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Vagamonde: Chasing Euphoria and Getting Hit by Reality
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Monday, October 31, 2011

Turkey, Kurdistan towards the Iran border

October 1 - October 17.

In the last post, we were in Kayseri trying to digest the bad news of our friend's suicide. Devastated and no desire to get on our bikes, we ended up staying for four nights. This is also where we say goodbye to Jacques. His positive energy has shed new light on our trip. Regretfully, Jacques lost his hair during his three weeks with us.

Hopefully, he can join us in India so that it can grow back. For us, it's the train to Kangal: Known for its large dogs and doctor fish.

The train cars are set up in compartments of six seats. One car is packed with families who have set up camp. Some of them are fully equipped with gas stoves. Vegetable peels litter the floor as well as random puddles from all the dish washing. Waste water is just thrown out the window. Seats are no longer seats. With blankets across all three they are now beds which, I'm guessing, they all take turns sleeping on. No rules and regulations here. It's all pretty crazy and I was glad that our car was less busy.

After the train pulls out of the station, I realize why it takes seven hours to do four hundred kilometres. Checking the GPS, I observe long periods of time where the train is only doing forty kilometres per hour. But even at that slow speed, the train eventually gets to Kangal. It's pitch dark when we arrive and the station is nonexistent. From the cargo car we have to jump six feet down onto the tracks while the personnel hands us our fully loaded bikes.

The train takes off right away and the only living thing in sight are the large dogs mentioned above: Our flash lights igniting the red glow in their eyes as they bark at us in a psychotic manner. But no matter, we are here for doctor fish. Small bottom feeders that will eat your skin problems. After a night of wild camping, we get to the little known tourist spot that attracts mostly Turks. The fish live in warm water which makes it easy to go into the pool. Checking it out reveals two old guys with two or three fish on their backs. Yet another tourist rip-off I'm thinking, but as I jump in, I instantly get swarmed by about three hundred fish nibbling at every part of my body. Lucky that I'm wearing swimming trunks. It takes a good half day to stop laughing. Finally you relax and let the fish do their work. It's a truly unique experience and the eczema on my right hand has almost vanished. Unfortunately we only stayed one day. It is recommended to stay a week for best results.

Michèle comments: The fish pools were segregated. Benoit went off to the men's pool and we agreed to meet back up an hour or so later. In the women's pool, the Turkish ladies watched my every move. I wasn't expecting much from the fish spa experience, because I too noticed only a few fish nibbling at the backs and elbows of the women in the pool. I thought, whatever, we only paid a mere 5 TL each for the entrance fee (about $3). Then suddenly I was swarmed by fish, little tiny ones that looked like bottom feeders and also slightly larger ones that would "dive bomb" at my toes and fingers. The sensation was unlike anything I have ever felt. I had no point of reference to prepare myself for the feeling of hundreds of tiny nibbling mouths on my legs and arms. Simply put, it tickled like hell. I burst out laughing, and the Turkish ladies laughed at my reaction. The only other sensation that I can think of that made me laugh out loud from the sheer newness of it was when I tried the Russian bar at circus school. (Here is a youtube video of "barre Russe" by the Cirque Eloise of Montreal.)

The next day offers some ideal riding conditions; small country roads, no traffic, clear skies and a mild tail wind. It feels like low level flying. As I glide on the straightaways, the loud hum of the tires take my thoughts for a ride while the whole bike hauls my sorry ass down the road. It's mostly down hill to Malatya and the road takes us through some great scenery.

At a gas station, looking for some fuel for the stove, we get stopped by two police officers. One of them is really nice and speaks English. The other is a bit grumpy but he ends up cracking a smile later on. They ask for our passports and where we stayed the previous night. We tell them that we have been camping and that we intend to do it tonight. The guy who speaks English tells us that the commander (the grumpy one) says that it is not safe and that we have to set up camp at the gas station. Well, I'm not going to argue with him. They show us a comfortable spot and we pitch the tent. I really don't think that there was any danger. My guess is that they were just bored and wanted to be helpful.

Michèle comments: At that camping spot behind the gas station, we got another dose of Turkish hospitality and also a reminder of how scarred we were by Morocco. We had our camp stove going to cook our evening meal, when we saw two teenage guys walking towards us. Our eyes narrowed in suspicion. What do they want from us, we wondered. (That was the Morocco effect: Rarely did we meet anyone there who didn't want something, usually money, in return for their "kindness".) As the teenagers got closer, we noticed they were each carrying a melon in their outstretched hands. With huge smiles on their faces, one of them said a simple "Welcome Turkey!". They passed us the melons and then ran back to their tractor and were gone.

The next morning, it's off to Malatya where we are greeted by Fatma, our Warmshowers host. It is such a great thing to have someone take you into a comfortable home when you arrive in a strange city. Fatma shows us around town and later on we all go to a restaurant to meet her friend Seher.

