To Elazig.

I ate my breakfast with five men who had arrived overnight, three of whom were sharing the driving of a large, open-topped truck destined to deliver a heavy load in Ankara. The best elements of the meal? The honey in its comb and glass after glass of tea.

I settled the bill, then walked to the office of VIP Taksi from where transport departed for Elazig. After a short wait, six passengers, four men and two women, got aboard a small but comfortable minibus and, for 25TL each, were driven to our destination with only one break of about fifteen minutes. One man was destined for Elazig Airport from where he was catching a flight to Istanbul and, when we arrived on the edge of the city, the driver let him out at a major intersection from where a minibus or a taxi would take him to the terminal.

Solhan.

Solhan.

The older of the two women – she was aged about fifty-five – wore loose-fitting clothes that she had layered over the top half of her body. Shalwar completely covered her legs and a large headscarf covered her hair and ears. All the items of clothing had flowery patterns on them, but, because the pattern on each item was different in design and colour and burst forth from dark backgrounds, her clothes looked shabby and did not complement one another. On her feet were dark-coloured socks with a bold geometric pattern that probably came from her husband’s chest of drawers, and old, flat leather shoes black in colour. The number of items she wore on the top half of her body were quite inappropriate on a day when the temperature promised to reach about 30 degrees centigrade, but this is how women in Turkey are expected to dress on the Sunni side of the street, especially once they enter their mature years.

The other female passenger was aged about twenty-five. She wore jeans, a tight-fitting blouse and no headscarf, and knew she was being watched closely with lustful intent, both before getting into the minibus and while in transit. She was that rarest of things in Solhan, a woman defying the dress conventions encouraged by orthodox Sunni piety.

Of course, there is no expectation that males conform to a particular dress code, provided they dress in such a way as to keep covered most of their body. Heads can be uncovered at all times, even when visiting mosques, and younger males are very keen on baseball caps, some of which confirm an affection for the USA. Tight-fitting clothes are the norm for men until a majority attain middle-age, after which tops and trousers sag and flap a bit as portliness sets in. Only the very oldest Kurdish males wear shalwar nowadays, but the number who do declines with every visit I make to eastern Turkey. Sad.

Needless to say, the vast majority of Sunni Muslim males seem happy for such inequality in terms of the dress code to persist because it confers on them advantages of a somewhat suspect nature vis-à-vis girls and women. Do the Sunni males who enjoy such advantages ever stop to consider how unfair this is on girls and women, and how uncomfortable it must be for girls and women to comply with the dress code, particularly in the hot summer months? Of course not, otherwise the dress code would have been modified ages ago to remove the inequality that prevails.

Perhaps because it was the last time I would be in such green and pleasant upland surroundings, I thoroughly enjoyed the drive through the hills, the mountains and the forests as far as Bingol. There were many places where we passed beehives arranged in lines on hillsides and in pasture full of wild flowers. There were also about six tented camps where nomads lived during the summer to look after the beehives or their large flocks of sheep. Cattle grazed on some of the pasture.

Bingol is about 1,000 metres above sea level and has an official population of just over 100,000. As the day before it looked overwhelmingly modern and, with so much construction taking place, it would look even more modern two or three years in advance. Despite the attempt to make the modern buildings attractive with a few post-modern embellishments and brightly painted walls in more than one colour, large areas of Bingol appear somewhat sterile and impersonal. This is due partly to the sheer size of many of the structures designed in a similar style at more or less the same time. Because wide boulevards with a lot of traffic are overlooked by many of the largest structures, the sense that contemporary Bingol is more dystopian than utopian is only increased. This said, I imagine the central business district has some redeeming qualities such as narrow and winding streets lined by thriving businesses, and the city as a whole is enclosed by seductively attractive landscapes. One of Bingol’s up-market hotels would make a very comfortable base for two or three nights to visit some of the surrounding towns and villages, few of which are known well by people other than those who live in Bingol province itself.

The young woman began coughing, but everyone ignored her. I reached over to give her my water bottle and she accepted it gratefully.

