x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

A journey to Turkish Kurdistan

John Zada takes a road trip through eastern Turkey and discovers raw landscapes, hospitality and peace.

One of the players finds a good throwing stone and gears up for another shot. John Zada for The National
One of the players finds a good throwing stone and gears up for another shot. John Zada for The National

"In less than two hours you will arrive at the end of the world," said Mehmet, the owner of the teahouse where the minibus bound for Bahçesaray departs. Our long morning of animated conversation came to an end as I squeezed into the small vehicle overloaded with passengers and their cargo of pickles and cooking oil. As Mehmet slid the bus door shut behind me, it became clear that his final words were both a proclamation and a gentle warning.

And so we left the lakeside city of Van, with its summer watermelons and its blue- and amber-eyed cats. Soon the minibus was barrelling down a lonely road that rose high into a range of beautiful mountains.

Behind me, over a dozen villagers sat stoically as the young driver fumbled endlessly with the CD player. Suddenly, a frantic anthem of high-pitched vocals set alongside ancient instrumentals and synthesizers took us in its grip. Our journey to the most remote village in Turkey had begun in earnest.


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But this is not the Turkey known to most outsiders - or even to most Turks. We were in the country's far-flung east, along the mountainous borderland where the Turkish, Arab and Persian civilisations meet. The area is home to the Kurds: a tribal and semi-nomadic mountain people with a distinct culture and language. Numbering some 30 million and spread out across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Armenia, the Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without their own country.

When I last visited the region a little over a decade ago, much of it was off limits to travellers. For decades Turkey's minority Kurds have struggled against the Turkish government to win themselves greater rights and autonomy. Since 1984, fighting between the Kurdistan Workers' Party, also known as the PKK, a Marxist rebel group, and the Turkish army has engulfed much of the region. That protracted guerilla war, fought in the mountains and in the streets of Turkey's eastern towns and villages, has claimed roughly 40,000 lives to date. As with most 20th-century conflicts, it's the civilians who have borne the brunt of this particular dispute - an often no-holds-barred war that has tarnished Turkey's image internationally.

In the last few years, however, the conflict has subsided and is confined to the mountains along the Turkey-Iraq border. Many areas that were once on the frontlines of that conflict, including the village of Bahçesaray, have since returned to normal.

This trip to a remote hamlet is part of the larger journey I'm making through the Kurdish areas of both Turkey and Iraq. The purpose for my coming is not only to see the region as it emerges from conflict, but also to more intimately acquaint myself with the Kurdish people, who tend to be known, if at all, only for their historical and geopolitical misfortunes.

After ascending a high range of peaks with hairpin turns extreme enough to set a mountaineer's heart aflutter, the road dropped steeply below the clouds and into a tree-lined valley. There, a fast-moving river ran parallel to the main road. We passed a sign announcing Bahçesaray with its population of 3,230 souls and arrived at the village, which is caught in the protective embrace of gargantuan hills. The town was little more than a cobblestone street with a few shops beside a mosque. In the hills above the town were a few homes and farms sitting on green mountain pastures. A small garrison of the Turkish army and a large school servicing the region were located on the main road heading south out of town.

Bahçesaray is known throughout Turkey for its isolation and its delicious brand of locally-made honey. But it's the region's extreme winter weather that is the town's real claim to fame. Each year from November until April, Bahçesaray is snowed-in and relies on aerial deliveries of goods for its sustenance. "Half the year we belong to God," goes a local expression.

"The rest of Turkey watches the coming and going of winter in Bahçesaray to gauge the beginning and end of winter nationwide," said a Kurdish man from Ankara who has family in the area. "Most people in Turkey know this town for that reason. But if you ask any of them if they've ever been here, you'll find that not a single one of them has."

In spite of its geographical remoteness, Bahçesaray is no bereft outpost of humanity. The face of modernity can be seen everywhere in the village. Most people own a cell phone, cars and trucks frequently rumble through the town, and a nondescript room above a store on the main strip houses an Internet café where young boys play video games late into the night.

What the town does lack, however, is formal accommodation. I had heard about a guest house in Bahçesaray prior to leaving Van, but only discovered upon arrival that it had long ago closed down. After dropping off the other passengers, the minibus driver took me to the school at the edge of town. He told me that the dormitory there offered clean, simple and inexpensive rooms for visitors (20 lira, [Dh46] per night, with an authentic Turkish dinner). But an obstacle soon presented itself: the school year was now about to begin, and the region's teachers, who had just arrived from every corner of Turkey, were staying at the dorm for a week before either remaining on to teach in town, or being dispatched to smaller schools in the surrounding villages. Every room, I found out, was completely booked.

"I think maybe you will have to go back to Van," said the school's manager with exaggerated regret.

Returning to Van was definitely not an option, and so I refused to budge and demanded a bed. This created something a commotion, especially among the teachers who were curious to know who the dishevelled traveller standing with his arms crossed in the lobby was. But in the end a compromise was reached: I was to be issued a mattress in the room of the school's plainclothes policeman - a smiling, oversized youth who carried a rifle and who was tailed by an entourage of young wannabes.

The school, it turned out, was a perfect base. The teachers were a fascinating juxtaposition to the town and its people. They came from all over the country and were the consummate losers of a postgraduate lottery system that chose them to serve in Turkey's least sought-after region. Most of them - either at the beginning, middle or end of their three-year teaching tenure - saw their sojourn in Turkey's most remote village as a kind of prison sentence.

