering for us to take shots. I hesitate, but Peter goes for it, and then I join him. We each take a turn aiming at bottles about 100m down the slope. My first (and last?) time firing a gun. Got a bit of a kickback into my shoulder, but I’ve watched enough TV to see how it’s done properly.

The next few hours were spent driving around this huge caldera. It’s kind of hard to describe. The thing must have been a good 5km across, and a crescent-shaped third of it was a lake. The rest was made up of hills, valleys, cliffs, trees, shrubs, grasses, coves, and ponds touched by wind, snow, rain and sun. Dozens of microclimates and geologies, each with its and an amazingly well kept gravel road leading through it.  We explored almost every possible road to the end. There was only one point where I was worried for a half second we were going to make it up a road out of a cove, but otherwise our offroading in a rental economy car was smooth (word of advice: never buy a used rental car).

On our way out of the caldera, on a different road than the one we came up, we near two men that we had spotted earlier helping with some surveying, and offer them rides down the mountain. Seeing as they didn’t have shotguns, we figured it was a pretty safe choice. It was. Just a little return of the hospitality that we’ve each come across on our travels in Turkey thus far.

Now, seeing as we had spent way more time in the caldera than expected (it was about 7pm by the time we reached the lake road again) our main goal was to find a place to stay. There were a few possible sights to see, but as the sun was already setting, I asked Peter to stop only if something was right on the side of the road.

In the end, we only made one stop. And what a stop it was. The sight itself could have been remarkable in its own right – old graveyard with intricately carved unique headstones made from the nearby volcanic rock, all at sunset. However, as soon as we got out of the car, five young boys accosted us. Probably ranging from ages 9-13 or so, the boys at first just wanted money. Then they wanted to take pictures with our cameras. They were all over us. Totally ruined the graveyard visit. But then it went beyond accosting. I thought I saw one kid open his fly, but I looked up and away. At this point Peter and I had had enough, and were making our way back to the car. One or two of them started yelling “sex, yes” over an over, and then one or two others (or the same two? I wasn’t really paying close attention at this point) started making masturbation gestures. We got in the car, locked the doors, and screeched off. Where did these kids pick that up from? Sure, kids joke about sex. Sure, they ask tourists for money. But this was intense. Bleh.

It was dark by the time we got to the town we had anticipated spending the night at. But by the time we realized that we were at the town, we had passed it, and the apparently invisible hotel we had in mind. We pressed on to the next, larger town, without any reference of places to stay, but also with a change in plans to get up super early and head on a northern detour on our way back to Van to see Mt. Ararat (the sight of Noah’s unfortunate crash with all those pairs of animals).

The hotel situation was dire, but for what we needed it for, a smoke-filled, uncomfortable, showerless dive would do fine until we woke at 5:15am. One of those places where we weren’t sure if it was safer to leave our things in our room or in the car while we were out for dinner. I’d have to say out of all the places I’ve stayed over the years in 20+ countries, this was the worst deal I’ve ever had. Even with Peter and I sharing a room it still cost me over $10.  The smoke was so intense in the middle of the night that I half imagined that there was someone spying into our room at the door.

The last few hours in the rental car were lovely. More amazing volcanic scenery as we climbed and descended mountains. Mt. Ararat was shrouded in clouds, but the drive in and of itself was worth it. Plus we got to burn more fuel (this dang economy car only used ¾ of a tank for 650+ km!). The town where we stopped for breakfast and to spot Mt Ararat (Dogubayazit) looked lovely, but was full with kid touts. We had had our fill of pushy kids yesterday, but we still ended up following the suggestion of one of these kids to a breakfast place. As we snacked on possibly the most overpriced breakfast in Turkey, the kid showed us some of our pictures before slipping in that he didn’t have bus fare to go to his uncle’s city to find work. “Ah, there’s the catch,” Peter says under his breath.

The last two rental hours consisted of us powering through back to Van, finally finding a parking spot in the city, and getting back to the hotel only to find that no rooms were ready. Our hopes for hot showers and naps were on hold.

