Sunday, September 22, 2013

Dogubayzit / Diyarkabir

In October, 1970, I was in the middle of my first trans-other-continental journey, heading for my guru in India.  I had been in Istanbul a couple of afternoons ago, coincidentally on the same day that the guy from Midnight Express was being busted.  I boarded a dolmus in Dogubayzit, the last broken, dusty town in eastern Turkey, and saw that there were a couple of other backpackers (although we called ourselves hippies then) coming with me.  One of them said in passing, 'You did get your Iran visa, didn't you?'  Iran visa?  Somehow that had totally slipped my young mind.  Oh well, I'll just talk my way through at the border...

But when I got there the Iranian guy just automatically handed me back my passport and said, 'Consulate. Trabzon.'  And that was that.  I looked at my map.  Trabzon was over several mountain ranges and over 400 miles away.  Talk about the deflation of the stupid.

Back to Dogubayzit and a Saturday night in this one tired burro down.  I got a 'bed' in a weird dorm with a dirt floor and a bunch of drunk Turks for 17 cents.  Then the long journey to Trabzon.  The long wait for the visa.  The long trip back.  Another 17 cent night.

So Dogubayzit holds a lot of memories for me.  And, given that Americans ain't too welcome in Iran these days, I never really expected to be back.

But here I was boarding a small bus in Kars and going over the empty, nondescript bumpy mountain landscape towards Igdir.  When we got there we were in the middle of some actual agriculture, and the small city wasn't nearly as wretched as people had said.  This would have been my jumping off point for Nakhchivan, and the highway sign pointing to it mocked me as we drove past.  For now I was on a dolmus to Dogubayzit.

Less than an hour later we were there.  And in 43 years they had replaced the dirt road, one street full of metal stalls town with a city of 40,000 or so people, businesses, neon, and cars.

I looked around for Mt Ararat, the nearby 16,000 foot giant snow covered Noah's Ark volcano that dominated the clear blue fall sky way back then.  Drat, covered by the clouds that have been intermittently raining on me for a couple of days.  And it looked like they had also put up a bunch of other mountains and crags that I didn't remember from before.

About a block from the dolmus stop was the best hotel in town, where I plopped down $35 for the night.  It included a balcony looking out on Ararat, and I was assured that the view was almost always clear at dawn.  A short rest and then a stroll and a search for the time long, long ago.

Well, as usual, it wasn't there.  So I negotiated for a taxi to take me up to the town's big tourist attraction, which is a palace build by some Kurdish chieftain a couple of hundred years ago.  It was one of those places that looks really impressive as you're driving up the hill, but is just a bunch of empty stone rooms once you've paid the admission.  Still, it gets in the guide books, and then all the tourists have to go out of their way to see it.

Well, back to town.  Scrounge for food.  Back to hotel.  The sun was going down and the clouds were clearing up.  I could now see about 90% of Ararat, up to the first part of the late summer snow cover.  An early bed so I can catch the dawn.

But when I woke up there was a small thunderstorm going on.  Drat again.  I packed my things and headed over to the dolmus corner.  The first small bus was leaving for Van at 6:30.  And I was on it.

We got to the Van otogar (bus terminal area) at 9:15, right after a bus for Diyarkabir had left.  Now Turkey is just made for buses.  Big, but not big enough to require air travel.  And with gas at almost $10 a gallon. even people with cars would rather just bus it.

So Turkish buses have evolved into monuments to Huge.  Over fourteen feet high, with giant panes of glass all around. the Mercedes Benz beasts boast little video screens for each seat.  And a steward who comes around offering water, chai, and juice.  Style and comfort.  And rest stops that come every under two hours.

I had to wait until noon for the next one, which is about the longest I've ever had to wait at any Turkish city for any other Turkish city.  They're that flash.  So I walked a couple of blocks and found a small market, where the buy let me sit and eat some cheese and bread that I had bought from him.  Then I moseyed back to the open air terminal area and wrote some songs.

The route starts by snaking around Lake Van, which is a pretty big blotch on a map of Turkey.  I hadn't been expecting much, but it was actually quite beautiful, with waters almost turquoise in places.  It took two hours to drive around to the other end of it. 

Then we were down, down, down some pretty rugged mountains.  And then we were in some relatively flat, relatively uninspiring irrigated agricultural land.  Through the fabled joke city of Batman.  And finally, at a darkened 7 pm, at the otogar in Diyarkabir.

Freeways had taken my buses to the centers of Stockholm and Helsinki, so I hadn't had to deal with endless urban nightmares on the entire trip so far.  But Diyarkabir was well over a million, and the otogar was on the far northern edge of it.  The thieving taxis wanted $10 to go into the center, so screw them.  Instead I lugged my stuff over non-pavement and across unlit multilane roads to where the local dolmuses stopped. 

