We soon reached Dogubayazit, took a room at the then  brand-new Hotel Ararat, and went out to see the Ishak Pasa Sarayi, a striking 18th-century fortress-palace built on a lonely hilltop by the local emir. I took some pictures, one of which ended up as the cover shot for the first edition of my Lonely Planet guide.
I wanted to get photos of Mount Ararat as well, but the summit was shrouded in cloud. I asked the reception desk clerk at the hotel if the clouds ever cleared.
“First thing in the morning,” he said. “Get up before dawn.”
I did, and there it was, the majestic snow-covered summit clear of cloud, in full sunlight. I shot some photos, then watched in amazement as the sun warmed the snow on the summit and the evaporated moisture formed clouds which obscured the mountain, like a woman fresh from the bath covering herself from the prurient gaze of men.
After breakfast we packed the car and asked local taxi drivers about the best way to reach Van.
“Go back to Agri, then south via Patnos and Ercis,” they said.
“Isn’t that the long way around?” I asked. “What about this road along the Iranian border via Çaldiran?” According to the Turkish Highway Department’s road map, the Çaldiran road was paved and fairly good, of the same quality as the road via Patnos and Ercis.
“The Çaldiran road’s not in good condition. You could get stuck. Besides, it’s officially closed after dark because of smugglers. The Jandarma (gendarmes, paramilitary police) are on patrol, and are liable to shoot you because only smugglers are out on that road after dark.”
I looked at the map again. The bright red line on the map inspired confidence. Surely the Highway Department in Ankara knows the road better than these local taxi drivers, who probably have no reason to drive that road in any case.
Some people never learn!
We left Dogubayazit and decided to take the Çaldiran road. We’d just make sure we were off the road by nightfall.
The road was paved and relatively good as far as Ortadirek, but south of there it was unpaved, after which it degenerated to rough, rutted dirt. I began to wonder if we had made the right decision. I could almost hear the hiss of smugglers’ bullets in the air.
We got our luck, it was blind, and it was bad. We came over a rise and down a hill, and stopped at the edge of a slough of muddy water. The road ended at the near edge of the slough, and sprang up again from the other shore.
I got out of the car to look at the water. There wasn’t enough dry road on either side to get by. I’d have to go through it. Obviously I should avoid the middle, which looked deep. Should I drive along the left edge or the right edge? Which way was shallower? Was the bottom of the slough firm enough to support a car?
The brown mess was opaque. I didn’t feel like stripping down and wading into the muck and without doing that there was no way to tell.
I chose the left side, put the car in gear and edged forward into the water. The car nosed down into the muck and sank. It stopped. I put the car in reverse and gave it some gas. The wheels wouldn’t move. The little engine groaned pitiably, strained toward hernia, did nothing. The front wheels were sucked in worse than someone who had just been sold aluminum siding.
I got out of the dead car and did a quick reality check. We were in a depression in the middle of nowhere only a stone’s throw–or a bullet’s trajectory–from the Iranian border, with not even a tree, let alone a building or a telephone line, in sight. It was mid-afternoon. The sun was racing toward the horizon like an Istanbul taxitoward a planeload of Japanese tourists.
I’m Sure It’s Only a Puppy
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed some movement high above us on the ridge to the west.
Another dog appeared beside the first one, then a third. Then a fourth.
Tame dogs? Wild dogs? Wolves? Wolves!
I couldn’t tell.
The situation didn’t look good. In fact, it looked bad. Actually, it sucked like a Hoover. I couldn’t pick the car up and haul it out of there. Both of us couldn’t. We had very little food and water, no bedding, and no weapon. A Swiss Army Knife and a small flashlight constituted our entire tool kit. With these I could perhaps defend us against a determined chicken or a three-legged hamster.
The canines on the ridge above us lifted their butts off the ground and started milling around, always looking at us, as though planning their strategy.
Just then a figure appeared at the top of the rise on the road to the south, in the direction we were going–or, rather, dreamed of going. It was a young man. What the hell? He was dressed in a natty three-piece suit, watch-chain and all. He looked like he was headed for a Harvard Club soirée, except that Harvard was an 8000-mile walk away.
“I must be hallucinating,” I thought.
The guy approached us.
“Merhaba!” I said.
“Merhaba!” he replied.
“We have a problem,” I said, my sense of the obvious hanging out like a beer gut.
He spent a few moments in grave contemplation of the car and the mud pond, now joined at the hip. Raising his eyes to mine, and looking at me with great seriousness, he said “Evet” (Yes).
“Would you help us?”
He shucked his jacket, watch chain and vest. We both took off our shoes and socks, rolled up our trouser legs, and waded into the muck. We pushed while Jane put the car in reverse and tried to spin the wheels.
We would get covered in mud if the car actually broke free because the spinning tires would churn up a tsunami of muck and send it hurtling our way.
But it didn’t.
Nothing happened except that the engine groaned and cursed in French. We were getting nowhere.
“What are we gonna do?” I wondered out loud.
The kid nodded, cleaned himself up as best he could, walked back up the hill and disappeared.
Damn, I thought. That’s it. He’ll be back in no time with a Kurdish smugglers’ posse. About a month from now the Jandarmas, who are probably a hundred miles away, will find only our bleached bones. They’ll give us a rough and ready Muslim funeral then throw our bones into the mud slough to provide traction for any clueless motorists who wander down this road because they don’t know how to take good advice from local drivers even when they ask for it. Just what we need. Damn!
We sat in the dirt and contemplated our future. That took about ten seconds because there wasn’t an awful lot to contemplate…
(Excerpts from Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Teacopyright © 2004 by Tom Brosnahan. All rights reserved.)
(Next: Then and Now)