The delightful upland scenery persisted west of Bingol, but, gradually, the mountains became rounded hills and the valley widened until it became in effect gently undulating but verdant upland plain. Pasture mingled with fields and orchards. Flocks of sheep continued to outnumber cattle.

We stopped so the driver could have a rest at the point where the road leads north to Kigi. I regretted that I did not have another one or two nights in Turkey to travel to Kigi to spend longer among Armenian ruins in the mountains.

Between Bingol and Elazig.

Between Bingol and Elazig.

Between Bingol and Elazig.

Between Bingol and Elazig.

At Kovancilar a road leads north to Mazgirt and Tunceli, and a sign at the junction points toward Ekinozu Kilisesi. Back home I found that Ekinozu Kilisesi is that rarest of things, an Armenian church that enjoys official recognition by the provincial Turkish authorities. Photos of the church on the internet suggest it remains in quite good condition and that other ruins, a cesme included, exist nearby. The ruins suggest that the church was once a monastic complex.

The church and its associated ruins are in the village of Ekinozu, which used to be called Habab, Hebap or Khabab. Armenians know the village better as Havav. An article I accessed on the internet back home suggests that the cesme has been restored and that, during Ottoman times, the village had a population of about five hundred people. The same article suggests that the village once had two cesmes, three Armenian churches and an Armenian monastery. However, I am confident that one of the three churches was part of the monastic complex itself.

Sinclair has a short description of Havav which appears to confirm that my speculation about the ruins is correct. He refers to “the village church of Surp Lusavorich (the Illuminator)”, Surp Astvatsatsin (Mother of God), the church of the “monastery of Kaghtsrahayats Vank, probably medieval”, and Surp Kataoghike, a “partly ruined church”.

I recognised the very pretty mountains that lie south of Kovancilar overlooking Palu and the Murat Nehri, and the extension of the Keban Reservoir that the road runs beside for about 30 kilometres to Elazig. The scenery was now merely pretty because gardens, orchards and fields of wheat dominated the gently undulating valley floor and pasture the rounded hills to the north and the south. I detected a hint of yellow among the shades of green, which, along with the visibility marred by a slight haze, suggested that the hottest months of the year were not far off.

The journey from Solhan to Elazig is about 180 kilometres, but I had been charged less than £7. I had travelled in a motor vehicle not dissimilar to some taxis or minicabs in the UK. Even if I had travelled a distance of 180 kilometres in a UK bus I would have been charged far, far more than £7, but it would have taken much longer to complete the journey and the seat would not have been so comfortable as in the small minibus.

The minibus dropped me very close to the city centre and less than ten minutes later I was in a room in the Mayd Hotel. I had decided to stay overnight in Elazig rather than Diyarbakir knowing I could do my shopping slightly more easily in the former than the latter city. The price for the room was the same as before. I was given a slightly better room than when I had stayed almost two weeks earlier, but the balcony was at the back of the hotel overlooking a small, litter- and rubble-strewn open space enclosed by ugly buildings. The upside? The room was very quite at night.

View from the balcony, Mayd Hotel, Elazig.

View from the balcony, Mayd Hotel, Elazig.

I was out of my room not long after 1.00pm and spent a pleasant hour or so in the pazar buying black olives, green olives, dried apricots, fruit leather and a kitchen knife. I bought the kitchen knife in a small shop not far from the covered section of the pazar and one of the two men working behind the counter sharpened the blade while I waited. Both men were aged about fifty and had beards that suggested they had undertaken the haj to Makkah. I then went to the large shed where men sold flour and dried beans to buy four bars of bittim sabunu. The bars cost only 1TL each. I toyed with the idea of buying many other things, pistachios included, but so many Turkish food items are easily found in the UK now, albeit at prices higher than in Turkey itself. I confined my avaricious inclinations to essentials.

Elazig.

Elazig.

I returned to the hotel to drop off my purchases, then went to the pazar again to buy a pair of black leather shoes and smart but casual trousers. The trousers were significantly discounted and the length of the legs adjusted in a tailor’s shop so they fitted me perfectly. As I waited for the trousers to be returned, I chatted with some very friendly men who owned the nearby shops, including the ones from where I bought the shoes and the trousers, and tea and coffee were generously provided. Business was slow and I provided some much-needed diversion.

