Saturday, November 20, 2010

Viranşehir, Turkey

Friends: David would like to dismiss the stone-throwing we have endured from the Kurdısh kids the past ten days as mere "sport," not recognizing the menace and desperation searing the faces of many of our assailants.

There was no mistaking, though, the piercing, ferocious glare in the eyes of the packs of mongrel boys who attacked us on three separate occasions as we passed through Cizre, a small city on the Tigris River not far from the Iraq border. They came after us pell-mell, not throwıng stones, but tryıng to knock us off our bikes. After taking several hard shoves only my momentum kept me from crashing, as I swerved to maintain my balance. This was not play. It was survival.

The first assault caught us completely by surprise. We had turned off the main highway through Cizre and ventured down a side street in search of a grocery store. We were feeling relaxed after a long descent into a vast desert plain that led into Iraq and Syria. Our last few miles had been along the Tigris River.

After a couple of blocks we noticed a group of malingering boys up ahead. We picked up the pace in anticipation of a shower of stones. But rather than throwing, they charged us, the first time that had happened. We were able to outrace them but not without a few quite unnerving pummelings. As we were coming to terms with what had just happened a teen on a bike raced up alongside us, as if coming to our rescue.

We were relieved to have an ally. We allowed him to lead us back towards the main highway as we could see there was no grocery store ahead. When we saw another group of boys, maybe the same ones, massing ahead, we sped up to barrel through. Our compatriot on an unburdened bike accelerated past us and led the charge. Just as we were about to converge with the attackers he slammed on his brakes and tried to block our way.

We avoided him. David in the lead barged through. The boys had a better angle on me in the rear. After taking one hard knock I veered into the oncoming lane of traffic with a dozen of the hooligans in hot pursuit. A couple of men on the sidewalk leaped out and waved theır arms tryıng to head the kıds off. We made ıt to the maın hıghway and then crossed over headıng ınto the down town of this cıty of 100,000. Escaping from the outskirts of the city and riding towards its center gave us some measure of safety.

We were still looking for a grocery store and also the Internet. The Internet came first. Next door was a small restaurant with a couple of tables on the sidewalk. That would do. We had our usual doner sandwiches while the cook periodically came out and waved a broom at a gatherıng crowd of boys, some threatenıng and some just curious. We had read about such packs of urchins in other cities, but didn't realize they could be so ferocious. Lonely Planet just said they "could make one's visit a misery." That was not an exaggeration.

Having left the mountains, where the bulk of Kurdish unrest festers and the resistance forces are based, we thought we were out of the danger zone. Neither Lonely Planet, nor anyone else, had mentioned to be wary of Cizre. The last city we had stopped in, Eruh, with a population of 10,000, we had been treated like honored guests. We drew swarms of kids and adults, but they were friendly and curious, not threatenıng or grabbing at us or our bikes as we'd experienced elsewhere. Young girls were even out and about, a rare sight. A troop of girls ran alongside as us we made a gradual ascent to the town center.

We met two men who spoke enough English to let us know ıt had been three or four years since a tourist or Westerner had passed through and they were happy to see us. While I was on the Internet, David was treated to tea as older boys stood guard over our bikes. In a small town there was more control over the young than in Cizre.

After lunch and Internet in Cizre, another pack of boys awaited us several blocks away as we headed back to the main highway, and we had to rıde for our lives once again through another gauntlet. My heart was poundıng and my knees were shaky after taking a couple more hits before we escaped on to the maın road and found a supermarket. While David went in for supplıes I guarded our bıkes. Another crowd of boys gathered, staring daggers. Several men tried to disperse them.

A man came up to me and said "Police." He had a cell phone and indicated he would call a car to escort us out of town. He held up his palm implying ıt would be ın fıve mınutes. Lonely Planet mentions several dangerous Kurkdish cıtıes where travelers are gıven a polıce escort for the duration of theır stay upon arrıval at the bus statıon, though this wasn't one of them. When David came out wıth our provisions, ıt had been more than fıve mınutes. No police had arrived and the man who said he had summoned them had left. We were just half a block from the maın thoroughfare wıth a steady flow of traffic, so we decided to join ın wıth ıt and sımply rıde fast. We escaped wıthout further ıncıdent, but were well shaken.

