The Discerning Traveler » Turkish delight

by Philip Wagenaar (Second of three parts, jump to part 1, part 2, part 3)

In this issue, I am continuing last month’s travelogue of the eastern Anatolia region of Turkey.

Bridge over the Tigris River at Hasankeyf.

From Mardin, my wife, Flory, and I drove via Midyat, with its fabulously carved rock mansions, to spectacular Hasankeyf.

For centuries, during successive civilizations, Hasankeyf was the capital of the region, and because of its strategic position in Mesopotamia it was one of the world’s first-settled areas. Nobody knows when or by whom it was first founded.

Hasankeyf, which now is only a small community, consists of an old and a new part. Its older part has over 5,000 cave homes, cut into the spectacular cliff rising from the Tigris River. Since the government told the inhabitants in 1965 to leave the unsafe, crumbling caves for the new village in the valley, only a few of the homes are still inhabited.

Unfortunately, the almost-finished Ilisu hydroelectric dam will drown the new village in the near future. The caves, however, which lie higher, will be spared.

Mt. Nemrut

Being outdoor enthusiasts, we were anxious to go to the top of 3,050-meter (10,006-foot) Mt. Nemrut. (Note that there are two Mt. Nemruts by the same name.) Its only access was from the town of Tatvan via a severely potholed, bone-jarring dirt road with fissures wide enough to swallow a car.

Once at the summit, we walked along one of the serene lakes and savored the magnificent, unspoilt scenery of the extinct volcano land while our eyes feasted on the snow-covered mountains around us.

After descending safely, we continued on the scenic mountain highway, running along Lake Van’s south shore toward the Merit Sahmaran Hotel near the city of Van. Because of its proximity to Iran, many Iranian families were vacationing at this 4-star lakeside property.

The great variety of the women’s dress styles piqued our interest. Many wore stylish, color-coordinated chadors (the all-enveloping garments worn by some Muslim and Hindu women) with gorgeous outfits underneath. Others, often looking old and drab, had wrapped themselves completely in their garments with only their eyes visible. Still others, without chadors, wore refined pantsuits with the most elegant head scarves. Of course, as Turkey is a secular country, a good many women went without any head cover.

Northeastern Anatolia

From Van, our itinerary led to Dogubayazit, where we gazed at the recently restored, spectacular, 366-room Ishak Pasa Sarayi, a fortified palace completed in 1784 to control the ancient Silk Road. Interestingly, it had the first central heating system in Ottoman history.

A typical market in Dogubayazit. Photos: Wagenaar

Another attraction, which is on every tour group’s schedule, is the viewing of nearby Mt. Ararat, the supposed resting place of Noah’s Ark.

Since you usually can see only the top of the mountain in the early morning, when it is unencumbered by clouds, we overnighted in Dogubayazit’s Simer Hotel, located just opposite. To our dismay, when we got up at 4 a.m. the following day, the summit was completely obscured.

By the way, although the hotel is officially listed as a 3-star lodging, I would rate it a “minus” 5-star because of its small, unpleasant rooms. Fortunately, while in Kars, our next destination, we stayed at another Simer Hotel, which, thankfully, turned out to be an authentic 4-star.

Kars is only 45 kilometers from Ani, a fascinating medieval ghost town which lies on the Silk Road. In the 11th century it was larger than any European city. Invading armies during the 13th century and a disastrous earthquake in 1319 led to its downhill course.

A delightful stroll leads you through green fields to the remains of the numerous churches, mosques and caravanserais, all surrounded by impressive, fortified walls.

The Middle East

It was amazing how close our travels brought us to the borders of the various other countries that often make headlines in the daily news. One day we saw a sign, “Syria 40 kilometers,” and the next day another sign pointed to Iraq. Two days later we found ourselves only 16 kilometers from Iran, while, farther north, trucks were lumbering toward Georgia.

Ani is right at the Armenian border, the only Turkish frontier that has been closed for years by a fence. With the naked eye, we could discern Armenian soldiers perched in their lookout towers to ensure that all Turks stay behind the barrier.

Scenic trip from Kars to Hopa

Everybody is throwing rocks in the river to make a path for Flory to cross.

Traveling from bleak Kars to the somewhat grimy Black Sea town of Hopa via Ardahan, Savsat and Artvin gave us a chance to experience the northern part of northeastern Anatolia, an unbelievably picturesque assortment of mountains, valleys, rivers and forests.

We started by skirting a lake with barren, windswept, desolate hills, where only a few shepherds dared to stay out in the bitter cold. Unbelievably, several hours later, the panorama suddenly changed and a sea of green greeted us as we entered the Black Sea Climatic Zone, just before reaching the 2,500-meter-high (8,200-foot) town of Ardahan.

In the countryside on the other side of Ardahan, we ran into view-obscuring, low-hanging mists. As we descended, the clouds lifted, allowing us to enjoy the fabulous scenery of somber fir tree forests, interchanged by tapestries of dark-green grass and deep exquisite valleys reminding us of Austria and Switzerland.

After reaching the 300-meter-high (almost 1,000-foot) town of Artvin, the highway continued through lovely woods toward Hopa, where we stayed at the very pleasant Hotel Peronti in an attractive room with a balcony overlooking the Black Sea. Its restaurant served us an exquisite fish dinner. (Lunches and dinners throughout Turkey generally cost less than $10 per person.)

From Hopa to Erzurum

Two days later (after a day of hiking), another drive took us from Hopa to Tortum through a spectacular river canyon. From there we proceeded to Erzurum, with 300,000 inhabitants the largest city and the cultural center of eastern Anatolia. From a distance, the city’s appearance, lying against a snow-covered cone rising from the plane, was awe-inspiring.

To us, Erzurum seemed like a 2-faced metropolis. On one hand, as a university town and a stronghold of the secular military, it gave the impression of modernity, reinforced by its wide, tree-lined boulevards with roundabouts.

On the other hand, the numerous conservatively dressed men and the myriad chador-enveloped women with only their eyes visible made the town look like a traditional stronghold.

Inside the city, we stopped at the 13th-century Cifte Minareli Medrese (Twin Minaret Seminary). Curiously, due to past warfare, the tops of the original, majestic, tall twin brick minarets that crowned its sky-high entrance were absent. When we were there, the inside of the seminary functioned as an exhibition hall.

Be sure to roam through the fascinating Rustem Pasa Carsisi (Covered Bazaar), an old caravansary, where numerous stores sell prayer beads made on site from the local black amber.

(Continue to part 3)