Please note: All of the business with Kobani, Kurdish protests, etc. in Eastern Turkey occurred weeks after we left; Skylar and I were never in any danger whatsoever. Also, we’ve decided to divide our post on Turkey in half as there’s just too much awesomeness to fit into a single post.
As we surveyed the vast empty steppe of Eastern Anatolia from our small airplane window, Skylar and I knew right away that the “adventure” part of our journey had truly begun. The Balkans were wonderful, but for the most part getting around the region was smooth sailing with the occasional, mild frustration. That would begin to change quite rapidly beginning in Turkey.
When we landed in Kars, our first stop, we were nearly 1,000 miles from Istanbul and just a short car ride away from the border with Armenia, though there aren’t actually any crossings. Far Eastern Turkey, or Eastern Anatolia as it’s known, is a world away from the main tourism route closer to Istanbul and the Aegean Coast. In fact, it’s even off of the main backpacker routes, so there aren’t even hostels in most places, just hotels geared towards domestic travelers. The cultural divide here is just as vast as the physical distance. For a large part of our time in the region, the main language wasn’t Turkish, but Kurdish.
To be honest, there’s really only one reason we decided to begin in Kars, a city that is essentially in the middle of nowhere (though we did discover that Kars is famous for its cheese and honey, both of which were delicious and the best we’ve had on our trip). About an hour’s drive outside this small city are the ruins of the ancient Armenian capital city of Ani. For several years, Skylar and I have dreamed about visiting this place after seeing several photos, but had no idea when we’d actually be able to make the trip. At Ani you can see what was once a city of 100,000 people and an important stop along the western section of the Silk Road. The tiny trickle of tourists that make it to the site means that you often have the ruins of an entire city completely to yourself. Most of the buildings have collapsed, but the imposing city walls and several religious buildings are still standing. Ani was once known as the city of a thousand churches, so I guess it just stands to chance that that’s what would remain after being abandoned hundreds of years ago. The site absolutely exceeded the hype. We could have easily spent an entire day walking around and exploring the beautiful ruins. One aspect of Ani that makes it particularly special is that it’s location means that it was truly at the crossroads of history and culture. Within a short walk of each other are a Zoroastrian fire temple, multiple Armenian Orthodox churches (Including a still standing cathedral) and one of the oldest mosques in Turkey from around the 9th or 10th century.
Even today its location speaks to the region’s contentious politics. While Kars is close to the Armenian border, Ani is literally on the border. As you walk around the site, you can see numerous watchtowers on both sides of the border and multiple armored vehicles on the Armenian side. The two countries do not share diplomatic relations and no crossings exist along the entire length of the border. An enormous Turkish flag has been erected on the Ani city walls and you can’t help but think that it’s meant as a giant “screw you” to the Armenian soldiers stationed in the watchtowers, who can’t be too pleased that their people’s ancient capital is under Turkish control.
From Kars we took a long bus ride to Van on the shores of Turkey’s largest lake, Lake Van. I should note that we have yet to find a place in Turkey called “Truck,” but I’ll never give up hope. Also, long bus rides in Turkey usually aren’t too painful because Turkey has by far the best intercity bus system of any country we’ve ever visited, including the US and Europe. No single bus company has a monopoly on routes, which means the fares stay reasonable; the buses are almost all new and well-maintained; seats are assigned; there’s often a complimentary beverage and snack service on board; the newest buses even have personal TVs a la Jet Blue; most pit stops are at dedicated and clean rest areas where toilets, tea, and snacks are available; and, finally, they go absolutely everywhere on a regular schedule! The ride from Kars to Van was largely uneventful, though it was nice to stare out at the empty landscape.
