Impressions of Eastern Turkey

By Rick Steves

Istanbul and the western Turkish coast, while still fascinating, cheap, and genuinely welcoming, have embraced European-style mainstream tourism. For Turkey's biggest 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.

I'm always looking for towns that have yet to master the business of tourism. I was delighted on my first visit to the hilly, castle-topped town of Kastamonu (five hours northeast of Ankara, and about 90 minutes inland from the Black Sea). Business hotels here are comfortable, but not slick. I handed a postcard to the boy at the desk of my hotel, hoping he could mail it for me. He looked it over a couple of times on both sides, complimented me, and politely handed it back. As I left, he waved and said, "Hello."

Later that day, while changing money at the bank, I was spotted by the manager, who invited me into his office for tea. I was his first American customer.

Having an interpreter in Anatolia allows you to explore and mingle with a greater sense of meaning, but English speakers can still make do without one. (Many older Turks speak German, which can be helpful.) The friendliness of Turkey is legendary among those who have traveled beyond its cruise ports. While relatively few small-town Turks speak English, their eagerness to help makes the language barrier an often enjoyable headache.

Anatolia's northeast coast, along the Black Sea, has a rain-forest climate — on average, it rains 320 days a year. This is the world's top hazelnut-producing region, and home of the Laz people.

On one tour I led long ago, we spent a night with a welcoming Laz family of 16, and my tour members were the first Americans that anyone in the family had ever seen. We were treated to a feast.

One member of my group asked our hosts, with the help of my Turkish co-guide, about what it was like to live with their extended family under one roof. (Their home housed the families of three brothers.) One of the sons told her, "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 had married three sisters from another family. They also assured us that entertaining our group of 22 was no problem — if we hadn't been there, they'd have had as many of their neighbors in for dinner.

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.

Before heading to sleep that night, I stepped outside for some air — and noticed that what had seemed, in the daylight, to be a forested hillside was now sparkling with lights shining through small windows. Each light shone from a "Third World" home filled with joys, sorrows, struggles, and family bonds that were essentially no different from those harbored in the homes of my own town. Before we left the next morning, our friends tossed a gunnysack of hazelnuts into our bus.

Erzurum, a 24-hour drive from Istanbul, up on the barren, 5,000-foot high Anatolian plateau, is the main city of eastern Turkey. It has long been a garrison town — for 1,500 years, its fortress has stood like a breakwater, taking wave after wave of armies from the east. (One of those was the ethnic Turks, who arrived in Anatolia in the 12th century.)

Life is hard in this region. Villages spread out onto the plateau like brown weeds, each with the same economy: ducks, dung, and hay. Blood feuds, a holdover from feudal justice under the Ottomans, are a leading cause of imprisonment. Winters are below-zero killers.

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 flutes carved from the bones of eagles. Here you can crack the sweet, thin-skinned hazelnuts with your teeth.

I remember one village with a banner stretched over the road into town that read, according to my Turkish friend, "No love is better than the love for your land and your nation." 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. Veiled mothers strained to look through my camera's viewfinder to see their children's mugging faces.

My friend told me of the town's annually elected policeman, who brags 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.

East of Erzurum, near the point where Armenia, Iran, and Turkey come together, lies Mount Ararat — it's almost as if they'd pushed it up. At about 17,000 feet, it's by far the highest mountain in the region. 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.