Borderlands

Mersin, 05.08.2019

14 real border crossings after leaving Barcelona 11 weeks ago, there were two more to go. I expected these to be of the easier sort. Reaching the Georgian border post, in 10 minutes and a short conversation later I was done. It only took so “long” because the officer saw that I had not bought Georgian road insurance, and had to issue me a 100 Lari (31 EUR / 34 USD) fine. “If you come back to Georgia next time you pay, good luck.” I love these easy border posts! The Turkish side took a little longer, as to be expected on the entering side of these checkpoints. Getting out is usually easier (except in Azerbaijan), getting in is where all the questions, paperwork and searches are. But the Turks were friendly, uncomplicated, little bureaucratic, and on my way out the customs official even told me he had been in Bilbao years ago and eaten a lot and very well. In half an hour all was done, and I rolled into Turkey. In Tbilisi I had filled my water tank to be able to camp. The sun was already low, and after climbing up to 2.600m through various valleys and mountains it also got very freezy. In Turkey I roamed again, so I had spotty 3G internet on my phone and could check the weather, traffic and road conditions ahead. All around the border with Georgia on the Turkish side there were military posts, bigger and smaller ones. In every village there was an army station, with sand bags, bunkers, concrete walls, barbed wire, sometimes an armored vehicle too. I had to leave this area. So I kept driving and driving, it got colder and colder, and darker and darker. I reached Cildir lake as it was already dark, and had to bury my camping plans. Along the road I found a restaurant on the lake that also had some bungalows with a hot shower and warm blanket, and fresh fish for dinner. A proud and friendly boy from Afghanistan showed me around.

The road to Ani leads along the border with Armenia. Turkey and Armenia have a difficult relationship, the border is closed, and heavily guarded on the Turkish side. More military checkpoints, more sand bags, more armored vehicles. Ani is a magic place. From 2013 I remembered walking through the ruins of this city that a thousand years ago competed with Constantinople for importance, had 1.001 churches and 40 gates, bustled with trade and mixed cultures and religions. Today it was just a field, behind some mostly reconstructed walls, littered with stones, many of them with engravings and carved decorations on them. Six years later the magic is still there. This time I walked around longer, through the entire area, and up to the castle hill, from where the views over the ruins as well as the two valleys around them and over into Armenia were breathtaking. I could see the watchtowers and observations vehicles of the Armenian soldiers very clearly on the other side of the valley. Ani was an expression of a powerful Armenian city for centuries, before earthquakes and the Mongols destroyed it. Today few buildings still stand, a mosque, some Georgian and Armenian churches, a palace, and a part of the outer city walls. The big half domes of the towers give a hint of how big these structures must have been. Over the river in the valley a bridge must have once stood, today there were just ruins. And on an island rock in the river there was another church ruin. This place is a paradise for Hobbit fans. So many of the places JRR Tolkien described become very real here. Strolling around the field of stones in the heat my imagination went on overdrive thinking about how this place must have looked like a thousand years ago.

From Ani I took a smaller road along the Armenian border. Again Google maps was a bit too fast, the road was still being constructed, and the Mini got yet another layer of yellow and red sand. I got stopped more often along these borders than in all of Central Asia, but here the police and soldiers were friendly, professional, checked my passport, sometimes my trunk, and let me go without making up absurd stories or asking for money or just wanting to sit in my car. Also, these men faced the threat of real conflict, I could see it in how they moved, looked around, and how they had set up their posts. At Igdir I stopped for a delicious kebab lunch before heading south, driving around the impressive Mount Ararat, another place important to the Armenians that lied in today’s Turkey. The mountain top was covered in clouds. I tried to take a picture from all sides without them, no chance. Once past the Ararat, the border with Iran was very close and I drove along it for a while. The only Iranian vehicles were heavily loaded trucks heading to the border. The mountains separating Turkey from Iran were littered with big concrete watchtowers at short distance from each other. On the road big armored trucks stood every few km, protected with tall concrete walls on one side. Checkpoints, cameras, barracks were all over the place. There must have been a significant amount of soldiers out here to arm all these posts. As the sun started its descent for the day I reached lake Van. I remembered it as very big, ice blue, the snow covered mountains on the other side. I must have seen a lot more big mountain lakes since then, because this time In just a few hours I had passed it, and it didn’t seem as huge in 2019. Again I tried to find a camp site for the night, but the entire shore of the lake was used for agriculture and I couldn’t find a road to the beach. Maybe because I was driving on the wrong side of the road I didn’t see too well, but when it became dark I had to give up and drive into Tatvan. As I reached the main street into the city, a bombardment of lights, people on the streets, food stalls, cars honking in stop and go traffic welcomed me.

