Mesopotamia always evokes images of great and ancient empires for me and the mystery that surrounds phrases like ‘the birth place of civilisation’. The area known as Mesopotamia covers sections of modern day Northern Syria, Iraq, Kuwait and to a lesser extent Iran and Turkey. It has seen the Sumarians, Babylonians and Assyrians (to name a few), and conquerors such as Alexander the Great. The Roman’s were there, as were the Persians and the Arabs and now it was time for the foons on bikes. Yep, I wrote that.
As we pushed our bikes across no mans land, I hoped that the Turkish side would be less hectic than the Iranian side. We were out of luck. The small room in which we were to pass through immigration was over crowded with Iranian women in their typical black chadors. The image of these women in the West is often of oppression and submission. These women were not living up to this stereotype. With all their rotund might they pushed and shoved their way forwards, crushing two confused cycle travellers along the way. We had elbows in our sides and hands at our back. As only one person was processing passports, pressing forwards was utterly pointless. Astrid and I did our best to shove back, but we were no match for these Iranian mamas. At one point a Turkish guard totally lost his cool and began screaming at the women to form a line. This was briefly obeyed, but before long we were all being crushed again.
I don’t expect or particularly want special treatment but I must say, when the Turkish border guy did spot us and ushered us out of the mayhem, I was grateful. It was time to leave Iran behind. Our passports and Astrid’s visa were barely glanced at before we were stamped into Turkey. Ninety days, multi entry, thank you very much. The first country in a long time where the visa process hadn’t taken loads of research, money and time. Turkey surely is the gateway to Europe.
The first thing I noticed about Turkey was the female officer with her hair uncovered. The change between Iran and Turkey is immediate in this aspect. It was actually to cold for us to take our hijab off, although now it was okay for my hair to poke out.
The second thing I noticed about Turkey was that it was colder. For weeks the Iranians had been telling us that it’s so much colder in Turkey. We basically disregarded their warnings. For almost two years people have been telling us things are so and so in the next country (usually more dangerous, less friendly) and it is simply not true. On top of this Iranians totally (in our opinion) overheat their homes and therefore anything outside a sauna is regarded as cold. However, they were totally right in this respect. Turkey was fucking cold! The landscape was covered in at least one metre of snow as far as the eye could see.
We cycled through this frozen land and as the afternoon wore on it got colder and colder. All the clothes we had were piled on and we began to wonder where we would sleep. Deep snow lay everywhere and the wind was icy. As the evening grew dark we stumbled upon a 4 star hotel. Not exactly what we had in mind.
The warm air blasted my face as I dripped my way across the floor to ask about cautiously about the price. Everything was incredibly shiny and new and the guy at the desk spoke perfect English. The price reflected this but when I went out to discuss this with Astrid, she was turning blue. We took the room. Later we found out it was about minus 10 degrees Celsius.
The following morning we pushed towards Van, through the snow covered and frozen landscape. It was beautiful in a bleak, wintery way. By early afternoon we had reached Van. A SIM card was secured – this is a bit of pain in the arse in Turkey as you must register it. This costs 70 USD. If you don’t register it, the SIM will stop working after 2 months. This is the absolute max it will work for. Many travellers report 2 weeks but we got lucky and ours did indeed work for 2 months.
We met our first Turkish hosts in a cosy cafe and chatted for a while until Nathan, a French cycle tourist rocked up. Nate had crossed the border a few hours after us and was on his way home to France. He had been studying music in Tehran for the last 6 months where he had also run into Barbara. It’s a small world. We didn’t know it yet but Nate and our paths would cross a few times over the next few months.
The next day Mustafa our host took us on the most amazing tour of Van. First we went to Van castle, where we gazed at the snowy beauty of our surroundings and shared a Van Breakfast, a specialty of the region and incredibly delicious. Next we went to see the famous Van cat, that has one blue eye and one green. After checking the ferry timetable we headed to a bar and enjoyed a beer while looking over lake Van. In the evening we were introduced to Raki (a Turkish spirit) and mezze and a few friends came over to socialise. The independence of our peers was refreshing, as was the relaxed nature of the gathering. It was a dynamic we had not experienced much in our time in Iran and was quite exciting in it’s contrast.
At some ridiculously early hour Astrid and I crawled out of bed, bade our host and Nate farewell and pedalled down to the ferry. To save time and for novelty we had decided to take the train/people ferry across lake Van. Unfortunately no one had been able to tell us the exact departure time of the ferry the previous day. Turned out it didn’t leave till 9am. It was currently 6.30am. Sigh. Never mind, this is Turkey and people are very kind. We were ushered into a warm room on the ferry and then served breakfast at the captain’s orders. After this I fell asleep, our ferry eventually left and cruised gently across Lake Van to Tatvan. We arrived in the late afternoon and were hosted by some very kind doctors.