With great good fortune I got on one where the driver spoke some English.  He even understood where I was trying to get to.  So I tried to remain confident as he went down bewildering street after bewildering turn, knowing that if he changed his mind and just dropped me off somewhere I was a goner.

The city's big tourist attraction are its seven mile in circumference ancient walls, and I had kept asking people for the Harput Gate.  But when we got there about 300 meters of the wall had been removed since my LP guide of ten years ago.  And now there was a giant pedestrian space in its stead.

The LP had also said that here was where I would be encountering the Ancient East, with women in all encompassing chadors and bearded men in baggy pants.  But all I could see were modern neon lit businesses and people in jeans and t-shirts gabbing on their cell phones.  Fortunately, the hotels listed were still there, and I took the first one that passed minimum muster.

The next morning I was out and about in the 'old city' inside the walls.  But there were no winding alleyways and scenes from the past, only more Turkish everyday businesses and Saturday shoppers.  What in the world were those LP writers smoking in those hookahs of theirs?

My first task was to figure out how I was going to get to Iraq tomorrow.  The first option was to take Turkish buses to the last town before the border, take a taxi to the border, then an Iraqi share taxi to the Dohuk, the first major Iraqi city.  This would involve a certain amount of lugging and haggling.  The second option was to take a scheduled international bus.  Problem with that was that they had a huge wait at the border, and all the ones I had heard of only went at night.

Now there are a gazillion different bus companies in Turkey, and the relevant local ones all have little offices in each city, kind of close to each other, but not necessarily.  So first I had to find each one, and then find out which went to the border, and which had the through service.  With no one speaking English.  I was pretty much striking out when I found the last office.  Good news!  They had a through bus.  And it came through at 10 in the morning.  This was too easy.

With a weight off of my shoulders, I now strolled about a km to the southern stretch of the walls and found the place where you climb up.  I had kind of expected a nice paved tourist walk, but instead there were just knobby remains unrepaired for centuries.  Soon I was on a totally unprotected stretch with a 30 foot drop on one side and a 50 foot drop on the other.  And a pretty hefty crosswind.  Oh crap.  And with legs I wouldn't trust on an unknobby roof.  Steady the breath... Just look forward... One step after another...  I made it the 60 or so feet until a little piece of remaining sidewall reappeared.  And the rest was semi-protected,  But I had to ask myself as I slowly descended the old steep stairs at the end: When am I going to stop doing this stuff?

Safely back at street level, I finally saw one woman in a chador and one guy in baggy pants.  Amid about 18,000 other people looking perfectly normal.  I turned right at one alley where signs said I would find two old churches.  One was an old Armenian church whose reconstruction was just lavishly written up in last week's Economist.  The Armenian emigres behind that should have saved their money; the 'new' church reeked of Sunday School way more than of spirituality.  And considering that there are only 20 or so Christians of any kind left in Diyarkabir...

The other church was a Chaldean one.  Even I know squat about the Chaldean rites.  And it wasn't all that incredible, either.  But I did meet a Canadian couple, microbiologists on holiday, and we got to talking and walking through the remaining few tourist sites together.

At some point they mentioned that they had rented a car, and so I jokingly said, 'You wanna drive me to the border tomorrow?'  But they actually thought that this was a terrific idea, the weird allure of Iraq being that enticing.  So we mulled it over a while, and they decided to go for it.

Next morning at 8 we met and they retrieved their car.  It was easy getting out of Diyarkabir on a Sunday morning, and soon we were chugging along on the 130 miles or so to the Iraqi border.  We were planning to mostly go alongside the Syrian border, but after a misplaced road sign or two we were on the 'scenic route', which wound through some poor, rocky countryside in some ways reminiscent of some of the crappier parts of the American West.  Same distance, though.

And then we were past Cizre.  And then we were past Silopi, the last Turkish city.  By now not only the landscape was nothing special, but all kinds of industrial detritus lined the road.  And hundreds and hundreds of trucks.  Most of them in an endless line that must take them a week before they ever get to the front of it.

Cars could scoot around them, though, and finally we got to the first Turkish border building.  We parked, because we were hoping that they could bop across into Iraq for an hour or so.  But it was now clear that everything was way too chaotic for that to happen.  And it turned out that even I couldn't walk across.  I would have to be in a vehicle. 

The border guy stopped an old minivan driven by a Turk, and he agreed to take me.  My new friends John and Carol said that it had been enough of an adventure to get this far.  And I had to agree that it was pretty trippy here.  So we said goodbye, and I put my stuff into the old minivan.

Iraq awaited.



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