Adventures in Kurdistan

I stayed in Kahramanmaraş for two days, in the company of many of Ferhuns friends. Mindful of my soon expiring visa, I thought I couldn’t go wrong with one more day of rest. One of these friends, Gökay, offered me his couch to crash on. Accepting the offer, I spent the day with Gökay, Mehmet, and Ferhun. The beard I’ve been sporting has grown long, and I’ve been asking opinions of it along the way. My Iranian friend, Hanif, advised me that I should shave before I come to Iran. This seemed to be verified by the handful of Imams and Islamic devout who showed an over enthusiasm for it. One such Imam literally thought I was adorable with my little beard. Few regular Turkish men have beards, or long hair, and Ferhun and Gökay convinced me to shave it. One of the reasons a beard is suitable on a long cycle trip… when you don’t shower for days, a facial shadow reminds you of just how many days that has been, and just how dirty you are. When you have a beard, it’s easier to forget when you had the last shower. So here it is, the last photo of my hairy face company for the last 7000km.

The last photo of my glorious beard.

The turkish shave. If you’re a man travelling in this country, it’s an experience I highly suggest. I doubt you can find anything like it in the west. When the barber asked what he should do with my fur, I suggested straight blade. He informs me with this much face fur, it’s too dangerous. It comes off with the razor.

Beard be gone!

The straight blade came next. This was more or less as expected. The shave was cleaner and better than I could have done with a regular razor, even with a mojito in my hand. That’s not saying much. It’s the post shave follow up that stirred me. When the barber appeared to be done, he took what looked like a large Q-tip, doused it in alcohol, and set it aflame. The flaming Q-tip is then beat across face, ears, and neck, any place hair still existed where it shouldn’t. It didn’t hurt, however, I’m not accustomed to having a flaming Q-tip strike my ears. When all rogue hairs had been vanquished, a pair of scissors promptly invaded my nasal canals. It’s a bit nerve racking to have someone else put a pair of scissors up your nose. Pity I don’t have any photos of this action.

At least when the facial and nasal torment was done, I got some ice cream. Kind of like going to the dentist as a child, you’re rewarded with sweet sweet ice cream. The ice cream is famous in Maras, everyone in Turkey seems to know this. I understand completely now, as I believe it’s the best ice cream I’ve ever had.

Maras Dondurma (ice cream)

Gokay

Thank you Ferhun and Gokay for your wonderful hospitality, it was a pleasure to get to know you and spend time with you.

Ferhun and Gokay

On my way out of town, I thought I would get one more ice cream. Delighted to see a foreigner, one of the workers asks me the standard set of questions. When he gets to the married question, he seems delighted, and points to a waitress.

“How about her?”
“No, I’m good, thanks. Ice cream?”
“Her?” As he points to the second waitress.

The first waitress blushes, while the second waitress comes over with my ice cream cone and gave it to me. Unfortunately, I was the one standing there with the ice cream cone. She just stood there watching me inappropriately.

The following two days where mostly uneventful. I camped dangerously close to a bee farm, and clocked my 16,000th km.

16,000 glorious kilometers.

I’m now in Kurdish country. Some of the Turks demonize the Kurds, and the other way around as well. Kurdistan tends to be poorer then the rest of Turkey, and I’ve seen a lot of animosity to the Kurds as they come to work in places like Istanbul. Other than the language, I can’t easily tell them apart. This is all made more interesting right now, as there is an upcoming Turkish election. It makes our election in Canada seem very boring and uninspiring by comparison. But hey, I guess that’s not hard. Ahem.

Several weeks ago, there were riots in Diyarbakar over the election. The Kurds have the PKK (Peoples working party). If you’re not familiar with it, it’s demonized in the west as a terrorist group. The riots happened to be over the banning former PKK members to run in this election. Adiyaman was the first Kurdish town I visited. As I’d heard so much negativity, I was over cautious upon my arrival. Adiyaman is famous for it’s tabacco, which can be found all over Turkey. So I did the sensible thing a cyclist ought to do and went to the tabacco market. I’ve never seen so much…

Adiyaman tabacco

I decided I’d buy some from this man. I picked him out of the crowd, as his eyebrows conveyed a Gandalf-esk seriousness I could not dispute. Normal Adiyaman goes for 30 Lira a kilo (19CND). I ended up having Cay and shooting the breeze with this man and his yellow toothed companions. Some of his friends seemed delighted to tell me he was active in the PKK.

This man sold me some tabacco.

I’ll never forget that yellow grin and those eyebrows. Next stop, Nemrut Dag.

