In a land which is justly famous for its stark natural beauty and antiquities, the Southeast is probably its most impressive region. The Southeast is also the least developed economically, most violent politically and poor in the way India is poor.
If you have just come from Western Anatolia, the feeling that you are in an entirely different country is overwhelming. Diyarbair, Urfa and Mardin feel more like Aleppo in Syria than Istanbul.
Everything is different here except the repression which is the same as in Western Anatolia, only more so. The eleven provinces of Turkish Kurdistan are under Emergency rule (a euphemism for martial law) and are administered as a unit from Elazig. It is very difficult for journalists to get into this region without express permission from the Emergency Rule Governor in Elazig, and all of the Human Rights Association offices in this area have been shut down, either by the National Security Courts or by the murder of their staff. No one is watching here, there is no outside eye to monitor what the security forces are doing, and what they are doing is very nasty.
This is a tense place. Checkpoints are everywhere. If you visit, expect to be watched. Do not expect local people to trust you. Do not expect the cops to be polite. Everyone might think you are a spy, or at least dangerous. Sometimes you can get into political discussions with people, but this is rare and take extreme care. You must remember that there really are spies everywhere, and local people can be arrested for any reason and held for thirty days incognito or they may simply "disapear." Don't inquire out of idle curiosity, don't mention people by name, play stupid tourist when questioned by ANY security officials.
The Southeast is open for tourism, although there is little effort to encourage it. After you have been there for a few days you will find there is an active effort by the cops to discourage it. You will be repeatedly asked what you are doing there, who you are going to see and may even be asked why you did not go to Antalya. Don't carry anything vaguely suspect in your baggage as it will be searched at some point. Even camp knives may cause unpleasant discussion.
This said, you run far less a risk here than local people or Turks from Istanbul do. Your Western passport protects you from any serious problems with the police, and the PKK has not bothered any foreigners since 1993. Still it is wise to take some basic precautions regarding what you say and who you say it to. Also, it is wise to only travel during daylight hours and stick to main highways. Ambushes are common and in the dark they can't see your passport.
This does not sound like such a great place for a holiday, but if you really want to see behind the bullshit put out by Ankara you need to actually go here and see it for yourself. I find the region to be very upsetting at times; the copious street children, the refugees, the destitution, the armoured vehicles; heavily armed police, Jandarma, Village Guards, Regular soldiers and most sinister of all, the Ozel Tim police
all of them can make this one of the most fundamentally depressing places on the planet if you know what it is you are seeing. Yet, it is beautiful and the people are very kind and gentle despite their sufferings, something which makes their sufferings all the more poignant.
In Western Anatolia, communications are excellent. Out in the East, getting around is a bit more tricky and a lot more uncomfortable. Those enormous Mercedes busses you find in the West are largely absent in the East. Minibuses and dolmus are the main means of transport, and often they are not so easy to find. Hitching is actually pretty easy when there are cars, but expect to get hassled if your lift gets stopped at a checkpoint. The cops do not like you getting too close to the locals.
There are two main routes into the region by land; from the West and from the North.
From the West access is from either Elazig on the main road from Ankara or from Adana on the Mediterranean. If you are looking for the easiest route, from Adana is the route of choice as far as Diyarbakir. This area is mostly "pacified" and so there are few checkpoints and those are cursory. You also get to pass the gigantic NATO airbase at Incirlik, from where Operation Northern Watch flies, on your way. From Elazig there are a lot more problems and for some reason the security people like it if you travel at night; so you don't see what they have done. This is far more risky and there have been a good number of ambushes on the Elazig-Diyarbakir road, but it is the most direct route if you are coming from Ankara or Sivas.
From the North the only viable access is out on the East side of Lake Van. The route from Erzurum to Bingol is very dangerous and sometimes the road is closed by the military as part of their blockade of Dersim. Safer access is from Agri or Dogubayazit at the extreme Eastern end of Anatolia, but this is STRICTLY daytime travel.
The region has an inhospitable climate being both bitterly cold in the winter and obscenely hot in the summer. In winter hundreds of people die each year when their villages are buried by avalanches, and last summer eighty people in Urfa alone died by falling off the roofs of there houses, where they were sleeping to escape the heat. Summer is also war season and so fighting is heavier at this time of year, although recent reverses have greatly reduced the PKK's fighting power.
Climate, poverty and the general harshness of live in the region caused people to age very quickly and die at an early age. Women suffer the most as having five or more children is common. Recent disruptions from the war have severely damaged the social fabric of Kurdish communities and the traditional support networks have broken down.
