The hotel bed was extremely comfortable, so, although I was awake by 5.30am, I felt thoroughly rested. I packed everything I could, showered, dressed and was downstairs by 6.15 because I had been led to believe that breakfast was served from 6.00am, even though it was a Sunday. The buffet had, indeed, been spread out so I began to eat. I had already paid my bill on arrival the day before and thought that, with luck, I might catch the 7.30am departure for Tunceli. I had two cheeses, black and green olives, tomatoes, sliced meat, bread, jam (cherry and strawberry), chocolate and hazelnut spread, honey, a boiled egg, helva and lots of tea.
I rushed upstairs and was on the street just after 7.00am. Roadworks had forced all traffic to take a detour, but with the help of an elderly man I found the correct stop for buses to the otogar. I needed the number one and the timetable suggested that, even on a Sunday, services began just before 7.00am and ran every ten to fifteen minutes. A number one arrived on time, set off and got me to the otogar by 7.25. I ran to the office of the company operating buses to Tunceli to find I was not the last passenger buying a ticket. The bus was going all the way to Diyarbakir.
The day had started in perfect fashion and, to add to my pleasure, the sun shone brightly from a sky with very few clouds. The mountains enclosing Erzincan to the south and the north looked all the better for the patches of snow on their slopes.
For the first 50 kilometres of the journey we went east along the valley of the Euphrates as if destined for Erzurum. The valley floor for most of the way is flat and quite wide with some trees, fields and pasture, the latter supporting herds of cattle. The mountains, albeit mostly rounded rather than with rock faces and peaks, remained north and south of the road, those to the south having extensive patches of snow on their north-facing slopes. Any sense of sadness or solemnity I may have had at times the day before (because of the poverty, the rundown streets near the pazar, the many building sites and road improvement projects designed to enhance an economically challenged city, the ill-equipped zoo where the welfare of the animals came second to entertaining human visitors, the large number of dogs roaming freely, the oppressive air of Sunni piety that encouraged many women to dress completely in black and cover their whole body except for their eyes and the top of their nose, and the almost complete lack of opportunity to interact with women) had completely gone. Turkey was working its magic yet again.
For part of the way east the railway was in view from the road, but no trains passed us. As we approached Tanyeri the valley began to narrow and the river, the road and the railway became close companions. However, the valley floor was still flat enough for the Euphrates to be quite wide and at one point it had burst its banks flooding nearby pasture. We drove beside a pretty railway station with a water crane in very good condition, a water crane similar to one I had seen the day before at Erzincan station (steam locomotives must occasionally travel the line, perhaps pulling trains for railway enthusiasts). A little later we turned right off the main road and headed south to Tunceli via Pulumur. We crossed the Euphrates and went under an admirably built stone bridge that carries the railway further east. A sign beside the road informed people that they were entering Tunceli province and, very close to the sign, we drove beside an old jandarma post. I was reminded that, when last travelling along the road, Tunceli province in general and Tunceli town in particular felt like occupied territory. The fact no jandarma occupied the post near the road sign suggested that things were now more relaxed. Thankfully, the next few days confirmed that they were.
The bus boy walked along the aisle providing passengers with tea, coffee, fruit juice, water and a squirt of kolonya.
As soon as we entered Tunceli province we began to ascend a gorge-like valley with rugged rock walls which soon had us at the highest point on the road from where very pretty views of rounded hills, pasture, wild flowers and trees with new leaves led the eye toward villages and snow-smudged mountains, the latter in the distance. Cattle gave way to sheep. At one point it looked as if we were almost as high as the highest mountains to the south, but this was not, obviously, the case. Why? Because one of the mountains was almost completely covered in snow.
We reached the pass where a large, shabby building is used to store motor vehicles and other equipment so that maintenance workers can keep the road open during heavy snowfalls. The views from the pass of forest, snow-capped mountains and pasture with wild flowers on rounded hills were sublime and small villages nestled in the folds of the undulating terrain. The road was far more beautiful than I recalled it from trips in the middle of summer when the high temperatures have melted all the snow and the absence of rain has bleached from the land the strong colours that persist until very early June.
We began to descend and cattle grazed on the pasture. We arrived in Pulumur, an overwhelmingly modern town with houses and small apartment blocks dispersed along the valley and in a few self-contained mahalles on the surrounding slopes. Pulumur’s commercial heart, decorated that day and for at least another week with lots of bunting for the different political parties, is very small, so much so that, for many people, trips to Tunceli, Erzincan or even Tercan are necessary to conduct certain types of business or access supplies, food items included if they are a little out of the ordinary. This said, Pulumur’s situation cannot not be faulted and I suspect that roads to nearby villages in the hills and mountains lead to interesting destinations.