The following day it began to snow just as we left Tatvan. It grew heavier and heavier and soon we could hardly see anything. I had snow crusted on my glasses, sludge would spray up from the cars and the wind blew flurries into our hair. We inched our way along, concentrating hard on staying upright and not really being able to appreciate the landscape. Slowly we began to drop in altitude which meant the snow became sleet, then hail and finally rain. By late afternoon the weather was improving, with only the occasional shower. Then something else amazing happened. Green.
For weeks we had been in the winter desert with only brown hues and then high up on the Anatolian plateau where snow lay metres deep. Now we were below the snow line and there were forests of pine trees. Astrid and I were so excited. It was something we had not consciously realised we had missed. That night we camped for the first time in weeks because it was so much warmer and we couldn’t resist a forest camp.
As soon as we had gotten to Turkey, we had spread out our big map and began questioning anyone we met, which way they would advise. Everyone had said, go south, it’s warmer.
‘But what about Syria and Iraq?’ we had asked nervously.
“It’s okay, the border area is safe. You are far away enough,” was the unanimous reply.
At first I was dead against going south. We had always planned to stay well away from the border areas of Iraq and Syria, heading north like our friends ahead of us. But everyone kept saying it was safe and the temptation of warmer weather in the dead of winter was great. I mean what are the chances of ISIS fighters stalking out two cycle tourists on the highway in broad daylight? I began to realise that maybe I was doing the thing I always try hard not to do, let the fear mongering media get into my head. We did some research and talked it over and finally decided that we would go south. Our compromise would be that we would not camp but couch surf or stay in the occasional hotel.
Feeling relieved to have made a decision we turned southwest towards Batman. Yes, Batman. That is the real name of a town in Turkey. Batman proved to be much more than a city with a cool name. Sefik our host proved again to us how much richer your experience is by coming into contact with locals. Firstly he took us for tea, which is drunk with as much enthusiasm in Turkey as it is in Iran (although the glasses are smaller). Then he took us across the road to a Syrian Kurdish refugee camp. We brought the kids some treats and everyone came out to meet us and some of the kids spontaneously started to sing. It was a really moving experience. These people have lost everything fleeing ISIS and yet they remain so warm hearted and interested in the weirdo foreigners on bikes. It is not the Turkish government that is caring for these refugees, but the municipality of Batman which is in Kurdistan. Since Western Iran we had been in Kurdistan but it was not something I knew much about but it now became very relevant as people mostly identified as Kurdish, not Turkish in this area.
In brief, the Kurds are an ethnic minority in Turkey and live mainly in South Eastern Anatolia. Historically there have been violent clashes between the Turkish army and Kurdish freedom fighters. The Kurds like many minorities would like independence/autonomy, depending on who you talk to. The traditional homelands of the Kurds stretches across the international lines of Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
Now the word on everyone’s lips in Kurdistan is ISIS. The Kurds have been instrumental in fighting ISIS as it is often their lands that have been targeted. The Kurdish women fighters in particular have been highly publicised. We were showed pictures of these female fighters and told proudly of how brave they were and how effective. While the politics of the Kurds, the Turks, the government, army and ISIS is probably too complex to go into any great length here, this being a cycling blog and all, it was fascinating for us to hear and learn about and prompted me to do some further reading.
The next day, although not initially our intention, we stayed in order to visit Hasankeyf, a city thousands of years old, built as caves into the mountain side from around the 1st Century CE. Hasankeyf should be UNESCO listed. It is at least as interesting as Cappadocia in our opinion. Sadly, the Turkish government will not put it forward for world heritage listing, instead it is planning on flooding it. Yep, flooding it by building a great big dam. It’s a controversial project which has seen many foreign investors pull out, but as yet the Turkish government is pushing ahead with the plans. Did I mention the government historically doesn’t particularly like the Kurds? Seeing a city so old and so unique was simply amazing and was one of the highlights of our time in Turkey.
A day cycling in this part of the world barely goes by without a random act of kindness from a stranger. On the day we cycled to Diyarbakir, there was no exception as once again we were invited in for chai (meaning lunch) by a kind family. The Kurdish city of Diyarbakir had a really lovely vibe and we stayed again with a kind WS host who took the time to show us some of the sites in the morning before we headed off.
