Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Midnight Express

I got a great New Year's Eve present upon my return to Ankara: my Iranian visa! My joy, however, was tempered by the fact that it is for only 30 days rather than the 90 I had asked for, and so will require further bureaucratic machinations once I get to Tehran. But for the time being those worries are purely academical: I had my foot in the door and was in a hurry to get going ... after a New Year's party in Ankara, of course. After my prolonged stay in the city I had made a few friends which made seeing in the new year more pleasant and normal, and also gave me an opportunity to have one last party before the enforced temperance of stricter regimes.

I had committed the cardinal sin of drinking by mixing my drinks, and so arose on New Year's day with something of a hangover despite not actually having drunk that much the previous night. Luckily I only had to pack my rucksack and walk some 3km to the train station by 4:40pm, when my train was due. I was excited to try out the Turkish railway system as I find that trains are invariably more comfortable and afford better views than buses. That's a big ask here as Turkish intercity buses are more comfortable and pleasant than any in Europe; in fact the only country where I've experienced better buses is Argentina. But I certainly wasn't disappointed on either count: there are only three seats to every row and plenty of legroom besides making dozing off a certainty. And the mountain scenery of eastern Anatolia, clad in its winter finery is worth the trip alone. Where I wasn't too impressed was the speed. Despite being called the Doğu Ekspres, the scheduled time for the 700km trip to Divriği is almost 15 hours (i.e. an average speed of under 50km/h). My train was 2.5 hours late. Must work on punctuality!

Magical Winter landscape seen from my train window.

My reason for visiting Divriği, a forgotten, sleepy town in the middle of Anatolia and far from anywhere of importance, was because of its Ulu Camii (Great Church). Although my opinion of Ottoman mosque architecture hasn't changed over the past 4 years, this one was built by the Seljuks who liked to go crazy on stone carving detail. The four portals are an opera in stone, with geometric motifs, birds, stars plants and even a couple of human faces cheekily sneaked in (Islam frowns on the depiction of the human form). In my opinion the most beautiful mosque in Turkey; all the more so for its remote location.

The stunning North Portal of the Great Mosque of Divriği.

Apart from the mosque Divriği was dead and so I headed south to the regional centre of Malatya. It's a new town, with little character, famous for its apricots (you've got to be famous for something). Consequently it doesn't get many tourists, as evidenced by the obscure location of the tourist office down the end of a dingy, forgotten corridor in the town hall. Most that do make it there make a bee-line for Nemrut Dağ some 50km to the south (I found it amusing that when I was in Turkey 4 years ago I visited Nemrut but from the other side). I had a day to kill as I waited for my onward train, the Güney Ekspres (another misnomer) which runs on 4 days of the week, so I contrived to fill my time by visiting old Malatya. Unlike its modern counterpart the old town has been around since the dawn of history, but when it was decided to relocate the town some 150 years ago it began to wither away. Now known as Battalgazi it has become a farming village that has shrunk within the old city walls, which have gradually been plundered for masonry. The free spaces have been planted with apricot orchards where crumbling tombs and minarets poke forlornly out of the earth.

In the evening the Güney Ekspres carried me off to the terminus at Kurtalan in the southeast of the country (this time thankfully on time). In two slothful train trips I had been transported to another world. The southeast of Turkey is the poorest, most neglected and backward region of the country. Gone is the modern dynasmism of the west to be replaced by a very Middle Eastern mentality and culture. It is also the heartland of Kurdish separatism and western Turks avoid it entirely, as was apparent when I was awoken by the train conductor on the approach to Kurtalan, to see that I had the entire carriage to myself. Indeed, only a dozen people got off the train that had set out two and a half days previously from Istanbul.

The early start was essential as I had a transport odyssey in front of me that day. It started with a short dolmuş (minivan) ride to Siirt. A longer 3.5 hour one along some breathtaking mountain roads punctuated by military checkpoints, evidence of the tensions in the area, to Cizre on the apex of the Syrian border. A transfer to another dolmuş which took us 30km along a continually worsening road to Silopi, the last town in Turkey before the Iraqi border, where I was heading, and the terminus for all public transport. The border was still 15km away. And it must be crossed in a vehicle, not on foot. Both facts are well known to the local taxi drivers who have a little cartel going and charge €10 per person for the trip (more than twice the cost of the 400km train journey and more than I had paid for all three dolmuşes that day). Even the local Kurds I was travelling with found it excessive and tried bargaining it down, but to no avail. Realising that the taxi driver had us over a barrel we meekly acquiesced and got in.

The crossing itself is pretty chaotic (especially with passport control on the Iraqi side where people were climbing over each other to thrust their passports into the hands of the single passport controller who was already drowning under a pile of little booklets) and the driver did earn some of his money by navigating us through the bureaucracy and expediting things, so it only took under 3 hours before we got out the other end in a new time zone and in a country that has become a byword for Western military imperialism and sectarian violence. Perhaps not the first place that springs to mind when looking for a holiday destination, but at least it is warmer than Turkey.


Amplecat.ro said...

Oh. Now that's a surprise. I'm looking forward for your report. I suppose you will reach Hawler, Sulaymania and Halabja.

While in Kurdistan, it may be interesting to visit Barzan, the village of Mustafa Barzani - the Kurdish hero who stood against Saddam and curiously was the army minister of the short lived Soviet Kurdish Republic (whose capital was in Iranian Kurdistan, forgot the name, he is now buried in Iran as well). I think he had one of the most fascinating biographies of XXth century figures.

Also Lalish should be interesting, the center of that weird religion called Yazidi. I imagine you will go there.

In Gondik there are some ancient cave paintings, as old as 5000 yo.

Kimberley said...

Hey... Can't believe you are in Kurdistan! Babies Dad is from Erbil. Careful not to say you like anything in their homes or they will give it to you... Let me know if you get to Erbil. Have a ball. Khwahafeez Erik!