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Trip 14 -- Caucasus
Message 1: Turkish delight and Kurdish hospitality
I've been doing a lot of ending up in Istanbul over the past 10 years. Both times, it was simply a convenient fly-home point, the culmination of trips to other places in Europe. Originally I was planning a "countries ending in 'stan'" trip, but with a hankering to see more of Turkey and only a month to head east, it became a lower-Caucasus trip: overland from Istanbul to Yerevan, Armenia.
I gave myself one day in Istanbul to indulge in the city's simple pleasures: shuffling with the crowds along the row of bustling restaurants on Nevizade, enjoying the tranquility and elegance of the colorful mosques, buying a fish sandwich from one of the bobbing boats next to the Galata Bridge, ogling the goods at the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar, and having an after-dinner apple nargileh on the bridge's lower level while looking out toward Asia through the fishing lines coming down from the anglers on the upper level.
Why did I find this place -- specifically the bridge and the Bosphorus -- so enchanting? I didn't feel as if I were at the edge of some great frontier; "Europe" and "Asia" are just names, and they're mostly connected by land anyway. Maybe it was Istanbul's history, sometimes Christian, sometimes Muslim, sometimes this empire and sometimes that -- as evidenced by the Aya Sofya church-turned-mosque, with its Christian mosaics and Arabic calligraphy. Maybe it was the modern city, pulsing with fashion, glamour, and energy, against the backdrop of Roman ruins, intact centuries-old buildings, and the natural beauty of the hills and water.
Whatever the reason, this was a place to linger. I gazed across the water at the Bosphorus Bridge, with its zigzagging lights of changing color. A duo played and sang romantic Turkish ballads, with the competing rhythms of the chick-chick-chick of the backgammon players' pieces a few tables down. Boats crossed from continent to continent, and the almost-full moon illuminated the 15th-century Topkapi Palace. And just a few feet away from me, every minute or so a couple of dinky sardines would slither up out of the water on the way to their captors.
For my big dinner in Istanbul, I enjoyed the live music and tavern food at Cumhuriyet. The band comprised a violin, a tambourine, a darbuka (hourglass-shaped drum), an oud (bulbous lute), and a clarinet whose player pointed it high in the sky, as if downing a beer. The music, which most people seemed able to sing along to, was often in a straight four, but sometimes it went into an energetic, brisk nine: one-two, one-two, one-two, one-two-three, repeat! The appetizers were a point-at-the-giant-tray-and-choose affair; I had a spinach-garlic-walnut dip, a peppery cheese spread, and a brain salad, followed (at the recommendation of the raki drinkers at the next table) by lamb shish kebab.
The overnight Metro bus to Cappadocia was punctual and comfortable. The seats had individual entertainment screens with movies, Turkish TV, and music (unlike Turkish Airlines, which on my connection from Dublin had only a few screens in the cabin rotating ads -- "Roam with AsiaCell in Iraq and win Ford Explorer 2012"!). They gave us ice cream, soft drinks, and tea and coffee. I listened to Mozart's Rondo alla Turca (it seemed fitting) and Chopin's "Piano Concerto No. 21" (which must be a unique discovery by the Metro company, as he wrote only two) and slept enough.
Cappadocia is an incredible landscape. Years of volcanic activity and erosion have turned the rocks into strange, wonderful shapes. Many are twisted towers of soft-serve ice-cream swirls. Some look like the misshapen, dented leaves of an artichoke that you eat right before you get to the heart. Some are bulbous, like Russian onion domes. And there's no more accurate way to put it: Some look exactly like perfectly proportioned erect penises.
What's more, people live in these towers -- my hotel room was in a cave -- and they have for millennia. The Goreme Open-Air Museum houses what was originally a sixth-century Byzantine monastery but then became a collection of 12th- and 13th-century churches and chapels built into the caves, with well-preserved red ochre frescoes and Biblical relief paintings inside.