Agri is the province of Ararat, the great volcano of Noah's fame. Most of Agri is high plains, vast stretches of heath stretching out under the limitless sky broken by the sharp teeth of lava fields and the ubiquitous Tank revetments. Also ubiquitous are various Nationalist slogans spelled out in whitewashed stones on hillsides reading "Country first!" or "How happy is he who calls himself a Turk!" which is a very visible sign of repression when 90% of the people here are Kurds.
The town of Agri is only remarkable for its ugliness and poverty. There are cheap places to stay here if you get stuck, but it is better to make the move on to Van or Dogubayazit which are more interesting. If you could get out into nature here you would really see something, but this is not advisable and is actually forbidden. Security in Argi (due to its proximity to both Iran and Armenia) is very tight.
Dogubayazit is probably the best known tourist destination in the East with the Spectacular palace of Ishak Pasa perched on crags to the south of the town. Along with Elazig and Lice, Dogubayazit is also famous for being a major heroin transhipment point being on the major highway to Iran seventeen km away. The volume of heroin moving through Dogubayazit is huge, and this has had some trickle down effect, and so the town has a degree of affluence not found anywhere else in the East.
Ararat dominates the town, this 5,000+ metre volcano occupies the extreme frontiers of Turkey with Armenia, the Nachavan enclave of Azerbaijan and Iran. If you have any hopes of going up the mountain and looking for the Ark, forget it as the area is under very strict military controls and most of the villages on the mountain have been razed and the villagers driven out. The military presence in Dogubayazit is very heavy, although not really oppressive. South of the Centre, on the way to Ishak Pasa Sarayi is a major armoured base containing enough main battle tanks for an entire armoured corps as well as lesser armoured vehicles. Local gossip is that these armoured forces are to frighten Armenia, but this is a frontier region and these forces have been here since the Cold War. The soldiers in the town are all conscripts from the West and are thus bored shitless. They will be delighted to talk with you just to kill the tedium. I even met friendly cops in this town.
For some reason, the Kurds of Dogubayazit (80% of the population) are more willing to talk than elsewhere. Some of the hucksters will become annoyed if you speak Turkish with them and insist that you learn Kurdish on the spot. If you show an interest you will be rewarded, although the conversation might get heavy
There are a lot of cheap (very cheap) places to stay in Dogubayazit as well as some more flash places for the few package tourists who make it here to see the palace. Ishak Pasa Sarayi is one of the most impressive tourists sites in Turkey, and is not really something you want to miss. The interior of the palace itself is in poor repair and is not worth the fee to get in, but the site itself is stunning. If you walk the 6 km from the town you will pass the ruins of several ancient mud walled settlements on various hillocks along the switchback road. The palace itself seems tiny when you start, but as you approach it gets larger and larger until it is looming above you. To the left, up the cliffside are some outbuildings covered with graffiti, but interesting nonetheless. If you climb up the goat trails onto the cliff you can see the palace grounds and the weird multi-coloured landscape of the ridge unfolding to the Northwest. It is a veritable rainbow of barren bands, deep purple, red, green, yellow an uneartlhy landscape. If you climb up to the top of the ridge you can see into Iran five km away to the South.
The best time to go up there is at Sunrise as the heat is less and you get to see the colours come alive as the shadows recede. There are a good number of Kurdish kids running around who may be something of a nuisance, pester you for pens and so on. Usually the site is entirely abandoned, quite a difference from Western Anatolia.
Van province is mostly notable for the enormous salt lake of the same name. The lake is over 1,000 m in altitude and has no outlet. Completely surrounded by volcanos, Lake Van is one of the most stunning sites on Earth. There are also large amounts of Armenian ruins in the area, some ancient, some tragically recent. There is also a good deal of war in Van.
If you are coming from Agri town, you will pass through Ercis, a Kurdish city on the North side of the lake. This is actually a reasonably pleasant place and is a good base of operations for looking at some of the ancient sites on the North side. But don't stray too far away, especially to the West as this is indian country. If you are coming down the road from Dogubayazit you pass through the high pastures and lava fields as well as a lot of armour in outposts with nosy, nervous troups poking through your baggage. NearMuradiye there is a lovely waterfall where most transport stops for a break. If you feel like it and have provisions, this is a good place to pitch your tent and camp.
