Travels in Northeast Turkey: Part 1

by Hari Balasubramanian

I visited Turkey in July 2013; this was 2-3 weeks after the protests and riots that rocked Taksim Square in Istanbul. Ramazan began on July 08, the day I arrived. After 3 days in Istanbul I flew to Erzurum, a city in Northeast Turkey. From there I hoped to visit villages and towns close to the Georgian and Armenian borders. My longtime Turkish friend, Serhat, joined me for the first half of the six days I traveled in the region. Some informal impressions below.

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1. Erzurum

The flight from Istanbul to Erzurum took a course parallel to the northern Black Sea coast of Turkey, before turning inland for the final approach. The landscape was consistently mountainous: lush green and covered with cloud when close to the Black Sea, and dry in the interior, the mountains casting long shadows in the late afternoon light.

IMG_0137Erzurum, a city of about 367,000, lay in a sprawling plain at the base of one such dry mountain range. A haphazard checkerboard of farms stretched for miles and miles around the city. Many of them were hay farms, important in a region whose economy depends heavily on stock breeding. We rented a car at the airport. On our way to Erzurum center, we passed by the gates of Ataturk University.

By the time we had checked into the Esadaş Hotel along Cumhuriyet Caddesi (Erzurum's main street), it was close to iftar time: light was fading fast and the Ramazan fast would soon be broken, at 7:53 pm. On the way to the popular Gelgör Restaurant, we passed by two historic mosques: the Yakutiye (1310, Mongol) and Lala Pasha (1562, Ottoman). In the courtyard of the Lala Pasha, there were two boys, aged between six and ten. The younger one was selling tissue paper neatly folded in a plastic cover; the older one was selling small contraptions, one of which looked like a low plastic bench.

P7120148Serhat got to talking with them. He told them that I was from Hindistan. Almost immediately, the boys started repeating a few words excitedly to me. The younger one said “Amita..bhaccha” at least five times, before I realized he was referring to Amitabh Bachchan. The older one was saying Shahrukh Khan in his own way. Bollywood's popularity in unexpected places is not unusual — from West African tax-drivers in Minneapolis, to painters on the streets of Lima (Peru), to an Uzbek man I met on a Grand Canyon hiking trip: everyone was familiar with Bollywood. The bigger surprise was that these kids, making do with basic Turkish, were not locals but from Kabul, Afghanistan; they had entered Turkey illegally after what must have been a long journey from home.

Just then there was a loud explosion and puff of smoke: this was the city cannon signaling the end of the fast. Prayers immediately reverberated from the minarets all around. In twilight sky above, I saw large numbers of swallows emitting low, shrill sounds and flying very fast, like quivers of arrows sprayed in different directions. Their excitement probably had nothing to with iftar, but to me, at that moment, it seemed so. The fact that I was traveling in a Muslim city in a far corner of Anatolia had until then only been a fact. But the experiences of those few minutes – the unlikely meeting with the boys from Kabul; the firing of the cannon; the azans; the swallows – all came together to make that fact personal.

The streets emptied out completely; I guess everyone was busy with the much awaited meal. Gelgör, the restaurant we went to, was bustling with people relishing their kebabs delivered non-stop on skewers by waiters. Here it was easy to feel the festive, communal atmosphere of Ramazan. After dinner and a rich dessert – the kadayıf dolması – we walked aimlessly around town. After 9 pm the streets got busier and busier. There were plenty of informal, open-air tea houses frequented solely by men: men with tea glass in one hand, cigarette in the other, chatting intently with each other. The dark red tea was made in large, stylish and what looked like stainless steel samovars – heated, in one case, atop a hearth with wooden sticks – and served in glass cups pleasing to the eye, with little cubes of sugar on the side.

Back at Cumhuriyet Caddesi, which runs through the city center, families – plenty of women and children here – were out in full force; the noise and traffic were incredible given how close it was to midnight. Near the Yakutiye and Lala Pasha mosques, a stage had been set up for skits and other entertainment. Glass-fronted dessert and ice-cream shops were doing quick business. There were billboards advertising stylish and expensive Islamic wear for women: the elegant black dresses and ornamented head wear had a touch of modern fashion in them even if their basic function was conservative. Overall, Erzurum conveyed a sense of prosperity and wealth.