Various other rock-hewn churches dot the surrounding areas. I took a path down to see the El Nazar Kilise, the small "Evil Eye" church down a dirt road, and the caretaker directed me toward the Sakli (hidden) Kilise. I'm not sure whether I ever found it, though I believe I found "a" hidden church. Whether it was the correct one or not, the walk took me way up onto a cliff for great views of the striped hills and peculiar rocks. I descended and walked through a lovely valley until the path became flooded (from where? It hadn't rained for days) and I headed back up the hills on the other side. It was a challenging climb, but I found my way to the top.
An Australian woman was a couple minutes behind me. We looked down at the ten-story-high phallic rocks, with their niches and windows at the top. How did people live here, we wondered? The towers must have provided security, but getting in and out couldn't have been convenient. I wouldn't be too surprised if the towers got converted into some new expensive hippie housing, with trapezes to get from tower to tower. But for now, they're perfect just as they are.
As luck would have it, the hill where I emerged was right on the edge of Goreme and it was just before sunset. A moderate crowd gathered there to watch the sun go down, and then I dined at the serene, innovative Seten restaurant on chicken meze with walnuts and milk, squash blossoms stuffed with bulghur and onion, pumpkin with walnuts, and a dessert of yellow honey pumpkin.
Near Goreme are more than 100 Byzantine underground cities, probably interconnected by tunnels, that could be used in a pinch for hiding. A particularly large one, Derinkuyu, has eight floors and could hold ten thousand people. It's open to the public, and I enjoyed exploring the underground stables (it can't have been fun for the horses), prisons, kitchens, living areas, and churches.
Goreme is one of several towns in Cappadocia, and each one has its own personality. I made a side trip to Urgup, which is a mostly modern city centered around ancient homes built into the rock; it's fun to climb around the remains of the old dwellings. I also climbed the steep Temmeni Wishing Hill to see the view and the tomb of Aslan Gazi, a martyr for independence from the Mongolians who, when caught, chose to be murdered by poison because he knew it wouldn't affect him. When this was discovered, he was strangled.
I finished off my trip to Urgup with a visit to the hamam. The only drawback was the lack of a pool, but there was a steam room, warm marble slabs for the back, Frisbee-shaped buckets for pouring water over oneself, and 15-minute massages -- all for about $14. My masseur first scratched a whole bus station's worth of dirt off my body. Then he lathered me up and worked out the kinks, finding pain points in the webbing in my hands that I never knew I had. I'm pretty sure this was all a good idea, but after the massage and the strenuous climbing the day before, my body was very confused.
If you wake up just after sunrise in Cappadocia and look out the window, you are most likely going to see dozens of hot-air balloons at various heights drifting over the rock towers and hills. Many tourists heartily recommended the balloon ride to me. Now, heights and I have a very haphazard relationship: I have no problem leaning out my 29th-floor apartment window, but a fast ascent in a glass elevator has me closing my eyes and gripping the wall. I decided Cappadocia was the place to face my fears and go up, up, up in a balloon.
We arrived at the launch site at around 5:45 a.m. to see dozens of deflated balloons lying on the ground. They were noisily inflated and the burners turned on. We climbed in, about 20 per balloon, and were strapped in.
Well, it was fantastic. The movement was slow and graceful -- the balloon tours are at sunrise not just because it's pretty, but also because there's little wind -- and our driver had good control of our height by alternately blasting the gas and turning it off. There was also comfort in the fact that there were about 20 people in the balloon and 60 balloons in the sky. We floated over Cappadocia for a little over an hour, then magically came back down right next to the truck that would carry the deflated balloon away.
It was time to head east. A highlight of eastern Turkey is Mt. Nemrut, where first-century-BC King Antiochus I, who counted himself among the gods, erected a row of giant statues of four gods and himself on the east side of the top of a 2150-meter hill and created an artificial peak behind them. On the west side is the same collection of statues, slightly larger and dedicated to Antiochus's mother, so he was clearly more respectful as a son than as a king. Albinos were revered back then; Antiochus brought them to his peak periodically, and to this day there's an annual albino gathering at the top. In attendance most recently was a 124-year-old albino.