(11) Van, Turkey: Did he say Castle of Fun?

Well, what a few days it has turned out to be in Van (pronounced almost like ‘Juan’). After hanging around the Diyarbakir bus station for 7 hours and taking the night bus (and, surprise, not sleeping) to Van, I arrived in the city centre at about 7:30am. Thankfully, the hotel I wanted to stay at was happy to check me in that early.

This hotel I have been looking forward to. Lonely Planet lists it as a mid-range option, stating that even if you are on a budget to consider spending a bit more for this hotel. While it’s not a Westin, it has immaculate sheets, lovely hot clean showers, wifi, sit down toilets (yes!), and deep-sleep-worthy beds. All for about $35 a night.

At first the guy said the price was 60 TL (~$45) at which I paused. I was too tired to bargain, but I didn’t respond at all – I just stared at the number he had written down. What seemed like minutes later, he asked with a smirk, “May I help you?” and wrote down 50TL. I thanked him, both for the reduced price, and for awaking me from my daze.

I checked in, did some sink laundry, napped, and then walked around the city to get the lay of the land. Not a large city, but surprisingly metropolitan for southeast Turkey, and still in the Kurdish region. Van sits on the southeast corner of the large Lake Van, though not on the shore. I don’t think locals have discovered the potential value of placing amenities near the lovely turquoise water.

There were two main things I wanted to see around Van. One was to rent a car and drive a loop around Lake Van, stopping at the caldera of Nemrut Dagi, an old volcano. The other was to head up to a small village called Bahcesaray, which has only two access roads that wind tightly around mountain passes, one of which is blocked by snow over half the year, the other new in the past 5 years. The snow road opened up in the past few weeks.

The first night in Van I met Peter, also staying at this hotel, a fellow traveler from Burnaby of all places, and he was interested in my lake loop trip. Unfortunately, a car wasn’t available on the first full day in Van, so instead we hopped on mini bus and ferry to Akdamar Island, which features a 10th century church with well-preserved carvings of biblical characters on the outside, and a lovely hike to the island top with great view over the lake and surrounding snowcapped mountain ranges. We had a great time – not just the sights and company, but also the temperature. We had both come out of 30-35°+ weather, so 22° with a breeze was heavenly.

On the way back, instead of retracing our steps, we managed (just in time) to take up a local teacher on an offer made earlier on the island to join his group of teachers and university faculty on a private boat all the way back to Van. We enjoyed sunflower seeds, cola, dancing, music, fresh air, conversation and sun. I wanted to capture the moment and share it with the many many Canadians (and Americans, and… and… and…) who have such warped views of Muslim people. Islam does not equal repression and extremism (though surely this exists in each and every religion and culture). Spending a fun afternoon on a boat with your colleagues and family – surely we can all identify with such an experience?

We caught a ride back to our hotel with a friend of the teacher.  The man kept telling us that if we wanted to go to the Castle of Fun, he would come with us, or he would take us. “Is he saying ‘Castle of Fun’?” I asked Peter. This sounded like an interesting evening. Peter eventually figured out he was referring to Castle of Van, our original plan for the evening that we decided to hold off until Saturday.

We capped off the evening with dinner, and the realization that I now have a tan line across my forehead resulting from a combination of sun hat and sun reflecting off the water for 2.5 hours on a boat.

(10) Dohuk and Solimaniyeh, Iraq: Mistaken for an American soldier

I left Savur on an 8am dolmus to Midyat with the hopes of catching another dolmus straight to Silopi, the town nearest the Iraqi border. I like playing the “get to the next furthest place the fastest” travel game. In Silopi, taxis know the border crossing business well, and are very helpful in navigating the series of stops between Turkey and Iraq. I had read from a recent traveller on an online forum that by 2pm, taxis were unavailable, so I was hoping to get to Silopi (which would take 4 hours direct) in good time.

This, however, was not to be. When I got to Midyat at 9:30am, the next dolmus heading anywhere in my direction was supposedly at 1pm. I spent a little while wandering the town and hanging at an internet cafe, and by a little after 12, a dolmus had arrived to take us to Idil, after which I switched to Cisre, and then to Silopi.

