So it’s been a while since I updated this thing. Some of you no doubt grateful for a break from my ramblings. You’ll be pleased to hear I did eventually make it to my destination and I’ve been enjoying a well earned break from travelling and writing. Here’s what happened.
My journey is getting faster now, crossing a whole country (Turkey) in one blog update. The pull of a family gathering for Easter pulling me ever westwards.
But first I have to leave Iran. I head to Zanjan where my hosts are a couple of physicists. Like a typical absent minded scientist he had forgot to tell his wife I was coming and announced that they had a guest as we arrived at the front door. Amazingly unflustered she welcomed me into the house, introduced me to their 2 year old and set about creating a delicious Indian meal. Over dinner rather appropriately as it was international women’s day the following day she bemoaned the position of women in Iranian society and then cleared the dishes and did the washing up whilst steadfastly refusing my offers of help.
Next morning I bid my farewells. I was sad to leave as they were great company and they had invited me to a party they were attending that evening. But my visa was expiring soon and I wanted to visit the fire temple at Takht-e-Soleimen on the way to the border. I caught a shared taxi to Dandy and during the journey managed to convey the details of my final destination. One of the passengers brought bad news in very broken English. There had been a heavy snow fall a few days previously and the road was still blocked. I would have to return the way I had come. On arrival the taxi drivers seemed positive and were keen to convey me to my destination. My driver even confirmed via phone through my previous nights host that the road had now been cleared. Everything seemed fine initially as we passed through the path cleared in the huge snow drifts that towered over the car. It was a bit slippy in places and the old car struggled a bit. I had to get out and push at one stage. Then suddenly we rounded the corner to be confronted by a huge snow plough blocking our path. A little further ahead was a snow blower inching forward as it slowly carved a way through the massive drifts. We could go no further, we turned and retreated back down the valley. I’m pretty sure my driver knew that would be the case all along, but had mislead me just to get a fare, so I only gave him 2/3 of the price we had agreed on. I would be attending the couchsurfers party after all.
Next day I took the bus to Urumia which nestles close to the Turkish border and a final encounter with yet more Iranian couch surfing generosity. My host insisted on taking me the 40km to the border and even changed my remaining rials into lira at a rate favourable to the both of us. It was after he had changed all my money that he announced that he wouldn’t be able to take me as he had a business meeting, but would pay for my taxi instead. As I now had no money there was little I could do to object.
And so it was goodbye to Iran. I know I have been saying this repeatedly with every country I have visited, but Iran really is my favourite country I have been to. Its beautiful with an incredibly varied landscape, from desserts to mountains and forests. Its full of history being one of the cradles of civilisation and chock full of ruins and fabulous buildings. But the biggest draw has to be the people, quite simply the nicest bunch I have met, so generous and welcoming, and they know how to have a good time.
The border post at Yuksekova is perched high in the snow covered mountains. There’s not much to it and it seems they don’t get too many backpackers through. They don’t have any visa stickers and have to use a stamp instead, but the police and officials are super friendly and warn me that eastern Turkey is the worst part of the country and I should go through it as quickly as possible. A theme I was to hear repeatedly throughout the country at least from those who aren’t Kurdish. It feels like ‘s like I’m back in Tibet again with a very heavy army presence. Checkpoints everywhere and mean looking armoured cars patrolling the streets guns bristling. It feels like a country under occupation as the government in Ankara brutally suppresses the Kurdish peoples aspirations for independence or at least a modicum of self rule. Turkey is a key western ally so the excesses of the security services barely get a mention in the media the arbitrary arrests, beatings and killings. I was surprised to learn that Turkey has the highest rate for the imprisonment of journalists in the world. There are over 100 journalists in prison in Turkey (most sympathetic to the Kurdish cause) more than China and Iran combined.
As is usually the case, the opinions of those that are involved in occupying someone else’s land about those that they occupy proved to be entirely false. I had a great time in the Kurdish areas. The people were friendly and welcoming and the landscape was stunning. It was however bloody cold. Huge mounds of snow still lay along the streets where it had been piled by the snow ploughs as I walked through the small town a few kilometres from the border. The plan was to hitch hike from here on. A very environmentally friendly mode of transport at least for now whilst no serious efforts are being made to create a sustainable transport system. If such a system ever comes into then hitching will no longer exist alongside the individually owned and driven vehicles it depends on. Like couch surfing hitching is also a great way to meet the people of a country and learn about the culture. Although perhaps it does give you a bit of a skewed perspective about how nice people are. After all it takes a certain kind of person to allow a complete stranger into your car with only a couple of seconds to establish if they are a crazed axe wielding killer.