Because there's lots to see around Mt. Nemrut and it's hard to do with public transportation, I joined a three-day tour that took 17 of us from Goreme to Nemrut and then down to Sanliurfa, stopping at sights along the way. Like 12th-century Silk Road travelers, we stopped at a caravanserai (travelers' house) and saw its keystone gate, prayer hall, camel stable, and rooms. The caravanserai were about 40 kilometers apart from each other -- one day's traveling back then -- and provided free shelter to businessmen between China and Europe. This particular one was built by Karatay, one of the foremost Ottoman architects, and it has rich geometric patterns. He died before it was completed, and his remains lay in one of its rooms until it was moved to Konya in 1962.
There were several other brief stops on the tour. Kahramanmaras is famous for its ice cream made from the milk of white goats -- it's served in slabs and seems tough but is still quite creamy and delicious, not as sweet as the ice cream I'm used to. The massive Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates River greatly improved water service to nearby Sanliurfa, but the Syrians downriver weren't too happy with it. The 150 black ibis in Birecik are kept in two cages to get their numbers up -- they're scruffy birds with long bills and a funny "hlyoop, hlyoop" call; a few years ago there were only 42 left, due to pesticide use. And the fascinating excavation at Gobeklitepe, near Sanliurfa, is giving us insight into the 12,000-year-old Stone Age inhabitants of the region. This was the time of transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers, the beginning of architecture, and possibly the beginning of religion. Amazingly well-kept T-shaped slabs show reliefs of foxes, snakes, scorpions, and a man whose impossibly long penis made up for his lack of a head.
Sanliurfa itself is the modern name of the Biblical city of Ur, where the prophet Abraham was born. At the time, the story goes, King Nemrut had a dream that he would be overthrown by the next generation, so he ordered all babies to be killed. Abraham's mother hid him in a cave until he was old enough to blend in. Abraham challenged worship of multiple gods, and he tested his theory by smashing all the idols in the house. When there were no ramifications, others started to agree with his monotheistic beliefs. King Nemrut was furious and ordered him thrown into a fire, which turned into a garden and lake just in the nick of time. Abraham's birth cave is now part of a mosque complex in Sanliurfa.
Nearby are pools of what must be the best-fed carp in Turkey, since anyone feeding them is able to make a wish (and, according to legend, anyone who eats them becomes blind). There are pretty courtyards full of people playing games, and there's a beautiful bazaar area. It has horrible traffic jams, however.
Just south of Sanliurfa is Harran, where we were supposed to visit the famous beehive-shaped houses. However, it's just a few kilometers from the Syrian border, which is a no-go zone these days, and even getting to Harran now involves what can be a several-hour series of police checkpoints. So the tour companies have substituted Gobeklitepe instead, which was certainly worth seeing.
The tour officially ended back in Goreme, but I left it early in order to see Gaziantep, which has varied and unusual foods not found elsewhere in Turkey. As I learned in the culinary museum, this is partly due to its location, close enough to the Mediterranean to have European influences, yet close enough to the Arabian peninsula to draw on those traditions. It also has a seasonal climate and the surrounding areas are fertile -- the road in is lined with pistachio trees.
Gaziantep used to be called just Antep ("shining river" in Arabic) until 1973, when the prefix "Gazi" ("heroic") was added. Not to be left without a modifier of their own, the residents of nearby Urfa added "Sanli" ("glorious") some years later. Antep played an important role in Turkish independence: The Ottoman state, ruling since 1281, allied with Germany to protect itself in World War I and paid through the nose for it. In 1918, the Armistice of Mudros gave the Allies control of major parts of the land; the British occupied it and later handed it over to the French. Turks were treated harshly, and several Antep residents were successful in reasserting their claim to their land. Turkey became independent in 1923.