The bazar, Elazig.

The pazar, Elazig.

The pazar, Elazig.

The pazar, Elazig.

My walk around the pazar confirmed that most shops selling clothes, shoes and scarves for older girls and women stocked items that would appeal only to conventionally pious Sunni women. Shops selling fashionable clothes that might appeal to non-Muslims in Europe or North America were for males only. Such shops sought to target local males aged about fifteen or sixteen to their late thirties.

Between my two visits to the pazar, I called at a small café for a portion of borek washed down with limon. This proved exactly what I needed to sustain me until the evening, when I intended to eat a proper meal.

Borek and lemon, Elazig.

Borek and limon, Elazig.

As I finished the borek, I gave some thought to the money that remained. The trip had proved so inexpensive that, even with over a day to go and the possibility that I might buy a few more things for home, I would probably get by without accessing an ATM. This would mean that I would get through the whole trip with only the money I had brought from the UK. Remarkable. Moreover, despite having a significant sum of money with me at the start of the trip, not once had I felt vulnerable to theft, even in Diyarbakir which has a reputation for tourists falling victim to thieves. This said, I have always found theft far more of a problem in Istanbul than Diyarbakir.

Elazig.

Elazig.

Elazig.

Elazig.

Advertisements

To Solhan.

It was very quiet in and around the ogretmen evi, so I slept very well. I got up just after 6.00am to find that someone had been in the bathroom before me, but the only other person I saw was a man using a mop to clean the floor of the entrance to the building. It was good to see that male and female teachers shared the ogretmen evi during term time, but I suspect that all the small number of people who stayed overnight were male.

I had a walk around the pazar where only a few businesses had opened, then saw a clean lokanta on a street corner where a middle-aged man and his son, the latter aged about fourteen, were preparing food for the day. I went in and ordered a bowl of soup, which had to be heated up because I was the day’s first customer. The soup arrived with two salads and a large portion of bread. A man walked in for his breakfast as I was paying my bill. Palu was slowly coming to life on what promised to be another warm and sun-drenched day in late May. A few boys and girls with rucksacks on their backs gathered on the main street waiting for their friends so they could walk to school together.

I returned to the ogretmen evi, filled my bottle with water in the kitchen, packed my last few things and looked around for someone to give the key to, but the man with the mop had disappeared and no one was in the offices. I left the key on a book on the arm of a sofa in the room with the pool table, then left to catch a minibus to Kovancilar from where I knew I could get transport to Solhan, my destination for the day. I was directed to a side street from where a minibus soon left with about five passengers. Kovancilar is only 8 or 10 kilometres from Palu, but the driver tried to charge me 5TL for a trip that should have cost much less, given journeys of a similar length elsewhere in eastern Turkey. I stood my ground and gave him 2TL, which was what someone else had given him for the same journey. Yes: one or two villains live in Palu, but they are easily managed.

Kovancilar, a rapidly expanding town of modest delights that nonetheless stands in pretty upland scenery, benefits from being on the main road from Elazig to Bingol, Mus, Tatvan and Van, with the result that many long distance buses pass through. I walked east a short way along the main street until arriving at a point where about fifteen men and women had gathered beside the road waiting for transport to Bingol and beyond. One man insisted I had to buy a ticket for Solhan from the office of a bus company nearby that had not yet opened, but another said I had to wait beside the road and a seat on something suitable would be found as soon as passengers before me had got away. Someone arrived to open the bus company office and he explained that I did not need a ticket; he would simply stop a passing long distance bus with a spare seat to get me aboard it. Fifteen minutes later I was on my way. I thought back to the transport problem I had had at Susehri. This was just like the old days!

