Wednesday, 12 June 2013

A Visit To A Cathouse...

The stairwell in the hotel was hung with posters of white cats with different coloured eyes. The posters all said 'Van Cat'.
I asked the lobby manager and he told me the Van cat was a world famous breed.
"You know, Van cats love swimming in the lake. Very friendly is Van cat - strange for cat."
He told me there was a Van cat house at the university - take any dolmus to the campush.

The campus was huge, flat and bathed in bright sunshine. I walked from the bus stop towards the closest collection of buildings.

Van University Campus

A couple were whispering and giggling in the shade of a bike rack. I asked for the Van Kedisi, a phrase written down by my man at the hotel. The couple discussed me and my request. The girl seemed to have a better grasp of the situation but it was her boyfriend who finally addressed me.

"First go away!" He suddenly pointed down the road. "Then go left".
He smiled, looking at his happily nodding partner for confirmation.

That was a start and I did as he suggested. I'm a firm believer in incremental directions. I don't need to hear the whole story just tell me the first bit and I'll ask someone else when I get there. The further away a place is the more difficult it becomes to describe.

So, after a decent distance 'going away' down the road I veered left, tramped over some wasteground, clumsily negotiated a flowerbed and found myself in a carpark. A car was just pulling in.

I sought their help and three guys began discussing the likely location of a cathouse inside the university grounds. The owner of the car offered to drive me around till we found it.
He asked me some questions about my background, family, work and footballing allegiance.
Usual topics, no tricky start this time.
"You speak good English."
"Thank you. I lived in Sheffield for 3 years. They have a United too."
"And a Wednesday."
"Of course."
"Were you working in Sheffield?"
"Maths PhD. I'm a lecturer here."
He told me about the university, then spotted a security guard and got directions.
He mentioned an earthquake two years ago that had destroyed much of the campus. I as ked him if he'd been here when it happened.
"I was here. My house was badly damaged so the government made me knock it down."
"You had insurance, right? You understand 'insurance'?"
"Understand, but didn't have any," he glanced at me. "Stupid."
Now he slept in a spare room at a friend's place somewhere on campus.

We found the cathouse and I offered to pay his admission. He nodded, touched his heart and thanked me.

The Van Cathouse

The lobby contained the ticket desk and a small gift shop. I wondered how I'd look with a big photo of a cat on my T-shirt.

From the lobby a short corridor led to the main cat enclosure. Wire mesh separated the few visitors from a dozen or so cats within. The cats were indeed friendly but the fencing stopped any properly gratifying contact so after ten minutes of awkward stroking I resigned myself to just taking photos.

Cats are never easy subjects and Van cats were no exception. For a cat famous for having different coloured eyes the Van cat delights mostly in providing only profile shots, or shots with one or both eyes closed.

My companion from Sheffield had looked over things quickly with a perplexed frown then joined a security guard in a bored chat.

Off the corridor were small rooms with titles like "Kitten Room", "Female Dining Room" and "Delivery Room".

I tried the Kitten Room door but it was locked. I nodded at the wary security man reassuringly.

Female Dining Room

I got a lift back to the bus stop.
"You don't like cats, do you?"
He regarded me as if he'd never thought about it.

Breakfast Street

I've been reading "The Great Gatsby".

I felt like a change from the pulps I've been wolfing down throughout the trip - I've spent endless mornings in bright cafes reading lines like "Chin furiously clenched, Nayland Smith literally hurled himself through the open doorway.", smiling and shaking my head.

Pulps made me feel anyone could be a writer, if they had a story to tell.

Now, reading the bright, perfect Gatsby I sit smiling and nodding. Smiling as the supple prose lifts and spins me through the roseate candlelight and perfumes of Gatsby's parties. Nodding at its diamond sharp dissections of the frivolous, ghostlike guests breathing dreams for air.

Gatsby makes me feel there are far fewer writers in the world than I'd previously thought.

I've already downloaded Fitzgerald's other novels and a selection of short stories, and I'm in the market for a biography. However, Gatsby is a demoralising experience when you're engaged in blogging, and forgive me if I forget myself and start to "wax lyrical".

Back to our story... wax on.

I left Tatvan after on the third morning and took a bus round the south coast of Lake Van. Water on the left, grey and creased by squalls, snow-capped mountains jammed close together on the right. The rugged land empty but for some goats and sheep blown together into huddles.

Around noon, the city of Van.

In an flagrant attempt to claim Diyarbakir's crown, Van has dedicated a whole street to providing the ultimate in breakfasting. "Breakfast Street", blocked off from traffic, is 50m long and filled with street cafes selling every imaginable breakfast food.

Uniformed waiters patrol the channels between groaning tables that buckle under the weight of plates and dishes.

