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Turtle hunting on hallowed ground

TURKEY | Tuesday, 28 July 2009 | Views [3073] | Comments [2]

My first few days in Turkey taught me that sometimes when backpacking you seem to spend about 70% of your time on public transit and only 30% at your intended destination. Thankfully Turkey has some incredible things to see and do... and a wicked long-distance bus system.

April 21: Your Turkish border, ma'am, courtesy of the Four Seasons

It turns out the few nerves I had on my last morning in the former USSR were completely unfounded. When I pulled up to the border to enter north-eastern Turkey from Georgia, I almost laughed out loud: it was an actual modern building complete with a duty free shop, painted lines on paved roads, and clean flush toilets with paper. Compared to the middle-of-nowhere shacks that had comprised most of the borders I had crossed to date, this one was an absolute breeze. It only took 20 minutes to get my visa and cleared through, and they didn't even search my bags or pull me aside for questioning. I was even able to get some Turkish Lira at an official rate, rather than the back-alley trench-coat exchanges I was used to in the 'Stans. Hmm! Looks like Turkey will be a different backpacking ball game indeed.

I caught two dolmushes (public transit minivans, similar to the ones known as marschutkas in the former USSR) from the border to the nearest town. I noticed that the women were significantly  more covered than their Georgian (and Christian) counterparts, likely attributable to the fairly conservative interpretation of Islam in rural eastern Turkey. Once at the town's bus station, I enquired about how to get to Kars, one of eastern Turkey's tourist 'to-do's, but they insisted that there were no more buses going today. Drivers often say this to get you to panic and take their taxis but I have yet to fall for it. I wasn't feeling stubborn enough to sleep overnight in the bus station though, so I caught the next bus a few hours later to Erzurum, a main city that doesn't have much to offer itself but serves as a useful transit hub to other hotspots. The bus was a proper coach and the scenery was gorgeous - lush green mountains and steep gorges into the rivers below. When we arrived in Erzurum, it was close to midnight and all the other passengers disembarking from the bus were rather dodgy-looking men. Since the station had already closed for the night, I had little choice but to high-tail it to a hostel and figure out how to get to the next point on my itinerary the following day.

April 22: The Tryptophan Effect

Apparently there were a couple historical sights and interesting mosques to see in Erzurum, but quite frankly, I wanted to do as little as possible today - and it was glorious. Not that I'm particularly stressed or deserving of even more of a vacation, but it was nice to have a day to sleep in a little and not concern myself for once with the logistics of navigating yet another brand new city and its unreliable public transit with no knowledge of yet another new language.

Instead, I welcomed myself to Turkey's fabulous street cuisine by devouring a doner kebab for brunch and starting my own crash course in Turkish currency and numbers. I spent the day at an internet cafe behind my hostel, sipping on complimentary chai and sugar cubes to sustain the little energy needed to chat with friends and family on Skype and catch up on emails. I then got a kilo of fresh strawberries (my first in months) and ate the entire thing for dinner while dancing around the triple room I had all to myself to cheesy Turkish music videos (example here). So yes, although I'm incredibly happy to be backpacking for 4 months, sometimes a gal needs a break from travelling too!

April 23: Are we there yet?

When I left the hostel in Erzurum at 7:30 am, there was no one at the front desk. I was tempted to 'sleep-and-run' but did the proper Canadian thing and left the money I owed anyways, hoping that they would think positively of my fellow Canuckers in the future. In the backpacking world, it's the little things that people do (or not) that can make or break locals' perceptions of an entire nationality.

The steam from my still-warm simit (sesame seed-coated bagel) wafted into my nose and warded off the bone-chillingly cold rain that pelted me en route to the otogar (bus station). I smiled to myself; after a full day of lazing around and catching up on family affairs, I was mentally and physically recharged and ready to explore what eastern Turkey had to offer.

I had my sights set on camping beside Lake Van and visiting the ancient Armenian church perched resolutely on the edge of tiny Akdamar Island. The 7-hour bus I took from Erzurum to Van, the city nearest to Akdamar, served as a red carpet welcome to the joys of Turkish buses. Never before had I seen such a well-organized station with so many different bus companies offering services to so many different cities. The entire country seemed to be laced with bus routes, everything from dinky 1- or 2-hour commuters to 40-hour marathoners all the way across to Istanbul. Not only was there an exceptional amount of routes to choose from, but there were often several a day, and you could even book a seat ahead of time (unheard of in the 'Stans, where it's first-come, first-serve and/or last-come, still-served-with-right-amount-of-money). Upon purchasing a ticket, you're served chai in a waiting room with other patrons until your bus is ready to depart. Once you're on the bus, you're offered complimentary drinks and snacks by bow-tied staff and treated to on-board movies, news, and music videos.

My honeymoon phase with the coach bus system was cut short upon arrival in Van. I wound up taking a mistake dolmush to the wrong side of the lake, only to learn that the presently stormy weather was prohibiting any ferries from traveling to the church on the island anyways. When I finally arrived at the right harbour, I must have been a sorry sight. It was still damp out from the morning downpour and a fierce wind whipping up the sand on the road did wonders for my already frizzy hair. Fortunately, across from the harbour was a restaurant and free campground that I was soon welcomed into with open arms by a very hospitable owner and staff. Thanks to the terrible weather, there were no other tourists around and I had the entire campground and wait-staff to myself. They were kind enough to treat me not only to wine and homemade menamen (grilled veggies and eggs) for dinner, but also to a crash course in Turkish politics, knowledge of which I was sorely lacking.

