For those of us who pay our own way in and out of the country, there is a common grumble about the cost of using Iraqi airspace. When I explain to friends back home that a straightforward return flight to the UK can set you back somewhere north of $1,200, they look at me blankly for a while. Then it dawns on them.
“Hold on,” one considered during my recent Newroz holiday in England, “I could fly to New Zealand and back for that money.” I could see the steam coming out of his ears as he bought up a mental world map. “Isn’t Iraq on the Turkish border? I flew to Bodrum last summer for about £100 return. No wonder you only come home once or twice a year.”
I try to explain that there’s probably some insurance issue, and that the airlines can afford to charge that because the majority of people flying in and out are doing so on business. But really, I find that I’m just kidding myself, and that I don’t know the real reason that the airlines are able to take such blistering liberties with the cost. And, after all, even if I did know, it wouldn’t make the slightest difference. My ignorance doesn’t mean I am missing out on deals. But, necessity being the mother of invention, the price has led me to finding alternatives.
Last month, I decided to trade a week at home for a week in Turkey, travelling overland to Istanbul from Erbil. I spent some time in Mardin, Sivas and Istanbul before flying to London on a cheap flight. I returned via Dusseldorf, having spent a couple of nights with friends in Amsterdam. In all, I saved around $400 and racked up some fun in other countries than my own.
So, I’d like to heartily recommend the less visited areas of Turkey, or Northern Kurdistan if you prefer. I’ve crossed the border at Ibrahim Khalil a few times now, into Silopi and then taking bus onwards. The crossing can be the most exhausting and infuriating part of any journey in that direction. I’ve once sailed through in an hour, but more often than not it takes around 6 hours. A good book, a full iPod and a packed lunch are essential. For this reason, booking any onwards travel in advance can be a little optimistic. Silopi bus station is the best thing about the town (in that it’s the quickest way out), and services most of the cities within a 12 hour ride, as well as Ankara and Istanbul. Depending on your luck, you can usually find something going your way within a few hours – whilst it’s not a very inspiring place to be stuck, there is a small shop, a fairly decent restaurant and the bus companies are happy to share their WiFi.
Mardin is forever a fantastic place to start a trip around this area. The old city, thought to have been settled as early as 4,000 BC, clings to a mountain looking south to Syria. In the spring the plain feels almost like some verdant sea as it disappears to the horizon. Madrassas, churches and mosques can be explored, whilst Turkish, Kurmanji, Syriac and Arabic are all spoken.
From here, heading west is the historic capital of Kurdistan, Diyabakir. The old city and its walls are a great way to lose a day, although if you suffer from vertigo, a walk along the top of those walls can be daunting. Yet further west is Ganziantep, a city on my list to visit, as are the ‘beehive’ houses of Urfa to the south.
East of Mardin is Hasankeyf. Simply put, you don’t have long to visit this town, seven times the capital of Mesopotamia. Over the next couple of years, once the Turkish government have finished damming the Tigris river upstream, it will be flooded. Byzantine bridges, ancient minarets and historic hammams are all set to be lost. The caves’ walls, deeply inscribed with cuneiform carvings, will be lost forever, whilst at the moment many of them are freely accessible. These caves have only recently been abandoned – in fact I know a shepherd who still lives in them, the final resident of a lifestyle set to disappear.
One final town I’d like to recommend is Van. Sometimes a place gets under your skin, and for what reason you don’t know. This happened to me when I visited Van last year. On a very high elevation, the ski resort is open for at least half the year. A mineral lake plays host to visiting flamingos in the summer. The breakfasts are amazing and the old fortress a treasure. You may remember that there was a devastating earthquake there in 2011, and it was impossible to avoid the evidence when I visited. That said, there was plenty of reconstruction to witness as well, and the place seemed determined to grow. As a border town with Iran, it has an edginess as well, a feeling that much of the money made springs from an illicit economy – certainly some of the cars I saw there were of a different class than those I’d seen elsewhere.
The thing that links the cities of Turkey is the excellent coach network. Every bus provides tea or coffee, makes regular rest stops and there are TVs on the headrests. Many now have WiFi as well, which for me meant I could listen to English radio as I didn’t understand any of the TV channels. Sure, this isn’t first class, but it’s a comfortable and economical way to explore one of the greatest areas on earth – and if there’s a cheap flight back to England at the end of it, I couldn’t be happier.