I didn’t get there until 4pm.

But, I was in luck. As I got out of the dolmus, I was approached for a taxi to Iraq, and soon learned that a Kurdish family was leaving too, so I only paid USD25 as opposed to the usual USD50+.

Between the driver and the family, they could speak about 50 English words, which gets pretty far. I also offered some of my orange to share, which also goes pretty far.

The drive to the border was smoggy. Or smoky. Or exhausty. Dirty is basically what it was. There were kilometres of trucks lined up to go over the border. We were one of a handful of cars, whizzing by them all.

The driver navigated the various stops and checkpoints at the border. I only had to get out once – to get the actual stamp in my passport – which took place at a lovely air conditioned hall, where I was served tea which smelled like dog food, but tasted fairly tea-ish.

Getting into Iraq will probably be the easiest of any country on this trip since I got to Turkey. 10 days. $0. Done.

Once across the border, shiny new Toyoto and Hyundai taxis were lined up to take me and the Kurdish family to Dohuk, the first major city. The taxis were incredibly civilized in comparison to Turkey. Air conditioned. Everyone in seatbelts. The phrase “I’m in (insert expletive) Iraq” kept repeating in my head.

The road wound up through small towns and over a pass before it descended towards Dohuk. The sequins and jewels sewn into the Kurdish womens’ skirts reflected light that danced around the back of the taxi. We stopped in the town before Dohuk for the Kurdish man to change money, and I took the opportunity to do the same.

The villages heading towards Dohuk were concrete block homes painted in pastel shades of green, purple, pink, orange. It was as though the sky had been playing something like an Easter version of Tetris.

Once in Dohuk, we were dropped off at the taxi terminal, where photos took place and I grabbed a taxi for downtown, to a recommended hotel that my driver didn’t know. After a few questions yelled to fellow drivers at stop lights and the help of a police officer, I made it to my destination. Checked into a nondescript room on an upper floor as to avoid the blaring TV of the lobby and the possible curious onlooks from the men getting their shoes shined on the street below.

I toured the market, and felt invigorated. I’ve been questioning my reasons for travelling, my purpose, during my time in Turkey, and feeling the vibrancy, the colour, the smells and sounds of the market in Dohuk brought my sanity back.  I enjoyed dinner of greasy ground beef and tomato pizza, washed down with a Coke. The power went out while I ate.

In the market I notice quite a few slender men with plucked eyebrows working in shoe stalls or bead and sequin shops, and I ponder the attitude of Kurds towards gays and lesbians.

The next morning I was off to look for a shared taxi to Solimaniyeh. The three main (safe) towns in Kurdistan are Dohuk, Erbil, and Solimaniyeh. Mosul and Kirkuk are on the outskirts of the region, and are not generally safe. My plan was to hop over to Solimaniyeh, and spend a night in Erbil on my way back. There were a variety of side trips to mountain villages that were also possible, but travelling alone meant expensive taxi trips, so I planned to stick to the main cities.

At the taxi office, I was quickly invited into the back area to share in a breakfast of bread, yogurt and tea. The group of men seemed genuinely excited to have me join them. Not in a creepy, leery way, but in an innocent generosity sort of way. The difference is subtle, but I feel it quickly. One of the young men I eat with share with me that he is in the Iraqi army in Mosul. He then asks me if I am American, and mimes a machine gun. No, I am not an American soldier.

A variety of Kurdish men are also waiting, but for different destinations. Or maybe they are just hanging out and being social. I’m struck by how different each man looks from another. Some have light hair and eyes, and could pass for having a northern European ancestry. They make jokes about their traditional clothing – a khaki button up shirt with khaki MC Hammer-esque pants, tied together with an interwoven length of fabric fashioned into a sort of a cummerbund. I suspect that the jokes revolve around the width of a man’s pant legs indicating the amount of room needed for his package. Or so I guess as they hold out their hands in front of them. I don’t think they’re joking about fish they have caught.

