Friday, September 21, 2007

Nh, nh, nh, nh, nh, nh, nh, nh, nh, nh, nh, nh, nh Batman!


So it's 5am and the bus pulls into the emptiest and crummiest-looking otogar (bus station) we've seen. We're on the edge of a city asleep. In the cafe the flies outnumber the passengers sleeping at the tables or smoking and drinking glasses of tea. Loud pop music blares from the TV up on the wall. Dirty and scruffy waiters shout nonsense at each other. Through the grimy windows we look down on the dry plain and low hills surrounding Erzurum. The sun slowly lightens the day. There's a saying that goes "A dog always look black at night". But Erzurum looks black even at dawn. We wait until seven and then shoulder our rucksacks and follow the broken pavements and dusty empty roads past concrete housing blocks and shuttered shops. A flicker of life appears as we near the centre. We check our map and head up Tyre Shop Street towards our chosen hotel. A man outside hails us in. The lounge in the entrance is full of breakfasting businessmen. Is there a double room? There is - but it needs to be cleaned. Do we want breakfast while we wait? Cup of tea? Erzurum seems less black all of a sudden.

We are on our way to the Kackar mountains and Erzurum is one of the closest cities in the North East of Turkey. We check our map of the country - we seemed to have skipped across a huge swathe in very little time. The city looks grimy and poor and every roof is corrugated. We are at an altitude of about 1850 metres and behind the city is a big hill with a ski-resort. It looks dry and dusty like everything else around here. Billboards and shop signs proclaim the presence of the electrical goods company Arcelik - fancy having that on your fridge door? We track down the minibus station for onward travel and buy unleaded petrol for our camping stove. We then visit the sights. The castle looks like a couple of old stone walls - we don't bother to climb the small hill. There's an old Seljuk mederse (religious school) with two stunted minarets looking like chimneys. Inside are local women selling dull-looking embroidered tablecloths. Prayers are ending at the Big Mosque and a gang of old men appear with shoes in hand, blinking in the bright light. They look a bit dry and dusty too. I stick my head inside the mosque but it looks shabby and functional - we may have seen the finest in our first days in Turkey. There is a better mosque complex further down the high street next to the park. One building is a museum - we are not tempted. Instead we take a seat at one of the tables in the park - nothing more than a fountain, a row of high hedges, some trees and a lot of fellas drinking tea and Chewing The Fat. We are feeling flat. What are we doing here? Drinking tea like everyone else. There isn't much else to do. And then we hear some live music from the other side of a hedge - two men playing guitars and singing sad melodious songs. It is wonderful and Erzurum doesn't seem so black after all. Some time later we spot a supermarket, no, two supermarkets. I feel giddy with excitement. We need food for camping, but my reaction is still disturbing. Can Carrefour be the highlight of Erzurum?

The bus journey northwards into the mountains is wonderful - the scenery shifting gradually. First, the plains filled with haystacks and farmers gathering the last remnants left in the fields. Then we wind alongside the low brown river that snakes through a wide rock-filled riverbed. The road is being widened and we skate across dusty washboard surfaces and detour across the narrowing valley onto a dirt road. Soon we are climbing above a large natural reservoir of pea-green water and then down into a dry desert gorge. The high cliffs of rock overshadow us - the strata bend and fold like giant's fingerprints. Eventually we reach Yusufeli and a man magically appears at our shoulder, just like the clothes shop owner in Mr Benn, and asks "Barhal?" How does he know? We say yes and after a long wait for other punters our dolmus (minibus) climbs the dirt road up the valley and to the summer villages high in the Kackar mountain range.

It comes as a surprise to find everyone speaking Hebrew at the hostel. This is Turkey? All the other walkers staying in Barhal appear to be Israelis. Thankfully they are more mature than others we have met on our travels - and they are not in huge groups. We chat away and discover another Englishman, Charlie. We have a very interesting night talking with Neomi and Uri - they seem to come from an Israeli Hebden Bridge, liberal, secular and funny (I mean them). We discuss everything you can imagine - from the Royal family to Judaism to Yuri's trip with his mother back to northern Romania where she grew up. It is warm and green in Barhal and the river rushes down the valley. All the Israelis love the water - they don't have enough at home. Below our hostel on the hillside is a huge 10th century Georgian church, sadly closed up and neglected.

We set off on a trek across the mountains to another village via a mountain lake. Charlie joins us for the first night. We climb about 1500 metres up past fertile plots and yaylalar (summer pastures) and huddles of summer houses. There are many abandoned and left to the elements. The tradition of moving the animals onto high ground and living in the mountains for the short summers appears to be dying out. It looks like hard work but paradoxically a tiny paradise to us passersby. We spend a happy evening stargazing and the next day leave Charlie by the lake and climb an unimaginable path up to a high ridge. Our guidebook describes the onward route but we find ourselves looking down a badly eroded and very steep mountainside. After an hour or so of cautious footwork we give up and return to the lake - this route was not for us. Our trekking plans are all awry but we head off a couple of days later up a different valley to Olgunlar, another summer village. We stay at Osman's pension and meet more very nice Israelis. Osman and his wife feed us fresh trout that may just have been plucked from the river outside. Life is simple and good. We head off late the next morning for a short walk up to a camping spot at the head of one valley. We climb up to a shelf overlooking the main valley, out of sight and with lovely views. The pasta and mushroom sauce tastes better than we imagined. The perfect weather threatens to change with a strong wind and Scotch mist the next morning, but the sun soon burns it off and we pick out a goat track up to a high ridge. Over the ridge the path contours along a steep slope and the goat track soon becomes more goat than track. Uh oh. Tantalisingly, we can see where we want to go but the way seems a little too tricky for us. Once again we reluctanctly retreat, cursing our guidebook in frustration. But after a while, when we are resettled in our old camping spot we feel happy and satisfied with where we are. We love the mountains even when we aren't going anywhere. The next day we cross to the other side of the main valley and climb to another pass just to see what is there. We find ourselves looking north to the Black Sea, but everything below us is coated in a quilt of cloud. On the way back to Osman's I felt sad to be leaving.