It's a pretty city, with large expanses of park and enough back lanes to wander through. There's a castle and a pedestrian shopping street. And the tourist office is very helpful, as I found out when I asked for a copy of the Gaziantep Cuisine brochure, which contains recipes and lists of restaurants.
"And where are your favorite restaurants?" I asked the man in the office. He put a mark next to a couple of them.
I pressed on. "In the food museum, I learned about some dishes that I'd like to try. Do you know where I can find mumbar?" (Gaziantep's answer to haggis: cooked stuffed intestine.)
He smiled and emphasized the mark already next to Yorem Mutfak ev Yemekleri.
"And what about kelle paca?" (A soup of boiled sheep's brain and feet.)
"Here and here," he said, and he marked two more places.
"And gahirdak?" (The pulpy residue after a minced sheep's tail is roasted and the fat drained.)
"Home!" he said, and he laughed. "Not in a restaurant."
"I'll have to make some Gaziantep friends, then," I said, and I thanked him and left.
Keleban Paca-Beyran ve Kebap Salonu, conveniently just down along the park from the tourist office, did indeed have the kelle paca. The meat and brain was a nice combination of textures; the broth was a little oily. I also tried cig kofte, which is supposedly a kebab-like serving of raw minced mutton, but this seemed to be a bulghur or rice version. It was spicy and had a delightful complexity of herbs. Yorem Muftak ev Yemekleri didn't have the stuffed intestine, but I tried some unusual dishes there, too: yuvarlama (a fragrant soup of yogurt, meat, chickpeas, and mint), zeytinyagli Antep dolma (stuffed fig-shaped eggplant pieces), and icli kofte (bulghur dough filled with sweet meat and walnut, and I'm pretty sure I also ate some of the napkin it came on). And one vile drink: fermented carrot juice. It was beet-red and dreadfully sour, with a beery kind of tanginess. Gaziantep's famous baklava, nuttier than most I've had, more than made up for that, however.
I did get to visit one "stan" after all. Kurdistan isn't officially its own country, but the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq has its own entry requirements and issues visas separately from Arab Iraq. The people are nearly all Kurds, the traditionally nomadic Persians who speak their own language and have been oppressed as minorities within the borders that sprung up around them -- even Turkey is barely now starting to recognize the identity of the large numbers of Kurds within Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan operates high security at its borders, with checkpoints at the entrances to most cities and towns, to ensure the protection of its residents and visitors. It is a safe place to go -- Americans are particularly welcome, owing to George W. Bush's liberation of the Kurds from Saddam Hussein's murderous regime -- and the people are friendly and much of the landscape is stunning. And if that isn't enough, you can roam with AsiaCell and win a Ford Explorer.
The only concern for tourists is to not accidentally enter Arab Iraq, though with all those checkpoints, it's unlikely one would get in without the proper visa. The main roads between Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah in safe Kurdish Iraq pass near the dangerous Arab cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. So when I bought my Ozlem Cizre Nur bus ticket from Gaziantep to the Kurdish city of Erbil, south of Dohuk, I made sure the bus wouldn't go into Mosul. Indeed, it went nowhere near there, turning off the main highway 37 kilometers away. As Kirkuk was its next stop, however, Erbil was as far as I could go on that bus. It took 18 hours, including a two-hour border crossing and three rest stops of a little under an hour each.
The bus set me down in the Christian suburb of Ainkawa, on the outskirts of Erbil. I found a minibus headed inbound, and one passenger said it was going to the "bazaar" -- exactly where I wanted to be, and probably the only word I would have understood in Kurdish.
The minibus finished its journey in the middle of a building. It took me a couple of minutes just to find the exit. When I emerged, I was in a crowded, noisy street chock-a-block with carts of fruit and vegetables and stores selling meat. People were walking in all directions, wending their way around the carts. Fortunately Erbil's main landmark -- the citadel -- rises high above the rest of the city, and as a result it wasn't hard to get my bearings. I walked through the bazaar and checked into the Bekhal Hotel, which according to Lonely Planet's guide promised "impeccably clean" conditions and "Western toilets." It had neither, but it was getting toward dusk, so I decided it was good enough.