As soon as we left the centre of Pulumur the road enters a meandering valley with a river that tumbles over rocks little and large. Small orchards exist where the land flattens, but for most of the time the road is enclosed by rock walls, small patches of pasture on the slopes and trees that grow wild. We drove beside an old stone bridge with a single high arch, but it is in poor condition, and a large but abandoned army or jandarma camp. Some of the buildings in the camp had been trashed, no doubt by local Alevi males who regard the camp as a symbol of the government in Ankara that has always discriminated against them, not least during the period when the AKP has dominated Turkish politics. This said, even worse oppression than that of the AKP prevailed in the 1930s. More about this later.
Gradually the valley widened and, in the process, so did the river as it flowed less vigorously. The road could now take a straighter and more level course. Isolated houses existed near the road with a few fields and an orchard nearby, and the trees looked a delight as their new crop of pale green leaves seemed to flutter in the gentle breeze like the wings of small birds. But still in the distance were the snow-smudged mountains and, with luck, I would be among them later in the day. What an entry to Tunceli province, still better known locally by its old name of Dersim, the only province in Turkey with an Alevi majority. I was more excited with each kilometre that lay behind us.
About 40 or so kilometres from the town of Tunceli we drove through a small village in a beautiful situation, but in the centre of the village was a large apartment block within a compound heavily protected with walls, barbed wire and razor wire. This was another army or jandarma camp. Although unoccupied, it could very quickly be brought back into use should unrest among the local people recur. It felt almost like the good old, bad old days.
By now, the road to the town of Tunceli was excellent (from now on, I shall call the town Tunceli. When referring to the province of Tunceli, I shall use instead the preferred local name of Dersim. There will be times when I use Dersim to describe more than merely the province of Tunceli. In this case I will include areas of provinces that share borders with Tunceli province that have large or majority Alevi populations and are therefore thought by local people to be part of Tunceli province/Dersim, although they are not formally recognised as such by the government in Ankara). However, every so often the road entered short tunnels, tunnels not driven through the rock, but built from concrete to protect the road from avalanches or rock falling from the surrounding hills and mountains. There were also a few short tunnels driven through the rock and, because one such tunnel had neither a concrete lining nor an archway at each end, it looked like a natural feature. Some trees were in blossom and many beehives had been arranged in lines along the edge of pasture full of wild flowers.
It was 9.15am and the digital clock in the bus suggested the temperature outside was 18 degrees centigrade. Passengers bored with the scenery (?!?!) could operate screens attached to the back of the seat in front them to access free films, TV channels or radio stations. Hmmm. I thought about many of the buses we have in the UK that cost so much more to travel on, but do not have services comparable to those in the bus in which I was travelling through eastern Turkey from Erzincan to Tunceli. Such services included free liquid refreshments and the occasional small snack, as well as the entertainment just listed.
Water tumbled down a rock face creating a cascade about 25 metres long, but the stream and the waterfall would dry up completely in a few weeks when all the snow had melted from the surrounding slopes. Because the valley remained quite narrow villages were rarely encountered, but isolated houses with fields and orchards persisted. This said, a lot of houses had been abandoned and/or trashed. It was quite likely that such vandalism is directly attributable to the army or the jandarma who destroyed the houses of people suspected of, or known to be in, sympathy with political or terrorist groups that sought an end to discrimination against minority groups such as the Alevis and the Kurds.
A road led to the east for about 12 kilometres to Nazimiye. The road ascended a side valley along which a river flowed before adding more water to the Pulumur Cayi that we had been following for many kilometres. Near the point at which the two rivers met the Pulumur Cayi spread quite wide and a few small but low-lying islands broke the surface with scrub and patches of grass. The river then narrowed once more so it was about 20 metres wide and, not long after, we passed a spot where local people liked to come for picnics at the weekend or during public holidays. High above the road the army had built low, turret-like gun emplacements from where soldiers could survey the surrounding countryside from positions of relative safety and security. The gun emplacements looked abandoned. The bus had not stopped once for the police, the army or the jandarma to check passengers’ ID, which seemed to confirm that the gun emplacements were empty.
About 20 kilometres from Tunceli the valley widened to an extent greater than since we had left Pulumur. The river was about 30 metres wide, rounded hills lay along both valley walls and, although the land looked a little drier and hotter than further north, there were lots of fields, meadows, orchards, beehives, cattle, horses and mules. A man cut long grass with a scythe attached to a long wooden handle. A rock wall above the river was slowly eroding into pinnacles reminiscent of some of the landscapes in Cappadocia.
We arrived in Tunceli, a relatively small provincial capital in terms of population, the centre of which lies on the slopes where the Munzur and the Pulumur rivers join. True, the suburbs seem to stretch for many kilometres, especially to the south leading to the rapidly expanding campus of the provincial university, but the town centre is compact and clearly defined and the otogar centrally located. At first sight Tunceli looks overwhelmingly modern and nothing you find or see later will lead to that first impression being radically altered. However, because of the two rivers just mentioned, the surrounding hills and mountains, the good road links with nearby towns and villages, the unusually attractive apartment blocks painted bright colours, a small but lively pazar and, as I would soon find out, remarkably friendly people with a refreshingly liberal outlook on life, there is much to admire. In fact, by the time I had to leave Tunceli less than forty-eight hours after arriving, the town had emerged as one of my all-time favourite Turkish provincial capitals despite the absence of major monuments. The two most important reasons for this? The people and the surrounding area. Even the substantial town centre presence of the police and the army did not compromise my enjoyment of the place because, although armoured vehicles were parked on or sometimes patrolled the streets, for most of the time the police and the soldiers remained in their heavily fortified compounds.
