When I think of Spring Break, a few images come to mind: Girls in bikinis, foam parties by the beach, helping children in developing countries on overpriced school trips, and alcohol, alcohol, and more alcohol. During my Spring Break in Eastern Anatolia, you can remove the bikinis, alcohol, and foam. I did see children in need of help and a seriously underdeveloped part of our world. Spring Break was not typical to say the least. However, what we did do, I know for a fact I’ll remember more than if I consumed those unlimited Pina Coladas and Strawberry Daquiris.
As I previously wrote, I often forget I am on an academic program that stresses examining Turkey in a scholarly perspective. With this then in mind, our program decided to send the 20 Duke in Istanbul student on a whirlwind tour of the northeastern regions of Turkey, beginning on the eastern corner of the Black Sea and following the Georgian, Armenian, and Iranian borders before moving in-land to the heart of Eastern Anatolia. When I told my Turkish friends of my upcoming trip to this region of their country, I was met with one answer, “Why?”
Their description of an area riddled with rain, cold weather, Kurdish skirmishes, and a never ending sea of trees painted a dreary picture of a region of dullness and misery. These warnings made me question and anticipate the trip that much more. I wanted my Turkish friends to be wrong. I wanted to bring back stories that would shock the most nationalistic of them. I wanted to beat the foam parties by the beach!
And I think I did.
WARNING: I will often refer to places without providing a full description. To get the best understanding of the places I refer to, please look at the photo gallery. This is a trip where, truly, pictures can speak a thousand words.
We began our trip in the Black Sea city of Trabzon, most known as the home of Suleyman the Magnificent and the Trabzonspor Football Team. The rain my Turkish friends warned me of did not come in short supply on our first day. However, my previous feelings toward rain that consisted of sore bones and wet hair turned into feelings of serenity and isolation. After all, it’s hard to not feel at one with nature when tall emerald green mountains surround the log cabin balcony you sit at drinking a cup of locally grown tea while watching the rain drip from the tips of the boundless pine trees a few feet away.
The next morning, we visited the Sumela Monastery, where the hike up and down the mountain was almost as breathtaking as the monastery on the side of a cliff. We then drove through the Pontus Mountains, passing the Tea Gardens (think the corn super farms in Iowa, only greener and more picturesque) where the majority of Turkish tea is grown. During the drive, our loyal and always witty tour guide Sevim told us this Black Sea region was her favorite part of Turkey. However, when we asked if she would consider retiring here, she told us of the locals’ reluctance to sell land to anyone unassociated with the region. Turks consider the Black Sea an area able to retain a significant part of its culture, traditions of songs, dance, and unique music closely resembling Scottish bagpipes. However, with the rapidly increasing electrical and energy-producing development projects increasing this region, it will be interesting to see how Black Sea culture will be sustained, and how many people like Sevim will continue to be excluded from this region.
That night, we stayed in bungalows on the side of a mountain in the village of Savsat.
We could not grasp the full beauty of the place until we opened our curtains in the morning to see snow-capped mountains boldly standing as the backdrop to the rolling emerald green hills flocked with cows, shepherds, and houses closely resembling Frodo’s Shire. If the landscape was not enough isolate us in time and space, the fresh warm cow’s milk straight out of the udder certainly transported us to a different world. We spent the morning hiking over the hills and plains to a lake with a landscape that was quickly becoming familiar.
We then drove for three hours to the city of Kars. While the daily hour long drives were lengthy and not the most conducive to my long legs, the landscapes we passed provided us with a never ending movie. Throughout the trip, different people on the program called out which part of the world a particular region resembled; we went from the rolling green hills of New Zealand to the snow-capped mountains of Switzerland to the plains of Mongolia and the desserts of the American Southwest.
We spent our fourth day in the old Armenian capital of Ani. Intricate, architecturally unique Armenian churches and converted mosques from the 12th century lined the cliffs overlooking the river that separates Turkey from Armenia. More noteworthy to me was the extreme poverty of the cities surrounding Ani and most of the cities we visited. I studied Eastern Anatolia and the degradation of Human Development according to the United Nations Development Project in a previous Sociology course, but seeing the shoeless five year old children running in and between the piles of cow dung adjacent to most of the clay one-room shacks was truly striking.
That night, while perusing facebook in the hotel lobby as the rest of my program went to the local bar/club, a man asked to join me for a cup of tea. It was the manager of the hotel and the founder of a large travel agency in Istanbul. We talked for two hours that night about the usual: The state of the Turkish government under Prime Minister Erdogan, higher education in Turkey, the concerns of cigarette usage, and notably, the depreciating tourism industry in Eastern Anatolia due to Western conflicts with Iran and Syria. I gained captivating insight into a topic that cannot be fully understood without an expert or local explanation. Once again, Turkey has yet to fail me in terms of warmly welcoming me into local political discourse.
On Day Five, we drove to Dogubeyazit, known by Westerners as “Dog Biscuit,” for very obvious reasons. The largely Kurdish garrison town has not fully recovered after city was relocated to the bottom of a mountain after the start of the violent Kurdish-Turkish conflict decades ago. Known for their illegal smuggling trade with its neighbor five miles away, Iran, the Kurdish people of Dogubeyazit have been hit hard with military, linguistic, economic and social constraints from the central state.