"Nobody comes here, not even the terrorists," complained one 20-something teacher from Istanbul. Others commented half-jokingly that they would become one another's psychiatrists once the snows arrived and cut them off from the outside world.

I couldn't blame them entirely. For the diehard city dweller or conventional tourist, there isn't much to do in Bahçesaray. There's no museum, no entertainment and no real tourist infrastructure. But, as some of the more philosophically minded teachers who knew the town told me: if one was willing to improvise, the area could be endlessly fascinating.

For instance, just a short stroll anywhere is guaranteed to bring you into contact with any of Bahçesaray's colourful notables. And unless you speak either Kurdish or Turkish, that means a fulsome, unintelligible dialogue with that person replete with sign language. I spent one morning having breakfast at the home of a man (and his family), who I met in a thicket on the edge of the river. The invitation, which I intuited by the man's use of the word kahvalti (meaning "breakfast") was such an honour for him (and for me) that Bahçesaray's imam, a sort of local dignitary, was summoned from the mosque to join us for the meal.

We engaged in a form of charades, listening to one another in feigned comprehension, over a traditional spread that included string cheese, hard-boiled eggs, clotted cream, olives, honey, flat bread and tea - nearly all of which was locally produced. During the conversation, I managed to somehow understand that there was a cold spring three or four kilometres upriver to the north of the town, and that it was a local attraction. I resolved to hike there at once.

The three-hour march along the banks of the fast-running Mukus River, a tributary of the Tigris, through a spectacular valley bristling with birch and poplar trees, was a journey into another time. All around, dramatic and convoluted mountains covered in brush vegetation rose to the sky in spectacular contortions. The sound of the rushing water drowned out all other noise, even the sounds of my own breathing and footfalls as I negotiated the boulder-strewn riverbank.

Along the way I came across nomadic Kurdish shepherds and their flock of sheep that travelled in single-file on the mountain slopes, looking like giant army ants. A pair of massive kangal, Anatolian shepherd dogs the size of lions, patrolled along the edge of the flock. I waved to the shepherds and continued walking cautiously without stopping. These immense canines, once used by Ottoman soldiers in war and employed by more humble folk throughout the ages to protect their livestock from bears and wolves, were known to have a nasty temper. Days earlier I had seen one chase a car and harangue it violently for almost two kilometres.

Rounding a large bend, the river disappeared into a cave-like enclosure in the side of a mountain. Behind a large boulder at the cave's entrance I found a group of young Kurds labouring over a cooking fire. Some women, a few metres away, prepared a picnic-style spread on a flat boulder with a commanding view of the rushing river and the valley outside.

Without pause, the people cooking waved me over and assailed me with plates of lamb and pepper stir-fry and repeated requests to sing them songs in English. The ringleader, a rambunctious young man named Sinan, who spoke English and volunteered to be a kind of cultural envoy, proceeded to give me a crash course on Bahçesaray and its people.

"You see those people?" he said, pointing to three armed men in dirty fatigues grilling kebabs at the edge of the cave. "Village guards."

The men, who kept their distance and looked like a ragtag group of outlaws, were part of the local Kurdish militias created by the Turkish army in every town to fight the PKK rebels. Although there was no more trouble in these hills, the men were still retained by the Turkish army and could be seen in their sleeping bags camped out on the edge of Bahçesaray by night.

We left the cave and Sinan pointed up into the mountains in all directions, saying that the hills around Bahçesaray were dotted with the ruins of ancient Armenian churches, which have not yet been properly documented because of the decades of trouble in the area. He also said that about 12 kilometres south of where we were was the shrine of a very famous Kurd known as Feqiye Teyran. Teyran was a Kurdish classical poet, mystic and adherent of the Sufi Way who lived in the area between 1563-1641. His name in Kurdish means "teacher of the birds" and it is believed that he could communicate with animals. "Teyran's writings have been banned in Turkey for a very long time," Sinan said, showing me a picture of the man's shrine on his cell phone. "He was almost forgotten but now that the laws have been relaxed, Kurdish people are beginning to rediscover him."

Following lunch, the group gathered outside the cave to play a rock-throwing game similar to lawn bowling. The object of the game is to knock down the opposing team's three large stones that are lined up on the ground. I watched the game, a pastime that had likely been around since the dawn of humankind, in amazement. The women were sharpshooters and I asked Sinan if there was any particular reason for that. He translated my question to them. Without missing a beat one of the women answered and the others immediately bowled over with laughter. "She says they learned to be good stone throwers from years of dealing with their difficult men," he said, smiling.

Hours later as I was about to leave the group and make my way along the main road back to town, Sinan took my hand and thanked me profusely. I told him that the pleasure was all mine. "No, you don't understand," he said. "We Kurdish people say we have no friends except the mountains. But on this day - today - this expression is no longer true."

They were more than kind words that not only resonated warmly during my hike back to Bahçesaray, but which also spoke to a fierceness of honour and integrity seen only in legends and epics.


If you go

The flight

Return flights on Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com) from Abu Dhabi to Van via Istanbul cost from €414.5 (Dh2,118), including taxes.

The transport

A daily dolmus (minibus) departs daily at around 11am from Bahçesaray Cey Evi teahouse in Van. The two-hour ride costs 10 Turkish lira (Dh23).

The info

The best time to visit Bahçesaray is between April and October. The rest of the year the region is covered in deep snow and overland travel is difficult, if not impossible.