12 June, 2010

Cizre to Mardin

backdate: 12 June

Piles of wheat and lentils are spread on tarpaulins while farmers tinker with a mid-sized threshing machine. Burning stubble dots the landscape and sends plames of black smoke to mix with the haze. From Cizre to Nusaybin, the highway parallels the Syrian border; then, nearing Mardin, it rises away from the rich Syrian plain into a series of mesa-topped hills. In the vertical rock faces, broad hollows - possibly still in use as sheepfolds - can be seen.

It had been a great ride with my seatmate Ahmet, a Cizre native studying in Diyarbakir. But Mardin looked just too lovely to simply pass through again without stopping. So i left the bus and began walking. Up through the old city, i passed a market. A rock band was tuning up, while across the crowded cobblestones a young man and toddler were riding a donkey (the latter is still quite common here). The sky above was crowded with kites, hexagonal affairs covered with all manner of scrounged materials. Dashing down a stairway from the narrow old-city streets towards the main highway, i came upon a boy making his kite out of a plastic garbage bag. It felt like stepping into "The Kite Runner"; everywhere i looked i saw boys on rooftops, strings straining into the hazy air. Mardin's position high above the Syrian plain, a kilometer above sea level, catches the evening breeze as air rises over the hill.

deep in the maze of the old city: construction

the Syrian plain, far below a soaring kite

I thought it would be awesome to sleep in one of those rock clefts about 4 km outside the city, so i set off back down the hill. Before i could make half way, though, darkness was upon me. Even with the lyric "i'll take my chances, every chance i get" running through my head, i wasn't ready to pay a dollar and place my bet on the comforts of a half-cave. If i could even find them. And there are some Large wasps here.

I had turned back to the city, and stopped to snap some pictures of the glowing lights when i met Max and Beat. They were from Isverige - Switerland - motorcycling their way across central Asia with $2,000 worth of visas: Iran, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgizistan, Mongolia, Russia. So far they'd logged 2,600 kilometers from their doorstep to Mardin, island-hopping from Venice through Greece.

They asked where i was staying, and when i said i planned to check in at Başak (the cheapest hotel) they informed me there was one room left - "very basic," they said - and that everywhere else they'd checked was full. But they had heard of a nearby monastery where there might be beds. I asked if i could join them, climbed aboard Beat's motorcycle, and we set off.

The monastery was closed for the night, but the watchman (also caretaker, a friendly fellow whose name was Aydın Arkadaş) welcomed us to sleep among the rosebushes on the visitor center/cafe lawn. Aydın's son brought out a plate of bulgur and another of sauteed vegetables, and the customary round of çay, while we talked and passed around photographs of family until nearly midnight. Max had spent a few months in Turkiye, and his Turkish was coming back, so it was a conversation in three languages - counting English and their Swiss dialect of German. Then we lay back onto the grass. Our host lent me a blanket for cover, and in the light breeze of a perfect (high sixties, F scale) night we drifted off to the sound of crickets.