One other young man arrives that wants to go to Solimaniyeh, but it soon becomes apparent we are going to be waiting a long time for a third, so we agree to pay a bit more each and leave now. Two other men join us for part of the journey, but are dropped off early.

My co-passenger, Karwan, is generous. At each stop we take he comes back to the car with offers of bottled water, juice, gum.

The road to Solimaniyeh is lovely. As we are bypassing Erbil, we are able to take a more direct and scenic route. We wind up and down, sidling up against a dry mountain range to our right. The low mountains I had visited in Turkey were nice, but these were getting higher, and they drew my attention out of the car window.

We stop for lunch and I get to learn a bit more about Karwan. He’s originally from Kurdistan, but has been living and working in Germany for the past 8 years, though his European papers are for Italy. He’s visiting his family here for a few months, and will return to Germany later in the summer.

I ask Karwan to order for me. I have no idea what I want, let alone what is possible. Soon dish after dish of vegetables, rice, meats, and soups appear. Two thoughts enter my head. 1) There’s no way I can eat all this. 2) Please forgive me stomach for the meat I’m about to shock you with. In addition to my meat, Karwan insists I try some of his. This is more mammal than I’ve eaten probably in the past 6 years combined.

I ask what he does in Germany. He points to the chairs and tables of the restaurant and makes gestures that I understand to mean he manufactures furniture. He points to a finger that has been partially cut off. Part of the dangers of the job I suppose.

I ask why he left Iraq eight years ago. “Sadaam,” he says, and makes gun noises. He looks down at his food and pauses. “Not good.”

He tells me very affirmatively that he will get his official EU citizens papers in October 2011. He obviously has the date memorized.

We arrive in Sulimaniyeh in the late afternoon. At this point I’ve decided to bypass Erbil and head back to Dohuk the next day. Karwan will do the same. He’s made passing remarks about staying with his family, or visiting villages when we get back, but I’m not holding my breath yet.

At our hotel, I insist on separate rooms. I don’t know what his marital status is, but I don’t want to give any suggestive impressions. I find it interesting that sharing a room with a fellow tourist wouldn’t give me pause, but sharing one with a local guy does. Maybe it’s a vibe he’s giving off. I don’t know.

We head off to explore the town, and I find out that he hasn’t actually been here before. I guess that’s what growing up in war does. We wander market after market, meet his friend briefly, and explore the highlights of downtown. By this point I’m not feeling so well. The meat is not agreeing with me.

We head back to the hotel, and Karwan wants to pick up some alcohol. I turn down his offers. Back at our rooms, I tell Karwan not to expect me for dinner later. Part feeling sick and tired, part feeling vibes I don’t want to go any further. He takes out a cooler he bought for me at the liquor store. I tell him I don’t drink alcohol.

The next morning we head back to Dohuk in another shared taxi for two, paying a little bit extra not to have to wait for other passengers. He invites me to stay with his family back in Dohuk, and I accept.

At his brother’s house, I am set immediately at ease. Strong women, children. This is not going to be uncomfortable.

Shortly after our arrival, lunch is served. A huge spread of vegetables, rice and meet. It’s nice to see vegetables. What strikes me as strange is that after we are finished, all the food get scraped up into one big bowl, as if it’s going to get thrown out, no leftovers. They have two fridges, so it’s not for a lack of cool food storage (not that that matter in this area of the world anyways).

Karwan’s brother’s wife’s sister and niece come over. It’s the niece’s 6th birthday, and the women ask if I want to go shopping with them. We take a taxi downtown to the market area I had been to a few days before. I notice that women are dressed in the full range of head wear – I spot one or two burqas, but most of the women have either a loosely fitted head scarf or none at all (like my hosts).

