Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The rest of Turkey

Mardin, Turkey
Leaving Istanbul reluctantly behind, I took a modern but ultimately uncomfortable night bus to Goreme in Cappadocia, central Turkey. Well, I say Goreme, but actually myself and a fellow bleary eyed traveller were disembarked at nearby Nevashir, taken to a tour company's office and given the hard sell at 6.30am. We refused and they deposited us at our choice of hostel with no hard feelings. The hostel is set into a cave with some dorm beds hidden in dark alcoves reachable only by precarious ladders, but it's outside that the truly amazing experience begins. The town is surrounded by valleys containing rock formations seemingly dreamt up by mad, artistic giants, bent on confusing future humans. Huge mushroom shapes balance atop impossible cylinders, massive cones point skywards above canyons eroded by millions of years of trickling water, honey colours blend into red and white. It's breathtaking.

The magnificent landscape of Cappadocia was formed when volcanoes erupted, but the resulting cliffs and rocks were hollowed out by the Byzantines hiding from the advancing armies. The consequence is a dramatic combination of underground cities and 'fairy chimneys': cave homes inside towering conical pyramids. Everywhere one looks there are tiny windows above and below.

Incredible Cappadocia
We took a walk along the valleys, armed with verbal directions from the hostel owner. Unfortunately our path was blocked by a series of stretches of steep ice, vertical climbs and finally a dog who barked warnings at us (I think). I continued alone, attempting to find my way via other canyons. I don't think I was on the right path all day, and whilst the views were astounding, I grew increasingly worried that night was drawing in and that traversing the rocks in darkness would be difficult. And dangerous. And stupid. I climbed out of the narrow valley and headed in the direction of Goreme. (At least the setting sun could provide the right direction.) There was nothing except muddy fields and more valleys, but I spotted a car on the horizon. A road! I sped up, discovering that the horizon is actually quite a long way away and that valleys merely add to this. Reaching the road, I looked up and down and debated which way to go. A lorry pulled up, the passengers surprised at this strange man wandering about so far from civilisation. They laughed with each other, heaved me into the cab and drove me back to Goreme. Stupid tourist.

We took another night bus to Diyarbakir, a large city deep in Turkish Kurdistan and one of the Kurds' most important cities. Ataturk, whilst indisputably a man of great courage and tenacity, was responsible for the sidelining of Turkey's largest minority. One can understand his aim: after hundreds of years of homegrown tribes vying for power and then the western idea of ethnicity, surely a single nation of Turks would be a good idea? Not if there are more than 11 million Kurds who don't define themselves as Turks. Trouble was bound to happen. We were woken up at 6.30am and dropped off in a scene reminiscent of the Vietnam War: massive, empty tower blocks, an eerie fog hanging over us. We walked aimlessly until some locals, taking pity on the lost foreigners, directed us to a minibus to the centre.

Free cheese!
The grim Roman walls encircle an average looking city, but it contains a soul unlike other Turkish towns. The locals are fiercely proud of their Kurdish heritage and incredibly pleased to see tourists. A man makes a half-hearted attempt at promoting himself as a guide, then gives up and takes me for coffee instead. As we sit in the smokey atmosphere amongst the slapping of dominoes and shouting of card players, he tells me of his love for his city and his thoughts on the country's future. He's more optimistic than the Turks I've met. The familiar friendliness continues: men give me lifts to places when I ask for directions, market sellers refuse to let me pay for bags of cheese. I'm a happy man.

Wandering the narrow streets of Mardin.
It's a cheap but bumpy minibus ride to Mardin, a tiny town set into the hillside overlooking the flat plains of Mesopotamia. The buildings give away its past of various empires, but its wandering the narrow alleys and bazaars where the real pleasure lies. By absurd chance we bump into a traveller whom we'd met in Goreme. He's with two locals who are putting him up; they takes us to a friend's house, an Alevi Muslim in traditional white dress. At first I think I'm in for a pious evening, but within half an hour we're dressing up in his clothes and watching videos of them breakdancing. He even gave me his Fez! (This has resulted in many strange glaces ever since). At the end of the night it's all we can do to stop them going to our hotel and demanding our money back.

Dressing up in an Alevi's home.

Walking home that evening, we spot an excited crowd of men inside a smokey, nondescript building. We go in and are invited to take a seat. It becomes abundantly clear that the they're waiting for a cock fight to begin, the warm up act being two doves pottering about looking menacingly at each other. We drink out tea politely, make our excuses and leave.

The start of a dove fight in Mardin.
The next day the three of us are rolling across Mesopotamia in a bus (note: all Turkish buses have cracked windshields; it's kind of a tradition). In Silopi we swap to a taxi to take us to the Iraqi border, the driver taking care of all formalities. After several hours of queueing (and frustrated drivers beeping at each other despite everything relying solely on the speed of the customs officials) and jumping queues (apparently being British is a virtue in this part of the world) we're in Iraqi Kurdistan. I'll pick it up from here next time!

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