When I arrived Turkey was at war. A cynical war engineered for electoral purposes. In the last elections in June long-time prime minister and now president Recep Tayyip Erdogan had gone to the electorate with a plan to change the constitution. To switch to a US style presidential system and thereby cement his own power. He’d lost. For the first time a Kurdish party the HDP had exceeded the ridiculously high 10% electoral threshold that parties have to reach to allow them seats in parliament. A threshold deliberately designed to prevent the Kurds having a voice.
Unable to form a government Erdogan had called a snap election. What better way to promote a wave of patriotism, rally support for his own party and discredit the HDP than a war with the Kurds. Shortly before the election was called a war started. Ending the ceasefire between the PKK and the government which had lasted for more than 2 years. Coincidence? I think not and nor do most people in Turkey.
And what a brutal war it had been. A bomb attack purportedly by ISIS but with the connivance of Turkish security forces in Sumac killed 32 Kurdish Leaders. The PKK (Kurdish guerrilla army) retaliated by killing 2 police officers suspected of working with ISIS. And then the Turkish onslaught started. Thousands of Kurdish activists were rounded up, protesters were attacked. Then the Turkish government started bombing Kurdish camps in Iraq. Killing large numbers of civilians. The town of Cizre was placed under siege after it declared independence of Turkish rule. A 24 hour curfew was imposed, water, electricity was cut off and Turkish snipers began shooting women and children. People weren’t allowed out even to seek medical attention or bury their dead so a child’s body had to be kept in a freezer for several days. Foreign journalists were arrested and Kurdish journalists sacked from Turkish newspapers to prevent the truth getting out. Many Kurdish websites are blocked in Turkey for the same reason.
Of course the roots of the conflict go back centuries and as usual my country had its grubby hands in there stirring the mix. The Kurds have been occupied for centuries and were part of the Ottoman empire until it’s collapse. The British and French promised then a homeland and then reneged on that when they created the borders of Iran, Syria and Turkey at the end of the first world war. Then when the Turkish Republic was formed a policy of assimilation was introduced. The Kurdish language was banned, as was even the mere mention of the word Kurd or Kurdish. The Kurds were rebranded as “mountain Turks”. Millions of Kurds were forcibly moved from their homes and tens of thousands were killed.
Understandably pissed off at the repression of their culture and rights the Kurds fought back. The PKK began its uprising against the state. The Turkish response was ruthless 40000 people were killed, more than 100,000 were imprisoned many of them tortured and raped by the security forces and more than 17,000 people disappeared and remain so to this day. That’s roughly similar to many of the estimates of the disappeared during Argentina’s military Junta. Right on the doorstep of Europe. Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo have received widespread coverage but there has been barely a squeak from the western media about their equivalent who gather every week in Galatasaray Square in Istanbul. Why ?because Turkey is a good friend of America it has been a leading recipient of US economic and military aid for decades. And as importantly Turkey has been a great friend to Israel. Such relationships allow it to get away with murder. Literally.
So sets the scene for my arrival…
I was a little apprehensive approaching the border. A few weeks earlier it had been closed due to the war. And well there was a war on. I had thought carefully about whether it was worth crossing from Iran into turkey. Many cycle tourists where diverting through Armenia and Georgia and along the black Sea Coast but it is a lot longer and a lot more mountainous and would have made it very tricky to get to Paris on time. I had originally planned to head to Van and pass through the heart of the Kurdish areas, that now didn’t seem so wise however the various government advisories suggested if I stuck to the main road then the areas I was going to pass through were no more dangerous than the rest of Turkey. And so it proved. There was a very heavy military and police presence. And were talking armoured cars with big fuck off machine guns on them not your average white car with a blue light on it. Heavily armed convoys rolled past on the highway and overhead helicopters chattered . The Jandarme posts were heavily fortified and the atmosphere in the towns seemed tense. But not really any different to when I was last in the region three years ago. The only signs of conflict I encountered were some spent bullet cases on the road but given my knowledge of firearms they were just as likely to have come from a hunters gun as from a battle. In fact the only time I felt a little tense was when the military convoys went past as ambushing them had been a favoured tactic of the PKK. Other than that the roads were quiet and it was beautiful.
