Guns and Knives on the Iranian and Armenian Borders: Eastern Turkey

We arrive at the Ararat Hotel at 8 am. A young man with an American passport is checking out ahead of us.

"How did you like Dogubayazit?" we ask.

"It's cool," Ben says. "Except there's sort of a military occupation here by the Turkish army. I was hanging out with this Kurdish resistance leader last night, and he said the PKK is biding its time, and soon this place is gonna blow up like a firecracker. Speaking of which - happy Fourth of July, guys." Ben gets in his car and speeds off.

We should have recognized the bad kismet earlier that morning, when our bus steward tried to stab us with a 12-inch kitchen knife.

Veysel was no longer busy with passengers, since most got off at
Erzurum, the last big city before the border. Only three people besides us remained by 4 am.

Veysel decided he wanted to sit by Karla, and Eric should move elsewhere. When we declined, he pulled out the knife and acted like he was stabbing himself in the stomach.

"What a comedian," we said.

Then he touched the knife to our arms and legs.

"Ah ha ha," we laughed, and pushed it away.

We began to fall back asleep, but felt the cold steel on our skin again. Veysel grinned, and told Eric to move.

What an opportune time to try out our new green-stone prayer beads! We rub and rub them, but Veysel and the knife remain steadfast until four hours later, when the bus finally arrives at Dogubayazit and we get off.

We re-christen the town Doggiebiscuit after 30 minutes of perusing. It is poor and run-down, the people sinister and sullen - a far cry from the sunny, apricot-happy people of
Malatya. We cut a deal with a cabbie to take us to the sites.

As dog-dreary as the town is, the environs are spectacular - big black mountains, wheat fields shimmering gold in the sunlight, horses galloping over the steppe, and snow-capped
Mt. Ararat lording over it all. We see the world's second-largest meteor crater, a big burnt hole in the ground filled with candy wrappers and soda cans. It's arm's reach from the Iranian border, where soldiers stare from watchtowers and oil trucks queue up for miles on the horizon.

Then up a steep dirt road to the
village of Uzengili, where Noah's Ark is reported to lie. Hassan, a trim old man in a tweed jacket and cap - known as the Guardian of the Ark - greets us. He points out a boat-shaped indentation on the hill below, and shows us scientific reports that say wooden boat parts have been found at the site and carbon-dated to Noah's time. He also has a clip from the Weekly World News verifying ark authenticity.

On the way back to Dogubayazit, our cabbie asks if we'd like to stop at his friend's house for tea. It is in a poor Kurdish village of low stone houses with earthen roofs.

Yakup, a Kurd, explains how Kurds hate Turks. He claps his hands together and brushes one away from the other, like he's squashing a bug. Then he introduces us to Gulay, his wife, who is Turkish. She is the only one who speaks English, so she translates all this for us. We sip tea and watch sunset trade off with moonrise through the mountains.

We leave Dogubayazit the next day and pass through five military checkpoints during the three-hour drive to
Kars. The Turks fumble for their identity cards to show the soldier with the machine gun slung over his back. He waves us off when we reach for our passports, because it is clear we are not Kurdish or Iranian or Armenian or any other sort of undesirable.

We've come to
Kars to see the ruins of Ani, a medieval ghost town crumbling away on a plain of whispering yellow grass. Ani stands at the brink of the Arpa River, which cuts a deep gorge that forms the border between Turkey and Armenia.

These two countries have a feud-filled history and do not trust each other. To visit Ani, we must undergo a rigorous permission process. First we present our passports and fill out paperwork at the tourist office. We then take this to a government office a few blocks away to have it stamped. We take the stamped form to the local museum, where we buy entrance tickets for Ani. We then drive 30 miles out to the site itself, passing through one military checkpoint en route. The soldiers who guard the border at Ani inspect our papers, then let us in.

We have the place to ourselves, except for the birds and an Englishman named Neil. Neil is having the bored soldiers enact various scenes of carnage and photographing them. They point their loaded guns at each other and at Neil. They even point their guns at our heads, and we snap a few pix. When we leave, they resume their crouched positions, staring through binoculars at the Armenian watchtowers.

Jul 4 - 7, 2001

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