The women, who don’t really speak English, are obviously looking for some sort of fancy fabric. We head into one fabric shop and stay there for quite a while. While we wait, I start playing my favourite children’s game, the “guess which hand it’s in?” game. A small fabric jewel becomes the object of focus. After the basic guessing, I start doing odd things like pretending I’ve swallowed it and finding it in her ear. It goes over well. When it’s her turn I make like I’m using all five senses plus my special finger radar to determine the jewel’s whereabouts. Later we play soccer with the jewel. Endless fun.

After a while Karwan joins us. It’s time to buy gifts for the birthday girl. At one of the toy stands she picks out a doll. Her younger brother is with us, so he gets a gift too. Karwan picks up a collection of plastic weapons for him. They go through it together, seeing if the young boy can name the grenade, the machine gun.

I point to the child size weapons and say, “very dangerous.” My passive way of disapproving of these sorts of toys.

Karwan tells me that he started in the Kurdish army when he was 15, and continued until he left for Germany. He shares his experiences very seriously, in a way that communicates the gravity of what he had to do.

Back at the house, we have dinner and relatives come and go.

In one chat, I explain my upcoming itinerary. Back to Turkey, onto Iran, and then Central Asia.

Karwan’s brother’s wife’s sister’s husband inhales through his teeth. “Iran,” he says in a low voice. “Dangerous. Many problems.”

I start laughing aloud unintentionally. I try my best to explain, but how do I describe the irony of people in Iraq telling me another country is dangerous? While I understand the relative safety of this area of Iraq, and the perceptions of Iran, this would sound pretty funny to most people back home.

Later Karwan explains he will arrange a taxi to my hotel soon, as it may cause problems with the police for me to stay here. I’m not sure if they mean for them or me, but I go with the flow. We chat for a while longer, and the birthday girl returns from her party. We pose for some photos. Later I’m told that I’ll actually stay with them after all. I try to ensure it won’t be a problem, but it seems it won’t be. I arrange that I’ll leave for the taxi stand at about 8 in the morning. Karwan leaves to stay at his mother’s house, and I take a family photo in front of his brother’s home.

In the morning, Karwan’s nephew wakes me up, and his mom helps arrange a taxi for me. It’s still early, and the taxi arrives earlier than I anticipate. Apparently “8am” means “in 10 minutes” at 7am. I pack my bags quickly, and as I leave the home in the taxi, I see the nephew crossing the highway with his buddies on his way to school.

At the taxi stand, I’m the first one for a car to the border. I wait a while and then decide to fork out for the whole car. The lot is dead and I expect I would be waiting hours otherwise.

The ride to the border is mostly nondescript. The driver speaks a bit of English so we exchange basic information.

At one police checkpoint the truck in front of us is waived over, but it doesn’t stop. I see the police officers look at each other and exchange remarks, something to the effect of “I told buddy to pull over. What does he think he’s doing?” My driver offers a ride to the officer, and we quickly catch up to the truck, which has since moved over to a side gravel road. We honk and the police officer makes a gesture for it to stop. The truck finally pulls over, and the officer leaves the taxi.

The driver explains why this issue with the truck.

“Arabic.”

I try to ask how the officer knew he was Arabic.

“Arabics terrorists.”

I tried one more time. I point to my face and attempt to ask what is visually different about Arab people.

“Arabics crazy.”

I can tell I’m not going to get anywhere so let the matter drop. I’m sure it’s something subtle that locals can tell, like Vancouverites being able to tell whether someone is from Surrey. (Kidding!)

Just before the border a variety of cars are waiting. My original intent was to just catch a taxi to the town over the border and find dolmuses from there, but I spot a taxi going all the way to Diyarbakir in need of one more passenger and I enquire about the price. $50. Done.

I set my bags down, and the driver instructs me to head inside a nearby building for my first border crossing check. I start to pick up my bags again – I don’t want to be a mule for smuggled cigarettes – but the driver tells me to put them down.

“No cigarettes,” I say as I shake my finger.

“No, no cigarettes,” the driver confirms with a smile and laugh. My bag is stuffed tight enough that they wouldn’t be able to get more than a pack in there anyways.

