East Just as Stunning, Hospitable in Winter
April 2, 2012
Spring finally is arriving in Anatolia – and the travel season begins. But let’s not forget that traveling in Turkey in the winter can be enjoyable, too. Below is an overdue post on traveling in East-Southeast Anatolia in late January. Keep it in mind for next winter — or any time of course. (Also, Palandökken is still open for skiing.)
I sat on a rock. Winter birds were chirping in the vicinity. It had been a chilly and cloudy winter day in the high desert of southeast Anatolia. I jotted some thoughts down while checking out the moutnainscape. Using a point and shoot camera, I tried feebly to capture the essence of the cave dwellings and rock churches in this starkly beautiful landscape – a sort of mini Cappadocia. Suddenly, the sunlight streamed through the clouds, and kissed me and everything around it, a harbinger of spring to come. I quickly attempted to capture the play of shadows and sun with the Nikon. Then the clouds again shrouded the sun and again the desert air turned cold and challenging.
Hasankeyf…Winter can’t spoil you.
The weather, so changeable yet beautiful, mimicked my experience in the region. Southeastern Turkey is alternatively beautiful and frustrating. Its people warm-hearted and willing to bend over backwards, yet innocently nosey, asking how much money I make and what religion I am a mere 5 minutes after making acquaintances.
But if that’s the worse thing I can complain about, we should all be so lucky.
Where ever I went I felt that people were expecting me, just waiting for me to show up. Hospitality is rich all over Turkey, but in the Southeast it’s a regional pastime, a passion. At a certain point you just give up with the demurring and the false modesty and just offer a humble thanks. It’s a bit spoiling, actually. And for Turkey newbies the urge to reciprocate — or to not accept this level of hospitality – is strong, but that slowly melts away the longer you live here. You stop ‘feeling guilty’ and just resign to the locals’ warmth.
Why the East in winter? My winter holiday from my university teaching job provided the ideal time to take this short and inexpensive trip. I flew into Erzurum (about 130 TL one way with Anadolu Jet), a place that I invite any wusses who complain about Istanbul cold to go to, just to walk around for 20 minutes at night in January. Skiing at Palandokken, a mere 7 km from the city center, was refreshing. The quality of the snow was fine. The problem lied in its amount. Despite bountiful snows in the western Anatolian mountains, pebbles and rocks appeared on many meagerly covered runs at Palandokken. About 10 runs were serviceable and 3 were pretty darn good. Still, for one of Turkey’s flagship resorts, it was lacking. After I left, huge storms dropped a meter of snow.
Then it was on to Diyarbakir over snowy mountain passes. A muddy snow was melting when I arrived and the following day in the Turkish capital – this under a pouring rain. This weather accentuated the grittiness of this city of about 1 million people.
It’s not the usual mosques and kervansarays and hans that make Diyar standout – although the Ulu Camii and Meryam Ana Kilesi (a Syrian Orthodox Church still in use) are must sees. It’s the rambling alleyways where locals slaughter chickens and donkeys are used for transport that make it the sort of city jumps right out of a Middle Eastern stereotype. Walking along the iconic (and railing-less) city walls made of basalt gives one a bird’s eye view of all the lively squalor.
Mardin also offers its own interesting views, though of a more traditionally beautiful than Diyarbakir. Known as Mardin’s ‘sea’ because of its black appearance at night, the Mesopotamian plain stretches out for miles to the south. I made a connection with a Couchsurfer who put me in touch with a friend who was renovating a guesthouse for the summer season. It was located in the center of town in a traditional Mardin sandstone house and it was totally free. I watched movies and we cooked dinner with his 13-year old son (he also runs a quaint café).
The following day, the Sabancı-funded city museum there provides a great starting point for exploring the multi-cultural splendor (including another Syrian orthodox church) of Mardin: the medresses, the tombs and the bazaar, the latter is where famous local scented soaps are sold.
After Midyat (a kind of flat Mardın with less stunning beauty) that night (I swear the hotel I stayed at was run by the PKK) and the following day – and Hasankeyf the day after – it was back to Diyarbakır and a dinner of ciğer (liver) in the modern section of town with a co-worker who is from there. She and her sisters then took me to the small airport for my Pegasus flight back to Istanbul – Sabiha Gökçen airport, a mere 80 minutes away. It was a perfectly hospitable ending to as perfect a sub-zero trip to the Southeast as one could enjoy.