A Travellerspoint blog


Turkey to Iran


With confusion over buses and the locals for a change not bothering to be helpful, I was eventually directed to the "direct" bus for the Sendere border, which though having a different destination board entirely, only went as far as Yuksekova in the end. I felt screwed around. It was at a turn off in the middle of nowhere amidst wild mountain countryside that I saw my first road sign for Iran. The last town before the crossing, Yuksekova transpired to be a surprisingly big place and the whole area lay thick with snow with the mountains now receded, very cold and icy. Yuksekova could only muster spicy kofte for brekkie, not what you really look for but I wondered if it would be my last. The smaller dolmus for the border still took time to fill up and eventually left half empty, re-entering mountains not so large but still blanketed in white. Esendere appeared as a tiny and grubby farming village, very rural nae remote and not what I had expected for what is one of only 2 border crossing points between Turkey and Iran. The border complex was very quiet and surprisingly compact and straightforward. Though I got left behind by the less than normally helpful locals again it was a simple matter to get my Turkish exit stamp, then the smart and helpful Iranian officials were only a corridor away. After filling in the entry card for me, another stamp was thumped into my passport and I was ushered through a glass door and into the Islamic Republic. With no sign of a customs check either side I was left wondering if I had missed something, but just kept on walking and found myself outside the gate the other side in perhaps 3 minutes flat. Boy, I had had trickier crossings just going on holiday in Europe! If nothing else I had fully expected a bag search by the Iranians just in case I'd tried to smuggle in a bottle of Johnny Walker or the latest edition of Razzle. The moneychangers tried their best to rip me off and though I knew the correct rate I accepted a small reduction just to get underway. Ditto the taxi fare, which I miscalculated in any case. The same problems of getting used to new money, a new language, different conventions and you got it all thrown at you in a oner. The taxi guy thought I might like some trance music on the 45K descent into Orumiyeh which he assured me was traditional Iranian stuff just with a modern bent, and in a country that floated on oil we had to queue to get petrol at a service station. I later found out that though they could get the stuff out of the ground OK, they werent that hot on distributing it and petrol stations were thin on the ground. The immediate impact was pictures of Great Uncles Khomeini and Khatami everywhere, Irans answer to ZZ Top, a strange version of the personality cult, and roads crawling with hundreds of the indiginous Paykans (Hillman Hunter copies, usually white). The women were well covered but surprisingly the Chador was not universal as I had expected. The main edict was to cover the hair but you saw quite a few in jeans, they just had to cover their bum thats all! Only their faces were visible but sometimes that was enough, try as you might to hide it, women the world over looked good. Remarkably after the Lokantasi and Kebabci eateries of Turkey, there was a singular lack of restaurants in Iran and net cafes too it seemed, I ended up settling for tiny kebab joints which were barely big enough to flip a burger in. I also tried a local quirk, guys on the pavement with big cauldrons doled out what I took to be boiled sweet potato, a bit sickly after the second bite. In negotiating this I had also had to come to terms with what must be the worst traffic I have ever encountered, they flouted every rule in the book and to cross the road you simply had to get used to stepping out in front of them and trusting them to slam on the brakes at the last possible moment. Two lanes readily became 3 or 4 when possible, zebra crossings might just as well have not been there and motorbikes thought nothing of screaming down the pavement if it would take them to their graves a moment sooner. In stark contrast with Turkey however, there was not a single car horn to be heard though, people had just been conditioned to the survival of the fittest ethos and didnt complain about it. After Turkey and Iraq, there was no shortage of lecky in Iran and Orumiyeh shone like a Christmas tree. In a day when the clocks had bizzarely gone forward an hour and a half and simultaneously the calendar went back centuries, I realised it was 9/11. September 11th 1385 that is. With freezing weather, unintelligible language and script, no beer and no women for a month, I really did have to ask myself, whose bloody idea was this?!

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Sirnak to Hakkari


I had asked the previous day what time the dolmus to Hakkari was, there was only one according to the book. The boy wrote down 8-8.30 and so I arrived in time for 8 to find it already gone, left guessing if there would be another one that day or not. Thankfully it all became clear when another one left with me aboard at half 8, phew! It was only 179Ks to Hakkari but such was the terrain it would take me the main part of the day to cover it. The onset of army checkpoints became intense here, with a stop on average every 10Ks and every other population centre of any size having an army presence. A commando base overlooking the road was stocked with APCs and had its howitzers pointed at nearby Iraq in fortified positions. The rugged mountains here sometimes closed in to become spectacular gorges. At another army base soldiers lay firing at a rifle range, in the next village there was a wedding in progress where the men danced together in one long line with arms over shoulders, the girls in bright coloured dresses looked on from afar. Then there was a major checkpoint at a T junction where the road crossed a river, with one bridge built by the Turks and another adjacent one by Saddam. The locals told me that Iraq was right there on the other side of the river. It was a long thorough check this time, a process not speeded up by the unexpected foreigner, and they took some convincing I was not a junkie when they found my syringe. Being that it was a tad difficult to explain cross transmission of blood diseases in Turkish, I resorted to my mini dictionary which fortunately had the phrase "For Emergency Use" in it. I just hoped that the translation was in good context and did not say 'Break Glass" or something similar! There was snow now in the shadows of the gorges and the guy drove like a madman on the snaky road, I was sure all 4 wheels took off at one point. Then in another village we stopped to load, or rather overload, the minibus roof with what appeared to be thousands of T-Shirts. Then after a quick phone call they promptly threw them all off again, obviously the deal was off! What a palaver. It was during this fiasco that a young Kurdish woman on the bus had asked me where I was going, most forward and I was surprised she had the audacity to speak to a strange man let alone a foreigner. The mountains here were fantastic, the north facing slopes peppered with snow, the others golden brown against a perfect blue sky. I had barely seen a cloud in a fortnight, there must be rain shadow here. We then had an abrupt climb up to a pass at 2080 metres, surrounded by peaks much higher still. There was the ubiquitous army base here as ever, a very difficult place to police and the driver just held onto my passport such was the frequency of the stops, there must have been a dozen checkpoints or more.

