Parachute camping (the man’s name is indeed Parachute but relies on a Turkish character set to look convincing) is one of the best camp grounds around failing only to have good shelter from the walloping winds that blow around there and rather meagre toilet facilities.
Now these could be considered fundamental for a good campsite but Parachute camping benefits from one of the greatest sunset views in the world. Just below the site is the charming Ishak Pasha Palace which has been restored beautifully almost as if to make the view so wonderful. If only someone would demolish a small part of an adjacent mountain, you’d be able to see the snow-clad peak of Mount Ararat to boot. We were just in time to get the tent up before the light went. A satisfying end to a stressful day. We had seen Mount Ararat on the horizon from probably 100 km back in Iran. Couldn’t see an ark though.
Wow, there was a lot of military in the area though. I still find a lot of guys with guns menacing, and here there were tanks and all sorts. Was Turkey always like this or did they know something we didn’t? Or maybe Turks get kicks out of dressing up in military uniform? Generally all a wee bit disquieting.
A couple of Turkish bikers turned up at the camp as I was getting something out of the bike and we fell into conversation. Koray and Baris were on an exploratory ride around the north-east of their country and popped down to Doggy on a strange mission; Baris had done his national service within the confines of the military base at Dogubayazit and had sworn to return some day to see what lay beyond the razor wire. They graciously extended a welcome to us if we should come to be in Istanbul. We warned them that we may have to stay in the ‘bul for a week or so and that we’d probably stay down in backpacker zone. They didn’t insist that we stay for the protracted period which was most sensible of them.
We slept well and in the morning considered what we’d seen on our way into Dogubayazit that had seemed very strange. Hippy put her finger on it; it wasn’t just a teenage girl without a headscarf but it was the fact that she was wearing a full soccer strip complete with shorts and boots. 30 miles away she would have been locked away for flagrant abuse of the clothing laws. I wonder how Iran makes out in the women’s world cup. Poorly, I guess. Very difficult to know where your wingers are when you have such a blinkered vision thanks to your chador.
I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t have a beer until we got back to Blighty. For no particular reason I hadn’t had one in India since leaving Goa (a rare exception was the night before crossing into Pakistan where Hippy kept mentioning it until I couldn’t hold back and we ended up sharing a last Kingfisher). Getting beer in Pakistan and Iran is not completely out of the question but I never really felt the urge and so was quite happy to stick with the plan. When we got to Parachutes, my resolve held for two days and then Hippy asked one of the staff how much a beer was. It was not cheap but simply asking the price had set off an uncontrollable urge in me. So it was that I was officially thrown off the wagon in Dogubayazit.
I think buying the beer broke the ice a bit with the management of the site who had started to think that we would spend no money at all. They taught us the essential card game of Turkey – Pischti and brought us plates of fruit and all kinds of little niceties. Funny how people warm to you when they get their hands on your cash. We were being even more frugal than usual as we’d been considering the future of our budget. We’ve been able, for the most part, to stick to our self-imposed budget of Â£20 per day. This is based on the income from the house and flat. The house has been empty and un-let for an age and so our budget is somewhat meaningless, we’ve tried to stick to it all the same to see if it would be possible to do the world on that kind of money. Now we were to get the biggest slap in the face; not only have we left behind that lovely, super cheap Iranian gas but we discover that Turkey has the highest priced petrol that we’ve seen anywhere (as best as I can remember). Consider the difference – 3000 km across Iran total cost 20 dollars, first tankful in Turkey 35 dollars. Turkey is really quite a wide country and so we were going to be eating bread and cheese for a while. At least there is huge scope for rough camping in Asian Turkey so we can keep the costs down a little.
There’s a whole lot of other financial stuff to write about Dogubayazit so forgive me while I bang on a bit. Another huge change from Iran is that begging is back. In fact not really begging, more blagging. Reasonably well turned out youths in town were conversant with only two English words, ‘hello’ and ‘money’. There had been a little begging in Iran but it was carried out with clear shame and in silence; mostly older women stretching their hands out pleadingly.