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I'd been told by my Turkish friends — including someone who had grown up in Erzurum — that the city is a bastion of Sunni conservatism. But I found it hard to penetrate the underlying context. What was Erzurum's history? What had this part of Anatolia, now under the Turkish nation state, looked like a hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, or a millennium ago?

On our walk to the restaurant, we had come across the billboard of a radical Islamic party with the motto “Morality and Spirituality First”. The party, Serhat explained, wanted to appeal to all Turkic peoples of Central Asia. This affinity to the broader ethnic group stemmed from history: the Turks as a people were originally from eastern Central Asia; they had over hundreds of years made their way west, conquering and interacting with many cultures along the way. This westward movement finally culminated with the Ottoman Empire. In Eastern Anatolia the Seljuk Turks, whose architectural remnants are a major attraction in Erzurum, were prominent a few centuries before the Ottomans arrived on the scene. A cursory reading of the city's history suggests that plenty else had happened here: Erzurum had once been part of the eastern reach of the Roman empire; neighboring Persian empires had exerted a strong influence; Byzantium and Arab empires competed for it the 7th century onwards; the Mongols devastated it in 1242.

To questions on more recent history, I found some partial answers in the Rebel Land, by the English correspondent Christopher de Bellaigue. Bellaigue visited the seemingly nondescript town of Varto (3 hours south of Erzurum), for extended periods, in the attempt to unearth “the riddle of history in a Turkish town”. Fluent in Turkish, Bellaigue was able to talk to the town mayor, civil servants, army men, businessmen and shepherds. In the process he unveils a complex and tangled history bringing to fore fault lines in modern Turkish history: the Kurdish question; the Alevis who were at odds with the majority Sunni Muslims; the mass killings and deportation of the Armenians in the 1890s and the First World War, when the Ottoman Empire was on its last legs, and Russia was advancing through the Caucasus into Eastern Anatolia. The history of Erzurum during these decades — when the entire region was emptied of its Armenian residents — makes for very stark reading.

I must say, however, that I was unable to engage with these contemporary and historical issues in any meaningful way while traveling. What little I learned I picked up here and there from books and websites after my travels: at best a partial and incomplete engagement.

2. From Erzurum to the Georgian Border

Early next morning, we left Erzurum. We drove north through the mountains to the town of Rize on the Black Sea Coast. From there, we headed east towards a little known group of villages, part of a United Nations Biosphere, located in a lush green, mountainous region on the border between Turkey and Georgia. It was a twelve hour drive through the diverse landscapes of Northeast Turkey.

We had some minor adventures along the way. An hour or so after we left Erzurum, it turned out that the road condition was poor. So we had to make do with an uneven dirt path. There were bumps in the middle that noisily scraped against the base of the rental car's chassis. The noises were so loud that we winced and wondered how much damage had been done.

Sometime later, a car passed us and parked a few meters ahead. A chubby, short man stepped out and asked us to stop. He said he had noticed something hanging from the chassis. We bent down to look, and saw, with some difficulty, that there was indeed something hanging; but it was hard to tell what the exact problem was. The man – a local businessman who knew the lay of the land – advised us to go slow and check with a mechanic in the next small town, İspir.

We squinted at the green sign that showed how far the next cities were. We were still in the middle of a mountain road that was quite far from any major town. The village of Pazaryolu was 58 km away; İspir was even farther away.

We proceeded slowly, and stopped at a small gas station, to use the restroom. There were two men here. One was the station attendant, the other a lounging villager; both might have been in their fifties. The villager had a sunburnt face and grizzled hair. He wore a tight-fitting skull cap and a dark, long coat that resembled a blazer. He was twirling rosary beads with his fingers.

Once he learned that I was from India, he immediately asked: “Are you Muslim?” It was a question that came up repeatedly — almost like a reflex — and followed me like a recurring theme the entire time I spent in the northeast Turkey.