Although the weather had been fine, in the afternoon the rain and wind hit us hard once more. It was a desolate strip of highway without many trees or shelter, the ground already soggy. It grew darker and wetter and just as we were about to pull over and just pitch amongst some rocks we spotted a hut. It was abandoned and perfect for pitching a tent out of the wind and rain. Oh and man were we lucky we found it, for the wind picked up ten fold and howled all night, shaking the building and making parts of the all ready collapsing roof fall in. The following day it was still so wet that we only made it about 20km down the road before conceding defeat and crawling into a hotel to warm up and dry out.
Sanliulfa came not only with another generous Turkish host but the amazing Gobekli Tepe. Gobekli Tepe is an archaeological site that has significant ramifications for all of us. Until it’s discovery in 1994 it was largely believed that Neolithic people did not practice religion and that only once we stopped being hunter gatherers, when there was more time did we develop religious practice. Apparently not so. Dated at almost 12,000 years old, when humans moved around the earth in nomadic groups, Gobekli Tepe is a mysterious Neolithic temple made from immense stone structures. The place made quite an impression on us as we reflected what our forbearers had managed with seemingly little technology.
When we left Ulfa we headed southwest towards Biracek and the Euphrates river. This strip of road would be the closest we would be to Syria. Signs of the conflict were visible in the forms of huge refugee camps, some yet to be occupied. Seeing the camps upon the desolate winter plain made my heart go out to the people who had fled the war to make these tents their home, while the rest of the world attempts to justify why they can’t look after them, or worse uses them as a fear mongering political tool to win votes. It should be enough that they are human just like us and as fellow humans we have a responsibility to take care of the world’s most vulnerable, but somehow that just doesn’t seem to cut it these days.
Aside from gazing at the Euphrates and dealing with badly behaved children (a warning, Eastern Turkey is full of bratty little boys who harass foreigners) we discovered the Bald Ibis. Yep, that’s it’s name. And it is bald. We met a very enthusiastic Bald Ibis and bird lover, Mustafa, who took the time to tell us all about his favourite bird. Sadly the Bald Ibis now has to be locked up in a large (very large) cage during the winter as its migratory path goes south into Saudi Arabia and other middle eastern countries where despite being endangered it is poached. So, now they live a semi wild existence. Unfortunately we also just missed the release of the Bald Ibis from it’s winter home. Mustafa said it would probably be the next day or the one after.
Leaving Biracek with substantially more Bald Ibis knowledge we pedalled steadily towards Gaziantep. It was one of those arrivals into a city where everything went a little wrong. Google maps directed us to the wrong place. The phone went flat. Little brats harassed us (Astrid ended up chasing them with a stick) and it was rapidly getting colder and darker. When we finally did arrive at Irene and Ismail’s apartment all the difficulties just evaporated. We were met with so much kindness, happiness and understanding that we immediately felt completely at home. When you couch surf or use warm showers you almost always meet wonderful people, who you share a meal and some stories with. Often that’s as far as it goes, it’s very much an ‘in the moment’ experience and doesn’t necessarily translate to lasting friendship. It’s not a bad thing, in a way it’s the beauty of it. You have this positive connection with a stranger who will forever be part of your life journey.
Sometimes though, you make real friends and so it was with Irene and Ismail. The four of us really connected. It was more like being with housemate friends than couch surfing. The next few days were spent exploring Gaziantep and just relaxing, along with Nate, who had also turned up. Then it was time to take a bus to Ankara to meet our friend Brooke.
Taking a bus in Turkey proved to be a piece of cake. We just acted like we were supposed to be there, took our bikes apart and put them in the bus. No men bossing us about, or trying to ‘help’. It was a relief. And, for the first time EVER we were not charged extra for the bikes. Once on the bus we were served tea (served tea!) and snacks and there was even a USB charging device. So far Turkey, you win on bus quality.
We reached Ankara and it was snowing and dark. Eventually we found the small flat we had rented (cheaper than a hotel) and waited for the arrival of Brooke. Here we would rest a few days and prepare for the next leg of our adventure.
Before I sign off however, I do want to convey how much we loved Eastern Turkey. Not a day went passed where we did not look at each other and exclaim something along the lines of ‘this place is amazing.’ It was not something we had expected as many people had told us Eastern Turkey was full of stone throwing kids, creepy men and vicious dogs. In a way I had been bracing myself for it, while at the same time trying not to have a fixed idea about what it would be like. Well, it completely exceeded our expectations in a positive way. While the kids can be brats and the dogs vicious, we really didn’t have enough issues to complain about. Overall the people were so amazingly generous, the food delicious and the landscape beautiful. We were well and truly won over.