April 24: The Little Prince and his island friends

I woke up to the sun beating down on me in my little orange tent and the sounds of the morning hustle and bustle of the restaurant below. The storm had passed overnight and the harbour was full of locals waiting for their turn on the little ferry to Akdamar Island. The only thing that wasn't 100% in my favour was that I no longer had my own personal wait-staff at my every beck and call.

I liked the area and the company so much that I had decided to stay another night at the free campground (a rare find), and I was in no particular hurry to fight the early morning crowds on the island. I enjoyed a long breakfast of more menamen and read by beloved copy of "The Little Prince", one of my all-time favourite books. When I finally wandered down to the harbour and onto the ferry, my mind both swam with and was calmed by the classic book's poignant wisdom, portrayed through deceptively simplistic cartoons and prose. I wouldn't be surprised if its lessons still go unrecognized by most adults - not unlike how most would see a hat rather than an elephant inside a cobra. (If you haven't read it, please go do so now.)

My reverie was interrupted by a group of giggling girls struggling to take a photo of themselves against the striking backdrop of Akdamar Island. I offered to take it for them and they nearly shrieked my ear off when they realized that I was an English-speaking tourist. Two of them promptly attached themselves to my arms and sweetly peppered me with questions in order to proudly show off their English skills. Though they looked young enough to be teenagers, they were actually new teachers on holiday. I made a side-note that all five were in cute, form-fitting outfits and only one wore a hijab, which is probably not a bad demographic representation of the young, urban, and increasingly progressive generation of Turkish women.

When the ferry docked on the island, the girls and I got our entrance tickets to the church (though they insisted on paying for mine) and set out exploring. The Kilisesi (Church of the Holy Cross) was founded in the 10th century by an Armenian king and is still adorned with its original frescoes on the inside and intricate reliefs on the outside. Apparently some of the most famous Biblical stories were depicted, but I didn't know enough to recognize them. The grounds surrounding the church are dotted with ancient gravestones and perfumed by apricot trees in full bloom. I was later told back at the restaurant that the massive flag planted in front of the church by the government was "just to spite the Armenians". The Turks have a bit of a history, to say the least, with their neighbouring Armenians, including endless land disputes and an alleged genocide in 1915 that the Turkish governmnet still refuses to acknowledge. Many Turks share the same sort of brimming hatred as their allied Azeris towards the Armenians (see "Azeri history, then and now").

I spotted a couple of kids scrambling up a small mountain of rocks that dominated the other half of the island. The girls declined my invitation to race to the top (I guess those high heels won't get you very far, after all) and decided to head back to the mainland. The sun was still shining from a perfectly blue sky and I was feeling restless, so I opted to carry on by myself and check out the views from the top.

The island did not disappoint. On the way up, I watched seagulls cavorting in the surf, snails inching infinitely along branches, and lizards alternately freezing mid-step and dashing into the rock crevices at my curious gaze. At the top, I sat for a long while soaking up the sun, fresh air, and breathtaking views of the snow-capped mountains and sapphire water surrounding the island.

On the way back down, I was examining a leftover rabbit skull and wondering whether some species had evolved differently being isolated on the island when I heard a strange noise a few meters away, almost like something hard being struck against a rock. My first thought was that it was a chimp cracking open a shell or nut, but then I reminded myself with great disappointment that there were no wild primates in Turkey. I had no idea what it could be and crouched down, making my way as slowly as possible towards the sound. As I peered cautiously over the last mound of rocks, I caught sight of the culprit and laughed out loud - it was a pair of turtles! I eagerly whipped out my cameras and hunkered down right next to them to observe what turned out to be a mating ritual. The male retracted his head completely and rammed the front of his carapace into the back of the female's, accounting for the suspicious clanging. The female didn't take too kindly to being hit in the rear (of her shell) and continuously tried to get away from the male, which made for quite a humorous little chase scene. The great thing about turtles is that they can't go anywhere on land very quickly and don't seem to mind if you're sitting two feet away - i.e. they're fantastic photo subjects!

With the sun slipping down behind the peaks in the distance and my wildlife documentary needs temporarily satisfied, I took one of the last ferries of the day back to the mainland. The campgrand owner and restaurant wait-staff had apparently been wondering where I possibly could have gone for so long but then seemed to understand when I showed them the dozens of photos I snapped of the island's less obvious gems. They weren't as excited as me about the turtles and informed me that the surrounding mainland is overrun with them every summer, meaning that I hadn't stumbled upon an evolutionary blip after all. Oh well! I still crawled into bed in my little tent with a smile on my face and a warmth in my belly that wasn't entirely attributable to the homemade tomato soup I had shared with the wait-staff for dinner. Spring was well on its way and I was seeing it unfold before my very eyes...




Just surfing and stopped here for a rest. Thanks for the wonderful story and pictures. I feel like I've been the tourist.

  Randy Aug 3, 2009 2:20 PM


Correction: The Armenian Genocide caused by the Turks is not "alleged". It is historically documented, and is accepted as an act of crime by many countries.

  Lillian Wilk Mar 27, 2012 7:49 AM

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