There were a couple of sweet Slovenians on the campground who had come all the way across Turkey with the intention of ascending Mt Ararat. Doggy is really the only place to organise this and Parachute is one of the official guides. They were visibly pale, I mean really in shock, when they heard that they’d have to fork out EUR 250 each to make the trip. OK, so this includes a ride to the base, horses to take your stuff to a high camp and all the required fees. They were obviously expecting trekking fees of a similar magnitude to Peru or Pakistan. No, Turkey is certainly ready to join Europe if its prices are anything to go by. I suppose that Ararat has the religious connection that makes it a draw, but it seems counterproductive to me to hike up the prices so high that some people back out and they end up making no money at all.
Our happiness of staying at Doggy was rather tempered when we came to pay the bill. Rather than the twenty-odd Lira we were expecting, I was told that it would be fifty-seven. It was my turn to be speechless. I asked them to check the bill and it still added up to fifty-seven. I sat down with them and went through it to discover that just about every item had been charged at twice its proper rate. There was not a hint of an apology that they’d been mistaken, just a new total offered which was less than half of what they’d asked before. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this as a place to stay but I warn anyone and everyone to check their bill thoroughly as there’s banditry afoot in Dogubayazit. Terrible shame that this is a first impression when you cross the border from Iran where I’m struggling to recall a single instance of a rip-off. Also the people had otherwise been delightful. We were saddened that we were leaving with a sour taste in our mouths when so easily it could all have been very different.
Van, Van police van, Van Lake and Tatvan
We had chilled for a few days, for no other reason than to read just to being out of Iran. I had not found it uncomfortably oppressive (bear in mind that we had also had a month in Pakistan prior to Iran) in Persia. But now seeing women wandering around in strappy tops, well in fact seeing foreign tourists in any number seemed strange. This was as far as most foreigners venture, most believing that Iran is full of fundamentalists, or can’t be bothered with the bureaucracy of getting a visa.
Our ride out of Doggy took us South following the border with Iran, sentry gun turrets were perched on every hillock. I was comforted by the fact that most of them were unarmed so they were clearly not expecting trouble, today at least. The landscape was surreal, it alternated between telly-tubby style rolling hills and dramatic chunky black lava flows. It was described as a scenic route on the map, but for some reason I didn’t warm to it. I hoped that this was not the best that Turkey could do for scenic scenery. We whistled through Van and chortled at the thought of the Van Police van that pulled by beside us and waved at the cheery guys inside. Van is a large city, we got confused between sign for Kelisa and Iskelisa and ended up in some suburb of town, instead of at the castle. Hey ho, what’s new. The castle when we found it was appropriately castle like, and perched atop a rocky tump with grand views over the lake Van.
We were only stopping in en route to Adkamer. Kind of mid way along the southern shore of the lake. Adkamer is famous for what you can get to from there rather than for itself; it is the launching point for the island of the same name, which is not only an idyllic little picnic stop for locals but is also the site of a rather fetching Armenian church.
Oh the Lonely Planet, it is it’s own worst enemy. It recommends somewhere probably in good faith and then the place gets inundated with backpackers, the place no longer has to make an effort to please, the prices shoot up and the staff are complacent. We were tired and had made the mistake of going for the easy option and not bothering to check out the alternatives. The next afternoon we found a much more amenable place, up the road a little. A wise man lured us to his camping place with an endless pot of chai, cheaper beer, food and camping. It was not a mistake. Our kebab dinner was half the price of down the road and was followed by gratis fruit and of course no meal is complete without chai. A game of Pischti cemented the bonds of international friendship. The family were Kurdish, and proud of their heritage. Their music was soulful and captivating, their hospitality genuine. We were beginning to find Turkish/Kurdish (we were not sure which) hospitality runs on strange business lines. It goes something like this – I think. That once you (as a tourist) are friendly you become more of a guest to whom it would be rude to charge for chai for example. As a ‘guest’ if the family are eating it would be customary to invite you to sample the food. This all seems a bit weird when there is a clear price list for the items that they are giving away free, it seems to be poor business, when you could make money from your ‘guests’. But then the converse also seems to be true that if you are offhand and cold to people they see nothing wrong with charging you inflated prices. I quite like it. It kind of encourages a level of respect and pleasantness. Sit down and have a game of Pischti with the management and it’s free chai and fruit all day, arrive and be arrogant and you get ripped off.
