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Thoughts reverent and irreverent from the road in Turkey

THE PALAN-MAKER OF GERGER

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The memory is a very curious thing. On one of my previous visits to Kahta people had told me about a castle at Gerger which, they assured me, I ought to visit. Then there hadn’t been time, and to the best of my memory I had never once thought of Gerger since then. Back in Kahta though, I only had to see the word Gerger on a bus in the otogar to be desperate to get there. What is amazing to me, though, is that I never learn. Yes, there certainly is a castle called Gerger but does that mean it’s in Gerger or even that it’s actually accessible? I ask neither of these questions before persuading poor Rebecca that it would be a good idea to go here.

I begin to think better of this scheme long before we reach Gerger when I spot a sign off on the right that reads “Gerger Kalesi 15km”. Hmmm. And how are we going to get there and back in the time we’ve allocated, I begin to wonder? By now the people in the back seats of the bus have started to take an interest in our plans. “Why are you coming to Gerger?” one of them asks. “There’s nothing to see here.”

Oh dear, this would be bad enough were I on my own, but now when I’ve involved someone else in a potential wild goose chase I begin to feel very uncomfortable. This discomfort only worsens when the bus pulls into Gerger, a town that has the benighted feel of somewhere at the very end of a road and not somewhere that look as if it is anticipating a rush of visitors any day soon. On the other hand the man in charge of the “otogar” is a no-nonsense type who immediately agrees to summon a taxi for us. Meanwhile we take a turn along the one-horse street and find at the far end of it Selim, one of the few remaining makers of palans, the huge saddles designed to carry more than one rider at a time across the mountains. Seated on the floor, he is cutting reeds with large metal scissors, then stuffing them into the palans and hammering them into place. On the walls around him hang a mixture of colourful new palans and much-patched-up older ones brought in for more repairs.

I first met a palan-maker in Bingöl last year. Bingöl is one of those towns which I wanted to love but couldn’t really. Two friends, one from İstanbul, the other from Göreme, come from Bingöl, although when they say Bingöl they really mean Binğol the province while I instinctively assume that they mean Bingöl the town. Things didn’t get off to a good start there though. Arriving at 2.30 in the morning after an arduous journey from Trabzon via Erzincan and Erzurum, I checked into a hotel I had been told was four-star only to find stuck to the mirror a sign reading: “Esteemed Guests, Please don’t clean your shoes on the curtains.” In the morning a man from the local tourism development foundation was despatched to greet me. A weatherbeaten man in his fifties or sixties, he looked as if he would burst into tears when asked what there was to see in town. “Nothing!” he said. “There’s nothing to see here.”

Perhaps he was thrown by having to deal with a woman and a westerner at that. Anyway, I shook him off as quickly as I could and set out to take a look round, refusing to believe there could really be nothing. An hour later, however, I was coming close to conceding defeat when suddenly I stumbled upon the palan shop and its cheery owner who, like Selim, sat on  the floor stitching away at a giant saddle. On the wall by the door was a map showing the linguistic breakdown of Bingöl province which reminded me that while the İstanbul friend grew up speaking Kermanca, the Göreme one learned Zaza, a language that most experts regard as separate from Kurdish even though its speakers often describe themselves as Kurds. There’s another man in the shop at the same time and in one of those extraordinary twists that always amaze me it turns out that he had worked in one of the Göreme restaurants and was friends with my friend Yunus. In a great wave of excitement we phone Yılmaz in İstanbul to ask him where exactly he came from so that they can show me on the map. But when I ask them what they recommend I look at they start to look almost as miserable as the man from the tourism development foundation. Across the road, they tell me, is a dip where once the Armenians lived. Otherwise? Well, there are the Floating Islands, of course...

The Floating Islands? Sounds interesting, and in minutes I’m hopping into a taxi and we’re careening east along the highway towards Muş, passing vast, empty expanses of field tinted yellow after the harvest. The Yüzen Adalar, to give them their Turkish name, are indeed a phenomenon. Nowhere else in the world do I ever remember coming across anything like them. Fenced off behind barbed wire is a miniature lake (well, large pond might be a more accurate description) with three small islands in the middle of it. And, yes, they really do float. As I walk towards the lake with the taxi driver I see three Turks already marooned in the middle of it, laughing and shouting and making a big thing of it. Then from the small cafe beyond the wire a man who might have been the twin of the one sent to describe the local attractions to me appears with a long pole. This he extends towards the group on the island while grasping a tree trunk firmly. Then he hauls on the pole and the island drifts slowly back to shore just as if it were an errant boat that had slipped its moorings and was being brought back again.

