Published: May 22nd 2009May 22nd 2009
My first memories of Van were being there in 1992 when the PKK campaign was reaching its high point. The government had lost control of large sections of the country and all travel at night was banned. Towns were effectively cut off after sunset, they became Islands. Today people talk of the dangers of travel in the east, but in 1992 the danger was infinite. I was 21 and perhaps stupid and I wanted adventure. So I flew into Van in an old but well maintained DC9. The plane came in between the mountains, banked over the large expanse of lake Van, (an Inland sea) and landed hard and fast on the runway. The altitude of 7000ft and the shortish runway made for a maximum reverse thrust landing. Everyone in Turkey smoked then, including me. As soon as the plane landed I took out a camel and had a puff. So did the rest of the aircraft. The terminal as a concrete shack that dated back to the sixties or perhaps seventies. At the airport landrovers of commandos waited for their comrades who would get off the plane and go to their units. Even the army preferred to fly rather than
take an intercity coach. I took the service bus into town and checked into a flea pit of a hotel, whose only compensation was the price of one British pound a night. I took a taxi to the castle and ran up it, almost threw up and decided to quit smoking on the spot. There were no cafes in van, no tourists, and no shops with much to sell. I was lonely in this small grey town surrounded by beautiful dangerous snow covered mountains.
Van is still concrete, its people still warm, but it has benefited from the peace that has overtaken the region. The PKK have been emasculated, and the people of Van have turned their grey concrete buildings into a colourful concrete town. Wonderful bright cafes and horrid metal shopping centres have sprung up in the main street. The jetty has been beautified and there is a thriving transit trade going through from Syria to Iran. Four ferries a day ply the Van-Tatvan route. There are daily trains to Tehran and twice weekly trains to Istanbul and Damascus. During Nevruz, the Persian/Kurdish new year, five trains run a day between Tehran and Van. The Iranians take
their holidays in this far flung but lakeside corner of Turkey.
The owners of the Hotel Bayram are a mine of historical information.
“When we built this hotel in 1967, we could not get coloured glass in Turkey, so we brought it from Tehran. But of course we could not import it, because it was so strict, so we brought the glass over the hills on the backs of horses. Now of course, you can get everything in Van, let alone Istanbul”
But Van has been most affected out of all the eastern cities, by the global financial crisis. Cinemas and some shopping centres have closed down. The taxis and minibuses look old and worn, a far cry from the modern diesels of Kars.
We were here to look at Hosap Kale, the castle that guards the road to Iran. We engaged an ancient taxi driver, with a suitable ancient Fiat sahin that spluttered over the high passes and down towards Hosap. Minutes out of van, the concrete was forgotten and we were surrounded by the rolling hills of central asia. Sheep were starting to graze, but rain beat down and the landscape, like the sheep looked
sodden. As we arrived in Guzelsu, the rain stopped, but we were freezing. We popped into a teashop and had three cups of cay with the sugar thrown into our mouths rather than stirred. Suitably fortified, we trekked up the hill to find the imposing castle closed, but the guardian had conveniently left the door ajar so we were able to squeeze in the main gate. To get to the inner keep required a degree of scrambling, but when we reached the inside, we were able to see why this castle had been built here. It commanded a view up and down the valley and behind it onto the flat tops of the hills.
We snapped away in a brief burst of sunshine, and decided to return to Van. We had an afternoon to waste and so we went to the railway jetty. The sun stayed out and we sat drinking tea on the shores of lake Van as the local people strolled, sat on benches or drank tea next to us. A steamer huffed into the harbour, docked, disgorged an Iranian goods train, loaded another bound for Syria and huffed off again. The sun grew lower in the
sky and a chill set about the air. It was time to head off to our favourite café to write up notes and work.
The next morning we set off on our final leg of this eastern Journey. We took a bus from Van to Batman. The bus would then continue on to Diyarbakir. As if to mock us, the sun came out and shone on the beaches of Edremit. We passed a yacht at anchor, and a series of fresh fish restaurants that were just opening for the spring. And yet behind us at all times were the snow capped mountains that surround the lake. The coach roared past stunning little villages over hillocks and all the time past the lake. We passed fields with wild horses that spilled onto the road, uncaring about the traffic. We slowed to let them cross before making our way over a pass at Balaban. Here we encountered a Jandarma checkpoint. But this check was not to keep Turkey safe, it was an anti smuggling search. The transit of heroin from Iran to Europe has reached such high levels, that the Jandarma have converted their anti terrorist checks to anti drugs posts.
These conscripts an NCO’s were the first layer of assault on heroin that was destined for the streets of London.
At Tatvan, we rejoined the lake and curled around the small town to go south to Bitlis. At Bitlis province we entered into the domain of another Jandarma command, and another inspection. Mike had the golden key to all of this. While Cisca showed her passport and I my ID card, Mike merely flashed his Turkish issued Nato pass. This got him a smile and a nod from the soldiers. But it was always obvious that smuggling was the issue. Sat next to me were four Kurdish youths who were smuggling computer games that they had bought in Iran. Before each checkpoint, they would distribute the various games amongst their persons so that no one had more than a few. The Police and Jandarma paid special attention to these four, almost as if they knew that they were guilty, but they were never searched.
