Terrell's Turkey Travel Journal
This is the (continued) record of a trip I took in the summer of 2005 with Meli Seval of Melitour. We spent two weeks in Southeastern and Eastern Turkey traveling mostly by bus with a small tour group. If you'd like to go to the journal for the first week, click here. At the end of the tour I flew to Italy and spent a few days in Tuscany with my niece and her husband.
June 23, Thursday, Tour Day 8
I wound up eventually having breakfast with the whole group this morning since I came down to journal at about seven and then stayed through the whole parade. My pen ran out of ink while I was writing so I used my extremely elementary Turkish to ask the waiter for a pen. It worked! Hüseyin arrived with the bus but was clearly in a lot of pain. He picked up a rock from the parking lot to explain to me that it was a kidney stone bothering him. With the group finally assembled, we drove out to the ancient Syrian Orthodox monastery outside of town that Meli told us was the burial site for the patriarchs of three different Orthodox sects. We had hoped to hear one of the monks praying in Aramaic but there was nobody available to talk to us that day. A young man, Tamar, showed us around and told us about the church members who still live in Mardin. He said there were still about 80 Syrian Christian families living in the town. In the church he pulled the cloth iconostasis closed for us to take pictures--a special favor since it is supposed to remain open except during services. The cloth was printed with woodblock stamps and then painted and sewn with sequins. It looked almost modern in a way and yet still very traditional. Meli likes to point out that the face of the crucified Jesus on some of the other hangings looks very peaceful as opposed to the tortured look you often see in traditional European art. Tamar then took us down into the depths of the monastery where we looked at a room built from huge, heavy stone blocks wedged together without mortar that was used as place for sun worship in ancient times. The monastery was built on top of the old temple in classic Christian fashion. Some of the tour members looked up at the tons of stone overhead and worried aloud about the prevalence of earthquakes in Turkey. I told them just think what a fabulous obituary it would make.
After the monastery, Hüseyin drove us up to the center of town near the top of the hill and dropped us off while he went to the hospital to see if they could help the kidney stone problem. (Is this disaster three or four?) Our first stop in town was at the house of the woman who makes the printed, painted cloths for the Syrian churches. Her father, who made the hangings at the monastery, taught her to make them and she continues the tradition. She told us that she was 83 years old. It was a funny conversation since she spoke only Arabic so her daughter translated to Turkish and Meli then translated to English. She showed off a number of pieces she had made and several of us bought things. I got a small crucifix. I liked the sequins. Her daughters brought out a homemade liqueur for us to try. I thought it was delicious with a very sweet, spicy, cinnamony flavor. We asked Ninfas (I'm not sure of the spelling of her name but it was something like that) to show us her painting technique so she sat down at her work table and showed us the process. Pretty steady hands for 83. The oddest thing about the visit had to be the many holy pictures and statues scattered around the room. It looked almost Hispanic. Certainly felt very out of context.
Next we walked down the street to have lunch at a nice restaurant that had big open windows looking down the hill. Lots of the other diners appeared to be Turkish tourists which we thought was interesting. After we ate we moved to the part of the restaurant that I think of as the Turkish seating area with low benches covered with kilims and big brass round tables. The host made a special version of Turkish coffee for us that was a tiny gulp of sweet coffee syrup (no grounds) served very hot in a tiny cup. Meli told us that if you put your cup down after you drank you had to pay for the wedding of the first person who walked through the door. After lunch we had free time to go shopping. There were lots of jewelry stores along the main street and an interesting market with tiny lanes that meandered down the hillside. Gayle and I mostly looked although I did buy some film and I used my Turkish again at a book/stationery store to ask if they had pens (Kalem var ma?). We did take lots of pictures. Too bad my photography is so bad. Gayle had a great time watching the young men riding around on donkeys. Since the town is mostly stairs instead of streets, they still use donkeys for delivering things since they can go places bikes and trucks can't get to. The handsome guys on the donkeys were obviously the cool dudes in town and could go head to head with New York bike messengers in an attitude contest. Shortly before we were due to meet the rest of the group, we met up with Sharon and the three of us stopped for fresh orange juice and then dropped into a bakery with a fascinating window display where I picked up some sticky sweet things to have with our afternoon tea.
We all met up at a tea garden up the hill. Hüseyin rejoined us looking slightly better. They had given him a shot and some pills. We had tea and I passed around the sweets. A young boy with beautiful eyelashes came to wait on the table and Meli started talking to him. At the age of ten, he was working to help support his family while his father was away in Istanbul trying to make money. He said he was also working as a guide at the main mosque so Meli had him tell us a little history of the town and the mosque so we could give him a tip. Meli has very firm views about not just giving charity to the local kids. He very seriously told us the history of the beginnings of Mardin and where the name of the town came from. Meli cried. Even the people from the next table leaned over to give him a little money, too. It was very sweet.