I had never been to Solhan before, but had passed through it on a number of occasions. Consequently, the road from Kovancilar to my destination should have looked familiar. However, because it was late May and the conditions so much greener than during the hottest times of the year when journeys in the past had been undertaken, and because it was still so early in the morning that the visibility was excellent, it felt as if I was seeing the upland scenery for the first time. I could sense almost as soon as we left Kovancilar that my last full day in the mountains of eastern Turkey would be memorable, so much so that, by nightfall, I would regret not having at least one more day in the region (I would regret in particular not being able to visit Kigi, a remote town with very few facilities said to have surrounding it the ruins of about fifteen Armenian churches).

I was in a Best Van Tur bus destined for Van itself. The bus was so full that I, and one other passenger who got aboard in Kovancilar, had to sit beside the driver. I did not mind in the least because I was at the front of the bus where the views are the best.

The journey began in quite modest fashion. The road snakes its way along a wide, gently undulating valley with rounded hills to the north and the south. Wheat fields and pasture occupy most of the valley floor, both of which indicated in their appearance that much drier and hotter conditions lay ahead for the next three or four months.

Just at the point where the road branches off for Kigi a considerable distance to the north-east, the scenery improves significantly. For quite a long way there are mountains, forests, pasture, patches of snow on rock faces sheltered from the sun, flocks of sheep and tented camps where shepherds and their families live during the summer months. The road ascends steadily to a pass at about 1,800 metres above sea level. Along the way are villages with recently built mosques larger than the local population would seem to justify and the jandarma has a presence almost as substantial as in Dersim. Some armoured vehicles made their way along the excellent road, which is a dual carriageway for long stretches. Very few old houses remain in the villages themselves, which means that they are less attractive and interesting than many villages seen earlier on the trip.

We entered the westernmost suburbs of Bingol (the city’s name means “a thousand lakes”. Many lakes exist around Bingol, but the total number is far fewer than a thousand), a rapidly expanding, overwhelmingly modern provincial capital that seems intent on looking indistinguishable from most other Turkish cities as quickly as it possibly can. I was surprised to see how large some of the most recent structures are, whether they are hotels, office blocks, apartment blocks, shopping malls, buildings associated with the city or the provincial government, or buildings associated with the university (every provincial capital in Turkey has, or is intent on having, a university. In so far as a commitment to higher education is enviable, this has to be a good thing). Bingol’s newest structures are box-like and clunky in appearance. Although extensive use of steel, glass, brightly coloured cladding and imaginatively painted plaster walls create districts with a clean and crisp appearance, Bingol is not a beautiful place. I also doubt that many monuments from the past have survived. This said, Bingol lies in very pretty upland surroundings and many attractive places can easily be accessed nearby.

One of Bingol’s most in-your-face indicators of modernity is the recently completed luxury Binkap Resort Hotel, a large cube clad in darkened glass that no doubt utilises vast amounts of marble internally to add a touch of class. Of course, modernity is usually equated with progressive ideas, but it was very apparent that a majority of Bingol’s women, whether young or old, are encouraged to dress in a manner in sympathy with the norms of Sunni piety. In fact, girls as young as fourteen and fifteen wear loose-fitting clothes, including lightweight coats, and cover their hair and ears with a headscarf. The clothes and headscarves of the younger women are often as brightly coloured as the buildings among which they walk, but it is obvious that Bingol has a pulse that is religiously conservative.

At the point where a road branches to the north for Erzurum, the bus stopped at a roadside lokanta for a break of about twenty minutes, which was long enough for some people to get food to eat from a tempting selection of hot plates, and for other people to drink glasses of tea, buy snacks at a shop or use the loos. I spent most of the time watching two men wash the buses that had parked in front of the lokanta. Across the road were an elevator and silos for storing some of the region’s wheat harvest later in the year. Suddenly six armoured vehicles came along the road from Bingol and turned off to the left, their destination Karliova or Erzurum.

Between Bingol and Solhan.

Between Bingol and Solhan.