Security heading back into Turkey is tight, but not. My bags go through x-ray machines twice, but are examined much less scrupulously than those of my fellow passengers, who turn out to be Kurdish businessmen from Germany and the Netherlands. They have obviously agreed to help smuggle a few cartons over, as each of them claim a small bag of cigarettes as their own.

Our young driver seems to have a variety of friends in his fellow cross-border drivers. We sneak in front of other cars without much fuss, and he gets other people to move our car forward as the line sneaks ahead over the bridge to Turkey.

Once on the bridge, after Iraqi screenings, each car around us, including ours, has people pull cigarettes out of plastic bags, break the cartons into smaller pieces, and stuff them into obviously well used hidden compartments of the cars and vans. Hands place packages blindly into spaces up under the foot step of the van in front of us. Empty cigarette boxes and carton wrappers litter the entirety of the bridge.

After just under 2 hours, we make it through the variety of border control points. In Silopi the young driver trades off with his brother, and it becomes clear we’re not in Iraq any more. No seat belts. Old car. Many a cigarette are smoked. The driver plays travel agent, and arranges air tickets to Istanbul for my fellow passengers.

We arrive in Diyarbakir three hours later, and along the way through town our driver spots someone of relevance. A drop of the smuggled cigarettes happens as we are double parked on a main street. We then seemingly stop for tea at the travel agency that has the air tickets for the Kurdish businessmen. I just want to get to the bus station. Who knows what the schedule is for tickets to Van – I don’t want to miss the afternoon round if there are any. I leave the businessmen behind and assertively request to have the last few kilometres of my journey completed.

As we head to the bus station, the driver asks if I am Christian. I shake my head. He pulls a book out of his glove compartment to share with me: Glad News! God Loves You, My Muslim Friend. I flip through the Christian propaganda slowly as to not offend, and then hand it back to him. It becomes clear that he wants me to take it, and after offering excuses related to the size of my bag or the value of the book, I finally acquiesce. We arrive at the bus station and he helps me retrieve my bags from the trunk. I quietly leave the book behind on the passenger seat and head inside to arrange a bus to Van.

(9) Savur, Turkey: I’m stuffed

Getting out of Göreme was a bit of a pain. The local bus companies have a monopoly on long distance travel – they won’t sell you a ticket to the next main town an hour away, from where you can get a ticket anywhere. Instead you have to buy a long distance ticket, which takes you to the next main town and you have to change buses anyways. Sigh.

I got as far as Diyarbakir by about 8 in the morning, and took a (damned expensive) taxi to the minibus station to get to a small town of Savur. Savur has nothing of note to see in particular – it’s just a nice small village set on the side of a hill, which one main accommodation option set in an old, traditional home. My plan was to spend just one night, but it wasn’t long before I opted for two.

The drive there was lovely. Leaving Diyarbakir I passed two main things of note: a street-side tomb purchasing market, and fields of poppies. The area is dry, but I’m often surprised by lush pockets of green, and blankets of poppies interspersed among the matchstick grasses.

On the way there, the minibus got pulled over. Everyone’s papers are checked, mine included. It’s a Kurdish area and there are some security concerns, but nothing big. The police guy keeps asking me a question, something like “An la?” I respond back with “An la?” We don’t get very far. Eventually he gives up and we continue on.

I arrive at the guesthouse, and have a bit of a siesta. It’s much warmer here than Göreme, and the heat has got to me. I’m hooked on a book and pass in and out of sleep.

Before the sun begins to go down, I set out for a walk around the village. I motion to the house mother that I’m going for a walk (fingers make walking motion) and to eat (hand to mouth motion). She motions to indication that a meal is included at the guest house, but I’m not sure if it’s dinner or breakfast. I head out with plans to eat something light so that I’m ready for either possibility.

Today must be carpet washing day. It seems every home has a dripping wet carpet hung over balcony railings. I spot two young girls above me working a carpet and I ask to take a picture. Soon enough they ask me “Come, café?” and I head to their home for some god-awful coffee.

The two sisters are soon joined by 4 other girls. With our basic knowledge of each others’ languages, we determine ages and marital status, and I learn that at least two of them have boyfriends, even one girl who is 12. Apparently her boyfriend is 11. Robbing the cradle it seems.