After tea, we climbed the hill up to the museum and spent a few minutes looking at their collection until they kicked us out at closing time. The view from the terrace in front of the museum was spectacular and the sky was the most brilliant shade of blue. It wasn't even very hot. Our good luck with the weather continues. We went back to the hotel to relax before dinner. As we tried to rejoin the group for dinner, Leah and I experienced the next disaster. We turned the handle of the door and nothing happened. We were stuck. While Leah's godparents were starting to freak out in the hallway outside, I used the room's telephone to call down to the desk where the guy fortunately spoke enough English to understand the situation. In fact, he didn't seem very surprised. I think it must have happened before. He sent someone up with a key and we were out in a jiffy. I think they tightened a screw to remedy the situation because it was working fine by the time we were done with dinner. Leah and I played backgammon for a while that evening but Hüseyin deserted us to go talk to a friend from his hometown of Avanos who was also staying at the hotel. Everybody went to bed early because Meli had warned us that the next day would be the longest drive of the tour.
left: the printed iconostasis at the monastery
right: Meli's new friend at the tea garden
June 24, Friday, Tour Day 9
We made an early start this morning since we had so far to go today. The first part of the drive took us through rather flat landscape and lots of irrigated cotton fields. If you go on the CDC's website and see Malaria warnings for Turkey, this is the area they're talking about but it's really only a concern for people working out in the fields. As we passed into a rockier terrain with grazing animals and as people were starting to call loudly for a bathroom stop, we came to a little town on a rushing river where the shops displayed gray woven goat hair blankets. (I'm still sorry I didn't get one of those blankets.) There was a tall minaret with a rounded top like the ones we saw in Marden with a stork's nest at the very top. Meli told us that this was the Euphrates River and the town, Hasankayf, with its rocky fortress ruins and remains of a lovely bridge was scheduled to be drowned by the waters of yet another dam. About three feet of the minaret and maybe the stork's nest is all that would be left. We took some pictures of the bridge and then went to climb the old fortifications built into a cliff above the town. Those of us who made the climb (some people were not feeling up to it and stayed near the porta potties at the base) were rewarded with a WC cut into the rocks and then, higher up, a cold drink at the cave-like cafe, also cut into the rocks and lined with carpets, benches and antique photos.
From Hasankayf we headed northeast to Batman (seriously) a dusty petroleum town that had lots in common with West Texas (flat, brown, dry). We stopped at a supermarket to shop for water and snacks to take with us to Van since the hotel there is by the lake and not close to the shops of the city. Meli was pleased that we had made it to Batman around lunch time. She chose a restaurant because of the sign, a pig dressed up as a chef, which can only be described as bizarre in a Muslim country. The inside was sparkling clean, the bathroom was impeccable and I got to choose köfte from the steam table at the front for my lunch. Back on the road, Clarence, our semi-official photo spotter called for a stop to photograph a large herd of goats being watered by an ancient arched bridge. When the goatherd clicked for the goats to cross the road up to grazing lands (he used a series of clicking sounds made with tongue in cheek to direct the herd and his dogs) we helped out by stopping traffic until they were safely across. Back on the bus, Bob was beginning to wilt from a bad tooth ache so Meli called ahead to arrange for a visit to the dentist in Van. We passed through several jendarme checkpoints (it's spelled with a j in Turkish) and then, at a rocky gorge where they were working to widen the road, we hit a real check. The road had been temporarily closed with they did some blasting and the traffic, mostly trucks on their way to Iran, was backed up for miles. We took our place in line and sat back to wait. Clarence joked that now would be a good time for one of those ubiquitous tea men to show up with a tray of glasses. Meli hopped off the bus and went forward to investigate the hold-up and soon I saw her motioning for us to join her. Next to a massive eighteen wheeler, she was chatting with a villainous-looking driver who has opened a special compartment under his truck where he was preparing tea for us! He had six sparkling clean tulip glasses lined up waiting for the tea to brew while he told Meli that he was transporting a load of bananas to Iran. Sadly, just as we're about to get our tea, the line of trucks began to move so we shouted thanks and regrets as we rushed back to the bus. A closed road ought to count in our disaster tally, right?