I climbed up to the citadel. This is supposedly the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, going back 6000 years. Just to keep the streak going, one family still lives there although the citadel is undergoing renovations. Supposedly it's a labyrinthine warren of alleys, but the police at the top wouldn't let me do more than walk the main road from one side to the other.
Erbil's bazaar is also among the world's oldest. It's fun to explore, with little lanes going off the main streets and going over and under each other. The whole place smells like spices. On the edges are fruit-juice sellers and places to change money -- people just keep their wads of cash on the tables, not worrying about theft.
I walked down to the main park for dinner, about 25 minutes away. Here people can rent swan boats, and there are pretty forests, fountains, and gardens. The Park Restaurant overlooks the lake and would have been a wonderful place to eat if only they had any native food. They offered me chicken cordon bleu and spaghetti -- not what I came to Kurdistan for! I asked where I could get some local treats, and they pointed me toward the Dawa 2 restaurant, around the corner along the edge of the park.
Dawa 2 seemed to be some sort of institution. It was very festive, with colorfully dressed families, large groups of businessmen, and scurrying waiters wheeling around large carts. The chairs were embroidered with pictures of long-haired, tiaraed women. The tablecloth said "Weel come." There was no menu, so I let them have their way with me.
First came a jar of their red-plum compote -- juice with little plums floating around. Then a few salads: one with carrot, cucumber, and pomegranate seeds; a plate of white cabbage; and a combination of corn and what I assume was tuna. Plates of hummus and eggplant spread. A giant platter of rice with meat on top. A bowl of chicken soup with a thick broth. And this was before the main stuff arrived. I came to learn that most sit-down meals in Iraqi Kurdistan begin with a collection of salads and a bowl of soup.
Then various waiters started plopping odd bits of food onto my plate: one large meat-filled dumpling, one chicken chunk off a skewer, and one piece of eggplant stuffed with rice and spices. And, oddly, a roast chicken leg accompanied by French fries, ketchup, and white bread! The waiter asked what else I wanted, and I indicated one of the cone-shaped flaming clay urns I'd seen going around. He tried to give me some nonsense about not serving those to single diners, but eventually he gave in. The urn held a chicken-vegetable stew. I also asked for proper bread and received a giant slab of flatbread with sesame seeds and pine nuts. By now there were nine dishes on the table, some of them quite large. On top of all that, he asked if I wanted to order the mixed grill! There's no way I could have handled all that.
When I was in a suitable food coma, I nervously uncovered the bill and was relieved and mildly astonished to see that it was only around $25.
The next morning, after trying again in vain to explore the citadel, I went to the shared-taxi garage and looked for people to share the ride to Sulaymaniyah -- this is the main way of getting from city to city. As luck would have it, two other people were ready to go. It's usually four to a taxi, paying 15,000 dinars (about $12) each, but the three of us agreed to pay an extra 2000 dinars (about $1.60) to leave right away. Just outside of Erbil, we collected one more passenger from a cab that had broken down, so we got our 2000 dinars back. It took about two hours to Sulaymaniyah, through the outskirts of Kirkuk (there's an innocent-looking, huge "Welcome" sign in English) but not close enough to the city proper for there to be any danger.
One man in the taxi was Heman, pronounced like the muscular cartoon character He-Man. When he told me his name, he flexed his biceps. He worked in the petroleum industry, and he had lived in Britain for 12 years, so his English was pretty good. He asked what I would do when we got to Sulaymaniyah. As it was only around noon on a Friday, I thought I might try to go the extra 62 kilometers to Ahmadawa, a gorge with a beautiful waterfall where Kurdish families often picnic on Fridays.
Heman lived halfway to Ahmadawa, so we shared a taxi to his place in Kanyapanka. He said he'd make arrangements to get me the rest of the way, but would I like to stop and have lunch with his family first? Of course I would!