They take turns arranging themselves for photos, sharing their English school workbooks with me, and whispiggling (a word I just made up that describes a combination of whispering and giggling). Apparently they think I can understand them so sometimes keep their voices low. They run in and out of the room in pairs or alone or all together, leaving me to push down the coffee. They take turns getting their pictures taken, and by the time I leave, they’ve had a full on photo shoot it seems. I get their email addresses and head back out to explore the town.

The children here seem to have picked up some lovely habits when passing by travellers in the street. Clean, well dressed, well fed children stick their hands out and ask for money. I talk to the guest house owner later and he seems to think that these children must have spent time in Mardin, the larger and more travelled version of Savur two hours away. These children aren’t from Savur, apparently.

I wander around the town a bit further as the sun sets. I poke my head into a few eating spot-looking places, where I get the stare down from the men that exclusively eat or (more likely) drink tea there. I end up back at the guest house starving, with plans to eat one of my few remaining protein bars that I brought with me on the trip.

However, apparently dinner was included, and after half an hour of photos on the rooftop, a huge spread is laid out for me. Zucchini in a lovely garlic yogurt sauce and a variety of veggie and meat stews and kabobs. I think the meal is meant for four, as I barely make a dent. Good thing I didn’t stop for food in the village.

The next morning, I find that breakfast is included too, and am served a standard Turkish breakfast – sliced cucumber and tomatoe, bread with a selection of cheese, honey, jam and butter, and a hardboiled egg. At points on this trip I make a note to have more breakfasts like this when I go back to Canada. But really, who I am kidding. 1) I’m getting near vegan, so most of the ingredients won’t fly; and even more of a reason: 2) Too much work in the morning.

I eat leisurely and eventually head out for a walk up above the village. I don’t know how I manage to do this, but I often end up heading up on adventures in the hottest heat of the day. I get up to the top of a ridge, and find a quite place in the shade of a small bush. I enjoy the view and take time to think (and continuously wipe the sweat from my face). I take a different route down, trying not to disturb the horses, donkey, cows, sheep and goats that seem to be getting along well together along the route. Back in Savur I explore the village once more, and get back to the guest house for a well deserved (as I reason anyway) siesta.

One of the things I do is arrange some information that I need for my next destination: northern Iraq. It’s not a destination I originally planned on, but after speaking with some others who have been there, and reading some online forums, the Kurdish region of Iraq seems like a safe and interesting choice. I mean, really, who wouldn’t want to say they’ve been to Iraq? At first I was just thinking I’d hop across the border, spend a night and come back, but after a bit more research I plan to spend a few days. I don’t have a guidebook, but enough information and rough maps from websites and forums that allow me the basics I need.

The spread for dinner that night was smaller, but just as tasty. I sneak into the kitchen to see what was cooking, and they explain a soup on the stove. There’s no direct translation for what the soup is made up of, but the main ingredient translates to  “a paste of yogurt and flour”. The result is much tastier than it sounds, and with that and the rest of the offerings, I head to bed absolutely stuffed. This seems to be a trend on this trip.

I wake up early for an 8am dolmus to Midyat, from where I’ll get to the Iraqi border. Another leisurely breakfast is followed by a prayer bead bracelet from the guesthouse owner as I wait for the dolmus. My first Turkey souvenir.

(8) Goreme, Turkey: Motorcycle mama

Ahhh…I’m back to being in love with night trains.

When I left you last in Istanbul, I was recovering from a creepy man on a night train and questioning my existence as a traveller. Catching (by 2minutes) a ferry across the Bosphorus to the train station, I made it to my third attempt at a positive night train experience. I was not disappointed.

I spent the equivalent of about $45 for a 16 hour train ride and an immaculate room with bunk beds all to myself. An attendant on each car cam to make up the beds and provide a towel. There was a pull out countertop to make a portable office, and a mini fridge stocked with a few tasty items.