Eastern Turkey passed in a blur. Due to visa restrictions Kim had to fly into Turkey and I was meeting her in Cappadocia on the 12th. So I had to cover over 1000 km in 12 days. It was a beautiful blur though lots of mountains and wooded valleys and fast flowing rivers. There are a few scenes that stand out though. The first of which was right at the border. The magnificent Agri Dagi or mount Ararat. The huge volcanic cone rises more than 5,000 m out of the valley below. The summit was hung with clouds, but as I rode round it they peeled off to reveal the snow icing the summit.
After 2 nights of camping on the way to the border I decided it was time for a wash, both of myself and my clothes. My hotel looked over Mount Ararat and it was wonderful to watch the peak light up with the or orange and pink hues of the setting sun. I celebrated being back in a land of beer and consequently woke with a hangover for the first time in months.
Later in the afternoon after covering around 90 km I stopped off for an ice cream. 20 minutes later I began to feel nauseous and then vomited. Not good. What to do? I weighed up my options. If I found a place to camp and then got worse it would be no fun riding out a bout of sickness on my own with only the water I was carrying and food I could cook. I turned around and headed back into town to find a hotel pausing to deposit an offering our two from my stomach along the way. Finally located one of a suitable price at the third attempt and then grabbed the keys from the startled receptionist whilst half way through checking in and stumbled hurriedly upstairs to acquaint myself with the toilet. After some rest, some lemonade and some crackers I felt much better and next day I was almost back to normal. However I thought it best not to push myself too much so took the one rest day that I had allocated to myself a few days early.
The leg aching climb up to the highest peak is also etched into my memory. 35 km of pain. It wasn’t particularly high, only a shade over 2,000 m but the fact that I was climbing around 1000 m almost every day meant that my legs were already tired. And then next day there was another 2000 m summit but that was it. After that the landscape opened up to a patchwork of wheat fields. Only fading stubble remaining. There were still hills but much lower and more undulating.
September is the perfect season for cycling through eastern turkey. It’s hot enough that you work up a bit of a sweat on the uphills but not stifling so you can cycle all day of you want. There were a couple of showers going up stome of the hills, but again not heavy enough for a soaking. But there was a slight chill in the air when the sun began to go down and you could tell the bitter winter was on its way.
And then there were the wonderful hosts that looked after me so well. The vet who was conducting secret animal experiments. He hated being in eastern turkey but like all government employees was forced to work there for a few years and now his boss had refused to let him transfer. He was an atheist and explained that the people there were very conservative. It took him 4 months to find a flat because most people didn’t want to rent to a single guy. Then there was the cyclist. He met me on his bike and told me about his tours around Turkey.
Finally there was the quiet Kurd who took me on a tour of the town and explained about the continuing grievances of the Kurds. That there had been limited cultural reforms during the past few years. Kurdish language TV and radio stations had been allowed and Kurdish schools could be set up. However many were still refused for ridiculous reasons such as having the wrong sized doors. And Kurdish is still banned as the language of instruction in public schools nor is it recognised as an official language of Turkey. Furthermore flying the Kurdish flag is still banned, as is even giving a child a Kurdish name and last year a singer was imprisoned for 10 years for singing in Kurdish. Moreover my host explained that these limited cultural reforms had not been accompanied by any political reforms. That the Kurds were still governed by the same authorities that had been beating, raping and torturing them and were not willing to give any political concessions much less the devolution which they hanker for.
All my hosts were single males and Turkish males don’t seem to be much more enlightened than their Iranian brothers when it comes to domestic labour so cooking was out of the question. So they took me out for dinner. Dinner in Turkey means meat so I was obtaining most of my weekly protein requirements in one sitting. Which was quite handy as the major towns, and thus hosts are around 300km apart so I would camp for 2 nights, and then get a chance to clean myself and my clothes and stock up on protein and human contact with some great conversations. And then it was back out into the wilds. I found some great campsites too. One in particular on the banks of a river was memorable as I watched the sun set between the hills. Other times I camped at petrol stations. Now as beautiful, but convenient. Many of them have gardens with covered areas for seating which make perfect spots for camping and nobody ever refused my request for a spot to camp in.
As I moved west the roads got busier. Then suddenly I was rolling into Cappadocia and it was time to be reunited with my partner in crime. I’d covered 1300 km and climbed nearly 10,000 m in a little over 2 weeks. Time for some rest and recuperation for my tired legs.