Young lads rush back from the bakeries bringing armfuls of hot, flat breads big as shields.

A small clique of street kids with shoe-shine boxes slip in and out like cats, with huge, dark eyes that miss nothing.

One boy approached me, took in my unshinable, faux-suede trainers at a glance, smiled and simply held out his hand. I returned the smile and gave him a coin.

Back suddenly a few minutes later, he nodded solemnly and gave me a small packet of tissues. I took his photo.

Breakfast duly began arriving in shipments. The scale was unprecedented, but Diyarbakir remains the one to beat.

After breakfast I caught a bus down to Van Castle - rambling walls along a grassy bluff dotted with poppies by the lake.

The clımb to the battlements winded me, I stood head down and panting next to an elderly couple.


She sounded American but she informed me she was half Armenian. She talked about the history of Armenian suffering under the Ottomans and how modern Turkısh people don't even recognize the fact that the atrocities had happened.

"It's always the same. The perpetrators never admit their guilt."

"Well, I suppose the Germans did." Pause. "Eventually."

"True. He's German - had to wear the brown shirt as a boy", she lowered her forehead at her silent partner.

He looked at me and nodded sadly. Another tricky start. He showed me some pottery shards he'd picked up around the site over which I gushed idiotically.

The castle was being extensively renovated and we collectively railled against the insensitivity of the rebuilding work.

We shared an abject fear of heights so bonded well back from any edges and looked on in horror at two Dutch girls sitting unconcerned by a precipice.

"Did you visit the underground cities in Cappadocia? I couldn't do it."
"Yes, I did. Time was there were 10,000 people down there hiding."
"I know! Christians. Course you'd have to believe in God to live down there..."

Wax off.

Sunday, 9 June 2013


My next stop was Tatvan, a small port on the western shore of the biggest lake in Turkey, Lake Van.

The trip was a nigthmare taking eight hours instead of four due to circumstances I alone on the bus failed to understand.

The driver parked us in a layby on the edge of Diyarbakir and there we stayed for over an hour.

This being a minbus full of Kurds this set off a maelstrom of ardent discourse, none of which I understood.

Only the driver spoke any English at all but since he'd confidently told me the price of the bus ticket was "30 millions lires" and then only taken 15 from my hand I took his pronouncements with a pinch of salt.

Anyway, he was way too busy at the centre of a tornado, beset on all sides by a legion of demands, pleas, oaths, threats, howls of dismay and hooting to explain things to me. Fists were clenched, hands were raised, fingernails were chewed, the sky repeatedly pointed at. All to no avail.

The wait was finally over when an incredibly frail and ancient lady with a bandaged eye arrived in a car and was gently escourted onto our bus. We that, we were off again.

We limped into Tatvan at 10pm. I checked into the first hotel I saw and promptly feel asleep.

Next day the sky was black and the rain was whipped by a cold wind off the lake. I went walking along the shore of the lake, taking bleak photos.


Spent another lazy afternoon in a tea house playing with a set of prayer beads I'd bought off an old street peddlar in Diyarbakir.
Most of the older guys carry beads and I found them relaxing to handle. I thought to myself that being an "older guy" wasn't such a bad thing.

I remembered a quote I'd read somewhere about how the years can teach what hours never can. Something like that.

I looked around and saw relaxed, lined faces and heard slow, quiet exchanges. It suddenly all seemed very, very cool.


I watched teenagers and young men hurrying past in the street and felt no envy about their youth. I even felt haltingly OK about losing my hair.

I was almost having a spiritual moment there in a dusty room full of old guys counting beads.

Later, the dark clouds disappeared and the there was a brief spell of beautiful weather. I returned to the lake and took this photo which I really like.


It seems connected to what I had felt in the tea house but I can't express what that connection is.

In Diyarbakir

Diyarbakir's old town stands on the banks of the River Tigris, and is surrounded by thick, black basalt walls that stretch for 6km and house four massive gates.

Outside the walls and surrounding the old town stand dozens and dozens of partially constructed, glitzy apartment blocks like a besieging army. As the connecting minibus ferries me towards the old town's eastern gate through this vast construction site I'm left wondering who will eventually occupy them - certainly not the average Kurdish family who could never afford such luxury.

The old town is rundown and crowded. Dilapidated shops and hovels stand alongside ancient churches and mosques built of stripes of white limestone and black basalt.


Walking around I immediately noticed two things. First, a massive military police presence; pock-marked armoured cars and soldiers with automatic weapons were highly visible on the main streets. Secondly, I saw lots of homeless people begging for money.

This felt more like parts of India than Turkey.