Our next jendarme stop was fairly serious, with the soldiers asking for a list of our passport numbers and then changing their minds and leaving without it. We made one more gas stop and then came around a corner that revealed our first view of the turquoise waters of Lake Van. It seemed that we must be almost there but we were just at the bottom of the lake and still had a long way to go up the eastern shore before we would reach Van. Almost immediately we ran into a road closed sign but some helpful kids pointed us to the bumpy detour where we had to sit and wait for a long train to pass. Finally back on the main road. Only another hour or so to go as we passed through brilliant green meadows and low hills covered in wildflowers with herds of yellow and brown cows grazing picturesquely. Despite the long drive and the miles to go we stopped for photo ops several times and Meli joked that if she brought one of her photography tours on this route she would have to bring tents. We were torn between admiring the pastures and the lake views as the sun went into its golden afternoon phase when suddenly more road construction slowed us to a crawl. Hüseyin picked his way past potholes and through clouds of white dust, trying to avoid miles of flying pebbles. It was getting late by then and Bob was praying that the dentist wouldn't give up on him and go home. Finally, at 7:30, thirteen hours after we left Mardin, we pulled into the parking lot of our hotel, gave Hüseyin a well-deserved round of applause and then made a mad dash for our lakeside rooms. Bob's dentist was waiting in the lobby to take him to his office and Meli accompanied them to translate. Somewhat restored by the wonders of modern plumbing, the rest of us regrouped by the indoor pool where a huge buffet dinner awaited us. We were all so tired that we were barely able to appreciate the sunset over the lake and when a loud and mediocre band began to "entertain us" toward the end of the meal we fled en masse to our rooms. The shower in the best bathroom of the trip was an exquisite delight and the bed was most, most welcome.
left: Hasankayf from the bank of the Euphrates
right: Hüseyin pilots us safely through the construction
June 25, Saturday, Day 10
As usual, I began the day by watching the sunrise, but this was a particularly beautiful one, a Renoir wash of misty pastels reaching across the still waters of the lake with jagged silhouetted mountains outlined in the distance all viewed from the window next to my comfortable bed. After breakfast, another buffet by the indoor pool, I took my notebook and went outside to sit in a lounge chair, enjoy the morning sun, write and marvel that a lake this size was not marred by a single jet ski or overly loud motor boat. After a while, I felt something tugging at my elbow and looked down to find a very sizable, shaggy puppy trying to crawl into my lap. When shooing him away proved to have no effect, I got up to move causing him to nip at my day pack and pants legs. I rescued my discarded shoes from becoming chew toys and then headed inside, shooing and being nipped the whole way, arriving inside to find that the whole puppy incident had been witnessed by a number of my fellow tour members to their vast amusement. Over a second glass of tea, I got the story of Bob's dental adventure. The dentist had driven to the hotel from town, picked up Bob, drove him back to his office, treated his abscessed tooth, refused any kind of payment and then invited Bob to his home for dinner. Although he had declined the dinner invitation since Ruth was waiting at the hotel, it was clear Bob was very impressed.
Our morning itinerary took us to the Van Museum which brought our knowledge of Urartian history from zero to at least one or two. These contemporaries of the Assyrians ruled the area near Van before the Armenians and were known for their metal working skills. There were a number of examples in the museum including several pieces of gold jewelry. My favorites, though, were the tall bronze belts worn by men. Upstairs there was a rather gruesome display of skulls arguing the Turkish/Kurdish side of the Armenian genocide question as well as exhibits of clothing and dark-colored carpets of the region.
After a pit stop at the hotel we headed down the lake to a waterfront restaurant to eat lunch and watch a folkloric performance, stopping once to get pictures of the soda-whitened waters of the lake. At the restaurant, eight or ten young people in traditional costumes did a half hour or so of traditional line dances on the sandy beach accompanied by drums and flute. Toward the end of the performance they started pulling audience members up to dance with them. Leah was the first of our group to join them but I followed soon after. We danced in a long line with little fingers linked doing intricate but repetitive steps that we found fairly easy to follow after a few tries. After the dancing, I asked the lead girl to give me some tips on ululating--during the dancing she had been doing these glottal stop cries from time to time--since my choir at home was working on a piece that featured ululations. Most of the dancers where about Leah's age so they were eager to try to talk to her which they managed to do fairly well. Broken English and a few words of Turkish go a long ways when you're 21. Sadly, they all wanted to know if I was Leah's mother. Sigh. After the dancing we ate a lunch of baked fish with rice pudding for desert and then got on one of the boats at a nearby pier to motor out to Akdamar Island. Meli had them circle all the way around the island so we could get a good look at the cliffs and sea gulls. Landing on the far side, we climbed the steep paths up to the old Armenian church at the top of the hill. Meli was very disappointed that we couldn't go inside because of some restoration work (she had been telling us about the fine acoustics) but we spent some time looking at the elaborate carvings on the exterior that depicted various biblical stories. We had been told to bring along bathing suits for this trip but only Leah and I climbed back down to the shore where we found a couple of white metal collapsible booths where we could change. Collapsible was definitely the operative word. We had to hold the door shut for each other and when Leah briefly leaned against one wall the whole thing almost tumbled over. We had a very nice swim in the water that is softened by all the sodium deposits in the lake bed. Little bubbles coated our skin as we swam making the whole experience very spa-like. On the ride back to the mainland the captain of the boat served us tea (tea is inescapable everywhere you go even on tourist boats with no visible galley). We rejoined Hüseyin who had been waiting for us with the bus and drove up the lake towards Van.
