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Tuesday, 01 March 2016

Van, Kurdish Turkey: Why I Will Accept Invitations to Tea More Often

Written by Michael Chrusciel
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I woke up at 3:45 AM at my budget hotel in Kadiköy, Istanbul’s trendy Asian counterpart, and ran down the block to catch the first HAVATAS shuttle of the day at 4:15 AM to Sabiha Gökçen International Airport. In my attempt to spend as much time in as many cities during my limited time in Turkey (part of a much larger Middle East voyage), and most importantly to do so on a college student’s budget, such daily start times were not uncommon – they were Pegasus Airlines’ cheapest seats. Prior to arrival in Van, one of the largest cities in Turkey’s Kurdish far east, I compiled only a handful of items on my touristy checklist, as most tour guides left this area off their table of contents, so it seemed it would be one of the simplest agendas of my travels. 


After landing in Van, I boarded a local minibus, and, after a short ride, I got off as soon it passed a sign pointing towards Van Kalesi (Van Fortress, an ancient stone construction) as 3 kilometers away. The weather was very pleasant in Van – a great reprieve from the likes of Erbil, Kuwait City, and Muscat – and the walk to the fortress an easy navigation, being perched on a hill easily seen from afar. Upon arrival and ascent, the views of nearby Van city and the stunning Lake Van were easy on the eyes. 


What was supposed to be a quick descent turned into a much slower but more fascinating experience, meeting two groups of travelers who offered more insight into the history, dynamics, and appeal of Kurdish Turkey – a group of senior Armenian-Americans on a heritage tour, who explained how Armenian ruins are preserved and scattered throughout the Kurdish region, and a family of four from Iran, including their father who gave it his all speaking English and was surprisingly excited to hear I hailed from America, whom I thought was his nation’s mortal enemy. In speaking with his daughters, I learned Eastern Turkey is a frequent getaway for those in Western Iran, as Van is connected by highway to their country, and the looser social restrictions of Turkey, especially in the more liberal Kurdish regions, offer a chance to live “in another world” as they put it. The most obvious sign of their otherworldly living was in their outward attire – neither mother nor daughters wore the chadors (or any head coverings at all) I commonly see in portrayals of modern Iranian women.

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After departing the fortress, I walked to the city center and attempted to locate an intersection where my guide books indicated minibuses left for the boat docks to Akhdamar Island, miles away from Van but the top sight in every book. It appeared they were not located as shown, and after wandering fruitlessly from street to street looking for my desired minibus, I eventually stumbled upon a driver heading to a city nearby the island who was willing to drive further to the docks.


The bus filled up, and, as expected, I was eventually the last passenger on board after several stops along the way. The driver continued toward the docks, stopping briefly along the side of the road to drink water from a natural spout. “It’s the cleanest water you’ll ever drink,” he noted. Though I couldn’t swear to that, it was a welcome refresher after completing a dozen laps around Van looking for his bus. 


Arriving at the docks, I excitedly raced toward the long awaited boats to Akhdamar. However, after just a few moments of bliss with my ferry ticket in hand, I realized I had failed to think of how my return journey would be orchestrated. A quick glance at the road showed the minibus swiftly turning around and heading back into town. This was the off-season for tourists, I learned, and the docks were not teeming with return passengers from the island. No worries, I thought, it’s early enough in the day, and there’s bound to be another bus stopping by at some point. My return flight the same day back to Istanbul didn’t leave until nearly nine o’clock that night.


A boat of returning passengers docked, and a group of older men who appeared friendly with the boat’s captain disembarked and sat near me, engaging me in conversation on my origins and the details of the boat’s next departure. The small ferries to the island only left when enough passengers merited the cruise, they informed me, and I was the only person there waiting for a boat, so I was becoming even more worried. They were overjoyed yet perplexed to hear I was from America. They then retreated to talk amongst themselves in Turkish, and I could only pick out variants of the word “America” in their conversation. It made me nervous. Why did I talk to this group of strangers? 


To my relief, more Turkish tourists showed up, and we were able to debark for Akhdamar. Another solo traveler like myself, a friendly Turkish man who was a local high school math teacher, introduced himself as Sadat (my blonde hair, pale skin, and orange backpack must scream I’m from out of town). He was exceptionally kind, and eagerly continued to shout, "Michael, come here and see this!" pointing to the approaching island and its Armenian church standing in renovated glory, the only attraction on the tiny speck of land in the middle of Lake Van. 

