Doğubeyazit to Istanbul, Turkey
Standing at the Esenler bus terminal in Istanbul after a 23-hour bus journey, I felt a sense of going full circle.
Istanbul is the endpoint I had in mind for this journey, a city straddling both Asia and Europe, and the Silk Road to its most logical conclusion. While finally reaching it is still an accomplishment I can be proud of, it felt a little anticlimatic, given that I skipped the rest of Turkey yet again and took a direct bus over. But four years ago, I found myself at this very station, taking a bus to whatever was available and feasible (which ended up being Macedonia and Kosovo) in a moment of grief for a friend lost days before our reunion and intended trip. But at the same time, I was confounded by this bus station, with destinations every which way — to Europe, but also eastwards towards Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and connections to other points further. I saw flags around that I didn’t recognise. It may seem tenuous as I didn’t visit any of those places save for Iran, but it really was that one glimmer of curiosity that planted the seeds for this Silk Road trip.
But anyways, where did I leave off? Right, Iran. After crossing into Turkey, I made a brief stop in Doğubeyazit, the town closest to the border.
The entire border area is dominated by one thing on the skyline: Mount Ararat (Turkish: Ağri Daği; “ğ” is sort of silent), known to those versed in biblical knowledge as the final resting place of Noah’s Ark after the Great Flood. At this time of year, given the cold and the snow, it’s not possible to visit, but just seeing its two peaks (the big and the little one, as they call it) was already worthwhile to me.
Doğubeyazit is also famous as the site of the Ishak Pasha Palace, a 17th-century Ottoman empire era construction looming high on a hill surrounded by cliffs just out of town, as comically diabolical as it is dramatic, complete with a super steep, winding path. It’s shocking how different the architecture is compared to Iran, just a few dozen kilometres down the road: gone are the blue tiles, replaced by stone and some impressive relief work. There’s a dizzying amount of influences here, few of which I’m familiar with, but I could see traces of Turkey in the spires and Iran still in the door portals, while descriptions pointed out Georgian and Armenian features.
Having a Turkish palace is unusual enough, but it’s also got a series of pipes for a central heating system! (I really could have used it on the day I visited, if only it was still working…) There’s also a female quarter with an impressive ceremonial room and some really, really deep baths (how did they get in and out?!), a male quarter with a hall for hosting guests, and a mosque under the grand dome that was sadly closed during my visit.
The town itself, though, is heavily Kurdish by ethnicity. And despite what you may hear from the news and even other Turkish people, there seems to be little to no unrest here (though I can’t say the same for other regions), and people get along. Upon walking just 100 metres outside my hotel, I was warmly greeted by a Kurdish man, who promptly gave me a hug, ushered me into a bustling teahouse (there are a lot of those, and yet they’re all full at all hours of the day), and treated me to tea before I barely had the chance to react! As we walked and conversed in English, other locals, male and female, Turkish and Kurdish, heard us and approached, also eager to practice their English with me, while teaching me some Turkish/Kurdish words of their own, and the same happened when I was on my own walking around or eating in restaurants. (Oh, and I can’t forget to mention, after Iran, it’s so nice to see that hijabs are absolutely not mandatory here!)
But just like that, I zipped over to Istanbul, some 1500 kilometres to the west and a snowy full-day ride away.
I know there’s a lot more of Turkey to see. But my first criterion for that, before seeing the rest of the country, is to follow the trip that my friend Sally had planned for us. Given the remaining time I had for the rest of this trip, I felt that I couldn’t do that justice. So instead, I chose to skip over Turkey in favour of visiting some good friends that I wouldn’t have met if it weren’t for Sally, and those are my next and final stops for this trip.
Different circumstances have brought me back to Istanbul, and rather than dread or grief, I felt excitement. I’m visiting my good friends Ezgi and Burak, who I met in Boston several years ago while they were med students on observerships (where they also met, and have remained good friends ever since). That alone brings back a flood of memories and reflection — how things have changed in four years! Not just for me, but it’s marvelous to see what change has come to their lives too: from winning a game show (!) to becoming a practicing doctor, on personal goals new and old, on personality, and so much more. After months of pleasant but shallow conversations and new friendships, it was just so good to catch up with familiar friends again.