I found a suitable spot, extended my thumb out into the crisp wintery air and waited. A steady stream of cars sped past my opposable digit, many of the occupants waving cheerfully and indicating that they weren’t going far. Eventually after a fruitless hour or so a group of students put me out of my misery. They surrounded me and explained no cars were driving to Van my destination and that I should take the bus. It was a scene that I would become familiar with over the next couple of weeks. Well meaning locals trying to help by pointing out the public transport options. One group of kids surrounded me and was trying to enthusiastically explain the impossibility of hitching to my destination whilst a driver was attempting to pick me up. But this time they seemed to have a point so I wandered up the street with a gaggle of kids trailing behind like some modern day pied piper with a red rucksack. Except there were no rats and I didn’t kidnap any of the children.
The dolmus (minibus) journey to Van was largely uneventful apart from the police checkpoints. One old man was led away buy the police at the first one for some irregularity, one of the many humiliations of living under occupation. It was dusk when we arrived and already well below freezing. Snow was still encrusted on the less well travelled parts of the pavements and ice was beginning to form, making walking with a heavy pack rather treacherous. It was the low season so many of the hotels were closed. I eventually found somewhere, dumped my stuff, had a bite to eat and then went in search of an establishment that could provide me with a malt based beverage flavoured with hops.
It was 2 months and 2 days since I had had a beer, not that I was counting or anything. It’s only available in 5 star hotels in Pakistan and because all alcohol is illegal in Iran the illicit stuff tends to be a lot stronger. I found a smoke filled pub with a band playing Kurdish music, took a seat at the bar and ordered an Effes. I took a long slow gulp, savouring the flavour and sensations. The first sip was like nectar, the second almost as good and pretty soon my glass was empty, so I had another, and then one more for luck. I wandered into the crisp night air, slightly tipsy and enjoying the sensation, slipping occasionally on the icy pavement.
Hitching in Eastern Turkey is great fun. There’s hardly any traffic but its very beautiful so you don’t mind standing around for a while. In any case if the first car doesn’t stop for you the second usually will. Over the next few days I travelled through the stunning snow capped mountains, visiting ancient towns. I was picked up by people from all walks of life. One driver wasn’t going to my destination but flagged down a passing bus that was and bought me a ticket, another drove me 120km out of his way to take me where I wanted to go. I even got picked up by the police, they had seen me standing forlornly at the road side for 2 hours and feeling sorry for me gave me a lift to the bus station. I stayed with some great couchsurfing hosts and had some amazing experiences and I had another encounter with a gun. Is it just me or is it common to encounter firearms whilst couchsurfing? One hosts housemate’s uncle popped in for a visit. He was like a character from a Turkish gangster film, with a mullet and the obligatory moustache, jeans and a leather jacket. He and his companion insisted on drinking Raki with me. The drinks were prepared according to the traditional ritual, soft white cheese was chopped into small squares, a large glass of water was poured and then a very generous shot of viscous looking raki was measured into another tall thin glass and topped up with water, immediately turning the contents a milky white. Then it was cheers and serefe all round and we all took a drink followed by a lump of cheese, the salty creaminess perfectly balancing the sweet aniseed. And so the drink flowed as did the conversation, mainly in Turkish, so I just smiled and nodded and interjected with serefe at appropriate moments. Then one of the “gangsters” decided to get more comfortable on the couch, and before re-adjusting his position reached behind him, pulled a large pistol from his waistband and deposited it on the fish tank next to him. Being an old hand at having guns waved at them whilst couch surfing, like the fish I didn’t blink, but carried on smiling nodding and drinking. After a couple of hours more they left, rather unsteadily, planning on driving 9 hours to their home town. Sometime afterwards they returned after another car had crashed into them, rendering their vehicle un-driveable, remarkably given their condition it wasn’t their fault.
It had been snowing on and off for the past few days and the forecast was for more of the same, heavy at times. Not ideal hitching conditions so I decided to take the night bus to Istanbul and to use the daytime to explore nearby Cappadocia. There had been a heavy snowfall overnight and the landscape was covered in a thick muffling duvet of snow. The sun was shining and the landscape looked so beautiful that I decided to walk the 5 km to my destination I didn’t regret it. The strange eroded rock formations looking like a scene from a science fiction film would be amazing at any time but the snow cover added an almost mystical quality to them. I walked up the road marvelling at the wonder of it all and humming to myself, my revere shattered by the roar of the tour coaches which sped past with surprising regularity despite it only being March and the start of the tourist season still a full month away. I can’t imagine what it would be like in July.