The Lonely Planet informs us that the water in Van Lake is so full of soda, one can wash one’s clothes without need for soap. The bike jackets and pants were in dire need of sweat removal after Iran and so the easiest strategy seemed to be take a swim with nowt but me gear on and then beat myself with birch twigs. Well, something along those lines. Maybe it was just the excessive dirtiness of our clothes but washing without powder was not fully effective and we resorted to more modern methods. Having a lake to wash and rinse in rather than having to scrabble around for some old bucket big enough made a refreshing change and washing the heavy stuff was quite fun for once.
We did our wee trip to the island on a Sunday, which means that benefited from the cultural experience of seeing full blown Turkish picnicking in action. No picnic site is complete without a samovar bubbling away.
I have been reliably informed by Roel the Dutch trucker that statistically the English drink the most tea in the world. (Not that I know the accuracy of his source) I truly have my doubts, Turks and Persians drink a lot of tea, and I mean I lot of tea. I know when you think of Turkey, you think of the sort of coffee that spoons stand up in and could raise the dead, but in Eastern Turkey, at least, the tea leaf reigns supreme. My theory is that Persians and Turks actually drink more volume of tea than Brits, but that Brit probably statistically buy more weight of tea. We have it stronger for a start, because we corrupt it with milk, and we are inefficient in our use of tea, by using one tea bag to make a cup rather than a cup and a half. They certainly use more time in the production and consumption of tea than the Brits. It’s one of those things that always bugs me about stats, is that they come up with these statements but you never seem to be told what measure they used to decide it. OK whether the Brits drink more or less tea than the Turks is not of earth-shattering importance, to anyone really other than the tea marketing board. It just a small irritation compared to the ridiculous research methods used by many to compile meaningless stats, that unfortunately taint people’s view of the world, or worse people use to make government policy. How can Hippy get so het up over something as mundane as a statistic about tea consumption? I ask you.
Sorry, about that wee digression. Yes the island, picnicking, that’s where I was. The picnicking finished, families settled into singing and dancing, sleeping off their excesses and generally having a lovely time.
The Armenian church was annoyingly shut for renovation, but with a bit of wandering you could see most of it from the outside and if it was anything like the one that we had seen over the border, the inside would not be much to write home about. What the carving lacked in refinement it made up for in clarity. I know little of this early form of Christianity, but there seemed a fanciful element to the carving, fantastical animals; griffins and unicorns that seemed in my ignorance to suggest a link with the Zoroastrian beliefs of man battling with evil in fantasy form. I am sure theology scholars will disagree with me. But hey they’re not here.
At the Western corner of Van lake is Tatvan we pulled up attracted by another overland bike, an oldie Beemer like our own. There was no one who seemed to be the owner, yet the bike was fully laden with GPS and all sorts of thievable items. This man was very trusting. Finally he rolled up, like us he was stocking up on cash. He was heading the other way and needed to cross into Iran that day before his visa became invalid. As we swapped travel tips, I saw a lad lift my helmet off the bike to try it on, I made eye contact, shock my head, more because the helmet is quite revolting now. We chatted, kids gathered asking for money, we let our attention drift for a moment.
Pat sprinting shouting as he legged it down the road, ‘He’s got the helmet’ The little lad had whipped it – the bas…..! This really wasn’t funny. A guard at the bank wandered off his station more out of curiosity than in an effort to help. I waited… youth on a bicycle should be able to outrun a middle aged biker. Shit…… I stood, realising that we had got complacent this simply would not have happened in Iran and Pakistan. No-one saw it as their social responsibility to help. Pat came strolled back up the road, my helmet in hand. When the lad had realised he was being pursued he’d chucked the evidence down on the road and made a quick getaway. Thanks for nothing, let’s not think about the fact that the helmet is now probably defective. It was a rude awakening to being out of safety to the unpleasant growing undercurrent in some of the youth in Turkey.
Originally written for Pat and Helen World Tour