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 around 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 to order 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 the 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 my past journeys 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 boarded in Kovancilar had to sit on the steps 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 survive. This said, Bingol lies in very pretty upland surroundings and attractive places elsewhere in the province can easily be accessed.
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.
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 original purpose 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 present the Turkish Republic with serious territorial threats, but governments in Ankara have at times been so concerned about Shia-dominated Iran following the 1978-9 Islamic revolution that they have sustained a vast military presence in the city. 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 does resume, the majority of victims will be innocent Kurds of very modest means who want nothing but peaceful conditions in which to rebuild their lives).
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. and as they slyly examined the young women who were their fellow passengers. They wore tight-fitting jeans, shirts and t-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.
The Best Van Tur bus had come all the way from Istanbul, but the bus boy kept it clean 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 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 extended greetings 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 where the last of the town’s buildings are found on the way toward Mus. It took me only five minutes to walk to the hotel.
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. 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.