Friday, 25 April 2008

A Journey through Turkey's Wild East

Across Turkey from Istanbul to the Iranian Frontier

Originally published in The Jakarta Post, 12/12/07

The man behind the counter in Istanbul train station raised a quizzical eyebrow: "It’s dangerous in the East - Islamists, the Kurdish rebels, and it’s close to Iraq. Are you sure you want to go there?"
I smiled nervously and nodded. He shrugged and handed over the ticket – a ticket for a 30-hour train ride into Turkey’s wild eastern borderlands.
I did wonder if this was a sensible time to be making the trip: it was late autumn, and for weeks tension had been mounting along the Iraq-Turkey border, with the Turkish parliament threatening cross-border raids against rebel bases in northern Iraq. But I put such worries from my mind, clambered aboard the train and settled down for the long journey across Anatolia.

The splendours of Istanbul have been attracting tourists for more than a millennium and the package resorts of Turkey’s Mediterranean coastline seethe with sunbathers every summer, but I was heading for somewhere altogether different.
Eastern Turkey fades into a tangle of sensitive borders: Georgia, Armenia, Iran and Iraq. A geopolitical hotspot for centuries, invaded by Mongols and Russians in the past and riven by insurgency in recent decades, it’s not surprising that it has never been much of a tourist destination.
But it wasn’t stories of violence that I had in mind as the train rolled on past Ankara into the night: it was images of clear skies, jagged mountains and cobalt-blue lakes.

A long way from Istanbul

I was a long way from Istanbul now. There wasn’t a trendy wine bar or upmarket boutique in sight, and there certainly weren’t any girls in short skirts. Instead there were bulky women swathed in coal-black chadors, donkey carts in the alleys of the bazaar and a faint smell of spice on the gritty wind. Welcome to eastern Turkey.
Erzurum, where I clambered down from the train, seemed adrift in a huge landscape. From the minaret of the 5th Century citadel that loomed over the town I could see the sweep of empty yellow steppe to the north, and the ribbed brown hills, glowing in the October sunlight to the south.
Erzurum is an ancient city. A staging post on the Silk Route, it was repeatedly seized by invaders. The conquering armies left their marks on the town, and the arrow-straight main street is a thoroughfare through Turkish architectural history with ancient mosques and seminaries between the modern shops and cafes

The cosmopolitan secularists of western Turkey will tell you that Erzurum is a hotbed of aggressive Islamic radicalism. There are certainly more veiled women than on the streets of Istanbul, but it’s a remarkably friendly place, and everywhere I went the people offered warm greetings and cups of sweet black tea.


East of Erzurum the countryside was colder, and wilder. Great expanses of flat red-brown earth ran out from the road as the bus sped along the highway to Kars. Mud-walled villages stood in groves of poplar trees and small boys herded flocks of shaggy brown sheep over the broken soil. In the distance a long ridge of hills rose to a pale sky.
Kars is just about the most remote city in Turkey. Made famous by author Orhan Pamuk in his novel "Snow", for many Turks Kars is a synonym for cold provincial backwardness.
It was certainly cold when I arrived, just before nightfall. A bitter wind was howling along the grid of streets laid out during a period of Russian occupation, but there was real warmth in the people here. I ate a delicious dinner of stewed lamb and aubergine with tomato and fresh bread in a lokanta – a simple café. The waiter had worked in Germany as a young man and had picked up a little English there. He was eager to welcome me to his part of the country.
"People in Istanbul say it is dangerous here," he said. "We are poor, yes, but we are good people."