I didnt know that the dolmus was actually going to Yuksekova and so it dropped me 5Ks short of Hakkari at the junction. Another old boy shepherded me into town and showed me the way to the hotel, I had paid his meagre 1YTL fare so it was fare enough! I wasnt sure whether to speak Turkish or Kurdish here, and upon questioning the receptionist guy said Turk rather heavily. I didnt know whether he was playing it safe with a suspicious foreigner or was a Turk who resented Kurdish! That night I got my life in order by burning photos, sanitising my gear for Iranian approval (the dolly bird picture had to go) and drank my last beer for a month. What was I going to do when the sun went down?

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Midyat to Iraq


Upon making my way back to old Midyat and dumping my bags at the Otogar, it didnt take long to amble around the backstreets of the nearby old town. What was remarkable about Midyat over and above the lovely honey-coloured masonary was the plethora of church spires which dotted the horizon, there were allegedly 9 in all in this small town and they seemed to outrank the mosques. It was difficult to get anywhere near most of them however let alone visit them, hidden as they were amidst the rabbits warren of narrow streets, and even the local kids were too busy being a pain in the arse to be of much help. The wee beggars must have called me Abi (big brother) a thousand times with their hands held out, it was just one more thing I was going to have to get used to! It was amazing that like Mardin this likeable place had not been discovered as yet by rank and file tourism, I pitied the day that it happened, the kids were destined to become the sharks of tommorrow and the town would lose the very essence of its appeal. I stumbled upon a couple of the churches eventually, one of which just happened to be open and I was invited in through the 4ft high thick wooden door to see it by the local honcho. He had a fair bit of English and explained that the Christian population was repressed as it had always been, there were now only 80 families in the locality and only 4 of the churches still held services. Not what I had expected to hear in secular Turkey.

After an interminable wait during which I thought the locals had let me down, I was eventually beckoned out onto the roadside by a boy with bad teeth and dubious intellect, only to see the express Silopi service I had waited ages for materialise instantly. I shook the half wits hand sincerely, he knew something after all. There was standing room only but they let me on all the same, and it was more amusing than deflating to have a 20 minute tea stop almost immediately just a K down the road. More good natured people vied amongst themselves for my attentions. There was more fine scenery with mountain ranges to the north and pastoral steppe to the south. Some of the older locals pointed out abandoned villages and made it clear they had once been their homes, probably where they were born I imagined. I could only surmise that it had been government intervention as a result of PKK activity, the repression of the Kurds. A sizeable river then joined us to the south and not just any river, this was the legendary Tigris which for a short while formed the border with Syria here. The town of Cizre materialised larger and busier than I had expected and likewise did Silopi at the end of the line. Silopi was off the map as far as my guidebook was concerned and I was now living on my wits.

I was on my way to Iraq, and Silopi was the last town before the border. It had been a deliberate move to take the Express minibus from Midyat rather than make my way to the border in stages by dolmus, it had been an unexpected bonus that it existed at all. I reckoned that way surely someone else had to be heading for the border and I could tag along, certainly share the taxi fare if nothing else. As luck would have it there was just one other guy heading my way, a young guy who I had incredibly eventually found a seat next to by chance. With no common tongue it was all I could understand that he was returning to Arbil from Finland of all places, it was unfortunately beyond me to explain my Finnish connection or indeed ascertain his. Straight off the bus and we were hit upon by the taxi sharks, fortunately for me with the local guy taking all the rap amidst animated argument over prices. It turned out we struck a remarkably good deal compared to what I had expected, only 15 Turkish Lira each (about a fiver) and that would take us the 8K to the border and right through all the bureaucracy to the other side. Another boy joined us and I was so glad not to be doing this alone.

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Diyarbakir to Midyat


Yoshi's kamikaze itinerary dictated another dawn start which suited me fine. Over tea downstairs in the hotel we watched titled "singalong" prayers on TV with subtitles in English for those of us who dont know our Koran off by heart. I secretly wished I could buy some of this stuff, it was certainly a more amenable way of following Islam than reading the book. The first coach to Mardin saw us entering more desertified terrain, the landscape became perceptibly more rocky and scrubby. Fantastic snowcapped peaks broke the horizon to the north and an APC on the road reminded me this was until recent years troubled rebel territory, the homeland of the PKK Kurdish rebels. Diyarbakir (Ahmet in Kurdish) as its unofficial capital had been a denizen of state repression and insurgency activity.