Last on the itinerary was a stop at Van's kilim coop where we got a demonstration of girls weaving carpets and then were treated to a show of various styles of kilims and carpets by the manager of the coop. It was not quite as spectacular as the treatment we got in Cappadocia in 2004 but it was fun and some of the antique kilims were really fabulous. I had been looking for something to buy this whole trip and this would be one of my best chances so while many of the tour members left to go back to the hotel, I stayed behind to shop as did Bob and Ruth. I had looked at several things that were just too far out of my price range when they finally opened up a small Van kilim (a very specific style) in red, black, white and (I realized much later) blue that was just right to go with the carpet I bought last year and I was sold. Buying is fun but nerve racking.
Back at the hotel I washed the lake water off with a luxurious American-style shower and then joined the others for our evening buffet. After dinner, Leah and I tried desperately to beat Hüseyin at backgammon while Jane, Gayle, Bob, Ruth, Lisa and Sharon played a vicious game of Quibble. Dancing, swimming, carpets and backgammon. A very fine day.
left: the white water of Lake Van is caused by soda deposits
right: the white cats of Van with one blue eye and one green eye are so famous they get a great big statue
June 26, Sunday, Day 11
After one more breakfast by the pool--with no puppy problems this morning--we boarded the bus for a short day of driving. We had become rather blasé at this point. Only the largest herds of goats or perhaps sheep with "H" painted on their backs as a kind of brand spurred calls for photo stops. About the time bathroom requests were beginning to be voiced, Hüseyin pulled off the highway into a rather nondescript walled parking lot. There were plenty of Turkish pleasure seekers but we were the only foreign tourists. Meli informed us that the bathrooms were across the bridge and up the hill so we set out only to realize that the bridge was a rather rickety-looking cable thing spanning a gorge full of white water and affording us a wonderful view of a beautiful set of waterfalls. I followed Clarence across which took a long time since he was having a great time making the bridge swing as much as possible (have I mentioned that Clarence is a rather large man?) causing all the kids to squeal ecstatically. I hung out near the end of the bridge taking pictures, learning the Turkish word for waterfall (şelale) from Hüseyin, and thinking that kids in America may be safer (maybe) but they certainly miss out on a lot of fun. Here the kids were scrambling around on wet rocks and swinging on a bridge with practically no safety rails while at home this whole place would have been surrounded by metal bars and signs urging people to stay back.
Driving again, I was starting to feel pretty miserable from stomach concerns. Shortly before lunch we got our first look at Mt Ararat which, as any volcano should, looks a lot like Mt Rainier although it's a good bit larger. We got to our hotel around lunch time. I almost went straight to bed but decided to soldier on which was, I think, a good decision. Our first destination after some driving around to get a look at Doğubayazit was Ishak Paşa Palace, a magnificent silk road mélange of architectural styles that was in use right up until the Russian invasion of the early 20th century. The building was fascinating but the stunning views from the three foot deep window embrasures were the true highlight. With the crowning touch of a perfect blue sky, we couldn't resist taking another slew of pictures.