Of course I step onto one of the islands myself and of course it floats slowly away so that I, too, look back and find I can no longer step ashore again. The custodian extends his pole. He draws me gently back to land again. And that’s about the extent of it. A notice by the gate says that there were once seven islands which would have made the lake pretty crowded but four of them had apparently been lost to grazing, hence, perhaps, the fence.

The driver and I sit down for a quick tea. “There’s something interesting in X up the road,” he tells me. “The EU has been paying for work on it.” I fidget in my seat while trying to decide whether it’s worth punting the extra taxi fare on a gamble. But since it’s unlikely that I’ll be back in this part of the world again in a hurry I say yes and we pile back into the taxi and continue east, arriving in a small town whose entire centre is being dug up and relaid. It doesn’t look at all promising but we divert to call on the taxi driver’s auntie anyway, then to visit another relative near the school. This relative shakes his head doubtfully. No, there’s nothing of historic interest to show a foreigner, and the EU projects are social ones. There IS something in village Y but that’s still some way away, and the road’s bad, and anyway he doesn’t know how interesting I will find it.

The taxi driver looks at me sheepishly, but I can hardly be cross with him when Id given the go-ahead for what now looks to have been a quick visit to his relies. We roar back to Binğol and I escape on the very next bus to Muş.

So, to return to Gerger, it’s not as if I haven’t been here before but I’m a relentless optimist when its comes to new discoveries. So what if they don’t all come to anything? At least finding that out is usually an adventure.

We return to the “otogar”, followed in due course by the “taxi”. But if I’d been expecting a shiny yellow number the rusty metal box that rocks up comes as a nasty shock as, quite frankly, does the individual who emerges from it purporting to be a taxi driver. This guy comes with a Uriah Heap physique but with a crafty look in his eye that belies the Dickensian original. When asked how much money he wants for the trip he shrugs his shoulders as if the question had never been asked before. I would love to send him away again but then the entire journey would have been fruitless so with a sigh I get in.

The man does not head back to the sign we’d passed and turn left. Instead he strikes out on a completely different road that takes us through stunning scenery before running out in a circular clearing that constitutes the car park. Above us soars a craggy rock. There’s no apparent path up it. The man unfolds himself from the car and cocks a rifle over his shoulders. “For snakes,” he laughs. Rebecca is unhappy about the rifle. I’m unhappy about the lack of a path. I’m also angry that anyone should have agreed to bring us here when we are clearly not equipped for proper climbing, something they must have known and we clearly couldn’t have. 

“I go up there all the time,” the driver jeers as I protest about the absense of path.

“But you grew up here. I’m not a goat and these shoes are hopeless,” I retort.

There ensue a few tense and tetchy moments with me snarling at the guy that it’s out of the question to climb up there and demanding to know why he didn’t take the signposted route while Rebecca tries to be placatory, no doubt still wary of the gun. The guy insists the other road would have brought us to the same point which I’m eventually forced to concede might be true. Grumpily, I head out along the one obvious path which brings me out overlooking a vista of such stunning beauty that even I eventually calm down. There’s the Atatürk Lake and there are the mountains. There’s no ugly development, no half-built shacks to wreck the view. It reminds me of some of the remoter parts of Western Scotland and suddenly I don’t mind so much that we can’t visit the castle after all.

“You can see the statue from here anyway,” the driver says, probably feeling a little guilty himself now that he’s failed to coax us up the mountain, and I look back and, sure enough, up high on the side where we wouldn’t have been able to see it even if we had risked our necks, is a fine carving of Samos, a very Hittite-looking character but the father of Antiochus I Commagene, the man responsible for the famous shrine at Nemrut.

Given the grimness of Kahta we’ve decided to spend the next night at the Karadut Pension on Mt Nemrut. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do but not on my own. Not that the pension is any great beauty. As ever, Dobo the owner has preferred to throw up a new building that completely ignores the vernacular architecture, such a shame when up and down the road there are fine houses built in layers of wood and stone like club sandwiches that would make wonderful places to spend the night. 

Still, we've arrived at the perfect time to head up Mt Nemrut for the sunset. I have to confess to a rather jaded view of Nemrut. Of course the first time I came up here in 1992 I was as thrilled as the next person by the sight of the giant heads designed to honour Antiochus I Commagene. There they lay on the ground, each of them a striking one-off, the bearded heads reminding me of Noggin the Nog. 1992 was a strange year to have been visiting Turkey. In the aftermath of the first Iraq War, Kurds had poured across the border into Eastern Turkey which was already troubled by the worsening problem of the PKK. The result was that the stream of tourism had dried to a trickle. It was my first visit to the east and even I had not wanted to go it alone, opting instead to join an Explore tour. There were 15 of us in the group and we didn’t always hit it off all that well. Still, at Nemrut I don’t remember any problems, and I’m fairly sure we had the sunrise more or less to ourselves as we stood in the cold of dawn, wrapped in borrowed hotel blankets, paying homage to a man whose name might have been lost to history were it not for his (presumed) burial place.