Serhat explained that I was Hindu. The villager said: “Well, you have got to show your friend the right way. Unfortunately, the Hindus have been misinformed. Have your friend say the words that he believes in our religion. I've heard that the Hindus consider cows as sacred. They have to be informed that this is not correct.” He wanted Serhat to proceed with my conversion immediately: “Have him say the words!” I noticed that the gas station attendant was uncomfortable with what was going on.

Serhat promised the villager that by the end of this trip, he would make sure that I'd be Muslim. Satisfied for the moment, the villager looked up to the sky in reverence: “Inshallah!” We left, and Serhat, after recounting all the details of the conversation in the car, laughed and said: “He was quite serious!”

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IMG_9355The mountains were still on the arid side by the time we got to İspir. There, as predicted, we found a mechanic. The unknown thing hanging from the base of the car's chassis turned out to be a protective leather strip that had come loose; it was harmless. The mechanic simply cut it off, and did not charge us. Relieved, we next looked for a place to have lunch. But because of Ramazan not a single restaurant was open. Thankfully a bakery (left) was open, for those who wanted to purchase pide – a pizza-sized, round loaf of freshly baked bread – for the evening meal. We bought one and relished it discreetly in the car.

As we headed towards the Black Sea, the landscape got greener and greener – the transformation was quick and dramatic. This was a tea growing region dotted with small towns (İkizdere, Kalkandere); homes situated on hilltops and small farms on the slopes; a single-minaret mosque in every town, sharply white against the green of the landscape. The multi-lane highway that runs along the Black Sea coast came suddenly; the sea itself was gloomy and forbidding. Plenty of towns, indistinguishable from one another, along the coast, with new apartment highrises and tea factories. In Rize, the hometown of the the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, there was a university named after him.

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Near Borçka we turned to a mostly unpaved mountain road. After an exhausting climb through narrow and wet paths – the car got stuck a couple of times, which made me nervous – we finally reached the villages of Camili and Maral, where we planned to stay for the night. This was very close to the border with Georgia. It was only after we arrived that I learned that foreign nationals were not allowed in these villages. The rule dated back to the Cold War days when this border zone had been the eastern part of the Iron Curtain. Yet nobody asked for my documents.

We stayed with a family that provides a room and meals for travelers. They were nice enough to accommodate me, a man from Hindistan, against the rules. Like other homes in the village, this one looked run down, put together with corrugated metal sheets and wood, along the slope of a mountain. Yet the inside of the home was clean and had modern conveniences.

P7140219What struck me was the Turkish flag outside the house, with an image of its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk was there almost in every room of the house. Even the books on a porch shelf had something to do with him. This wouldn't have been unusual, except that we were in a frontier village, at the far edge of modern Turkey. And the family we were staying with, though Muslim, was ethnically a Georgian family that still spoke a Georgian language. Hamdi, our host, later said: “There are people in Geogia who don't owe any allegiance to Georgia. Why should we?” Hamdi had been born in this very house in 1945. As a school teacher he had worked in the bigger cities of western Turkey. He now lives here with his wife and daughter.

Soon after we arrived, the mosques announced the breaking of the fast; the calls reverberated far and wide. Remarkably, the wild jackals that lived in the forests around began howling and barking in response. From the porch, where dinner was served, we could see scattered homes deep in the valley below. Dinner ended up being the best meal I had in Turkey: lentil kofte, purple cabbage wraps, mantu (dumplings) in yogurt. It seemed tailormade for someone like me with vegetarian preferences; apparently, many Georgian dishes are vegetarian. Hamdi said that every single ingredient that had gone into making the dinner– except for tomatoes – was grown by the family in its gardens and little farms around the house. This wasn't a boast, it was simply what the people here did.

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To finish, here are two more pictures from this leg of the trip. The first picture is of a “wooden” mosque near the village of Camili: in style and appearance quite different from mosques in other northeast towns. The second picture was taken during a hike to a waterfall.

In the next part, I'll describe my solo journey from Erzurum to Kars.

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