Michèle comments: We had an amazing stay in Malatya. And we usually don't enjoy cities because it is such a hassle with our bicycles. But Fatma and Seher made it so much fun: One day taking us to the apricot bazaar (Malatya is known for its apricots) where we sampled delicious sweets until our bellies couldn't take any more and the next day to a restaurant that offered a traditional Turkish breakfast consisting of a myriad of dishes covering the entire table.

The bus ride to Tatvan was annoying. Another overnight bus ride where the driver wanted us to pay extra for our bikes when we were told there was no extra charge at the ticket booth. In the middle of nowhere, at some ungodly hour, the bus stops for a break and I get invited for tea by two individuals. As usual, I get out my few Turkish words but they both laugh and tell me that they are Kurdish. I had forgotten that we had entered into what some people call Kurdistan. There is a fight for sovereignty here and if you don't feel it in the air you can see it on TV. The CNN type news is full on images of fire fights that are replayed twenty times during the reporting. There is also the interactive maps showing you where the action is. For us, it's at most a hundred kilometres away: How exciting!

In Tatvan we met up with our travel partners Tommie and Marie. The next day we all take a trek to Tatvan's main tourist atraction; Nemrut: A huge crater with a lake in the centre. We spend the day enjoying the fresh air and fried fish. While preparing the fire, one of our Kurdish guides tells us that the leader of the Taliban is himself Kurdish. Michèle and I give him a shifty smile and quickly change the subject to questions about mountain climbing in the area.

The next day it's time to take the ferry across lake Van to the city of Van: Famous for its tapas breakfasts: Small trays of olives, cheese, some sort of creamy honey, breads and much more. The ferry is a rusty piece of shit where rules and regulations are mere suggestions. No restrictive access to the car deck on this ride. Being the only passengers on board, we were able to come and go as we pleased. We even got full access to the bridge and its equipment from the nineteen fifties. The ferry is used specifically for the train. No cars here. The train cars roll onto the boat with plenty of room for our bikes.

In Van, the vibe takes a slight turn. The first clue is a man yelling out "Welcome to Kurdistan". In the city centre, and for the first time in Turkey, there are beggars. There are also a large number of kids desperately trying to sell anything from Kleenex to cigarettes. Some even walk around with a scale to weigh people for a few Kurus.

We stay a few days in Van and opt for the main road to the Iran border. The road is being renovated probably because of the new border crossing we are heading towards. Or maybe it's for another reason, I don't know. It's busy and there is a lot of dust. Trucks blast their extremely loud horns in your face as they pass you. Yet another pet peeve to add to the list.

Around noon, feeling hungry for some lunch, we pass by an army check point. One of the soldiers comes out and says that he needs to check our passports. The base has all the clichés; sand bag walls, armoured vehicles, guard dogs, a full arsenal of Kalashnikovs and a tennis court which the soldier, who is actually the commander, claims to be the best at. He tells us he is worried about our safety because there are terrorists lurking. Personally, I think it's another case of boredom but we're not going to argue with him. The commander, who speaks very good English, is actually a really nice guy and a progressive muslim. He tells us that what ever religion we choose, we all meet at the same point and that nowhere in the Quran does it say that women should cover themselves. While we wait for our passports, the lower ranked soldiers serve us tea and lunch. What perfect timing! As we relax and eat, the commander explains the conflict between the Kurd separatists and the Turks. Basically, it's the old story: The Kurds want their own country and the Turks said "Just watch me".

Michèle comments: One last stop in the town of Özalp before finding a spot to camp for the night. Not just for food and water, but also to change money into rials before the border. This new Kapıköy-Razi border crossing was opened in April 2011. Before that, only passengers on a train could cross at that border. Since the road was nowhere near finished, we couldn't be sure that we would find services like a money exchange place at the border. Tommie wanted to exchange his remaining 100 Turkish lira, but we could only find 50-liras-worth of Iranian rials in that town. After cleaning out the Özalp exchange bureau, we left the swarms of curious kids behind and rode out of town. The landscape was quite barren. Not ideal for camping. But then we spied an appealing grove of trees at the next village. At first, Benoit was reluctant to ask if we could camp there. He had his mind around the idea of a quiet camp spot away from everyone. Already, some kids had noticed us approaching the village and were running closer to investigate. Sometimes, though, it feels like it has been predestined where we will sleep that night. It was close to sunset and the village garden and its grove of trees seemed like the only option. But soon any resignation turned to delight. The family whose house was nearby was so welcoming. They brought us tea, bread, cheese and yogurt and watched us as we set up our tents for the night. They showed us where the water point was and an outdoor toilet. Then, they waved goodnight and left us alone. The father of the family would come back every now and again to see if we needed anything and to chase away the neighbouring kids who were peering over the garden wall at us. Benoit loved the kid-chasing father and called him his hero. [About a week after we were in Van, Özalp and the village of Tepedam, we heard the terrible news of the earthquake hitting that area. At last report, there were at least 1000 dead. We worry for that family in Tepedam that were so kind to us. We hope that they are all okay.]

Well, thanks Turkey it's been fun. We'll see you in Iran.

All of our Turkey photos are here.


  1. content de voir que vous avez échappé au séisme.


  2. Incredible! It is so great reading about your trip. Keep on going!