I walked from the otogar to an open space overlooking the Munzur Cayi below. A small park, some benches and the statue of a turbaned male who must have lived some time ago create a very attractive setting for views up the Munzur Cayi and the mountains to the north. A very large hotel that appears quite expensive overlooks the Munzur Cayi to the south of the park, but I wanted somewhere not so posh. I asked a woman without a headscarf and her male companion about other hotels and they directed me to one in the town’s nearby pazar. I arrived at the hotel to find a man reading a book about Che Guevara who seemed to share ownership of the business with a friend. The man put down his book and said the room with en suite facilities and breakfast cost 50TL a night. This seemed a good price, especially for somewhere so centrally located, so I agreed to stay two nights (I had a lot to see around Tunceli). The room had a balcony providing views over part of the pazar, which enhanced the benefits of staying.
I unpacked a few things, but was out very quickly. I had a walk around the central business district noting immediately that only a very few women wore a headscarf, none covered their faces and none dressed in black from head to toe. Most women dressed in clothes similar to those that women might wear in Europe or North America and walked around on their own or with friends or relations, and shopped or called at cafes or pastanes with the same freedom enjoyed by men. They chatted with me, an unknown male, without embarrassment or fear that they were contravening unnecessarily restrictive codes of social convention, and it was obvious that a majority of local men supported the more relaxed and integrated relations that existed between the sexes. Moreover, by the end of the day I saw more women driving cars than the whole of the week that had just ended. Add to this that bunting and posters around the town confirmed that left-wing political sentiments were very much to the fore and support for the AKP almost non-existent and my admiration for Tunceli rose another half dozen notches. By Turkish standards, Tunceli is a town largely shaped by a very liberal and progressive outlook, a liberal and progressive outlook that only prevails elsewhere in large urban centres in the west such as Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Bursa (but a liberal and progressive outlook does not prevail in all districts in the cities just listed. Some districts suffer from a very oppressive Sunni Muslim outlook that has a particularly detrimental effect on gender equality and relations between the sexes).
Oh yes: alcohol was on sale in many shops and lokantas, and one small shop in the pazar (where about only half the businesses bothered to open because it was Sunday) sold large bottles of Efes Malt for a very reasonable 4.5TL. Tunceli was very much my kinda town!
A tea garden beside the town’s main square had been taken over as the local headquarters for the HDP and groups associated with it, and its display of bunting was so spectacular that I spent some time taking photos and chatting with HDP members and supporters. A large statue of Ataturk stood on a stone plinth in the middle of the square. If the great dictator were alive today and saw that a party such as the HDP, representing in particular the interests of the Kurds whose existence he would not even acknowledge, was so popular in the east of the country, he would have gone apoplectic. Moreover, only a few glasses of raki would have calmed him down.
It was in Tunceli where I first saw posters with a photo of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya, “Partizan”, wearing a cloth cap and resembling a working class hero of the Soviet Union, circa the 1930s. In the photo Kaypakkaya also looked like a young Robert de Niro around the time he starred in “Taxi Driver”.
Ibrahim Kaypakkaya lived from 1949 to 1973. He was an important figure in the communist movement in Turkey. He was the founder of the Communist Party of Turkey (Marxist-Leninist) and its armed wing carried out fatal attacks in Tunceli, Malatya and Gaziantep. At least one such attack led to the murder of a village muhtar whose information to the security forces had resulted in a gunfight during which some of Kaypakkaya’s allies had met their deaths.
On 24th January 1973, Turkish military forces attacked Kaypakkaya and some of his supporters in the mountains near Tunceli. Kaypakkaya was badly wounded and left for dead, but he managed to shelter in a cave before making his way to a village where he asked a teacher to shelter him. The teacher provided him with a room to recuperate in, but he then locked the door and reported Kaypakkaya’s whereabouts to the army. Kaypakkaya was taken to the prison in Diyarbakir, notorious at the time for the brutal treatment of its inmates, interrogated and tortured. On 18th May he died from gunshot wounds and, so it is said, his body was mutilated and cut into many pieces.
After his death, Kaypakkaya became a martyr for the Turkish communist movement because he “chose to die rather than give information”. Leftists in Turkey more generally remember him as a symbol of resistance to tyranny in all its forms. He left behind some writings that offer a critique of Kemalism, the ideology that Ataturk developed and which shaped Turkish political thinking until at least the end of the 1980s. He also reflected on Kurdish identity in a nation state which, in the 1960s and early 1970s, preferred to pretend that the Kurds did not exist.
As I took photos of the posters, three or four men walked past and gave me the thumbs-up sign to show their solidarity with what Kaypakkaya represents.