From the palace, we drove east, passing our hotel, to rendezvous with a smaller bus that took us up the steep, narrow, rutted dirt road to a Kurdish mountain top village where the children were numerous, the wind was strong and the dogs were incredibly vicious. There was a lovely view of Ararat from the top of the village. Everyone else got out to do one of Meli's signature home visits with a village family but I finally succumbed to discomfort and spent the next half hour lying down in the bus. My synthesis of my fellow tour members' reports of the visit: loving father, serious mother, five beautiful little daughters, one soon-to-be incredibly spoiled baby boy. From the village we drove part way down the hill to the Noah's Ark center which consists of a small building filled with posters of press clippings about the search for Noah's Ark on the slopes of Mt Ararat and staffed by an old guy who appears to be a true believer. Outside, we looked from the viewpoint at a rather distant, vaguely boat-shaped depression on the hillside that is supposed to be the remains of the ark. I'm not going to argue with anyone who wants to believe it but I wasn't really blown away myself. It started to rain at this point so we quickly reboarded the bus. As the rain turned to a downpour I began to have visions of the dirt and gravel road being washed out leaving us stranded on the mountain but we managed to make it down to the main road where Hüseyin was waiting on the big bus. Our temporary driver honked at him to come pick us up with no response. Meli called his cell phone. No response. Eventually, we drove the wrong way down the highway where we found Hüseyin sleeping peacefully with his stocking feet hooked over a railing in the bus. I think Clarence got a picture before we woke him up. He was very embarrassed to be caught napping.
We drove even further east, flirting with massive eighteen-wheelers as we went, right up to the Iranian border. We looked for a post office so we could send postcards from this eastern-most point but it was naturally closed on Sunday. Next we went to look at the crater of a meteor that was inside a military checkpoint since it is so close to the border. The guards were surprised to see us but let us through with little fuss. It was raining again so we just stopped for a quick look at the big hole in the ground and then started back to the hotel, only to be stopped by a slightly more senior soldier demanding to see our passports. Meli talked to him for a minute and he let us through. She told us "They're so sweet. They're just boys and they don't know what to do. I asked him what he would do with the passports and then he gave in." Almost all the soldiers are just eighteen and very cute boys.
We went back to the hotel for an early evening and I went straight to bed, no dinner, no playing backgammon, no passing go, in the hope that I would recover enough to be able to enjoy the real point of this trip to the mountain very early the next morning.
left: the pit stop waterfall
right: Meli's photo of one of the courtyards of Ishak Paşa's Palace was better than anything I took
June 27, Monday, Day 12
At 3:45 the alarm went off and I got up, grabbed the blanket off my bed and stumbled down the hall toward the second floor balcony where I found Meli, Gayle, Bob (looking quite chipper since he normally gets up about this time anyway) and a nearly comatose Leah. Everyone else gave the sunrise viewing a pass which appeared to be a good decision since the mountain was mostly obscured by clouds and the sky over Iran to the east where the sun should be visible was also clouded over. I took my tea outside to the balcony anyway and was rewarded with a perfectly quiet morning suddenly broken by loud clear cuckoos. The original cuckoo clock (the real birds, I mean) were greeting the dawn joyfully. The mountain never did turn the glowing red and gold that we were hoping for but we had some pretty views in milder colors. Most of us, except Bob of course, went back to bed to sleep until breakfast time.
Our hotel had also been hosting a large tour bus full of Germans who were following more or less the same route we took. None of them got up to see the sunrise with us but their bus rolled out toward their next destination at 6:30 sharp. We slept in, had a nice breakfast and then departed about nine for the same destination, Kars. While we slowly rolled along the secondary highway following the river that marks the border with Armenia, stopping to take pictures of the village across the river with its fake factory built during Soviet days to make them look more prosperous, the Germans rushed ahead along the main highway. While we were stopping to photograph the jandarma checkpoint with bunches of plastic flowers stuck into the oil drum barricades (all the young soldiers rushed out to get in the picture, grinning ear to ear), they were hurrying through a visit to Ani. While they were bolting down a quick lunch at our next hotel, we were checking in before having a leisurely lunch and a postprandial nap with our sightseeing scheduled for later that afternoon. Meli found out from their guide that they were going on to Erzurum that afternoon. She told us that our that our drive to Erzurum would occupy all the next day. German jokes began to fly (Ah, the Germans must be in France by now!)
left: Sunrise on Mt Ararat (sort of)
right: Meli's shot of a kinder, gentler jandarma checkpoint
We began our afternoon's sightseeing with a visit to the museum in Kars. I have to say that Kars is one depressing town. There were lots of boarded up shops and some of the poorest looking areas we had seen on the whole trip. The gray stone block architecture did nothing to cheer the atmosphere. This part of Turkey gets heavy snowfall in the winter. I can't imagine how depressing that must be. No wonder Orhan Pamuk set his bleak novel, Snow, here. From the museum, we drove out to the Armenian border to the ruins of Ani, stopping first at a little town so Meli could buy a dress for one of the women we planned to visit. Gayle (who has a fetish for hardware) and I took advantage of Meli's shopping to jump off the bus and run down the street to the metal shop where we had spotted what looked like interesting pot lids hanging in the window. We could tell they weren't really pot lids because they had a metal strip screwed to the underside but we loved the beautiful Turkish designs painted on the top and we excitedly picked out ten to buy. Hüseyin came by and tried to convince us that we didn't want these things but we just laughed and paid. When we got back to the bus with a bag full, he clearly thought we were crazy but Meli and Jane liked the designs so much that they followed us back to the shop and bought some for themselves. The hardware dealer must have thought the whole bunch of us were nuts. It turns out that the "lids" were stovepipe covers. The little stoves used to heat houses in the winter have an exhaust pipe that goes up to a hole in the wall. In the summer, they remove the stoves--and the pipes--which leaves a hole in the wall. Our colorful lids are used to attractively cover up the holes.