Early the next morning I hit the road again, and those same bustling roads were all silent. Only the tea shops were open, men sitting outside sipping cay, dissolving sugar cubes patiently, starting their day. Traffic was little, and calm. The road took me though a different type of mountains now, more arid, more yellow, hotter. From Tatvan at 1.600m for a long time the road led downhill, and I rolled though canyons and valleys. Out here it was strange to see how big multi-story apartment buildings got built in the middle of nowhere that didn’t seem to be fully inhabited or completely finished, although there was no more construction activity. Sometimes there were new campuses of schools or universities, always with a new mosque, but no people. I guessed it was summer holiday time, but they looked bizarre as I drove by, somehow surreal. At Hasankeyf I stopped, trying to see the castle and ruins of the bridge over the river Tigris. But the moment I parked the car a guy selling tourist crap positioned himself in front of the Mini, and from then on it was a procedure of “Hello Sir!”, “Hey Mister!”, “How are you?”, “Where are you from?” I ignored them all, but it was very annoying. Kids came to give me something I didn’t take, as the next hand would be the one asking for money. In the end I left, as there were also no signs indicating where to go. Big disappointment! But the Mor Hananyo monastery more than compensated. A very curated site, with a café where I got my first ice cream of the summer, overlooking a vast plain – Mesopotamia. I wasn’t aware this was the center of the Syriac orthodox church for a big part of the past 1.500 years. Disappearing in the dust on the horizon was Syria. Hard to believe there was one of the deadliest wars so close to this peaceful place, where a breeze under the trees of the garden leading up to the monastery made the summer heat vanish. Under the monastery was a crypt that served as place of worship over 4.000 years ago to the Assyrians, before the Romans built a fort on top of it that later got converted into a monastery.

To have a half day break from the road I stayed in Mardin for the rest of the afternoon. It was a very beautiful town on a rock, on top of which the Turkish army occupied a medieval fortress. From the town the view was the same as from the monastery. I had found what looked like a very curated boutique hotel, the Mardius. The Mini had a hard time to climb the narrow and steep roads up the old town until they ended in front of a house. I found the hotel, and entering the gates a wonderfully curated old family mansion presented itself in the most beautiful renovation I’ve seen on this journey so far. The owner came to greet me, then led me to a room on the upper floor, and told me the story of his family, that had owned this seven centuries old “palace” for generations, had sold it, only to re-buy it 20 years later and restore it. A very pleasant and mannered man, I listened to his well told story with great interest. After an afternoon sleeping and writing the plain under the city started to lighten up on the Turkish side. Behind the border pitch black. From my front row table I admired the panorama, the thin half moon on a deep blue sky littered with stars. As the dished of a mouthwatering dinner kept coming, the muezzin called for prayer for the last time of the day, and women ululated somewhere in the darkness.

Breakfast in the morning was equally delicious and with too many choices of wonderful small plates. The Georgia effect of eating too much trying to finish the plates kicked in. After a tour of the city center I rolled down the mountain to Dara, a Roman outpost in Mesopotamia. Right behind it the border with Syria was surprisingly light on guards, but closed off with a high concrete wall and barbed wire. I would drive along it several times throughout the day for longer stretches. It took forever to find the Göbekli Tepe site, where ruins of houses from 10-12.000 years ago were being excavated. The stone columns that probably held the roofs were beautifully decorated with carvings of all kinds of animals.

From there it took under 1h to reach the border station with Kobane in Syria. I could drive right up to the last few meters before the barrier. On the Turkish side armored vehicles were dug in, on the Syrian side the flag of the Kurds stood in the middle of the road. A few years back I remembered the images on TV, when islamic terrorists tried to capture the city. Today there was nothing going on. Like also on the entire stretch of border towards Jarabulus, where the Turkish army had entered Syria with big media fanfare. Further upstream the Euphrates river was blocked by a reservoir dam, the water reaching maximum levels. In doing so, the river was flooding also big parts of the Zeugma ruins of a Roman city on both sides of the river. I went to see the excavation works in the 39C heat. Beautiful mosaics, columns, walls with parts of their frescoes were being unearthed slowly.

At Gaziantep I turned south to Kilis, and from there drove around the border. Aleppo was just 50km away. More border wall followed, and my first checkpoint of the day. As the sun went down behind the mountains separating Mesopotamia from the Mediterranean sea, more and more Iranian trucks filled the motorway. They must have been empty at the speed they were racing and overtaking everybody. It had been a very long day, but after a lot of borders the Mediterranean sea was finally near and a new chapter of this journey could begin.

2 Replies to “Borderlands”

  1. I am beyond jealous that you were at Gobekli Tepe site. #soawesome I have wanted to go there for years, and God willing, I will one day. Thanks so much for sharing your travels.

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