Can’t say I sleep totally well, though, as every time my ladder knocked against the wall or any other similar sound was made, I woke up with a start thinking creepy man was trying to get back in my room again.

Otherwise, lovely.

Arrived in a city called Kayseri, where I slogged to a bus stop with a couple from Montreal in order get to the main bus station. A man at the stop said that he was getting on the same bus and would show us when to get off. He also offered to pay for us. Note that I’m assuming this is what he said based on his hand gestures. Much uncertainty, but it seemed alright to me. The young woman from Montreal almost started crying – the uncertainty, the heat, her heavy pack. She said she was more independent when she travelled alone, but the near meltdown had me thinking otherwise.

Göreme is a main tourist centre of a region of Turkey called Cappadocia. Cappadocia, which once had an economy based on underground lemon storage and collecting pigeon shit for fertilizer, is now heavily tourism dependent. Lemons are still stored. The pigeon shit industry, however, has collapsed.

The attraction of Cappadocia lies in its unique geography and related homes and churches. Long periods of erosion have left many pillars of stone and dirt which dot the landscape. The pillars, called fairy chimneys, once contained complete homes, and but more often now contain guest houses. Similarly unique-looking valleys have complete villages carved into the earth, with bricks used only sparingly.

My stay in Göreme was overwhelmingly relaxing. I spent four days here overall, and used my time to hike, motorcycle, and write. It helped that the place I found to stay at had a lovely shaded rooftop terrace, wifi, and a great view.

While Göreme has become well touristed over the years, I don’t find it offensive. (Update: Camels were just brought by our outdoor restaurant eating area for rides. Perhaps I spoke too soon). I think the surroundings help – the immediate physical geography surrounding the town means there is a reason for people to be here.

My longest hike took me 5 hours up above Göreme, under sedimentary layers and above eroding, rolling, technicolour canyons. I found myself in old rooms (homes?) carved into the mountain, with doors that walked off into thin air (has the geography changed so much?). I spotted lemon caves and old pigeon shit collectors, admired frescoes in old churches built within rock walls, and wandered through a semi-abandoned village carved out of hills and fairy chimneys.

The walk was a great reminder that what I love about travel is most often the physical geography. I can be at peace in stunning surroundings. I can sit, think, enjoy views and be content. History? Meh.

On the hike I also finally bent my orthodontic wire enough so that it snapped off. It’s still in contact with 4 teeth – I hope my hard earned teeth stay in place for the next five months.

My motorcycle circuit took me far. It had been suggested to me the night previously by a local restauranteur that the valley to the east of Göreme was much more scenic than the valleys south. I’m so glad I took his advice. While the road was cold, even with my fleece done up tight, the air was lovely and the views ever changing. I stopped at a great little old monastery looked after by an engaging host who had been looking after the area as a volunteer (along with his father) for 40 years.

Winding my way through the hills, I knew I was getting low on gas, and was starting to get concerned as I hadn’t seen a gas station since I started earlier in the day. I’m sure most villages have a “gas guy” that has buckets of gas somewhere, but I wasn’t desperate enough to start asking, and soon could see that I would make it to the next big town, where I was sure gas would await.

And it did. I filled up, had some chai with with a group hanging out at the station, and headed back to Göreme on a long boring highway. At this point, I was cold, tired and sore and just wanted to get home, but stopped just before Göreme at another scenic village and some viewpoints. I’m really loving the geology here.

Other than these two more major excursions, I walked, met some interesting people, had some great food, and enjoyed the weather (though the nights are cold). I’ve had a lot of time to think about my plans for the next few days, and I’m torn. There are one or two places that interest me, but I worry that I would put a lot of time and effort to getting there, only to be disappointed. I suppose that a poor excuse, but unless the location is in physically stunning surroundings (do I hear an echo in here?), I’m not content (especially if the accommodation is crap). So I’ve cut two originally intended destinations from plans, and am heading directly to Savur, a small village set among valleys and mountains, with a unique guest house. It’s expensive compared to what I’m used to, but I hope it will be worth it.