I've had to make do without a decent guidebook for most of this trip. I did have an old edition of a Central Asia guidebook that got me through the 'Stans, and a ten-year old copy of Lonely Planet Iran that was so outdated it might have been better left at home. Across the last countries I've passed through--Armenia, Georgia, and now, Turkey--I've been doing without.
This travel-sans-guidebook is not out of any macho illusion that I am some "explorer extraordinaire" discovering new lands, crossing uncharted territory. Nope. I do carry a travel guidebook when I can. The issues keeping me book-free are more basic. I wasn't about to haul along a stack of books when I set off from China four months ago; decent guidebooks are hard to find in this corner of the world, even in the countries for which they are written.
I'm finding this to have advantages and disadvantages. With a guidebook, orientation is easy. Maps displaying directions to the railway station, to cheap hotels, and to sites of historical interest make arrival in a new city effortless. Having an advance sense of the range of prices prevents uncertainty. "Is this guy ripping me off, or do hotels really cost three-times as much here as in the last country I passed through?"
The benefit? I've found that without a guidebook I am again experiencing a sense of discovery which I hadn't realized I'd lost. I now have to piece everything together by myself. Anything charming becomes much more so when it comes as an unexpected encounter. My entire day exploring Diyarbakir yesterday was filled with that sense of, "Wow! What is this? This is interesting..."
My first "discovery" came in the sights of the city of Diyarbakir. I came here knowing few details about what to expect. A month before I expected to arrive, I sent e-mail to all the people I knew who had traveled to Turkey. I anticipated that I wouldn't have a guidebook, so asked them to send me e-mail suggesting which places they would recommend. There was a huge range in who I asked for information: some people had come to Turkey as casual tourists, some people had Ivy-league degrees focusing on this area. All were people whose opinions I knew I would respect and who I knew wouldn't steer me into some tourist-trap. The name "Diyarbakir" came up more than once.
What so took me--and hadn't been specifically mentioned by any of the friends who recommended Diyarbakir--were its ancient city walls. They're massive. They're thousands of years old. They're still standing. There are few cities I've been to that have such well-preserved, long stretches encircling the town. The only city I have been to that has anything comparable is Xi'an, back in China. Truth be told, no city has walls that can compare with those in Xi'an. But Diyarbakir's do come close.
I walked halfway around the city atop the old walls yesterday. There were a couple gaps along the southern span where I had to climb down, but I'd guess that over 90% of the old walls are still standing. Part of what appealed to me when walking around Xi'an's city walls two years ago was their restored condition. Every brick was in its place; I could make a complete circuit around the city. In Diyarbakir I found it was the walls' opposite condition that appealed to me. I passed by tower upon tower--some crumbled hulks of rubble, others perfectly preserved, graced with calligraphy etched in stone.
My second "discovery" in Diyarbakir: Kurdish and Persian--at least the numbers--are really similar.
The corner of Turkey I'm visiting is mostly Kurdish--people here don't speak Turkish as their first language. I actually didn't know which language Kurdish was most closely related to, that is, until paying for lunch yesterday. The one thing I did know that the cost of my doner kebab and salad came to 4 lira. Upon paying, I asked "How much?"--not so much for confirmation, but because that was one of the few phrases in Turkish I had down pat.
I expected the reply to be dört--Turkish for "four". Instead, the reply was char--Persian for "four". My first thought was that the restaurant worker mistook me for a traveler from Iran, so used that language for my benefit. Later that night, while hanging out with a couple local Kurds at a teahouse, I asked. It turned out that "char" is actually Kurdish. Yek, do, se... at least the numbers in Kurdish and Persian are identical.
Metin, David, & Cihan
Now I'm trying to figure just when and where I should move along to from Diyarbakir. I've already extended my stay by at least a day, now that I have concrete information (i.e. books from the information center) about additional places that sound worth exploring here. What I'm having the most trouble deciding is whether to take a detour out from, then back into Turkey:
Before coming this way, I hadn't realized how proximate southeastern Turkey is to Syria. The border must be only a couple hours away from where I am now. Looking at some of those free tourist maps I picked up, it seems like it wouldn't be much out of my way to head across the northern part of Syria, visit Aleppo, then cross back into Turkey. Syria is a country I've long wanted to visit, but hadn't considered going to on this trip. It seems feasible, but I worry that dipping in might set me off on a massive detour. I have friends I promised to visit here in Turkey, way out in Istanbul. From there, I have plans set to meet people in Europe. Once in Syria, it would be hard for me to resist a spur down to Damascus. And from Damascus, it would only be a few hours by road to Beirut...
I guess my decision which way to go will appear as the dateline to my next update.