Our one stop in the city itself was to one of the illegal black markets in the center of the city. There, I approached a child selling clove cigars, which are popular with my Turkish friends, but are ‘illegal’ in Istanbul. He sold them to me for 15 TL (equivalent, if not a lira or two more, to those sold in Istanbul). He was an extremely cute, well-mannered ten year old who made a good sale to what turns out to be an extremely naïve American tourist. I went to a store down the road and was offered the same cigars for 4 TL. In the next store, they were 4 TL as well, and same with the store after that. I was truly conned by a child half my age, and when I passed that little boy on the way back to the bus, I will never forget the smirk of victory on his face as he waved good-bye to me.
The main purpose of our stay in Dogubeyazit was not the town itself, but Ishak Pasa Palace on the mountain overlooking the city.
This 17th century Ottoman palace was nothing less than extraordinary. I’m not sure it would have the same brilliance if it weren’t for the backdrop behind the palace, but the sandstone colored palace was absolutely breathtaking.
Being ten minutes away from the Iranian border was not as intimidating as I thought it might be. I was not surprised with the dessert, sage brush, and sandstone mountains that covered the landscape, as well as the heavy military presence on every other street corner. Before dinner, I went
on a walk toward Mt. Ararat, which was conveniently located directly outside our hotel. This site of extreme controversy holds great importance to Armenians, Turks, Christians and Muslims alike. On our walk, we crossed a ditch clearly symbolizing someone’s property, and the thought of six American students being shot on the Turkish-Iranian border would have gained nothing less than serious CNN coverage. Nonetheless, there was a serious thrill to being so close to both Mt. Ararat and Iran.
The Sixth Day consisted of our longest drive yet. Along the way to Erzerum, we discussed the Kurdish and Armenian conflicts. Considered the most heated conversations in Turkish politics, the discourse was extremely tense, with our tour guide on one end of the spectrum, the American liberal-arts students on the other, and our director, Karanfil, somewhere in the middle. In my opinion, the discussion boiled down to the lack of freedom of speech, expression, and press in Turkey. When these debates are even brought up in public, there are serious death-threats and fear of imprisonment from the army. I won’t go into more, since this post is in public domain, but I think the current situation on Armenia comes down to whether the killings were systematic, and if they were, what the repercussions would consist of. While the Turkish government has acknowledged that people were killed in the process of being forcibly removed from their homes, there has not been complete ownership or acknowledgment of the atrocities against the hundreds of thousands of Armenians. And as far as Kurds, the conflict that began with a suppression of human rights and cultural repression has turned into a serious problem on both sides, and one that both parties need to come to the table to actively discuss. But that’s enough political jargon for one blog post.
The last two days of the trip consisted of visiting 11th century Seljuk institutions such as Madrasas and fortresses in the modern ski-resort city of Erzerum, as well as 10th century Georgian churches in the surrounding villages. We visited the
Tortum Waterfall and ate trout next to a lake enveloped by majestic sandstone mountains. We took advantage of the unbelievable amenities in our hotel, which included a hamam (Turkish Bath), fitness center, pool, and most importantly, a ping pong table. Erzerum was certainly a relaxing end to an overall relaxing Spring Break.
While I was not kicking back on the beach like most other college students, the trip proved to be something special. In total, I used 22 batteries in my camera, which still constantly died throughout our travels. However, it wasn’t until my camera died that I realized why I took so many pictures. Pictures are used to describe the beauty of a place that we cannot see on a daily basis. Throughout our excursion to Eastern Anatolia, I experienced such a diverse array of landscapes and people in such a small space that I will not be able to experience anywhere else in the world.
As I think about my experience in this region of the world, I cannot help but feel bad about my preconceived notions of Turkey. When my family was planning a vacation to complement their visit to Istanbul before I left to study abroad, I quickly wrote off cities such as Trabzon, Izmir, Cappadocia, Bodrum, etc. I insisted that Western European cities would be far more interesting than the other regions of Turkey. I understand that one cannot truly know a place until they visit it, but I am almost ashamed at quick dismissal of an entire region because the West has not thoroughly explored it. Now that I have been to Eastern Anatolia, I recognize the difficulty of traveling to this region without the assistance of a tour guide or busing company. However, I can endorse this area as a place like nowhere else in the world.
And while my friends in Istanbul agree with many Westerners, asking, “Why would you spend your Spring Break in Eastern Anatolia,” I can now say, “Because it is worth it.” PLUS, we were so lucky with the weather that I actually tanned while hiking in Savsat. Take that daiquiris and foam!
Until Next Time,
P.S. I cannot return from this region without mentioning the unbelievable food I ate while traveling. Here are some of my favorite dishes that can only be found in Eastern Anatolia:
Kuymak: Black Sea Cheese Fondue with karsharli peynir
Misir Chorbasi Karadeniz: Black Sea Corn SouP
Sutlac: Rice pudding with hazelnuts
Kaygana: Parsley Pancake
Summer Helva: Chocolate Helva with semolina sweetener
Ciris: An herb found on the slopes of Mt. Ararat used in Dogubeyazit Soups
Cag Kebap: Horizontal version of doner from Erzerum made exclusively lamb
Kadayif Dolmasi: Cylindered cone of shredded wheat with walnuts and honey in the middle