Towards the Frontier

The next morning the hills beyond Kars were covered with snow. The sense of winter rapidly closing in added a feeling of excitement as I clambered into a battered minibus heading towards the Iranian frontier.
The road passed villages hidden among willows and poplar trees. Ahead the great conical peak of Mount Ararat – where according to legend Noah’s Ark ran aground after the Flood - rose from a yellow horizon. Kurdish folk music played on the minibus stereo and a blue and white charm to ward off the evil eye dangled from the rear view mirror.
In the early afternoon I arrived in Doğubayazt, a wild little border town, twenty miles from Iran, clinging to a hillside above an empty plain with Ararat looming in the distance.
Doğubayazit’s most famous attraction stands on a high promontory above the town. The Ishak Paşa Palace is one of the most stunning buildings in Turkey. Built by a local chieftain two centuries ago, it looks out over the vast landscape of eastern Anatolia. The courtyard was deserted when I visited and the honey-coloured limestone of the columns and archways glowed in the afternoon sunlight.
As I walked back downhill towards the town three boys huddling behind a low wall out of the chilly wind called me over to ask my name and my country. When I returned the question about nationality they glanced nervously at one another and mumbled, "Turkey". But as I walked away they called me back and hissed, "We are not Turkish, mister; we are Kurdish."

The Kurdish homeland sprawls across the borders of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. For many years Eastern Turkey – the Kurdish heartland - has seen vicious fighting between the Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK, who want to establish an independent Kurdish homeland, and the Turkish army. In the last couple of years there have been moves towards peace, but the increasing Kurdish autonomy over the border in Northern Iraq has made the Turkish government nervous, and reignited the aspirations of Turkey’s Kurds.

Abandoned churches, troubled past

The waters of Lake Van, a vast inland sea in hemmed in by rugged mountains, were as blue as lapis lazuli. The hillsides beyond the shore were dusted with snow, but it was warm in the bright sunlight. I was standing beneath the golden sandstone walls of the Armenian Church of the Holy Cross on the tiny island of Akdamar, a mile out in the lake.
I had caught a lift in a truck along the lakeside road, then convinced a ferryman to take me across despite the lack of other passengers.
The Kurds were not always the only troubled minority in eastern Turkey. A century ago the area was home to several million Armenians. As the Turks fought Russia in the First World War the Armenians were accused of having pro-Russian sympathies and deported en-masse to Syria. During the deportations hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, died. Many regard the fate of the Armenians as the 20th Century’s first case of genocide; for the modern Turkish government it is an issue still too sensitive for open discussion.
What is certain is that all that remains of centuries of Armenian culture in Eastern Turkey are enigmatic ruins like the church at Akdamar.
The church was beautiful. Inside its echoing chambers the delicate iconography could still be made out, a thousand years after it was painted. I wandered the island for an hour, then caught the ferry back to the mainland and hitchhiked into Van.

The city of Van was the last stop on my tour through Turkey’s wild east. It was a bustling place and the sprawling bazaar hummed with sights and sounds. Great bolts of coloured cloth hung outside tailors stores; pavements were lined with boxes of dates, nuts and apricots. The smell of fresh bread wafted from hole-in-the-wall bakeries, and the sizzle of grilling meat drifted out from kebab stalls. Old Kurdish men in black-and-white headscarfs hobbled along the alleyways, and shopkeepers called me inside to give me sweet tea and creamy feta cheese. Eastern Turkey might be the most troubled part of the country, but it is probably the friendliest. And despite the checkposts and army bases I saw in the region there was no hint of trouble, hostility or impending violence.

I spent 24 hours in Van then took an afternoon flight back to Istanbul. As the Turkish Airways jet roared up into the evening sky I strained my head to catch a last glimpse of the wild landscape through the cabin window. To the south ranks of hills ran on and on. Somewhere among them were the PKK camps and the troubled Iraqi frontier, but you’d never have known it.


Three hours later I was plodding uphill from the Golden Horn into the heart of Istanbul. The bars and upmarket restaurants were crowded; sleek modern trams hummed along the streets, and there were girls in short skirts.
I found a cosy little guesthouse amid the carpet shops in the shadow of the Blue Mosque. The young man on reception asked where I had arrived from and raised an eyebrow when I told him.
"The East?" he said, "But it’s dangerous out there…"
I smiled, finished checking in, and set about putting him right…

© Tim Hannigan 2008

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