But more soberingly, change has come to Turkey in the last little while, and definitively not in a good way. My friends detailed their experiences with the attempted coup in July: the scary moments of window-shattering jets flying above, the panic of not knowing what was going on, the uncertainty leading to queues outside the banks. There’s no doubt amongst all whom I’ve talked to that a coup isn’t the way to depose a democratically-elected president, even one as polarising as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. (The coup itself was very shoddily organised, and led to the comedic situation of Erdoğan using an iPhone to Facetime a TV anchor live on air boasting of his safety.) Erdoğan has used the post-coup aftermath and the united anti-coup support to increase his presidential powers and prepare to change the constitution (he’ll pretty much set be for life once it passes next year, which it probably will), but like him or not, the cost to the country may have been far worse had the coup succeeded. Not just in an anti-democratic sense, but the accused instigators are the somewhat cultish, religious conservative followers of Fethullah Gülen, former strange bedfellows of Erdoğan’s government with whom they had a massive falling out, culminating in a revenge leak of a major corruption scandal involving much of Erdoğan’s inner circle. Yeah, it’s messy — the worst may have been avoided, but now there’s a massive purge of Gülenists from all walks of life (and often political opposition) happening that’s seen over 100,000 people and counting lose their jobs or be imprisoned, often without much in terms of proof. Not much better.
The coup aftermath isn’t the only thing going on in Turkey: while still generally safe, the country has faced quite a few terrorist attacks this year, and it’s tragically gotten to the point that I can’t even keep track of all of them. Facing threats from the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party, deemed a terrorist group by Canada) and increasingly even more from Daesh, in just Istanbul this year alone, they’ve seen an airport massacre, a bombing against tourists in Sultanahmet Square, and only three days after my departure, another bombing in front of their most popular football team’s stadium. Then there’s the whole refugee crisis going on, with the country hosting nearly 3 million Syrians, the largest amount of any country in the world (Turkey has a population of 78 million, so that’s a 3.8% increase!) yet not getting nearly enough credit for it.
It’s sadly no surprise that my friends don’t really see their futures in Turkey, as much as it is home. But what are you gonna do in the meantime? You keep on keeping on. They adapt and live on as normally as they can, and it’s the normal life of theirs that I wanted to see.
Rather than do or see anything touristy (which I had attempted anyway the last time I was in town), I wanted to hang out. And so we did: cooking and ordering delivery at Ezgi’s apartment, going out for food, watching TV or a movie, walking around Burak’s favourite neighbourhoods whether past midnight down Istiklal or in the day through the Beşiktaş municipality, walking around Ezgi’s own neighbourhood (surprisingly Armenian) for her first time, enjoying the views of the Bosphorus, catching a Beşiktaş football match in a packed bar. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen such dedicated sports fans before: they start their chanting and singing on the streets at 2 pm, when the game doesn’t even start till 7!)
As Ezgi was busy with both studying and work, Burak took me across the Bosphorus (and back to Asia) to his hometown of Karamürsel in the neighbouring province of Kocaeli, where his family was gracious enough to host me, and the adjacent city/province of Yalova. Neither of these places feature tourist destinations anywhere close to the level of Istanbul, save for a historic summer home (once physically moved to save a tree!) of the modern country’s visionary, secular democratic nation-state founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk; or for rich folks from the Arabian Peninsula looking for some R&R at the nearby Termal hot springs. But the seaside location, backed by rolling green hills in stark contrast to the endless wall-to-wall buildings of Istanbul, is an absolutely lovely and relaxing setting. We enjoyed walking along the boardwalks with plenty of fishermen (and savvy cats) from day to night, and driving up the winding mountain roads to see the Bosphorus panoramas from the top.
Burak and his family were eager to get me to try some great food too: giant Turkish breakfasts, homecooked meals of dolmas and suçuk and beans, kumpir (giant ultra-stuffed baked potatoes), homegrown olives and homemade jams, sublime desserts like kunefe (a form of fried cheese served sweet; I swear I could eat it forever and ever), Turkish barbecue…. whew! I was completely overwhelmed by their kindness and also really enjoyed just getting to chat with them, being able to share some of my experiences and also having them share with me a far different slice of Turkish life than what I ever knew.
I know I’ve now been to Turkey twice, yet hardly seen the country. I have unfinished business here, if only just to see the country or to complete Sally’s trip. But with such a rich culture of hospitality (and food!) and good friends, I have reason to come back over and over again, and to hope for the country’s continued security and stability to be able to do so.