Later I returned to the mountain on my own, then came back again with a small tour group from Göreme. By the third visit I was starting to get a bit blase about the heads, not to mention hacked off with the business of getting up at 2am in order to be at the summit ready for sunrise. That being the case, I was dragging behind as the main group struck purposefully up the path, and so it was that I got to hear the wonderful sound of the call to prayer being sung on the side of the mountain. A man was standing along there, facing towards Mecca, his hands raised, his voice floating like magic on the still dawn air. I was enthralled. Sunset beside the heads with a group of New Age Turks banging on drums and singing, megh. Call to prayer in the silence and solitude of first light? Completely unforgettable.

Back in Kahta I raved to the man in the tourism office about what I’d heard.

“You can’t have done. It’s impossible. It’s forbidden,” he snapped.

“Well, I’m sorry, Mahmud Bey, but that is what I heard.” 

“Those people. They are fanatics. They think that the people visiting the heads are going there to worship them. Why else would they get up so early and walk so far? They even pushed over one of the heads...”

I stared at him in bewilderment. How was it that something that had seemed so wonderful mere hours earlier could turn out to be the smiling face of something much darker?

My last visit to Nemrut had been a rushed drop-in during the course of a press trip whose organiser had put the itinerary together without taking into account the long distances between towns in Eastern Turkey. The result was that a group containing more photographers than writers had arrived at the site with barely time to climb to the summit before the sun would set. At the entrance our progress was barred by a large Kurd of unpleasant temperament. “You need permits for those cameras,” he insisted. This was an EU-sponsored press trip to promote work done to develop tourism in the area affected by the GAP project and the Atatürk Dam, a fact that rolled like water off a duck’s back as far as he was concerned. But he had reckoned without Filiz Hanım, our tireless co-ordinator. “You go ahead,” she told us. “I’ll sort this out,” and so we did, scattering like flies before he could summon his henchmen to enforce his authority.

Today the climb doesn’t seem as arduous as I remember, perhaps because going up for sunset means that you can avoid the icy cold of dawn. On the summit, however, the wind is blowing so hard that it’s hard to stand up and I have visions of being carried off the side of the mountain and floating all the way back down to Kahta. As usual, there are lots of other people at the site. There’s also an ugly low fence blocking access to the heads which may be good for protecting them but does nothing for the aesthetics of the site. I want to be excited by the heads, really I do, but it’s all too much of a jamboree for me. The answer is obvious – come doing the day when the crowds will have moved on – but that’s not what we’ve done today and even Rebecca seems less than enthralled. It’s a bit like trying to take a photograph of the Mona Lisa. There are no original angles left to snap and we’ve all seen so many images of the heads that it’s hard to work up the anticipated enthusiasm for the originals.

Somewhat chastened we return to the pension and I stroll down the hill in search of chocolate. Karadut (Black Mulberry) is more of a hamlet than a village but it still rises to a pide shop and a market whose female owner tells me that she’s behind the counter from seven in the morning until nine at night every day, working hours to which the last lingering cornershop owners of the UK would no doubt relate. Across the road from her shop is the new mosque built on a scale to recall the wool churches of East Anglia but with none of their exquisite beauty. Beside it, however, I spot a lovely wood and stone house, two-storied and with a verandah running along most of the top floor. The doors, windows and woodwork are all painted green which suggests it may have something to do with the mosque behind it. Large trucks full of earth are trundling along the road beside it and as I flatten myself against the wall to let them pass I see a man beckoning to me. He’s wearing a white skullcap so I assume he’s the imam.

“What’s happening here?” I ask since he’s standing gazing at a space beside the house which is obviously being prepared for a new building.

“I’m building a library,” he says to my surprise. “There are about 400 students here and they have only a small room to study in.”

Inevitably he wants to know where I’m from, whether I’m married, what I do for a living. When I tell him I’m a writer, he perks up considerably. “So am I!” he says and reels off some titles which appear to be a mixture of poetry and guidance on Islamic ethics. The next thing I know I’m being subjected, ever so gently and politely, to another lecture on the virtues of Islam. Of course I’m more interested in the house next door.

“That’s a lovely building,” I say. “It would make a wonderful pension.”

He looks at me suspiciously. “But it’s very old,” he says.

“Yes, but tourists love that. It’s much better than concrete (which is what I assume the new library will be made from).”

“But the scorpions come through the walls,” he asserts triumphantly, after which I can’t think of much else to say and retreat to the pension where a dinner of soup, hair roasting (the hilarious mistranslation of saç tava) and fruit is just being served.

 

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