It had always been a dream of mine to travel the length of Turkey and to make it right to the far east... the Wild East... where few travellers have the time or will to go. Virtually impassable for parts of the year due to heavy snowfalls, the east remains a mystical place, with its rugged, desolate landscape, dramatic mountain ranges, sparkling lakes, ancient castles and centuries old Armenian ruins. Although my grand plan was to take the exotic sounding Trans Orient Express train from Istanbul to Tehran, unfortunately time, money and the violent post-election riots meant I'd sadly have to miss the sands of Persia for now. Instead I took the decidedly less romantic (but infinitely more practical) long distance bus from Hatay on the Syrian border to Van in the far east of Turkey.
It wasn't long ago that it was virtually impossible to backpack here due to violent political clashes between Kurdish separatist fighters (PKK) and the Turkish military. The situation has calmed dramatically since the 1999 capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, and the area is now largely peaceful and easy to travel in. The military presence is still obvious, especially on the towns bordering Iran and Armenia- right where I was heading- and I passed through a few military checkpoints on my travels, one of which had a pack of rather scary looking dogs watching on.
I arrived in Van, a city on Turkey's largest lake, Lake Van. Its mouthwash blue waters are out of this world; as if a part of the Caribbean had magically landed here. The town itself- with beautiful scenery, a large student population and a number of key historical sites- is a good base for exploration of the Lake and its surroundings.
I booked in at Hotel Aslan- 'Hotel Lion', which I can only hope was named for its jungle coloured interior... though perhaps the New Zealand bush would be a better comparison- brown and damp, with some rather strange inhabitants. The good thing about backpacking out east is that there's a severe lack of backpacker hostels, so I was free from the suffocating confines of dorm rooms. The flipside of this was the difficulty in meeting other travellers, so for the majority of my eastern Turkish experience I was either alone or sought out by locals.
Van's culinary claim to fame lies in its breakfasts; they are so famous, in fact, that they have a street aptly named Kahvalti Caddesi (literally, 'Breakfast Street'). My first stop after the harrowing bus journey was a genuine Van feast. I packed into a restaurant on a narrow alleyway to enjoy a delectable assortment of morning goodies. Fresh herbed cheeses, wild honey, boiled eggs, tomatoes, olives, fresh bread and an odd honey sponge... delicious.
All fired up, I got the first bus towards the lake for a day of sun and ancient history. Lake Van also boasts a series of islands, the most visited of which is Akdamar Island, homeplace of Akdamar Church. This Armenian cathedral, constructed in the 10th Century AD, is perched on a rocky outcrop in the middle of the tiny island. Once the seat of Armenian patriarchs, it was abandoned in the late 19th century due to conflict between the Ottomans and Armenians. It was recently restored and reopened as a museum by the Turkish government.
It's fairly easy to get to the Island from Van- just a short dolmus (shared taxi) ride followed by a ferry crossing. Getting back to Van proved a little more difficult, and the three hours I had to wait to led me to a group of Iranian hippies who were staying at the nearby campsite.
While on my way to the local bus station I had made friends with a local student, Adnan, who offered to show me around the town and its castle that afternoon to practice his English. When I finally got back to the town we met back up and he took me to see the castle. Van Castle is a surprisingly large hill-top fortress, and settlement is said to have begun here around the 8th century BC. It took a couple of hours scrambling over steep, dusty paths at sunset to see the fortification in its entirety. Adnan was a perfect guide.
It's unusual to see many women alone on the streets, so not many foreigners get a chance to talk to local women. I felt very lucky, then, to be invited into the home of a local family while waiting for my bus out of Van. I was shuffled in by hoards of children and their mothers to a little roadside house beside a stagnant river in the town centre. The house, with its low ceilings and silk flower packed living room, felt cozy and familiar. With television blazing, the matriarch fed me tea and bread on faded mattresses on their living room floor.
The girls crowded around my camera, posing for photographs, and excitedly began to tell me the life story of their family, all in the Kurdish language, of which I understand next to nothing and which has no real relation to Turkish. Still, it's amazing how far gestures and spontaneous sign language can get one in such a situation. I was graphically recounted the story of the death of one woman's brother. Whether it was murder or suicide I couldn't quite get, but the grief was obviously deep and fresh. All I had on me to give was an old packet of very melted chocolate biscuits, so we munched away until I had to catch my bus.