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As luck would have it, our boat’s small group of attendees split up into two groups once we docked – Sadat, the older Turkish men (who seemed to ride on every boat to and from the island), and I were lumped together. The group of Turkish friends and Sadat were particularly fascinated with me – excitingly taking pictures with me at various points on the island and in the church. One of the men, short in stature and donning aviator sunglasses, asked Sadat, the only one in the group who spoke English, to translate the group’s questions to me. They were very interested about my life back home in America, what my future plans were for a career, what brought me to this part of Turkey, and how long I would be staying. More and more, they began to feel less a threat and more a group of older dads interested in what exciting things a young kid like me envisioned for my future, probably reminiscing on the experiences of their own grown children. They proved to be incredibly friendly, and all of a sudden, I was immensely thankful to have arrived at the docks at the exact time I did. Mr. Aviator wanted me to take him back to America when I left Turkey – he said he was small enough to fit in a suitcase. 

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On the ride back to the mainland, Sadat asked me how I was getting back to the city center over 20 miles away, and I told him I hoped a taxi or minibus would stop by. Knowing this would not be the case at this time of year, he arranged for me to ride with the group of men in the Mr. Aviator’s truck back to the city. I was immensely grateful to Sadat for saving me a night stranded on the docks, and the four friends and I fit cozily in the truck and began for Van. Without the help of Sadat, we were reduced to using the few pages of Turkish phrases I brought to communicate and laughed riotously along the way at each others pronunciations. The men also seemed to be fans of President Obama, pointing at me and saying “Obama!” I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I replied “Erdocan!” thinking we were playing a simple game of Name Each Others Presidents. The men seemed unhappy to hear his name. I would later learn that night how the Kurdish region shows little support for Turkey’s current leadership. 


Upon learning I was leaving tonight, Mr. Aviator dropped me off on the airport road along with two of his friends. Approaching the airport, the men motioned to a weather monitoring station along the road. “Çay?” they questioned. As one of the few Turkish words in my repertoire, it still didn’t make sense to be having tea at the weather station. However, upon entering the station, I realized the two men were friends of several of the station’s employees, and I had just been invited to enjoy my first Turkish tea. In a meeting room adorned with a massive weather tracking screen of Turkey, an employee brought out tea, and before long, the room swelled with more and more people, many of whom were workers from the neighboring airport, likening the place to an after work hangout. English was in rare supply, so we attempted to use Google Translate on one of their many computers to communicate with each other to a hilarious response just as before. 


A young weather scientist and intern named Dalya then appeared and served chocolate cake. I learned she is working at the station as part of her master’s degree. She knew English very well, having studied at Istanbul’s premier Technical University, and translated the group’s questions to me and mine to them. They were particularly interested in why I chose to visit Van of all places and wanted to know what I thought of their city, and I was interested in how life in Van differed from that in Turkey’s west. I responded that of all the cities I had visited thus far, the hospitality, eagerness to help, and openness to communicate with me were unmatched in Turkey and elsewhere. I added that after seeing the sights and what wonderful reception the city’s people offered, I was surprised the area wasn’t an over trodden destination. I was glad to hear Dalya translate their happiness in hearing what I said.  What appeared on paper to be a simple itinerary turned out to be a much more fulfilling day, complete with new found friendship and, more importantly, a better understanding of a little known corner of the globe and its people. 


When it was close to my departure time, I said my sad goodbyes and grateful thanks, traded contact information with Dalya, and walked to the airport just down the road for my red eye flight back to Istanbul for another adventure the next day. 



©Michael Chrusciel

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Michael is a 24 year old current medical student at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit who uses weekends and vacations to visit the less often visited corners of the globe. While overseas, he practices photography, meets other university students, purchases the music and movies of the country, and tastes anything that appears halfway edible. This past summer, he did a whirlwind tour of the Middle East, visiting the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Lebanon, Kuwait, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Turkey. Other past travels include visits to Greece's small islands and Northern Cyprus, known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. In the future, he hopes to visit Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria once the situations improve. 


Last modified on Saturday, 27 February 2016