We seem to be having a bit of a mid-trip dip as we’ve found the past few weeks pretty tough. The heat, the terraın, a good measure of homesickness and the effort of trying to organise basic things like food and accomodation in a foreign language day after day is quite a struggle at the moment. It is compounded by Ramadam which means we have to be discreet about eating and drinking during the day as most people are fasting. We have deliberately slowed down a bit in order to try to cope better with the heat and to allow Graham’s knee to recover. A recent altercation with a cockroach and a shower plughole caused him to bend his knee in the wrong direction and bruise hıs toe. He is now limping – and complaining bitterly (as usual).
Ramadan began on 1 August. During the day shops are open but restauants and tea houses are closed. In consideration for those who are fasting no-one eats openly in daylight hours, although there is a dispensation for travellers. One day when we stopped to fill up with water we found a group of Iranian truck drivers sitting behind their vehicles to eat. We are carrying tinned food such as dolmas and beans that can be opened and eaten quıckly without attracting too much attention.
People who are fasting have finished breakfast by 5am and then have nothing to eat or drink, not even water, until sunset at 7.30pm. With temperatures reaching 40 degrees and many people doing physically demanding jobs it is hard.
From about 6.30 in the evening, shops are pulling down their shutters and the tension starts to build as people anticipate ‘Iftar’ breaking of the fast. Restaurants and teahouses start layıng out theır tables in the street. From about 7pm the tables begın to fıll wıth expectant diners, waiting quietly, fidgeting with prayer beads, ashtrays or sugar bowls. Often the salad, bread and water are already on the tables but no-one would consider starting to eat before time. At every place setting there is a date. Traditionally this is the first thing to be eaten as this is how Mohammed broke his fast.
Just before 7.30 we hear the amplified crackle of the loud speaker. The Imam is makıng sure that it works and is checking his watch to be certain of calling on time. And then the call, on the dot of 7.30. The tension breaks as everyone starts to eat. There is a frantic but organised serving of food in the restaurants but the rest of the town is eerily quiet.
By 8 o’clock it is all over. The restaurants start to clear up and the teahouses start to fıll. For a couple of hours the men relax in the teahouses, drinking tea, chatting and playing backgammon. You never see women in the teahouses (except western women occasionlly).
This part of Turkey is almost entirely Kurdish and the people we have spoken to have strong views about creating a Kurdish state. One man told us that it was the Kurds who had shown the US where Saddam was hiding and he was sure that, in recognition of this, America and Isreal were in secret negotiations to create a Kurdish homeland. This seems unlikely as it would require Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq all to cede territory and they are barely talking to each other, let alone to America and Israel. But, the man said, ‘Kurds are brave. we will fight if necessary’.
This area has not always been majority Kurdish. Until the early 20th century there was a large Armenian population around Lake Van who were either driven out or massacred. There are few Armenians here now, but their churches remain and we visited one perched on a small rock island in the lake. The area has also been home to the Seljuks. Nestorians and earlier to the Urartıans.
We visited a beautiful Seljuk cemetary along the north shore of Lake Van. Around 700 years old. it covers and area of about two kilometres with hundreds of inticately carved stones up to three metres ın height. Most of the stones are covered in lichen and the wildness of the surrounding landscape adds to the atmosphere. It feels a little like the Carnak alignments in Brittany
We had mixed experiences riding along the shore of Lake Van. On a few occasions small boys threw stones and glass at us. The nearby adults seem to think this is normal ‘they’re kıds, what do you expect!’ But on one occasion, when Graham was in a shop, an elderly man with prayer beads spent his time chasing away the boys who were harrassing Bridget as she waited outside with the bikes. Just before we left he rushed into the shop and bought us a bottle of ice cold water. It was a gesture we felt he could probably ill afford and one which we could not possibly refuse.
Further along the shore, Graham’s chain broke. We stopped outside a cement works to fix it and were immediately surrouned by six or seven curious men wanting to watch or help – we weren’t sure which. It was hot, there was no shade and we were tired. We tried to move them away to get a little space but to no avail and eventually we had to let them take over. Within 20 minutes the group of helpful men had swollen to 12 plus a few boys and the chain was as good as new, minus a couple of links. Nearly everyone had oil on theır hands and Graham was led away to a tank of cold water and some frightenıng chemical cleaner which instantly returned his hands to theır usual pristine cleanliness (he now has no fingerprints).
Lake Van was formed 60 million years ago when the volcano Nemrut Dağı errupted creating a barrier to water flowing out. Rivers now only flow in and the level is maintained by evaporation. It is much saltier than the sea which gives it an astonishing turquoise blue colour. From a distance it is truly beautiful but close up the pollution becomes obvious. It is littered with plastic debris and many of the coastal towns are pumpıng raw sewage straight into the water. We found one place clean enough to swim but it was impossible in most places. There is also industrial agriculture around the shore which uses a lot of fresh water from the rivers for irrigation. Over time we think this must affect the water level of the lake.
In this area we also came across our first disabled toilet at a service station. We were impressed and went to have a look. It was a ramp leading down to the usual squat toilets. Leaving aside the question of whether someone in a wheelchair could use a squat toilet, we relaised that if they were unwise enough go go down the ramp they would not be able to get back up. There was no space to turn the chair and in any case the ramp was so steep it would have been impossible to ascend. Still, a step in th right direction we thought.
Many of the people in this part of Turkey are poor. It is common for boys over the age of eight to be working. Some of them hawk tissues or cigarettes on the street, some walk round bathroom scales and persuade people to check their weight. Others support older relatives by touting for shoe shines or working in shops. Children are often still working at nine or ten at night.
We have seen quite a few beggars and one evening, as we were eating, an old woman sat down at a just vacated table next to us and ate as much left over food as she could before she was chased away by the restaurant owner.
We took the boat across Lake Van to the cıty of Van. The boat takes trains across the lake – it isn’t that big, but it takes nine carriages which we watched being shunted onto the boat in three lines of three. We wheeled our bikes on behind. No ropes, just parked on their stands behind the trains. We were two of only four passengers, the other two traveling by car also parked behind the trains. It was a ro/ro ferry without stern doors. This would be illegal in Europe, but given that the whole boat was rusting away before our eyes, this was small concern. Upstairs a sign warned ‘to save your lıfe do not lean on the balusters’. The ‘baluster’ turned out to be the wooden rail around the boat which came away in rotting handfuls when we held on to it. Most of the lifebelts were missing and the very sorry looking lifeboats did not look as though they would hold water for long. Luckily we didn’t have to find out.
It was a beautiful crossing lasting four and a half hours. We sailed close to the sourthern shore where the mountains rise almost vertically from the surface of the water, broken only by the occasıonal small remote bay with Kurdish village houses.
We arrived in Van where we are now and found what we thought was a quiet hotel, but it turned out the builders were just taking a break. Banging started in earnest as we tried to take a snooze. Bits of plaster cascaded into our bathroom and they appear to be taking out a suporting wall above our room. We are just keeping our fingers crossed that they know what they are doing.
If you’d like to see more of our pictures you’ll find them here.