(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.