Nemrut is famously viewed at sunrise and sunset. My original plan had been to cycle up to the top and camp there. The site is at 2200m. On my way up, I was offered a place to camp with a shower and internet for 5 Lira. The campsite was in a small village on the way to the summit at 1000m. Being too lazy to cycle up 1200m and come back down the following morning, I opted instead to hang out at the campsite and catch a ride with a tour group up the following morning. At 4am, to my dismay, the unorganized tour operator has no place for me in the small bus to the summit. Instead, he let me climb on the roof rack. The other tourists seemed dismayed that there was someone on the roof as the van weaved up the narrow road. Despite the cold, I was enjoying it. The small road on the edge of the mountain seems much more precarious when you observe it from the roof of the vehicle. It was worth the lift. The statues at Nemrut are amazing. They sit at 2200m, seven of them observing the sunrise, and another seven watching over the sunset. Considering they were built in the Hellenistic period, 1000 years ago, it’s a marvel of construction. These are the heads from the east side.

Nemrut east side

Nemrut Dag

These are the photos from the west side

Nemrut Dag

Nemrut Dag

Nemrut Dag

At the summit, I found two other cyclists who had made it to the top. They did not come out at 5am, likely because it was near freezing and very windy.

Cycle tourists at the top of Nemrut Dag.

I know it probably bores most people to death, but I love talking about roads. I spend a lot of time on them. So here are some nice pictures of the road out of Nemrut Dag. Stick with me here, I promise it will get more interesting.

Nemrut Mili Park

Road to Nemrut Dag

What about a picture of something that’s not a road? How about a pony? I have one of those too!

This is where I stop for lunch.

This is where I stopped for lunch. The pony was just circumstantial. He was having lunch too.

My next destination was Diyabakar. The only scenic thing about this stretch of road were the sheer cliffs on Ataturk Golu. I got a good view from the road as I climbed up out of the valley. I’m beginning to think there are a lot of unexplored climbing places in Turkey.

Ataturk Golu

Ataturk Golu, feribot to Siverek

The road from then on was somewhat tough. There was quite literally nothing. Shepards, sheep, rocks and grass. Here is a photo of what I felt was the longest road ever.

Road to Siverek

Here is a synopsis of Diyarbakır. It’s is considered to be Kurdish heart of Kurdistan in Turkey. Many Turks had strongly advised me against going, likely because the Turks and Kurds don’t get on so well. I thought this to be simply prejudice until I arrived in Siverek (city next to Diyarbakır). There, I met a Kurd who told me he had moved to Siverek as he had too many problems in Diyarbakır. This worried me a little, as a Kurd telling me a Kurdish city was dangerous seemed incongruent with my assumptions at this point. Further to this, I had several experiences on the way into Diyarbakır that made me wary of the place. Coming into the city, I passed a shepard who seemed to be angry I passed by. He had been brandishing a fiberglass stick to heard his cattle, and on my passing decided to try and take me out with it. He threw it at me, nearly getting it my spokes. I yelled at him and carried on, somewhat disturbed by this recent development. Not 2km down the highway, a bunch of teenagers on the road side tried to grab my bike as I passed. I gave him good shove and I kept going. I had begun to get a bad feeling about this place. Down the road, I stopped at a supermarket. One of the workers insisted on following me around, and carrying everything I chose to buy. There was a disingenuous feeling about the whole thing, I grabbed my groceries back and payed for them. Exiting the supermarket, a cab driver took interest in me. He told me I could put my bike in his taxi, and take one of the girls near the grocery store, apparently she was a prostitute. First sarcastic thought: “Sounds legit”. Second thought: “WTF is a prostitute doing at the grocery store?”

So with these experiences, I was not inclined to stay very long. I rode around the city for a while, checking out some of the sights and left promptly. I found myself camping 15km out of the city in a park. In the morning, one of the young lads working at the campsite came over and did something I’d never seen done with tabacco. I give you, tobacco bong.

Cigarette bong

I then took a small 200km detour down to Mardin, Midyat, and Hasankeyf. The latter was the place I really wanted to see. Hasankeyf is home to a 1000 year old castle in the heart of mesopotamia, situated along the Tigris river. The ruins of a famous bridge run to the old city, and Suleymans mosque provides a beautiful backdrop with the bridge.

Hasankeyf

What really blew my mind here was the staircase carved into the rock. In working order, it would have been something to ascend these stairs on a sheer cliff above the Tigris.

Hasankeyf

I had planned to camp near the city, and one of the locals offered me a place to sleep in his restaurant. I got myself a nice place on the patio, overlooking the river and the bridge. A pretty nice place to sleep under the stars.

My sleeping quarters at Hasankeyf.

Thank you Ozgur for letting me stay in your restaurant.