Erzurum has on its eastern outskirts perhaps the largest army camp in all of eastern Turkey. Such a camp has existed in the city since at least the late 18th century, its main purpose originally being to protect the border regions of the Ottoman Empire from the military might of the Russian Empire and, thereafter, the Turkish Republic from the Soviet Union. Of course, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, neither Georgia nor Armenia presented the Turkish Republic with serious territorial threats, but governments in Ankara have sometimes been so concerned about Shia-dominated Iran following the Islamic revolution that they have sustained a vast military presence in Erzurum. Inevitably, once the civil war with the PKK began in the early 1980s, Erzurum provided Ankara with a secure military resource far enough from the main conflict zones to prepare retaliatory attacks that invariably proved disproportionate. The consequences of such retaliatory attacks still poison relations between millions of Turks and Kurds (perhaps a third of Turkey’s Kurds had relations or friends who died or were wounded during the war and millions of Kurds were displaced from their homes. On returning to their homes, thousands of Kurds found that their villages had been destroyed by the army) and, to this day, are exploited by some Kurds as justification for resuming the conflict (although, if the conflict did resume, the majority of victims would be innocent Kurds of very modest means who want nothing but peaceful conditions in which to rebuild their lives).

Between Bingol and Solhan.

Between Bingol and Solhan.

Many of the young males on the bus looked decidedly disreputable as they walked around the car park sucking on cigarettes and bottles of fizzy pop as they slyly examined the young women who were their fellow passengers. They wore tight-fitting jeans, shirts and tee-shirts to look as fashionable and as westernised as they possibly could and most had haircuts reflecting the most hip styles that barbers in Istanbul could provide their customers (some such haircuts looked as if they had been fashioned with the assistance of electric razors, small hedge trimmers and pots of very heavy axle grease). In contrast, all the women but one, no matter their age, wore a headscarf and a majority of such women wore modern versions of traditional clothes that covered everything but their face and hands. Some women wore black tights (which, for obvious reasons, could be seen only near the ankle) and most had flat, slip-on shoes that my mother might have called her comfortable pair for wearing around the house. While the peacocks swaggered around as if they owned the car park, albeit temporarily, the women tried to make as little an impact on the public domain as they could.

Between Bingol and Solhan.

Between Bingol and Solhan.

The Best Van Tur bus had come all the way from Istanbul, but the bus boy kept it clean internally even though he served refreshments quite regularly. I was content to consume nothing but water.

The attractive scenery persisted from the road junction to Karliova and Erzurum all the way to Solhan, a distance of about 50 kilometres. The villages along the last stretch of the journey had a higher proportion of old houses than the villages on the section from Kovancilar to the pass west of Bingol and they looked pretty among the rounded hills and patches of woodland. A narrow stream meandered across the valley floor with trees and pasture along both banks.

Solhan.

Solhan.

Solhan.

Solhan.

Solhan is an overwhelmingly modern town that stretches in linear fashion along the main road. It lies beside a river with hills and forest providing pretty views in many directions. Solhan is large enough to have a thriving commercial centre and is no doubt a focal point for shopping and the provision of many other services for lots of villages in the surrounding hills and mountains. When I got off the bus in the town centre that Friday morning, I could feel a pleasant buzz, one no doubt enhanced by the fact that the weekend lay ahead. A few people said hello or good morning, and a man directed me toward the hotel in which I hoped to stay. A modest hotel exists in the town centre, but a better one lies along the main road near where the last of the town’s building are found on the way toward Mus. It took me only five minutes to walk to the hotel.

Grand Konak Hotel, Solhan.

Grand Konak Hotel, Solhan.

I arrived at the Grand Konak Hotel, a glass, concrete and steel girder box of medium size set a little back from the main road with facilities beside it to repair burst tyres and malfunctioning motor vehicle engines. I ascended a flight of stairs to reception, which exists in a female-friendly café. The manager offered me a room with en suite facilities and breakfast for 50TL, which I was delighted to pay given how cheap the ogretmen evi had been the night before, and I was led to a clean and comfortable room with views of the main road. A young couple with two children were in a nearby room, but it was not until late that night that other guests arrived to book in. Three such late arrivals were men driving an old and heavily laden open-topped lorry from Van to Ankara and another a white goods’ salesman from near the capital who was visiting actual or potential clients in the Lake Van region.

Grand Konak Hotel, Solhan.

Grand Konak Hotel, Solhan.

Solhan.

Solhan.