Hitchhiking into Turkish Kurdistan


vansunsetWe got up early to leave from Akhalsikhe in Georgia to cross the border into Turkey by bus, but found out the only bus to the Turkish side wasn’t until the late afternoon. So, we decided to hitchhike.

I was a little wary since I was with Anna (I would have done it alone without a second thought), but she seemed game and we took off walking down the road towards the border about 20 kilometers away.

The worst case was that we would get no rides and go back to the bus station in the afternoon, but after a few minutes of flagging cars, a bus toward the border town of Vale stopped and gave us a ride without charging for it. From Vale it was another few kilometers to the border, but luckily there was a border guard on the bus with us who brought us with him to the border.

We walked across the border, which was fairly isolated and unkempt but with beautiful surrounding hills, and did the whole Q and A thing that happens at every border. There wasn’t much car traffic once across the Turkish border, but after a few minutes of waiting the first car that came stopped and brought us to the first town of any size on the Turkish side, Posof.

The driver was actually a Georgian taxi driver who really liked George W. Bush and America in general and would prefer the US to give nuclear weapons to Georgia so they could bomb

Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Krasnoyarsk. Once we got to Posof, he brought us to his Turkish friend’s travel agency to try to sell us an expensive taxi service to Kars over tea. We said we had to think about it and left to get some food.

Considering how easy it was to hitchhike (we were already 5 hours ahead of the bus), and it was free, we decided to try our luck at flagging cars until we got to our next stop, Kars. Although the language barrier was huge in Turkey since we were terribly prepared and neither of us even knew how to say “Thank you”, we managed with hand motions to figure out in which direction out of town the road to Kars was. Barely a hundred meters out of town on the road towards Kars (and without even waving) a car stopped with two guys who, as we would learn later in broken English, were part of the Turkish forestry service. They gave us a ride a good distance towards Kars until a road junction, where we waited for less than five minutes for another ride about 100 kilometers until Kars.

Arriving in Kars, we were blown away at how easy it was to hitchhike, and we didn’t know if it was because people were incredibly friendly and hospitable or the novelty factor of two backpackers. We were in a part of Turkey that sees little tourists, the far eastern region that is mostly ethnically Kurdish, so it was probably both. The landscape in this part of Turkey was semi-arid rolling hills similar to what was on the Georgian side, but the people looked distinct and there were minarets in every town in case you forgot you were in a Muslim country.

We found a reasonably priced hotel in Kars and wandered around a little bit, with the only thing catching our attention being a castle situated up on a hill overlooking town. The main reason people come to Kars is to visit the nearby Armenian ruins of Ani, full of crumbling buildings that the Turkish only keep restored enough to draw tourists but not quite enough so as to seem like they actually care about Armenian history (the official Turkish signs on site don't mention the presence of Armenians). Coming down from the castle, we ran into one of the guys who operates a minibus out to the ruins and we negotiated a reduced fare for being “students” to make a trip the next day.

That night while meandering around town, and seeing as we were both pretty excited about the ease, comfort, and lack of money required to hitchhike, we bought a good road map of Turkey. We were also already becoming fond of Turkish food, which was as nicely priced (a sit-down meal for two was around $10) as it was seasoned.

The next morning we took the minibus to Ani, which was actually quite impressive. If you are interested in the history you can read the Wikipedia article on Ani, but in short it was a huge walled city that used to be the capital of Armenia and was destroyed by the Ottomans. It languished without any attention for years until it started to become more visited by tourists, and while wandering around the destroyed churches and fortresses it was obviously why so many tourists came. There was even an old church dome that was hit by lightning and split almost exactly in half.

After visiting Ani and Kars, we took off hitchhiking again towards Lake Van further south. Finding rides was shockingly easy with incredibly friendly people stopping before we would even have time to raise our hands, and with a few rides and a short minibus ride arrived to the southern area of the lake where we planned to camp. We found a restaurant/campground and pitched our tent. Lake Van was ringed by beautiful mountains and had a brilliant shade of blue, and was the sort of place you could just stare out at for a while.

We started talking with the restaurant owner’s daughter, who was in school for tourism in Cappadocia and spoke good English, which was refreshing after finding out that the vast majority of people in Turkish Kurdistan can only say “Hello” and “Where are you from?” in English and can’t comprehend responses (which was about how good our Turkish was).

Talking with her was our introduction to the problems in this area of Turkey, which does not identify as being part of the Turkish culture. The Kurdish people have been fighting, sometimes violently under the PKK with thousands of lives lost, for more rights to self-determination. The owner’s daughter was telling us how, for example, her grandmother cannot speak Kurdish (she doesn’t speak Turkish) to the doctor, who also speaks Kurdish, and has to bring a translator every time. The Kurdish are also not allowed to have their own schools, and it is only recently that the central government has allowed a Kurdish TV station to broadcast and Kurdish to be taught in schools.

We were made aware that we weren’t really in Turkey, but rather Kurdistan, which has distinct traditions and way of life. (Click here to read the wiki about the Turkish-Kurdish conflict). Overall, it sounded like Turkey was doing a poor job dealing the vast part of the country inhabited by Kurds, and it didn’t surprise me that they were fighting for more rights and to release the thousands of political prisoners held in Turkish prisons.

The main political party that represents Kurds in Turkey is called BDP (there are other parties that represent Kurds in Iraq and Iran), and were fairly progressive in their promotion of womens’ rights with the currently imprisoned leader emphasizing that Kurdistan would never be free unless women were free.

As we found out hitching more, a sure way to get people excited was to say “BDP” and give a thumbs-up. People were particularly riled up since there was an election on June 12th. Many Kurds have mixed feelings about the US, particularly since the US supports the current ruling party in Turkey, Ak Parti, which is not exactly on good terms with many Kurds.

Our next leg of the trip would be deeper into Kurdish territory, and I even got to play with a Kurdish militiaman's AK-47.


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