I felt that it would be a sin to come to eastern Turkey without seeing Mount Ararat. Ararat, with its surreal looking peaks and year long snows, lords over many lands. Now Turkish territory, it's also the backdrop of the Armenian capital of Yerevan, and its summit is a mere 16km from the Iranian border as well as an enclave of Azerbaijan. A militarized zone for most of the 20th century, the mountain was only opened for tourists in 2001, and takes a lot of money and bureaucratic nonsense to gain permission to climb. I didn't have the patience, fitness or desire to tackle the mountain, so I took to eating and watching instead.
I nabbed myself a cheap hotel in the town of Dogubeyazit with panoramic views over both the town and Ararat, and for the first time in months I had the use of a kitchen. As nice as it sounds to have meals cooked for you everyday, I was in desperate need of something other than bread and meat. To say I was 'Kebab-ed out' would be an understatement. I cooked up a giant bowl of tomato pasta and spent the rest of the evening on the top floor lounge gazing at the majestic mountain, which is said to be the resting place of Noah's ark.
Dogubeyazit's famous man-made landmark is Ishak Pasa- a spectacularly beautiful 18th century hill top palace and administrative complex, undoubtedly one of the best castles I have ever seen. Its location, in full view of the majestic Mount Ararat, and with fields expanding in all directions, defied all my expectations.
When I came out of the palace it didn't take long before I was approached by groups of teenage girls, apparently confused by this tall, gangly blonde girl going solo by the Iranian border. Cellphones were whipped in flurries from leather handbags and I became the subject of the most remote photo shoot of my life. I wasn't quite sure if they had mistaken me with someone from Hollywood or outer space. To avoid seeming rude, I posed with women, children, young and old men. It was not uncommon to have random babies thrown at me, either. To this day I still wonder what percentage of the Middle East population has my photo, and I won't be surprised to one day come across myself on You Tube.
Thanks to the infrequency of bus services and my dislike for very early starts, my next destination took a lot longer to get to than I expected. To get to Kars, not more than 150 km from Dogubeyazit, it's necessary to first take a bus to the town of Igdir, change buses, then go onto Kars. What I didn't realise was that there would be a 3 hour delay between changing buses, and so I ended up Igdir, a town of about 120,000 on the border with Iran, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Thanks to my Igdir friends- Hakan, Kurban and Ali- whose friendliness, generosity and apricots I will never forget.
I arrived in Kars as the dusk was setting in. Despite having near perfect weather for the entire duration of my time in the Middle East, it decided to rain in Kars. I had just finished reading a Turkish novel about a town cut off by heavy snow falls, providing the perfect environment for a gruesome coup. The town was Kars. And as I approached the town centre, I was greeted through the drizzle with mud, military barracks and buildings as grey as decaying teeth
The rain only got heavier and colder and it took some time before I finally found Hotel Kent, the 'best budget option in town.' Tucked away on a side street with prime views of rain sodden footpaths, it looked more like a low end brothel than anything else.
Just when I was beginning to question why and how I ended up in this godforsaken town, I was saved by the only foreign inhabitants of the hotel- an ageing British sometimes-journalist and a wide-smiling Australian dentist named Ken. Within minutes of introduction, tensions were already rising between the journalist and the dentist, the latter of whose Indian origins seem to prompt the Brit into enacting a painful slowing down of speech and movement while in his presence.
Despite this, and at risk of starting our own coup, we decided to join forces the next day to tackle the town's most important gift, the medieval ruins of Ani.
Ani is an abandoned former capital of an Armenian kingdom and is said to have once been inhabited by an incredible 100,000 – 200,000 people. Due to its rather remote and desolate location about 45km from Kars, we were lucky to be one of only a handful of tourists, so we had free rein to wander through the crumbling remains of this ancient place. Most of the site has been left to the elements is in various states of disrepair and it's hard to imagine that this former city once rivalled Cairo and Baghdad in importance.
On my last day in Kars I still had no idea what to do next. All rational signs were pointing me back towards Istanbul- to a job and the comforts of slightly settled life. However, when Ken suggested I join him on a detour to Georgia, I thought... why not?
We set off early the next morning, heading for the most remote border crossing in Turkey.