He had to pick up some groceries -- one place for beef (weighed on a balance with metal counterweights), another place for chicken, another for bread, and about seven places in vain for Coffee-Mate. At the chicken shop, the proprietor pulled out a large, white specimen, still clucking and flailing, and beheaded it halal-style, with a swift cut to the neck. When it stopped moving, he put it in what looked like a giant salad spinner -- a Kurdish machine, I'm told -- and when he removed it, the feathers were gone. Then he wet it and took a torch to it, to remove the smallest feathers. He and Heman haggled over the price: From my understanding, Heman kept trying to give him more money, and he kept refusing it. I think he even tried to give it away free because of Heman's American friend.
Heman lived in a one-story house with purple walls. The rooms had no interior furniture -- no chairs or tables; there were carpets and cushions along the walls for sitting, and Heman was proud of his new 50-inch plasma television set. Outside were peach and pomegranate trees, and behind those, an outhouse.
His mother, Sabiha, had broad gums and a perpetual smile. She wore a long, black dress with white dots, and she had her head covered. She greeted me with two kisses on my left cheek. Eventually we were joined by his sister, Sanah; his brother, Hersh, and Hersh's wife; and Heman's nieces, Kazy (age nine) and Rozie (five). Sabiha fried the chicken and put it on a large tray, along with Heman's bakery bread, her own homemade flatbread, tomato salad, and hot peppers. She put the tray on the spotless floor. Heman and I ate, and then Hersh took the platter when he arrived. The women and children did not eat with us.
Heman had asked our taxi driver what the cost would be to go to Ahmadawa. At 65,000 dinars one way, it seemed prohibitive. Instead, why not give Hersh 60,000 to take me round-trip? I agreed, and Heman said he'd come too. Kazy and Rozie also joined us, so we had a full car for a family outing.
We drove for 45 minutes, to the base of the gorge, passing many ribbon-festooned cars: Ahmadawa is a popular spot for wedding celebrations. The area was alive with picnickers and music playing. Hersh's car wouldn't make it up the steep, bumpy road to the waterfall, so Heman hired a special van to take us halfway. We walked the rest of the way, past people barbecuing near the river and smoking nargilehs. We stopped at almost every souvenir stand, and by the time we reached the waterfall, Kazy and Rozie sported new baseball caps, sandals, and sunglasses and were blowing into tubular sword-shaped whistles filled with pieces of chewing gum. Heman asked what I thought of the place, and based on my enthusiasm, he taught me the Kurdish for "I am happy": "zor dol khoshem."
We finally reached the waterfall, which rises 30 meters out of the gorge. There are enough footholds that it's possible to climb pretty much up to the the waterfall's face, and that's exactly what throngs of people were doing. The late-afternoon sun cast a shadow on one stubbly mountain from behind the next, and below was a forest of fruit trees. The temperature was perfect. The sun began to set, and we walked back down the mountain as Heman, with Kazy's help, taught me how to count to ten in Kurdish. ("Nine" in English is "no" in Kurdish, much as "nein" in German is "no" in English. Neat coincidence, nein?)
If Erbil is Iraqi Kurdistan's old city, Sulaymaniyah is its new child, only slightly younger than the USA. It's a pretty place, nestled in among mountains, and it contains such progressive exotica as Chinese restaurants and female drivers. It even has its own sailboat-shaped building, like Dubai's Burj al-Arab hotel. I spent two nights at the Yadi Hotel, on Salim Street, the city's main drag.
Sulay's main site to visit is the Amna Suraka, the prison used as Saddam Hussein's center of intelligence and security during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, when Kurds sided with the Iranians. It wasn't uncommon for men to be taken in off the street and held with no notice to their families, then interrogated and tortured. One diorama depicts Maria, who waited in vain for her husband-to-be to come home. She died a few years ago, having refused to marry anyone else. An underground room contains larger-than-life photos of the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's attack on the town of Halabja, in which a chemical-weapons bomb killed 5000 people almost instantly. And a hallway containing 182,000 shards of mirror illuminated by 4500 tiny white lights is a memorial to the 182,000 people and 4500 villages lost to Saddam Hussein's campaign.