Back on the road, we were passing through beautiful green grasslands with small rolling hills when we came upon a large herd of horses. With no fences they wandered peacefully across the road, grazing the fields on both sides. Naturally, we stopped to take pictures. The herder, a young man with bushy sideburns, came riding up to check on things. Naturally, spying tall, blond Leah, he offered her a bareback ride on his horse and, naturally, she accepted. As they went galloping off into the distance, we wondered if he would return but we soon saw them riding back towards us. I admit, I was extremely jealous. Ah, to be younger, taller and blonder!
We continued on east until we arrived at a small village with the stone walls of Ani visible beyond. Ani was once a huge bustling city on the main trading route of the silk road. Meli told us that at one time it was the same size as Istanbul. Now it's a ghost town with stone ruins crumbling among the grass and wildflowers. The old Armenian cathedral with its red and black interior looks whole from one side but half the church has fallen down after one of the many earthquakes that shakes this seismically active region. We wandered around, almost the only tourists, examining carvings and reading signs. From several spots there were wonderful views of the river and Armenia, spoiled by a stone quarry on the far side. Meli was very angry about the quarry since the blasting they do there is shaking the ruins even more. She says that the Armenians are purposely destroying their own heritage just because the site is on the Turkish side of the border. At some point I split off from the main group so I could better enjoy the peacefulness of the deserted area and the beauty of the afternoon light. The weather was perfect, cool and sunny with a blue sky and puffy white and purple clouds seemingly close enough to touch.
I rejoined the group and we left the ruins to walk over to the village where we spent some time visiting with the family who lives in the easternmost house of the village. Clarence and Leah had arrived sometime before the rest of the group which was fine since both of them are incurably friendly and can talk to anyone even with their very minimal Turkish. We were invited into the living room, which as usual was immaculate, for tea. Meli brought out the presents she had brought with her. The daughter of the family, whom Meli had known since she was a little girl was planning to get married so Meli brought her wedding presents of glassware and pots and pans. And the daughter-in-law was pregnant so she got the "pregnant dress" that Meli had bought on the way to Ani. We had a noisy, happy visit, meeting the elderly grandmother and several babies and neighbors. The bride-to-be brought out items she had made for her trousseau including a huge, beautiful crocheted (tatted?) bedspread. Hüseyin pointed out the stove pipe hole at the top of the wall (sans lid but stuffed with paper) still laughing over our earlier purchase.
It was getting late so we said goodbye to our new friends and boarded our bus to head back to town for dinner at the hotel. My stomach was still feeling pretty iffy so I went straight to bed after dinner to rest up for the next day's long drive.
left: Leah's wild ride
right: the ghostly ruins of Ani (both pictures by Meli)
June 28, Tuesday, Day 13
The large dining room at the hotel was a zoo the next morning. The Japanese tourist group that had been jousting with us and the Germans over the last couple of days had eaten early and already left--the signs in Japanese taped up by the elevators made it clear that they kept to a strict schedule--but the room was still packed with Turks. They ran out of plates and cups and even (horrified gasp) TEA! Hüseyin managed to get us two cups of tea and then I fled the scene.
We started the day on the bus by singing happy birthday to Lisa and presenting her with Gayle's hand-drawn birthday card. She was very pleased that someone had remembered. We made a stop in town for bread and cheese to add to our lunch and Gayle and I took the opportunity to run to the pharmacy on the corner. I had no trouble getting the pharmacist to recognize my request for contact solution but Gayle's miming of tape took a little more doing. Meli told us that we were not taking the main road to Erzurum which would be fast but ugly and boring, nor the secondary road, but the tertiary road where bathrooms would be sketchy and there was no place to have lunch at all. It's a little hard to describe the day except that beautiful vista replaced beautiful vista and so many fields of wildflowers that we could pass up pastures of yellow or white blooms in favor of more photogenic glowing patches of purple or vast pink expanses. In fact one pink field inspired such picture taking ecstasies that Hüseyin backed the bus into the field and had us take pictures of it, too, which naturally led to a whole series of group photos.