I can’t say that Skylar and I really “saw” Van, but it seems like a nice little city with a few sites worth seeing. For us, it was mostly a stopover to our primary destination from Kars, though we’re told it’s famous for its breakfasts and for reasons we cannot determine, its cats (we saw no living cats, though many cat statues). After staying overnight, we hopped on another all day bus to Diyarbakir. The bus ride went smoothly, but it was far from uneventful. Diyarbakir is the heart of Turkey’s Kurdish region and some say the heart of the entire Kurdish culture. That said, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and the Turkish Government have fought an on-again, off-again civil war for decades over the right of self-determination for the Kurdish people. Driving through Turkish Kurdistan revealed a whole new side to Turkey and a darker one at that. The normal police officers had been replaced by Turkish soldiers in full combat gear manning regular check points along our route. From Van to Diyarbakir we passed through no less than four checkpoints, each more intense than the one before it, where soldiers boarded the bus and carefully examined each passenger’s identification documents. At the final stop, the soldiers were even using a device to scan ID cards. They were friendly to us, but a little confused about why we there in the first place.Beyond the checkpoints, armored vehicles abound and the countryside is dotted with military outposts filled with tanks and artillery aimed directly at whatever rural village happens to be close by.
Outside of the military business, the most important moment during our bus ride was the brief stop we made in Batman. Prior to landing in Kars, it had become a personal aspiration to visit this city for the sole reason that it is called Batman. I knew nothing about it besides its name andI still know almost nothing about Batman, but I have been in Batman and that is enough… Batman.
Skylar and I loved Diyarbakir. Despite being little known by foreigners, it’s one of Turkey’s largest cities and the old city, where we stayed, is chock full of things to see. We never ran out of sites to explore and have vowed to return in the future. Furthermore, because it’s not on the tourist circuit, you can do things that would probably be totally out of bounds in a place like Istanbul. For example, the old city is surrounded by massive defensive walls that you can climb all over for great views and explore the long tunnels and rooms used by the city’s defenders in times past. We had the walls overlooking the Tigris River (The real Tigris River!!!)
completely to ourselves. Everyone we met was incredibly friendly and very excited to speak with rare American backpackers, telling us about the plight of the Kurdish people and imploring us to tell everyone we know to come and visit Kurdistan and its friendly people.
Our most memorable site visit was to an Armenian church where we encountered a ceremony in progress. What we thought was just a normal worship service was anything but. As we watched the proceedings, an American woman approached us and explained that the dozen or so worshippers, including herself, were a group of Armenian-Americans returning to the cities their families had left following the Armenian Genocide (See lack of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia above). She also explained that the Armenian Christian community in Diyarbakir is so small that regular services aren’t conducted at the church or at almost any Armenian church in Turkey and that the priest in charge had actually traveled with them from the US for the purpose. Archival photographs on display also revealed that the church had been recently restored after it was targeted by artillery during the genocide and left in disrepair. We left Diyarbakir after two days in a slightly melancholy mood because we knew how much more there was to see and regretted not having more time to see it. Nonetheless, the next stop on our whirlwind tour was spectacular in its own way.
From Diyarbakir we made the short trip to Mardin, an ancient city high on a mountain overlooking the vast Mesopotamian Plain… That’s right, The Cradle of Western Civilization! It’s less than 20 miles from the Syrian border, but couldn’t be further away from the conflict there and we both felt completely safe the entire time. Think of it as living in San Diego during the worst of the drug violence in Tijuana. If you were going to choose a postcard image for Eastern Anatolia, you could do a lot worse than Mardin.
It’s a stunning city, with historic buildings and narrow cobblestone lanes sprawled down the mountainside; the views of the fertile plain in the distance with buildings and minarets dominating the foreground are breathtaking. It was all made even more atmospheric when we arrived late in the day just as the evening call to prayer began. There’s also an ancient fortress on top of the mountain, but it’s still in use by the Turkish military and is completely off limits. Besides the view and the opportunity to stroll through the narrow lanes admiring the buildings, there isn’t a whole lot to do in Mardin and it’s actually a bit touristy as a result, but still nothing like the crowds you find in other parts of Turkey. Thus, we ended up staying for just a single night in a nice hotel in a historic building that would normally be a bit outside of our budget. After spending the day exploring we hopped on an evening bus further west to Sanliurfa or Urfa as it’s more commonly known.
Stay tuned for Part 2 from Urfa to Istanbul!