The big draw cards of the region are the underground villages that the locals used to escape from the extremes of the climate, and that’s where I was headed too. It was lunchtime when I arrived so I climbed into one of the abandoned cave houses and took out bread, tomatoes and the cheese and olives I had been given by a market trader a few days earlier. He had literally refused payment after I had requested a bag of each despite my protestations and attempts to press a couple of notes into his hands. The cheese he gave me was delicious, it was a powder like the parmesan you used to get in the shakers that had an aroma of smelly feet, except this tasted wonderful and was pure white. Peoples generosity and kindness in this corner of the world is just amazing. As was the cave village I wandered through after lunch. Churches, kitchen’s, communal eating areas all carved into the rocks by hand. The dining room even had a long table with benches running either side all cut into the stone.
I hitched back to the bus station and caught the night bus to Istanbul. When I awoke from one of those rather unsatisfying bus sleeps I was in Europe which was annoying because my couchsurfing hosts were in the Asian side of the city and I’d asked the coach attendant to let me off there . Clearly his smile and nods in response to my request had meant nothing and he hadn’t understood a word I was saying. Anyway the sun was shining and it was the warmest I’d been in ages so I set off to find my bed for the next few days. The city has the best public transport system I had experienced since leaving China and with a combination of underground and tram I was soon at the quay waiting for a ferry to take me across the Bospherus. It arrived and the waiting throngs boarded. The skipper gunned the engines and we were cutting through the murky waters on our way back to Asia. What a romantic way to travel, I marvelled at the superb architecture in the early morning light, mosques, palaces and bridges as we negotiated the shipping plying up to the Black Sea. Then it was onto a train for the final leg of my journey.
Istanbul is a wonderful city. It just has a lovely atmosphere to it, beautiful buildings, great food and surprisingly for a city of such size the people are warm and welcoming. I have to say it was my favourite city of any I had visited during my journey. Of course it helped that my couchsurfing host and his girlfriend were lovely. They showed me some of the sites of their local area, took me out to experience the local food and to a beautiful rooftop restaurant that looked out across the sea over to the European side of the city. It was there that we encountered a novel begging/busking technique. We were waiting for the lift to take us back to the ground floor. As the door opened two young kids burst out with loud roars, giving us all a massive shock. Then with much laughter they demanded money as the lift began its journey downwards, they even asked in English once they established I was a foreigner . Impressed with their ingenuity we all handed over some cash although I did wonder exactly why I was paying to be shocked. As the lift neared the ground in one simultaneous and swift movement I turned to the two kids, raised my arms, fingers curved like claws, face contoured, mouth snarling and issued the loudest, scariest monster roar I could muster right in their faces. They shat themselves and I walked out into the evening sun chuckling that I had managed to exact a modicum of revenge. Earlier we had sat in the warm spring sunshine smoking water pipes and sipping tea at one of the famous bars in the city. We lolled on beanbags savouring the aroma of the fruit tobacco and took in the scene. Clearly its a popular pursuit on a Sunday morning, the place was full of locals relaxing and catching up with friends and family and we passed a pleasant morning chatting and people watching.
Istanbul is also absolutely fanatical about football and as luck would have it city rivals Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe were playing each other that weekend. Of course it was impossible to get tickets for such an eagerly awaited game. Indeed we couldn’t even find a bar that would let us in to watch it. We ended up joining a crowd standing on the pavement watching the game on a big screen in a restaurant through the plate glass window. It was an exciting game as Fenerbahçe raced into an 2 goal lead against the old enemy only for them to fight back to equalise with less than a ten minutes to go. We bought a couple of beers from a shop and enjoyed the spectacle of joy and disappointment as the fortunes of each team seesawed during the game. A couple of days later Beşiktaş where playing so I took the opportunity to experience the passion and spectacle of a Turkish football game myself. Although the small stadium was only half full and the local team won easily I was still impressed with the support who noisily encouraged their team throughout the game. It must be amazing when the place is packed and the crowd are rocking.
All too soon my time in Istanbul was over. I left Asia for the last time this trip, and hoped on the boat to Europe, to the bus station to catch the bus to Greece.