We came to a valley with a lovely blue lake (once again there were no boats to be seen). Herds of cows and goats and the intricate patterns of carefully laid dung squares set out to dry to become winter fuel brought more calls of "photo op, photo op!" The villagers were (again) marveling at the crazy Americans when Meli asked a little girl about a teacher she had met at the school here. Yes, he was still here so we headed down a muddy track to his house where she sent some boys up to see if he was home. He immediately came out and invited us in for tea. The house, with absolutely no advance notice, was immaculate and tea for the whole group appeared almost instantly, apparently out of thin air. The teacher spoke some English but mostly Meli translated while the retired teachers in our group asked questions about the Turkish school system. Some strong political opinions were advanced but they were mostly in agreement.
left: most of our gang with the teacher and his gang
right: the nomad camp on the other side of the river
We reboarded the bus with Hüseyin brushing off our shoes as we entered and muttering about this filthy village--there was a lot of mud--and headed on down the lake. By the time we rejoined the secondary road at the end of the valley the calls for bathrooms had become insistent. We stopped at a gas station and used their very basic but clean facilities. Back on the bus, Meli broke out the box lunches the hotel had prepared for us along with the bread she had bought. Later, we found a wide stretch in the road by a beautiful river where we stopped and drank a little wine in honor of Lisa's birthday and Hüseyin finally got a chance to eat his lunch. Back on the bus, someone asked about the tents on the hill on the far side of the river and Meli exclaimed "nomads!" Unfortunately, or fortunately for our eventual arrival, there was no way for us to cross the river so Meli had to abandon any attempt to visit them.
The guys missed out on our next little adventure. We had stopped in a little town for a restroom break but the public facilities were closed so Meli led the ladies (the guys all claimed to be OK) into a nearby cafe/coffee house and asked if we could use theirs. Yes, of course, but it was one of those all-male, backgammon/domino-playing kind of places so they asked us to step into the empty family room at the back as we waited to use what people often refer to as a "one holer." The walls of the aile salonu were lined with a woven straw matting and festooned with old carpets. Meli, the unstoppable shopper, decided that the straw matting was just what she needed for the gazebo at her farm. She called in the waiter, who turned out to be one of the owners, and enquired the price. With absolutely no knowledge of Turkish, one could easily follow the conversation. He looked at the walls for a minute and then replied, "I don't know how much the walls cost." He called in his twin brother--the name of the coffee house was Ikiler which translates as twos or twins--and while they decided they were unwilling to actually sell her the matting off the wall, they did know where there was more. Meli said, no, she couldn't wait, but by the time the line of women was done with the bathroom, a car had pulled up with a big roll of the stuff and they had carried it to the shipping office next door where Meli arranged the shipping to Kuşadası. Meli told us that she has sent so much stuff home in the last three months that as soon as the shipping clerk types in M-E, her name pops up on the computer. When we got back to the bus I told Hüseyin that Meli was shopping again. He just put his head down on the steering wheel and said "aaiiiyyy!"
After that break most of the crew became more or less comatose, but those of us in the front of the bus who stayed awake get treated to a fabulous drive through a narrow twisting canyon with the road crossing and recrossing a beautiful stream, huge rocky outcroppings that changed color with each turn, and views of leafy trees that parted to reveal isolated farms or patches of wildflowers. The only thing that would have been better would have been to be driving myself in my brand new Lamborghini convertible, if I had one. Toward the end of the canyon we got stopped at a traffic checkpoint were the officer checked the bus' record. He asked where we were coming from. When Hüseyin told him Kars he asked in disbelief "what have you been doing all day?!?"
The rest of the drive was uneventful bringing us into Erzurum around 7 PM. We threaded our way through more new car dealerships than I've ever seen outside of the U.S. and through a bustling city center to our hotel. We saw more black draped women here than anywhere else on our trip and Meli told us that the town was both a bastion of conservatism and a hotbed of liberalism since there is a large university located here.
I had been hoping for a few more games of backgammon but Hüseyin's kidney stones were bothering him again and he still had to clean his very dirty bus after the long drive. Sheep dung, yuck!
the other transportation on the tertiary road
June 29, Wednesday, Day 14
We started our day with a mellow breakfast at the hotel. Both the Germans and the Japanese had moved on by now so we had the room mostly to ourselves. Gayle and I were still mourning the absence of yogurt on the breakfast buffets of Eastern Turkey but Bob had taken to asserting that he wanted to become the U.S. distributor for Turkish sour cherry products including the jam we got every morning.