Magical Mardin lay spectacularly sited on the south facing slope of a desert peak, staring out from its perch towards the patchworh billiard table like Syrian plain below. It has its fair share of attractive architecture too, all the more so for the sandstone which glows honey-coloured in the sunshine. We had a look inside the Ulu Cami (Old Mosque) with a very large and beautiful minaret and then juxtaposed it with a visit to one of the churches in town. Mardin still retains some of its ancient Syrian Orthodox community. We passed by what must be Turkeys most aesthetically pleasing post office, all sandstone arches and staircases. Similarly the local museum was remarkable for the building in itself and there were a few points of note on top of what I had become accustomed to. There was a very nice Roman era stone casket and a storyboard explained the local specialty of Mirra, that is Bitter Coffee. That I didnt find the opportunity of trying but I did make a point of having a rushed lunch at the first joint I had seen offering whole sheeps head. We both settled for kebab though!

Mardin would have been a lovely place to spend the night but in the absence of budget accommodation and having toured it by lunchtime we both had big decisions to make concerning our next moves. We were to an extent at the mercies of the buses but one thing first though, we chipped in for the taxi fare out to a local attraction, the Deyrul Zafaran (Saffron Monastery), 6Ks out of town. Supposedly saffron was used to help bind the mortar in its construction. Unfortunately the shark taxi driver ommitted to tell us that we would arrive during the midday siesta and so couldnt gain access. Yoshi was a talented artist however and an architect to boot so it was his call to stay and settle the majority of the sizeable taxi fair, his excellent watercolour of the place surely justified it. I had a stroll around the grounds in appreciation of the fine desert mountain scenery, and upon opening time we managed a breakneck tour of the building discovering what you might expect of a monastery. Some more nice internal architecture, a chapel, a spartan dining room, underground chambers.

Back in town it was another sad farewell to Yoshi, he was off to Nusaybin and the Syrian border, and I wished I could have joined him. For a long time since my visit in 1993 Syria had been my favourite country, a place often overlooked and almost unique in having retained its traditional culture with not even McDonalds or Coca Cola to be found. I also had an acquaintance with a Kurdish guy I had met there all those years ago, he only lived a kilometre the other side of the border and I had wondered all these years how he was. Yoshi was travelling too fast to make enquiries, it was so near and yet so far.

I had been taking photos and consequently throwing away batteries like a mad thing, so after burning some photos to disk and investing in a battery charger I jumped on another bus for the hour long journey to Midyat. Whilst not as spectacular as Mardin, Midyat still offered some more nice sandstone architecture and moreover, a cheap bed for the night. What I didnt understand before arrival however was that the town is actually split into 2 parts with a 3 kilometre avenue linking old Midyat with modern Estel. My cheap bed in Estel was remarkably easy to find, but suffice to say I must have walked 7Ks that night just in order to find beer, I upped my nightly quota from 2 to 3 tins accordingly!

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It wasnt so far to Diyarbakir so we arrived off the night bus at 5 to be welcomed by yet more lentil soup and more remarkably, sunshine. Yoshi was travelling fast so it was as quick as we could dump our bags and head off round the city walls, 6 miles long and in excellent condition. Though perhaps a local tourist authority jibe they are reputed to come second only to the Great Wall of China. Inside lay the ramshackle but very colourful old city where we soon met some of the locals and were invited into their homes for tea. Despite the language difficulties we learned that Sultan, a girl of 18 had been to the States for an operation, she showed us pictures of herself with the Disney characters, most unexpected since these people were of very humble means. She lived here with her 10 little brothers and sisters and her mum, she had no dad for reasons we couldnt establish. Yoshi was relying on me translating Turkish to English which was certainly a challenge! Neighbouring Talat, a nice boy in his 20s took a shine to me and wanted a piece of the action, we ended up going next door and sharing more tea with his parents, they had a family of 15! They were all Kurds. Later we stumbled upon local women baking bread, they had communal ovens here much as the Ozzies have public barbies, large spherical urns surrounded by cement to which the dough was stuck on the inside and heated from underneath. They gave us some to try, as fresh as it comes.

Yoshi was a man on a mission and he wanted to split up so I left him to his devices. I went on to explore the outside of the city walls where I found a very nice built in motif of lions, an eagle and an inscription around one of the towers. The number of towers was too many to count and the walls were so thick that many dark chambers lurked inside, some of the more accessable ones were big enough to house palaces or houses of worship and were connected by a network of tunnels. Later in the city I found the Virgin Mary church hidden behind a wall but didnt bother the caretaker, and later found the Four Legged Minaret, it stood somewhat precariously on four narrow close set pillars like stilts and I had never seen another like it. I came across a couple of the mosques too, here they were an unusual black and white stripe pattern using 2 different types of stone and I finished off the day with a completion of the tour of the walls.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

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