Previously, I had only seen one beggar on the trip - and he was more like a local madman who lurked around my favourite coffee shop in Antalya with a set of bathroom scales. He delighted in alarming elderly Germans by trying to weigh them for money. I had the impression he did it more a less obvıous reason than cash.

My hotel was unusual in that breakfast was not included, so I made my way to the beautiful, old caravanserai – a stopover for travellers on the ancient trade routes from Istanbul to the east. It was built on two floors around a large courtyard that now contained gift shops and restaurants.

Here, once again it started to pour with rain, so  I settled back and ordered the set breakfast without realising what I was letting myself in for. 

My waiter was a shy teenager keen to practise his English.
"What is your name?"
"My name is Simon." Full, simple response time.
"Where are you from?"
"I'm from England...Ingliterra."
"Yes, Turkey is beautiful."
"Diyarbakir beautiful?"
"Yes, yes. Very beautiful!" Despite the appalling weather.

Satisfied, he started ferrying dishes from the kitchen to my table.

Eventually, I counted eleven dishes not counting the bread. I looked at the clotted cream (kaymak) covered in crushed nuts and honey and resigned myself to putting on some weight.
As I was finishing a plate of fruit salad my waiter reappeared. He pointed at the vanishing fruit salad,
"Very good, yes!"
He slipped away then returned and placed a larger plate of fruit salad on the table.
"Ah, um yes..."
Oh dear, this could end messily.

Eventually the combined onslaught of breakfast and rain halted and I waddled through puddles, past soaking soldiers and tea houses to a recently restored Armenian church.

The roof is only a couple of years old.


From there I headed to the south gate of the city walls where there were stairs leading up onto the battlements. I spotted the Tigris and felt a bit giddy when I realised I was standing in Mesopotamia.

I walked along the walls until the rain returned.


I ducked into a large, old tea house and sat with tea watching the rain outside and being watched by the house regulars. When they were satisfied I wasn't about to do anything else strange they settled back into their games and conversations.

I got my camera out and everyone happily assented to being photographed. They joked and argued about the shots I took.


I eventually left feeling that what had just happened was an perfect example of why I love travelling.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Leaving Malatya - A Dilemma...

The day after my trip to Mt Nemrut I awoke in Malatya to blanket news coverage of a car bombing in Turkey close to the Syrian border. The reports were quite shocking - Turkish TV is not squeamish when it comes to violent images.

On a side note, Turkish TV censorship is quirky. Predictably enough, nude rude bits are fogged out but so is cigarette smoking- even though every Turkish man and most women appear to be chain smokers. It looks quite strange, a foggy hand with smoking rising from it...

The French couple from Nemrut had talked about going south towards the Syrian border and my guidebook had recommended a couple of towns down there as unmissable. However, the timing of the bombing convinced me that I should avoid the area and head for Diyarbakir instead of Urfa.

When I reported my decision to visit Diyarbakir to my Turkish friend “dodgy guy” Sal on Facebook he nearly exploded...

“What da fuck, bro! what r u gona do there bro...not safe, terrorists hey!”

What worried Sal, and indeed most Turkish people living in the west of the country, wasn't Syrians but Kurds. Diyarbakir is a predominantly Kurdish city and the place where the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) was formed.

To my mind, it still seemed better than heading towards Syria so I ignored his protests and advice (“Come back to Kas, bro, it hot here!”) and caught a five hour bus east.

On the bus, I had a long chat with the guy sitting next to me. He was an air force pilot returning to duty after visiting his wife. He talked superficially about life in the Turkish military and the size of its presence in the south-east of the country then gave me a couple of presents – a fighter plane keyring and a military patch depicting a Phantom F-4 and The Grim Reaper. A caption beneath read “Good Looking And Deadly”. 

Later, all superficiality ceased as he got onto a subject dear to his heart : the life and career of Thierry Henry. 

He had been a staunch Galatasaray supporter until May 17th 2000 when they played and beat Arsenal in the UEFA Cup Final.

The game was preceded by riots that resulted in 4 stabbings and the game itself was very bad tempered – then again, Galatasaray won't get involved in any other type of match.

I found it remarkable that a fan would switch his alliance to the losing team after such an acrimonious match, but that's exactly what he did.

He is currently the proud owner of three Henry shirts and prefers Arsenal's yellow and blue away kit to the famous red and white strip.

To my mind, he's a singular pilot on a road less travelled. I liked him, but I can't abide Henry.

Un grand twat

Saturday, 1 June 2013

An Apology

Just a quick note to say sorry I have neglected my blogging duties recently. I have been travelling in company and been out in the east of Turkey where the internet was so slow that uploading pictures became practically impossible.
But don't worry, dear reader, I'm back in the west and will be alone again starting tomorrow, and promise to get back to sending my reports.