After breakfast, we drove to one of the central squares in town to the madrassa museum. The minaret outside had a clear Central Asian style, much thicker than all the minarets we had seen, with a conical roof, all elaborated decorated with intricate geometric patterns inlaid with beautiful blue tiles. Meli told us that when Marco Polo saw that color he named it the color of the Turks and it is still known as turquoise. The museum itself was unexpectedly closed so instead we rode out of town to inspect another bridge, once again becoming enthralled by the fields of wildflowers along the road. The bridge was interesting mostly because it marked the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates so I stayed behind to talk to a bicyclist whose packed panniers showed he was traveling cross country. He turned out to be a German who had started his trip at Kayseri in Cappadocia and who was on his way to Van. This conversation left Hüseyin shaking his head again at the crazy things tourists will do.
Me in the mor cicekler (purple flowers)
From the bridge we returned to town stopping for an extended picture taking session in a field of incredible neon-bright, purple flowers. It was thundering and threatening rain when we got back so Meli took us off to an early lunch of a local specialty, cağ kabop. Instead of the usual meat on a vertical spit, this in cooked horizontally. Sliced thin and impaled on long metal skewers, it is served with very thin round bread, grilled onions and peppers, a spicy sauce and tangy yogurt. You roll everything up in the bread and, voila, you have Turkish fajitas. Meli told us the meat was veal but we all said it tasted like lamb. No, no, it's veal she insisted. We asked the waiters and they confirmed it was lamb. We all had a good laugh at Meli's expense.
The afternoon included a visit to another old madrassa where we could see the low classroom doors that forced a student to bow to education as he entered the room. We stopped briefly at the Ulu Cami next door where we admired the stepped wood dome and asked questions of the mosque attendant. From there, Meli led us through the winding streets of the old town until, seemingly at random, she arrived at a doorway decorated with plants, carpets and a small wagon painted in the old folk style. All wagons and these days trucks in Turkey are painted with folk designs a little like the Pennsylvania Dutch motifs. Inside, we removed our shoes and donned slippers and then were led through a warren of hallways. There were numerous small rooms and balconies where people were drinking tea and coffee. The whole place was draped in carpets and antiques, mostly early twentieth century. Finally we settled in a large back room with a huge stone fireplace. Pillows scattered around low Turkish copper tables provided seating. Meli and Lisa explained that to celebrate her birthday, Lisa had asked Meli to plan this treat. Lisa, being a teacher, compared it to a kid bringing cupcakes to share with classmates on their birthday. A samovar arrived and Meli and Hüseyin served everyone tea in traditional fashion and then waiters arrived to serve delicious rice pudding. Since this would be our last gathering in a relatively private place we did some end-of-tour leave taking. Meli got choked up thanking Hüseyin for all his help on the trip. I suggested that we all name our favorite things that had happened in the last two weeks and so we went around the room recalling our favorite incidents and explaining why they had been meaningful. We finally heaved ourselves up from the floor and made our way back to the bus and the hotel.
I was determined to have one last evening of tavla and fortunately Hüseyin and Leah felt the same way. She and I both managed to win one game which means Hüseyin won at least eight. I had saved a couple of shots on my camera to record these last games since I knew I would miss them after tonight.
Hüseyin beating us at tavla again.
June 30, Thursday, Day 15
It was a quiet breakfast. Although it had been a great trip it was clear that people were beginning to get a bit tired. We followed breakfast with another visit to the madrassa museum that had been closed on Wednesday where we looked at the beautiful ceilings and enjoyed the ethnographic displays, especially the colorful, embroidered clothing. Next we went to an old caravanserai filled with artisan working a kind of black stone. It took us a while to figure out that they were carving natural jet. Gayle and Sharon bought of few things but I think most of us were finally shopped out. We went back to the hotel for lunch and a final packing up and then boarded the bus for the ride to the airport. We took a minute to present Hüseyin with Gayle's very clever handmade card and his tip. The drop off at the airport was complicated by huge crowds so we barely had a chance to say goodbye to Hüseyin (Meli didn't at all) before packing into the sardine can of the waiting lounge. For some reason, the only two flights of the day to Istanbul were scheduled to leave at almost the same time so the waiting room was packed. Our flight was late so we occupied ourselves with reading (Lisa and Sharon) acrostics (Gayle) and Turkish lessons (me and Meli). The flight was fine and not too long.
In Istanbul we said goodbye to Clarence, Jane and Leah who were going to dinner with friends and then leaving to attend a wedding in France.