Van town in its modern incarnation is one of the ugliest towns in the entire Middle East and has little to recommend it. It has a glut of refugees from Sirnak and Hakkari where the fighting has been heaviest and so the streets are crammed with dirty, barefoot children and petty vendors selling all manner of junk from carts. Most of the buildings in the town are recent construction and incredibly shoddy. The first moderate earthquake to hit Van (and this is an earthquake prone region) should flatten it.
But Van was not always an utter shithole; eighty years ago it was a thriving centre for commerce and Armenian culture. In the Great War, Russian forces occupied Van with the aid of Armenian rebels. After the February Revolution in Petersburg, the Russian forces in the area began to melt away and were withdrawn before summer. When Ottoman forces recaptured the town they razed it, killing anyone they could lay hands on. The new, Turkish Van was built on a site 3 km farther inland.
About the most interesting thing to do in Van is to have a look at the ruins of Old Van. This is best accomplished by climbing up on the mammoth citadel perched on an outcrop of limestone at the edge of the lake. The citadel is the usual collection of tumbledown walls, collapsed cistern, broken ramparts and the like, but there are also a number of underground chambers dug out of the living rock. The views from the top are stunning. If you look south, immediately below the citadel you will see a pasture with a four dilapidated mosques, only one of which seems to be in operation. If you look closer you will notice a pattern of shallow pits under the turf, raised ridges of green unfolding into a somewhat distorted grid pattern. Pretty soon you can tell where the major roads were
this is Armenian Van, now a pasture for Kurdish shepherds and their cows. It is frightening to suddenly realise how a town which had been in existence since antiquity can simply be erased from the earth, and largely expunged from history. You see, officially, Armenian Van never existed.
Hakkari & Sirnak
You are mad to think of going in here, but transport can be arranged from shipping offices in central Van. You may be able to get in to the major centres, but even they may be off limits from this direction as this is the area of the most intense military activity for the war. If you are in Van, go out onto the roof of your hotel at night and listen for the helicopters bringing in the wounded to the military hospital in Van. In daylight they pretend the war is not going on. Travelling south of Lake Van is extremely dangerous. Fighting even occurs in the what passes for the major towns in these two provinces, so no where is really safe from the war. This is also the jumping off point for Turkish Army raids into Iraqi Kurdistan, so the area is swarming with heavily armed troops and patrolled by helicopter gunships which will shoot at anything that moves in the hills.
From Van West
If you want to move west more or less directly, your best bet is to take the ferry boat across the lake from Van to Tatvan in Bitlis. Bitlis is still Indian country, but the violence is at an "acceptable" level. From here you can continue on to Mus, Siirt, Batman and Diyarbakir. Bitlis is famous for its fine cigarette tobacco, so if you like to roll your own, pick up a kilo of excellent tutun for next to nothing. Similarly, Siirt is known for its high quality pistachio nuts.
Nusayabin on the Syrian frontier is a crossing point to Qamishli in Syria as well as a quiet Kurdish town filled with textile bazars and sheep smugglers. It is a pleasant place to dawdle and there is plenty of cheap accomodation. North from here is the abandoned (i.e. evacuated) town of Hasankeyf, a vivid Kurdish town built entirely of stone and in caves in a narrow valley. As part of the GAP irrigation scheme, Hasankeyf will soon be inundated, and this bit of Kurdish cultural heritage will disappear.
You can cross the frontier into Syria from here with no problem if you have a visa. It is possible to talk your way across without a visa, but don't count on it.
Diyarbakir (Amed in Kurdish) is the largest city in all of Kurdistan and many desire that it one day become the capital of an independent, unified Kurdistan. The current population of Diyarbakir is probably around three million. The population has trebled in recent years with the massive influx of refugees from the countryside escaping the war. Diyarbakir is also the site of a very large Turkish Air Force base from which F-16 sorties fly out daily on bombing missions in other parts of the Southeast and Iraqi Kurdistan. The security presence in Diyarbakir is oppressive and omnipresent; much of the population lives in a state of sullen terror and abject poverty.
The city is dates from antiquity. Its massive and largely intact black basalt walls are so old there is considerable argument as to who originally built them. Overlooking the sluggish, muddy waters of the Tigris, Diyarbakir broods in its dusty back streets. If it weren't for the war, it would be a major tourist destination, but this has made it rather difficult to attract tourists. In addition, the old walled town has largely been spoilt by wonton, shoddy development by Istanbul construction companies which have turned much of the old town into just another tacky Turkish town.
