While in Georgia, the thought of returning to Erzurum in north-east Turkey fills me dread. For starters, Georgia is much warmer. At nearly 2000 metres above sea-level, Turkey’s coldest city is also its most conservative and religious one. It’s a military city, with conscripts from all over Turkey going there to receive their training. All this makes me a bit nervous and my mood is pretty dark as I travel towards the city. I just want to get my iranian visa and leave as soon as possible. From the Georgian border I get a bus which has to turn back to the town of Posof due to the driving snow in the mountains. I wait around for an hour trying to figure out what to do till I eventually have a paid lift arranged with a delivery van arranged to take me to the next biggest town of Ardahan. I arrive there just before dark (it gets dark at 4pm here) and start trying to hitch to Erzurum. The first lift is going to out-of-the-way Kars but I get in anyway to get dropped of at the main road…the driver says he’ll bring me to the bus station in Kars but I insist he drops me off at the main road. The driver of the next car to stop beckons me in as I ask ‘Erzurum?’ and proceeds, while speaking a lot of Turkish I don’t understand, to drive me to the bus station in the centre of town. This pisses me off no end. The poor man is only trying to help but his unwillingness to understand my request of “no otobus” with clear hand signalling indicating I do not want to get a bus, means I don’t appreciate his assistance. On arrival at the bus station, I walk away angrily while fretting about my next move. It’s freezing and after about half an hour my stubbornness subsides and I resign myself to getting a bus to Erzurum. The man in the van had the right idea after all.
In Erzurum, I contact my friend Yusuf’s uncle Ercan who very kindly insists on putting me up in a hotel for the night. With a young family, Ercan came to live and work in Erzurum last year but is planning to leave in a year or two. He drives me to the Iran consulate the next morning to find it has recently moved address. At the new address, the building is being renovated and the workers tell us the consulate won’t open till Monday. It being a Thursday, I wonder what I’m going to do in this city for five days. Not the happiest that the agency which give me the visa code didn’t bother to tell me the consulate was closed, despite being in regular contact with them, I spend the rest of the day in an internet cafe figuring out what to do. When I meet Ercan later at his workplace, he’s arranged for me to stay with friends of his friend for the next five days. I’m mightily relieved to have accommodation sorted. A huge weight lifted, I arrive at the apartment to find two of the four other guests praying in a large living room. While feeling slightly awkward (not knowing what this place is or who these people are) I sit with them and join their meal as they chat away in Turkish. It becomes obvious pretty quickly that it’s a religious house and one of the house mates is an imam. I realise that through my whole time in Turkey I hadn’t talked to any Turks about Islam or had much contact with it. Over the course of the next few days I make up for that, as myself and the housemates become more at ease in each other’s company and happily chat about religion and politics as I listen to their earnest explanations with interest. During the daytime I saunter into the centre trying to while away the hours in cafes and shops as the grim, cold, snowy weather makes it difficult to sightsee. On Sunday the skies clear though, and I enjoy the snowy surroundings of the city centre.
Through the narrow frozen streets leading to Erzurum castle, everyone I meet seems to be in a great mood (in contrast to the previous three days) and they often stop to chat with me and ask me where I’m from. An English speaker invites me into his mate’s tiny cafe for lunch and the whole place welcomes me in. After a few teas I head on up to the castle and climb the tower to get a bird’s eye view the city and surrounding mountains.
On Monday it’s with great relief I find the consulate open and by 4pm my visa is ready for collection. It being late, Ercan arranges for me to stay another night at my hosts. Throughout my stay, he couldn’t have been more helpful. I’d never met him before but it’s as if I’m a long-lost relative, always willing to be of any assistance he can. The hospitality from him and my hosts is a bit overwhelming and despite feeling a bit guilty for relying on them, they never once make me feel like I’ve outstayed my welcome.Arif, the imman/teacher who hosts me along with his friends (who are all in their mid-late 20s), go to great lengths to explain to me the peaceful, holy nature of Islam. They even hunt down a couple of English books on the religion, one being a large volume by Kurdish mystic Said Nursî. I thank them and try to explain to Hakan (who has the most English) that it’s to heavy to carry with me but he just smiles genuinely and says “it’s no problem, you can bring it”. I can bring it and have my back broke but I can’t help be touched by their generosity and conviction. Along with the great meals we share, they give me gifts of socks and gloves, worried about me hitching in the cold weather. In the evenings while getting onto the subject of Islam, they play youtube videos, with subtitles in Turkish, of Westerners who’ve converted to Islam. A southern-USA ex-methodist talks in great academic detail how both the new and old testaments only make sense in the context of the Koran. An Aussie dude, like a stand-up comedian, describes his search for the one true faith, listing all the religions he tried until he found Allah. An American doctor tells of his journey from atheism to religion and how all signs pointed to Islam. A common theme running through them is how, unlike the Christian bible, the Koran answers all questions very clearly and leaves little open to interpretation, as the Arabic edition is still being read over 1000 years after it was written. If I was into Abrahamic religions, I’d have to say from what I’ve heard and read, Islam appears the most convincing. It’s status as the fastest growing religion in the world tends to bear this out.On Tuesday morning, I begin hitching towards the Black Sea, chosing a different, less mountainous route from my previous journey to Georgia. I’m soon picked up by a young fella without any English who, with great confusion, attempts to help me. The language barrier prevents any kind of meaningful communication and he ends up bringing me way beyond the other side of town, to the spot where I hitched when I took the previous route. Worried about the mountain roads being closed due to the snow, I grumpily hitch back to the outskirts of town with the intention of getting a bus. While standing in the cold waiting for another lift, I’m beckoned into the fuel station beside me and brought into their office to be given tea. After explaining to them where I plan to go, they arrange a mini-bus that goes directly to the Georgian border to pick me up in a couple of hours. Over the course of the time waiting for it, I’m treated to further tea, coffea, some type of hot lemon beverage and stew. The man in the skull-cap, who seems to be running the show holds prayer beads the whole time and intermittenly punctuates his speech with maşallah and other homages I don’t understand. He’s delighted when I show him I’ve a book on Islam and I’m soon watching youtube videos about Westerners who’ve converted to Islam, including Tony Blair’s sister in-law (who I actually hand-delivered a book to in London). As I bid farewell to them and Erzurum to catch the bus, I can’t help but wonder if Allah is trying to tell me something. One thing I’m certain of is that my preconceptions of a lot of things need challenged and due to the intensive good-bad yoyo of traveling, it still takes a lot of constant mindfulness to bring my ego under control*.
*I recently read the latest MediaLens cogitation which is a great reminder of importance of this.