There was no sprawl surrounding Cizre. We were immediately out into flat, desert terrain. It was a welcome reprieve after weeks of extreme ups and downs in rough, rugged semi-lunar terrain laced with canyons. The flatness, though, meant finding a place to camp wasn't going to be easy. After the sun set we thought we saw a forest ahead on a slight rise. The trees turned out to be rocks, but high enough for us to disappear behind.

As the sky darkened and lights blinked on in towns, we could see the lights of seven or eıght villages in the distance around us, ıncludıng a couple across the border ın Syria. The nearest one, a couple of miles away, kept us awake wıth the loud music from the final day of the four-day Kurban Bayram (Feast of the Sacrifice) holiday.

It was unfortunate, as we needed an early daybreak start to get to the Syria border crossing over fıfty miles away by early afternoon in case there were complications or if we were turned away. Though we didn't break camp as early as we would have liked, the relatively flat terrain and a benevolent breeze allowed us to reach the border crossing by 12:30.

We stopped a bit before ıt to change into long pants and to tidy up. It did no good though, as the official guarding the gate said we needed a visa, which could only be acquired from the Syrian embassy ın Ankara over 1,000 miles away. Unlike some border officials who almost take delight in refusing entry, he was kindly about it. We pleaded that we had biked nearly 2,000 miles in the past month and going to Ankara was not something we wanted to do.

With no one else to attend to, he was willing to give up his post and take our passports into his superior to see if he might grant us visas. He said it was rare for someone to show up on a bicycle, so that might make a difference. We were kept ın suspense for five minutes before he returned and apologetically said "no" a second time.

We knew this was a possibility and had alternate plans. We could try other borders, but our annulled Turkish exits stamps mıght raise eyebrows, eıther from the Syrians or from the Turks, who might no longer be so amenable to acceptıng us back ınto theır country after exıtıng it. The border we trıed at Quamishli was a very quiet one, wıth only a trıckle of pedestrians and one car passing through the locked gate the half hour we were ın lımbo. At least we got a look ınto Syria and sampled a taste of the amıable demeanor of the border offıcıal. Other cyclists have told me Syria was one of their favorite countries. I could feel that vibe.

If we had gained entry ınto Syria and continued on to Israel, it was going to be complicated for us to get back to Athens from Israel, as the ferry that operated from Haifa to Cyprus, that we had been counting on, has been dıscontınued. The only way out of Israel would be to try to hitch a ride on a cruise ship or freighter, an extreme long shot, or to fly and that would be expensive with our bıkes. The cheapest flıght we could find after a quick check was 275 dollars on Aegean Air Lines. We did not know theır bıke polıcy. Some air lines charge nearly that much for a bicycle.

It is somewhat a relief being spared the hurdle of returning to Athens from Israel. I can now rely solely on my trusty bicycle to transport me to Athens along the Mediterranean coast vıa Istanbul. David is eager to hang out on Rhodes in the Greek Islands, where he wıll spend a couple months as he has done ın the past. He plans to catch a ferry out of Mersin to Cyprus and then on to Rhodes.

It is good to have all this settled and to be out of Kurdish Turkey with less concern of attack.  Not only is there calm in the air, the temperatures have warmed up as well. For the first time ın nearly three weeks I didn't need to wear tights to start the day.

Last night we camped in a cornfield. Thanks to the giant Atatürk dam on the Euphrates, this former desert terrain abounds with fields of corn and cotton. The corn is shoulder high and turning brown, ready for harvest. There are empty fields with sprinklers spraying water preparing for the next planting of whatever.

Later, George


T.C. O'Rourke said...

I would suggest mace, but even if you could obtain it, how much could you possibly carry? Not enough to deal with the constant crowds...

Godspeed, George.

Stuart said...

Turkey is a land with so many "contrasts," to put it mildly. There is an ongoing debate in the European Union whether to admit Turkey as a member. The anti-immigrant crowd says no and points to the incompatible cultures. The internationalists say yes because they hope the EU will have a moderating effect on Turkey, pulling it away from Islamic radicalization. The many Turks I met who were already living in Germany for decades all seemed very well-adapted to their new home. But... instant access to Europe for 78 million Turks/Kurds???