Everywhere we drove, we would pass unimog electronic surveillance trucks. We suspected that these were for monitoring the ground sensors to see who was moving over the mountains. The terror of the PKK campaign
is over; you can see it in people’s faces and on their minds. People are getting on with living life.
Between Tatvan and Batman, the green hills of central asia gave way to the brown of the middle east. The Persian accents of the Kurds in the east gave way to the Arabic accents of the kurds in the south. At Batman, many of the Turks and Kurds spoke Arabic as a second language, and the arabs spoke Turkish as a second language. We pulled up in the heat of Batman, were dropped off on the pavement and caught a minibus to the town centre. There, totally lost, we caught a dolmus to Hasankeyf. The ford transit sped along past rivers, cliffs and brown hills. We crossed the river at Hasankeyf and found ourselves staying in the very simple Hasankeyf Motel. A tiny concrete slab perched on the edge of a cliff.
Hasankeyf is a settlement that dates back 10,000 years. The Romans had built a fortress here which was succeeded by the Byzantines. The Arabs got in on the act in about 640 Ad. They built a bridge over the river. Then this great city was run
by the Artukids and Ayyubids. The Mongols came down and trashed it in 1260. My history books say that in the early 16th century, the city became part of the Ottoman Empire. At this time Sultan Süleyman I's added Iraq, and bits of Iran to his stable.
Hasankeyf straddles the river Tigris and guards the valley. It is a natural area in which to have a castle and fertile fields. At an altitude of only 1500ft, the fields were rich with crops. Farmers wintered their sheep here, now in spring, the gigantic flocks were making the journey up to the highlands.
”We are off to Tatvan, where the summer grazing is excellent” a herder told Cisca. The sheep and their wards, and dogs would travel what we had done in 7 hours on a bus in many days. The shepherds would live rough until they could pitch their tents in the Tatvan area. At this time, the town was full of very rough looking shepherds. Nomadic red faced Kurds in their long baggy shalvar, thick jackets and brown tennis shoes. These men looked like a photograph of northern Iraq. They were fundamentally different to the quiet arab look-alikes
who wore Shemagh’s and drank warm sweet tea. The two communicated in Kurdish but it was obvious to see that these were two different sub-races within the Kurdish race. Various people may talk about the purity of races, and yet here in front of my eyes I was confronted with so many races, arabs kurds Turks all within the Turkish Republic. I decided to ask some questions and found that most of the Kurds I spoke to were mixed with Turks or Arabs. It became apparent that the so called “Kurdish reality” is one of diversity. And if I could lightly alter the phrase, the “Turkish reality” is one of unity within diversity.
With these revelations whizzing around my ears, two black hawk helicopters whizzed around my ears, landed in a rape field and airlifted some commandos down the valley. “Some things in Turkey never change.” Said Mike.
And with that we started our exploration of the ancient ruins. Upon the hill, the citadel and mosques were well maintained, but unmarked. There were no guides and no one to explain any of the buildings to us. Mike bought a book and we traipsed through, trying to work out
what was what.
On the flatlands we walked to the Seljuk tombs and gazed back up to the citadel. We cut down to the rivers edge and walked along the water, under the famous broken bridge and onto a sandbar. Here a young lad was fishing with electricity from a wire.
“Isn’t it dangerous?” I asked
“ No no, see I am wearing rubber shoes” he replied, up to his knees in the blue water. I shook my head and left him to his dangerous and not very environmentally friendly task. “Each to his own” I muttered. We climbed back up to the modern road bridge and sat with locals.
Hasankeyf is threatened with flooding. The Turkish Government wants to build the Ilisu dam to provide the area with more hydro power. The project is controversial in that it will destroy the thousand year old ruins. The project was on hold due to the Europeans withdrawing credits to build the dam.
“What do you want?” I asked the owner of the Hasankeyf motel.
“We want it to finish. What ever they decide, let them decide it quickly, so that we can either build our business up, or
move to the new location that they will give us”
This was a common sentiment. Everyone I spoke to talked of the issue that has dominated the town since 1967. But I wanted to know what people really wanted. Being moved involved being compensated with cash and with a new house or business. Some people might welcome this.
“What do you want,” I pressed, “a dam or a historic site. What is important to you?”
“Well a dam in Turkey lasts 100 years, and while it brings with it other forms of tourism, it only lasts 100 years. Surely it would be better to have 10,000 year old ruins here with all that it would bring. At the moment no one can develop anything for fear of loosing it all. If we could be given an answer then we could get on with the job in hand and make so much more money than a dam would.”
All too soon, it was time to leave Hasankeyf, Batman, and eastern Turkey. Our ten days on the road had come to an end. Another old taxi driver took us to Batman’s Airfield. A quiet Turkish Air Force station with a
tiny civilian terminal. We checked in, got on the bus and drove miles past pristine hedges and lawns to a small roofed area where a modern airbus, fire engine and armoured car waited for us. The sun shone on the tarmac and the countryside around us as we climbed the stairs into the cool air-conditioned interior. The pilots sat in their seats with sunglasses on, waiting for their passengers to load. As soon as we were all on, the doors closed, engines started and we rolled off down the runway to Istanbul and beyond...