Our 6am dolmus takes us back to Yusufeli where we pick up a connection to Kars, close to the Armenian border. Once again we have a scenic drive through winding gorges and then up and out onto undulating high plains. As far as the eye can see there are vast herds of cattle grazing the freshly mowed fields. We pass small hamlets of low houses and byres with earth roofs and piles of peat stacked up alongside. It could be a Hebridean island. We also meet our first army checkpoint and everyone has to hand over their id cards for inspection. We arrive in Kars at the end of the afternoon, and it looks as dreary as we feel. The Otel Kent is exactly as described in our guidebook, including the smelly shared facilities. We have failed to find clean hotels in this part of Turkey and I'm afraid to have drawn the sexist conclusion that this is simply because women are rarely allowed to do any work outside the home. This means men are cleaning the hotels. Or not cleaning the hotels. Ramadan has begun and we have to wait for the muezzin's signal before the restaurant will serve up the food we have ordered. We munch our food with a crowd of hungry men. I think we might have seen two women since we've arrived. Itfar is a frenzied affair and the restaurant soon empties and masculine life returns to the streets.

Little did we realise that the morning call to prayer would actually be earlier during Ramadan - but everyone needs enough time to Stuff Their Face before sunrise. I manage to find a teashop serving non-fasters like myself, but nearly walk out when I confuse the price of a glass of tea. 25 million??? The man quotes the old currency even though it changed in 2005 - like nearly everyone else. Thankfully, Gayle explains what he means. We take a minibus with a young German woman, an American and two Spanish women to the ancient capital of Armenia, Ani. It is right on the closed border with Armenia and we drive along what looks suspiciously like a runway on the approach. The neglected ruins of Ani stand on a walled hill overlooking a river gorge. There is a collection of churches, a convent and a mosque all built with the same warm red stone. The rest of the site is covered in straw-coloured grasses with the odd cow munching away. The city had been a stage on the old Silk Route before the Mongols came along and razed it and it was abandoned. One of the churches built in the 10th century only fell down when struck by lightning fifty years ago. We wander slowly around and there's an air of remoteness about the place. Except over the gorge the Armenians are quarrying - spoiling the view. The two countries have yet to resolve their differences - the principal one being Turkey's refusal to acknowledge the deaths of about 1.5 million Armenians who were being driven out of Turkey in around 1915. The Russians had invaded this part of the Ottoman empire in the 1880's, taking Van and Erzurum, in a move to "protect" the christian Armenians. The Turks saw the Armenians as collaborators. It is still illegal in Turkey to talk of the genocide of Armenians by Turkey. Ooops.

Our next stop is Dogubayazit, or Dog Biscuit as one visitor calls it. The bus journey here is wonderful, yet again. We drive around Mount Ararat, the extinct volcano allegedly where Noah's Ark came to rest. Half the town appears to be given over to army barracks and residences and we count thirty tanks parked up. There is a border crossing into Iran here, but the army are here to keep out/down the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK). The south-east of Turkey has been blighted in recent years by the fighting but there is hope that the prime minister is committed to change for the better for the Kurds. It is quite obvious that this is the poor part of the country and there is a need for investment and economic development here. We'll see. For the moment though everything seems fairly normal. At our hotel we meet an Englishman, another John, cycling to Australia. He is about to enter Iran with a German couple who are also cycling. We must have spent a whole morning chatting away with him, but he seems happy to be waylaid as he is having a rest day. It is John ( who gives us the idea of using Blogspot and convinces us how easy it is to use. In the afternoon we visit the local sight - a partially-restored Seljuk palace built in the hills. It's very impressive with wonderful views and the pashas' toilet smels nearly as bad as some we have come across.

Our hopping about continues - to Van, a new city next to the large lake of the same name in the south east corner of Turkey. Here we have a cleanish place to stay and spend almost a day sorting photos and catching up on e-mails and doing not much else. One evening we take a bus down to the ruined castle which sits on a hill overlooking the lake. It's fairly unimpressive - we have seen too many crumbling forts - but we stay for sunset and then descend. As we leave the grounds a group of seven men call us over. They are sat on a blanket and tucking into a tray of lamb stew with bread and pickles and coca-cola. Come and eat, they say and we don't hesitate. Within seconds we are dribbling gravy down our chins and munching on pickled chillies whilst having a broken conversation with the one man who speaks a bit of English. They all work at the hospital and are breaking their fast together in a rather frenetic and hurried manner. They all finish eating before us and simultaneously light cigarettes with a great sigh of relief. We thank them profusely and head off for the long walk back to our hotel. Thankfully they pick us up on their way past and save us the slog back in the dark.

We are now heading west and back towards the centre of Turkey. Our route takes us through the city of Batman. Yes, Batman. Can't wait to see what the locals are wearing.............