Friday, September 21, 2007

Turning the corner

Lake Van is Turkey's largest lake - a huge expanse of wet in a huge expanse of dry. In the distance on the far side we can see the mountain of Suphan looming high. Our bus curves around the edge and passes a turn-off for Iran - we are now heading west and have turned the corner. We get off at a roadside cafe and pier. There's a group of men sat playing cards in the shade. "Akdamar?" the biggest man asks. Where else - there is nothing else here and I'm not going to argue with him. "A boat leaves with ten people." He nods over at the cafe. "There are two. Now you are four." We lug our rucksacks over the road to the shady cafe. We ask about camping and are shown a ledge about four feet wide set at the back of the garden area. We then take tea at a able next to the other punters who are waiting.
Akdamar is a tiny island just off the south shore of the lake on which there sits a newly-restored Armenian church covered in detailed bas-reliefs of biblical scenes. Like many of the sights in this part of Turkey it is far from anything else and we have decided to stay overnight. It's worth it, just. We eventually pay a bit more and take a boat with another couple (the first couple gave up waiting and drove off). The church is very well preserved - and was probably in use until the Armenians were driven out. The views around are fabulous and it's very peaceful. Back at the cafe the camping is crowded - another couple have pitched first on the tiny terrace. Pam and Joe are two Americans teaching English in Istanbul. We talk a while and eat together. Despite being about twenty metres from the main road we sleep well.
In the morning we shove off - flagging down a bus heading for the immortal Batman. The journey is, as always, full of great views and the obligatory army checkpoint. For the first time we are asked to open up our rucksacks for inspection. One look at our mobile library and we are waved on. We climb a high pass of 2000m before starting a long long descent. Batman is a disappointment - no silly costumes. We are only passing through anyway. The bus man takes us to the dolmus we need for Hasankeyf and we hang around with a lot of other people with nothing to do until a driver appears and we depart in a rush. After a slow trawl around a couple of streets - the driver really looks like he has lost his dog or something - we hit the main road.
Hasankeyf is a village on the banks of the Tigris. The river has formed a wide canyon and in the cliffsides are abandoned caves. Behind and above the village is a whole abandoned city of caves. The earth is red. Not much greenery around at this time of year. We check out the "motel" next to the steel bridge. It leans awkwardly over the river. It's awful and the shared facilities are smelly. The balcony of the room is covered in pigeon shit. So we wander down the street to the "camping" - which looks like someone's kitchen garden full of cats. In fact it is. So we head back to the "motel" and haggle. We think we have a fair price until we try to shower later that evening. There's no water. Roaring past outside is the legendary Tigris and the hotel has no water. The hotel also has no staff. There is no-one to complain to. Miraculously sometime later there is water. It feels like the set for Barton Fink.
In the afternoon we wander up to the caves. Neither of us are prepared for the scale of the ruins. Up a narrow gorge we pass the trinket shops and climb worn out old steps to the top of the hill above the village. There are caves everywhere and some even have doors and numbers on them. Paths lead up the cliffs opposite and down the cliffs on the other side and on top there is a warren of abandoned homes. You can wander freely and we find ourselves looking down through holes in roofs or into dark unlit space. The grass is high and golden yellow and from the top there are great views over the river and the remains of an old stone bridge built by the Seljuks. We lose each other but eventually meet up again to catch the sunset. Sunset? Time for food - and the gatekeeper is getting irritable by our late descent. The government plans to build a damn on the Tigris near here and the village and cave city will then be flooded. Unfortunately, the need for energy is greater than the need to conserve more ruins.

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