My restaurant hosts

It’s really quite sad that the Turkish government plans to flood this place. They plan to construct a damn downstream, and flood the valley to create hydro. To me, it seems mindblowing that they are willing to damn the river and destroy a historic site that’s over a thousand years old.

Hasankeyf

It would be a pity to flood this paradise.

By this time, my visa in Turkey is beginning to run short. I need to start making it to the border as soon as I can. The way to Iran was paved with many unforgettable experiences.

Cute Kurdish child.

Bridge to a farm.

When I arrived in Tatvan, the weather was not congenial to cycling. I hadn’t planned on staying there, but the weather was just terrible. It was there I met Mekin. He reminds me of the actor Jason Statham (Snatch) a little bit. A bit of a mean demeanour, but a kind gentleman at heart. Having done time in Antalya for some kind of drug related offense, he’s reinvented himself as a carnie on the shores of Lake Van.

Mekins business venture.

Mekin and his brother in law Appo, built this banana boat ride you see here in the background. Seems safe enough. The children really seem to enjoy it, and for 1.5TL why not. Despite the poor weather, he had a lot of customers.

Tatvan banana ride

When the rain finally abated, I was off again. The scenery on the south side of lake Van is nothing short of stunning. The lake is at 1700m, and the surrounding mountains peak out at ~3000M. It’s a quiet paradise. A lot of the farming is done by hand or animal, and I made friends with some farmers along the way.

To the places where the earth is tilled by hand!

Along the road, I picked a place to camp I thought would be congenial. A flood plane, far enough from the highway, few houses around, and seemingly quiet. Oh how wrong I was. After I’d cooked my food and was getting set for sleep, I noticed two people marauding about the place in the dark. Of course, they spot my tent and come over for a chat. They inform me that they are fishing in the lake, which is forbidden. They also inform me to keep my headlamp off, lest I attract the attention of the gendarmes who are meant to be guarding the fish. This all seems so silly. They leave, and I decide to get some sleep. An hour later, I’m awakened by the police who also spot my tent easily. It’s quite something to peer outside your tent and see two men in camoflage sporting machine guns standing out there. For a brief moment I thought about closing the zipper and just crawling back into my sleeping bag in the vague hope the problem would go away. Yet, they were kind, even inviting me for a midnight Cay at their barracks. I politely declined. I just want to sleep.

In the morning, I had breakfast with Osman, one of the guys I’d met the previous night. Turkish breakfast under blooming grape vines with mountains as a backdrop. It’s was wonderful.

The view from Osmans house

Osman and family

Van Golu mountains

Near Osman’s home, there is the famous Akdamar church. It’s a 1000 year old Armenian Orthodox Catholic church. On the outside of this church, there are depictions of various tales from the Bible and the Torah. It’s really a stunning church.

Akdamar Kilise

The David and Goliath depiction…

David and Goliath

My personal favorite. Fish/Eagle/Lion.

Fish-eagle-lion?

I think they must have really loved the blood of christ back in the day. This goes on all the way around the church. Bunch of drunks.

Bunch of drunks

The view from this little island is really stunning.

Van Golu mountains

View from Akdamar

Leaving lake Van, I clocked another milestone.

Nom nom nom 17,000km

It’s amazing how quickly these little distances rack up.

My journey east brought me to Muradiye, where I found Oz. This man invited me to stay in his home for the night and I did. We spent most of the day hanging out. He even brought me to a place where I could catch fish with my bare hands!

Catching Illegal fish!

Thanks Oz for all your help!

Oz and I

On my way to the border, I was tailgated on my bicycle by children in a tractor. It’s common for the Kurdish children to ask for money, and they do it to every tourist they see. It’s also common for them to throw rocks at tourists. I’ve had many a rock thrown at me. The tractor incident was particularly concerning, as he was pulling a trailer full of children… and rocks. Hospitalizing size rocks. I’ve learnt enough Turkish now that I can understand they are calling me donkey as they cast rocks at me. Ahh.. everyday, a new challenge. The children aren’t the only challenge, the dogs can be nasty too. The Kurds are famous for their sheep dogs. Here’s a picture of a particularly vicious one.

Kurdish sheep dogs.

So now, here I am in Dogubeyazıt. This is my last stop in Turkey. I will go to Iran tomorrow. Of Turkey, I have to say this. It’s one of the most amazing places I’ve ever visited, so many great places, so many great experiences, so many Cay and most of all, so many great people. To all of those that have helped me, teşekkürler teşekkürler teşekkürler! Your help and friendship will not be forgotten. You’ve made this place the experience of a lifetime for me.

Next stop, Persia!

Peace.Love.BicycleGrease,
-jeremie