At the West end of the old town is Mardin Kapi, the Mardin Gate. Here you can easily get up onto the walls and walk around. If you are nimble and fearless you can actually walk around the entire city, some eight km of walls, nothing like this anywhere else in the Middle East. Mardin Kapi was also the place where Sheik Said and forty five of his followers were hanged as traitors following the Kurdish rebellion of 1925. Near the spot is a police officers' club.
Don't be surprised to see armoured vehicles including gun-armed heavy tanks in the streets in Diyarbakir. Several are usually parked at the market where the minibuses to Mardin leave. This is because the fighting did not stop in 1925. The 1990s have been a turbulent time in Diyarbakir with numerous riots, bombings, shootings, disappearances and so on. Nevros 1998 was marked by demonstrations of over 100,000 people including hundreds of foreigners. Most of the latter were unceremoniously rounded up and deported to Istanbul the following day after the demonstration turned into a police riot.
You can find cheap accommodation around Mardin Kapi and there are a number of equally cheap places to eat around, but few upscale places exist. This is a tense town. If someone asks you not to walk down a certain street, don't; if people do not want to talk, don't push them. Be very careful with cameras. Try to avoid the police if at all possible. You may well be followed around by packs of street children asking for anything. The situation of so many people here is very desperate.
It is doubtful that you will want to go to Lice, but Lice was the scene of a Special Team rampage in 1994 which left 60 of Lice's inhabitants dead on the street. Lice is between Diyarbakir and Bingol, so is more or less in indian country.
Mardin is a hilltop town near the Syrian border which is as ancient as Diyarbakir, but not quite so problem ridden. As it is at 1,000 metres, Mardin is a bit cooler in the summer. Mardin has a pleasant old city and is the centre of what remains of the Turkish Assyrian population. Nearby are some monasteries (one still in operation) and several churches of this ancient Nestorian creed. Mardin was the scene of very heavy fighting in the early 1990s, but had been quiet since 1992 or so when the fighting moved eastward and northward. If Diyarbakir gets you down, make the hour's journey here.
Urfa is famous as the birthplace of Abraham, and so is a major pilgrimage destination for Sunni from around the world. This means the yobaz factor in Urfa is rather high. Urfa is also the birthplace of the loathsome arabesque singer cum gangster Ibrahim Tatlises whose insipid songs are inescapable if you ever ride in a Turkish taxi. Urfa is quiet; there is little political action in the town. There is virtually nothing green in Urfa and the sun here is blazing and inescapable. There is an interesting market here where a lot of Kurdish and Arab traders run shops and stalls more like what you would find in Aleppo than in Istanbul. They are building a new concrete market and soon will shut down the old interesting one, so go before it is gone.
South from Urfa is Harran, an Assyrian village where the inhabitants live in beehive houses constructed of mud brick. Farther south is Akcakale, from where you can cross on foot into Syria at Tel Abiyad. The frontier here is open from 2 p.m. on and if your documentation here is in order you should be able to make Aleppo by nightfall. If you arrive early, the soldiers at this crossing are terribly bored and may make an enormous fuss over you. When I crossed here I was given endless glasses of tea and was invited to share the luncheon mess. A friend of mine was dressed up in a soldier's tunic, helmet, draped with bandoleers and given a G-3 assualt rifle to hold while they took turns posing with him for photos.
Bingol and Dersim
Unfortunately these areas between Diyarbakir and Erzincan are almost as off limits as Sirnak and Hakkari. Dersim is the home of the Zaza Alevi, and has a long history of rebellion and iconoclasm. The Alevi of Dersim helped to hide thousands of Armenian refugees from the genocide of 1915, one of the few Muslim groups to do so. The Alevi steered a fine line during the War for Independence trying hard to retain their autonomy. They paid heavily for their liberalism and independent spirit during the Great Dersim Genocide of 1937-38 when the Turkish army systematically marched through this mountainous region destroying everything and driving out the population for "resettlement." Tens of thousands died.
Currently much of the area, particularly in the Munzer Mountains, is under strict military blockade. Food supplies are strictly limited so that there is no surplus for guerrillas, and there are no fewer than ten guerrilla groups operating in the Munzer. Villagers are not permitted to take their animals up to the summer yayla pastures for the same reason. There has also been massive deforestation of the Munzer mountains much like what the US military carried out in Vietnam. Consequently, much of the indigenous population has fled to Western Anatolian cities.