Eastern Turkey

Mount Nemrut, home to an array of arresting ancient statues, is in southeastern Turkey.
By Rick Steves

Istanbul and the western Turkish coast, while still fascinating, cheap, and eager to please, have embraced European-style mainstream tourism. For the most cultural thrills, head east. Tour inland Anatolia with abandon, using Ankara as a springboard. From here, buses transport you to the region, culture, and era of your choice.

Having an interpreter helps you explore and mingle with meaning, but it’s not required. Many older Turks speak German. The friendliness of Turkey is legendary among those who have traveled beyond the cruise ports. While relatively few small-town Turks speak English, their eagerness to help makes the language barrier an often enjoyable headache.

Enjoy jabbering with the people you meet. If Turkish sounds tough to you, remember, it’s the same in reverse. Certain sounds, like our “th,” are tricky. My friend Ruth was entertained by the tortured attempts Turks made at pronouncing her name...“Woooott.” Any English-speaking Turk can remember spending long hours looking into the mirror, slowly enunciating: “This and these are hard to say. I think about them every day. My mouth and my teeth, I think you see, help me say them easily.”

Throughout Turkey, travelers cringe at the sight of ugly, unfinished construction that scars nearly every town with rusty tangles of steel rebar waiting to reinforce future concrete walls. But in Turkey, unfinished buildings are family savings accounts. Inflation here is ruinous. Any local in need of a hedge against inflation keeps a building under construction. Whenever there’s a little extra cash, rather than watch it evaporate in the bank, Ahmed will invest in the next stage of construction. It’s the goal of any Turkish parent to provide each child with a house or apartment with which to start adult life. A popular saying is, “Rebar holds the family together.”

If you’re looking for a rain forest in Turkey, go to the northeast, along the Black Sea coast, where it rains 320 days a year. This is the world’s top hazelnut-producing region and home of the Laz people. A highlight of one tour (which I led through Eastern Turkey with 22 American travelers and a Turkish co-guide) was spending an evening and a night with a Laz family. Actually the families of three brothers; they all live in one large three-layered house provided to them by their now-elderly parents.

The people in our group were the first Americans that the 16 people who lived there had ever seen. We were treated to a feast. In Turkey it’s next to impossible to turn down this kind of hospitality. As we praised the stuffed peppers, members of our group discreetly passed Pepto-Bismol tablets around under the table. (The pouring tea didn’t quite mask the sound of ripping cellophane.)

After dinner we paid our respects to the grandma. Looking like a veiled angel in white, she and her family knew she would soon succumb to her cancer. But for now she was overjoyed to see such a happy evening filling her family’s home.

When we wondered about having an extended family under one roof, the sons said, “If a day goes by when we don’t see each other, we are very sad.” To assure harmony in the family, the three brothers married three sisters from another family. They also assured us that entertaining our group of 22 was no problem. If we weren’t there, they’d have had as many of their neighbors in.

No Turkish gathering is complete without dancing, and anyone who can snap fingers and swing a hula hoop can be comfortable on the living room dance floor of new Turkish friends. Two aunts, deaf and mute from meningitis, brought the house down with their shoulders fluttering like butterflies. We danced and talked with four generations until after midnight.

Stepping into the late-night breeze, I noticed what had seemed to be a forested hillside was now a spangled banner of lights shining through windows, each representing a “Third World” home filled with as many “family values” as the one we were a part of that night. So much for my stereotypical image of fanatical Muslim hordes. Before we left the next morning, our friends tossed a gunnysack of hazelnuts into our bus.

For decades this eastern end of Turkey’s Black Sea coast was a dead end butting up against the closed border of Soviet Georgia. But today the former USSR is ringed by sprawling “Russian markets” rather than foreboding guard posts.

From Finland to Turkey we found boxy Lada automobiles overloaded with the lowest class of garage-sale junk, careening toward the nearest border on a desperate mission to scrape together a little hard cash. In the Turkish coastal town of Trabzon, 300 yards of motley tarps and blankets displayed grandpa’s tools, pink and yellow “champagnski,” Caspian caviar (the blue lid is best), battered samovars, fur hats, and nightmarish Rube Goldbergian electrical gadgetry. A Georgian babushka lady with a linebacker’s build, caked-on makeup, and bleached blonde hair offered us a wide selection of Soviet pins, garish plastic flowers, and practically worthless ruble coins.

To satisfy my group’s strange appetite for godforsaken border crossings, we drove out to the Georgian border. No one knew if we could cross or not. As far as the Turkish official was concerned, “No problem.” We were escorted through the mud, past pushcarts bound for flea markets and huge trucks mired in red tape. In this strange economic no-man’s-land, the relative prosperity of Muslim Turkey was clear. Just a prayer call away from Georgia, a sharp little Turkish mosque with an exclamation-point minaret seemed to holler, “You sorry losers, let us help you onto our boat.” Young Georgian soldiers with hardly a button on their uniforms checked identity cards, as those who qualified squeezed past the barbed wire and through the barely open gate. A soldier told us we couldn’t pass. In search of a second opinion, we fetched an officer who said, “Visa no, problem” — a negative that, for a second, I misinterpreted as a positive.

Driving inland from the Black Sea under 10,000-foot peaks, our bus crawled up onto the burnt, barren, 5,000-foot-high Anatolian plateau to Erzurum, the main city of Eastern Turkey (24 hours by bus from Istanbul). Life is hard here. Blood feuds, a holdover from feudal justice under the Ottomans, are a leading cause of imprisonment. Winters are below-zero killers. Villages spread out onto the plateau like brown weeds, each with the same economy: ducks, dung, and hay.

But Allah has given this land some pleasant surprises. The parched plain hides lush valleys where rooftops sport colorful patches of sun-dried apricots, where shepherd children still play the eagle-bone flute, and where teenage boys prefer girls who dress modestly. And you can crack the sweet, thin-skinned hazelnuts with your teeth.

Entering a village, we passed under a banner announcing, “No love is better than the love for your land and your nation.” Another ducks, dung, and hay town, it took us warmly into its callused hands. Each house wore a tall hat of hay-food for the cattle and insulation for the winter. Mountains of cow pies were neatly stacked and promised warmth and cooking fuel for six months of snowed-in winter that was on its way. A man with a donkey cart wheeled us through town. Veiled mothers strained to look through our video camera’s viewfinder to see their children’s mugging faces. The town’s annually elected policeman bragged that he keeps the place safe from terrorists. Children scampered around women beating raw wool with sticks — a rainbow of browns that would one day be woven into a carpet to soften a stone sofa, warm up a mud-brick wall, or serve as a daughter’s dowry.

Driving east from Erzurum, we set our sights on 17,000-foot Mount Ararat. Villages growing between ancient rivers of lava expertly milk the land for a subsistence living. After a quick reread of the flood story in Genesis, I realized this powerful, sun-drenched, windswept land had changed little since Noah docked.