Sulay also has the tranquil Azadi Park, which apart from a lack of benches is a pretty place to wander and see families picnicking. There's also a thriving bazaar, with plenty of gold, clothing, spices, vegetables, and live chickens, as well as little bakeries where you can see men rolling dough into a flat pancake, slapping it against the side of an oven, then removing it a few moments later and flinging it Frisbee-style onto the counter for sale. By night, the place to be is farther down Salim Street, where people -- nearly all men -- gather for cheap eats at food stalls that set up in the evening, offering chickpea soup, kebabs, and giant stuffed sandwiches. At a nearby cafe with delicious fruit juices, I made friends with one of the servers, Omar. He was in school by day and worked at the cafe by night, and squeezed in games of billiards when he could. When I left extra money on the table for him, he chased me down the street to return it, saying he couldn't accept a tip.
I headed back to Erbil and had the good fortune to immediately find an English-speaking taxi driver, another Heman. He had fled Kurdistan in the 1990s and spent seven years driving a taxi in Birmingham, England. I explained that I wanted to go out to Gali Ali Beg, supposedly a spectacular canyon and waterfall, and he offered to take me there and back for a reasonable $100. It was a six-hour round trip. The canyon was indeed gorgeous, with sweeping stripes of red rock. Outbound we took the high road, passing by the Bekhal waterfall and the oddly placed Pank amusement park way up on the ridge; coming back we took the lower road through the canyon, stopping at the main gushing waterfall. In another, stabler, time, perhaps I'll be able to continue the last 20 kilometers to Haji Omaran and cross into Iran.
I spent my last night in Kurdistan in the lively town of Dohuk, where men (all men) whiled away the evening in nargileh cafes and cheered on Real Madrid against Barcelona. Dohuk is only an hour from the Turkish border; it's a slow crossing owing to the whimsical breaks taken by the Turkish officials and the checks for smuggled goods -- I saw plenty of cigarette cartons being unwrapped and individual packs stuffed among the luggage in each car.
This gave me plenty of time to reflect on the previous four days. I'd had lunch with a Kurdish family, hiked with them to a waterfall, been chased by a waiter so he could return my tip, been invited to spend the night with a student in my shared taxi to Dohuk, seen astounding gorges and mountains, rambled through pretty parks, feasted aplenty, and spent nights in hotels with satellite TV and wi-fi, all the while feeling completely safe and even trusting the taxi drivers.
And I thought: This is Iraq?
Back in Turkey, I headed up to the Black Sea coastal town of Rize in one fell swoop, a 19-hour bus trip through beautiful mountains. Rize is a neat package of a tea-producing town, with a central square dominated by a beautiful twin-minaret mosque and overlooked by two museums and a homey restaurant. One museum contains examples of old machinery used in the tea industry; the other is a restored house with traditional room setups of the 1800s, plus rooms of old coins, silverware, and personal accessories. There are seemingly even more antiquities at the Evvel Zaman restaurant, where I tried a local specialty of etli sarma (spicy cabbage rolls stuffed with meat and rice).
I headed up the steep street to one of the tea terraces, also a park with great views over Rize and the Black Sea and of the nearby tea plantations. Of course this is a great place to sample the tea and, in my case, wait out the rain. Midway up the hill is a pleasant cafe, where I tried another local dish, muhlama, a swirly, oily kind of fondue. The chef took great pride in telling me it was "organic," and in addition to the usual soft white bread, she presented me with fresh, hot cornmeal biscuits. I tried to give her a couple of lira as a tip; at first she refused, but then she took them and in exchange gave me a tin of tea as a present.
Rize is the kind of place that would be fun to hang out for a few days. But I've got Georgia on my mind, so it's time to cross the border!