By Stephen Bugno
Traveling through Eastern Turkey, you’ll lose the tourists, see incredible sights and landscapes, and rub shoulders with marginalized Kurdish population. If you’re tired of the crowds at Ephesus, Olympos, and Sultanahmet, hop on a long-distance bus to the opposite end of the country.
After traveling through Armenia for two weeks, a friend and I had to return to Georgia before re-entering Turkey. The Armenians and Turks are still sorting through their differences and the border crossing remains closed.
A month earlier, while transferring buses in Istanbul on the way to Georgia, we had briefly seen the infrastructure development enough to realize that western Turkey and eastern Turkey are different beasts. The shabby, rural roads here couldn’t compare to the sleek new highways zipping in and around Turkey’s largest city. Local folks in the east are much more traditional and conservative; the cities are dirtier and more chaotic, the street kids more aggressive.
After harassing my Russian passport-carrying friend for 20 minutes, the Georgian officials finally let us through to the Turkish side of the border, realizing they weren’t going to get a bribe from a 22-year-old student. We were fortunate not to have had other, more severe, conflicts with authorities based on this prejudice prior to now. The Russians aren’t very well liked in Georgia.
The remoteness of this border crossing makes me wonder if we’re the first non-Georgian/non-Turks to use this route. Just then, across the barrier, driving in the opposite direction, an all-wheel drive Subaru plastered with sponsorship stickers and Saskatchewan license plates passes through as our heads turn in astonishment.
The Turks welcome us with a passport stamp and immediately we’re on the side of a two-lane country road waiting for any passing car. There is no bus service, no cars are coming and there is no town here; just a border post. So we walk a couple miles down the road to a little café and drink a cold soda before a guy pulls over and offers us a ride few miles into Posof, the nearest town. There we pitch our tent in a field on the edge of town and decide the next day’s plans.
The next morning a bus takes us to Kars, which we use as a base to visit Ani. Although today they lie across the river in Turkey, these are the ruins of the medieval capital of Armenia. It is hard to believe that this complex of crumbling structures, in the midst of hay fields, once rivaled noble Constantinople and Baghdad. We wander around the remains trying to piece together in our minds the grandeur it once held.
The fact that it’s situated in Turkey today infuriates the Armenians. Spend any amount of time in little, modern Armenia and any person will quickly preach about how enormous a territory they once held, “…from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea” using both hands to show.
In fact, many of the cities in eastern Turkey (Kars, Bitlis, just to name a couple) had a sizeable Armenian population until the genocide of 1915, which is the cause of much of the animosity between the Armenians and Turks to the present day. As further evidence, Armenian churches are scattered throughout eastern Turkey.
This beautiful and remote landscape of eastern Turkey is peppered with politics. Our bus passes a few military bases as we wind our way from Kars, south to Dogubeyazit. The population here includes more Kurds and due to its borders with Armenia, Iraq, and Syria, the bureaucrats back in Ankara feel they can’t be too cautious. It’s strange to see bases in the downtown areas of cities, as they are set up here in eastern Turkey.
Nearing Dogubeyazit it’s impossible to ignore the imposing beauty of Mt. Ararat from the dolmush window and the biblical history associated with the mountain. Many travelers come here enroute to the Iranian border crossing at Gurbulak or to climb Mt. Ararat. We came merely to see Ararat from the opposite side and to visit Ishak Pasha Saray.
Ishak Pasha Saray is the half-ruined, 17th century palace set on a high plateau overlooking Dogubeyazit. Building began in 1785 to control Silk Road traffic. Originally with 366 rooms, at one point even the Russians occupied it and the original doors are now in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. It employs architectural styles from almost every period of Turkish history.
Walking the 6 km-long road up to the Ishak Pasha Saray, a car pulls over close to us and stops. “Do you want a ride up to the campsite? Camping is one dollar per person,” a man tells us from inside the car. He’s got a long mustache over his mouth and speaks decent English. We knew we couldn’t beat that price, so we get in.
The man is Parashut: a bit of a legend in these parts. At his campground/guesthouse just above the palace halfway up the mountain he sits down with us, slices a melon, and pours raki shots while telling us about his drive overland to Central Asia and Siberia and about his work. It turns out he’s being so hospitable with us because my friend is Russian and he feels so indebted to the generous Russians he met in Siberia. He also tells us about the documentary he made and the book he wrote about Noah’s Ark, all while pursuing his real passion: mountaineering. He has reached the summit of Mt. Ararat 165 times
From Dogubeyazit we skirt along the shore of the massive Lake Van to Tatvan on the eastern shore. Almost by accident we hook up with Mehmet, a long-winded Kurd who trucks visitors up to Nemrut Dagi. Although it has the same name as the popular mountain with the head statues, it is a different place. This Nemrut Dagi is an extinct volcano rising to 3050 meters. After bargaining Mehmet down to a reasonable price, I’m in the front seat of his dusty van, riding out of Tatvan, on to an unpaved road, and over the crest and into the crater. He points to his small Kurdish village in the near distance and invites us for “free camping” at his homestead for the following night.
The crater, 7km in diameter, contains a cold lake and a smaller warm lake. The water of the cold lake is so crystal clear that I see my feet as I’m treading water. We swim in the warm lake as well, lie in the sun for a few hours and pitch our tent in a field of high grass.
In the morning, Mehmet drives the group back into Tatvan and we choose to hike our way out of the crater, first climbing up the steep rim, and then gradually down the grassy slope into his village. We find his home and met his extended family, who constantly filters in and out of the house. Just after dark, we’re sitting on carpets at the table eating supper. Soon Mehmet arrives home and shows us the little extension he is building to someday have a guesthouse. His grandchildren take us around to see all their animals. The next morning we’re back on the road early, hitching a ride with Mehmet back into Tatvan.
We arrive in Diyarbakir, on one of Turkey’s, clean, efficient, and timely privatized buses. We have come to walk on the city’s massive walls of black basalt; to peer inside to the maze of cobbled streets, beautiful mosques, imposing hans, stately mansions, and intriguing churches. Outside the walls we see the Tigris River’s flow. The streets here are busy in this city of two million and we try our hardest to lose the street kids that aggressively follow us through the narrow twists and turns of the old city streets.
As usual we head to an inexpensive cafeteria-style eatery for some good food and follow that up with some tea. Despite the fame of Turkish coffee, nearly every Turk drinks tea from a tulip-shaped glass sweetened with plenty of sugar.
Passing in and out of the old city we find each of the four main gateways of the six-kilometer city wall and glance up at the 72 defensive towers. The new city is busy too, with plenty of foot and car traffic in and around the multi-storied apartment buildings. This is a predominantly Kurdish city and a place of discontent that Ankara keeps a close eye on.
After a couple days in Diyarbakir, we continue our journey east to the pilgrimage city of Urfa and then join the masses of tourists on the sunny Turquoise coast a week later.
Stephen Bugno spent four weeks exploring Turkey as part of an overland trip from Istanbul to Cairo. His articles and essays have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Transitions Abroad. He blogs at Bohemian Traveler.