I am continuously researching different places in Turkey, always keeping my eye out for another hidden treasure to go visit at some point. In some ways it’s really easy; this country is so rich in natural beauty and holds such a deep and diverse history. Yet, when I started to research the province of Bingöl it wasn’t like I was suddenly drowning in helpful information and must see destinations. My copy of Lonely Planet Turkey didn’t mention the province at all and my other guidebooks gave it little more than a footnote. So while the research for this trip may have taken a lot of effort I was super excited to explore a place that not many foreigners get around to seeing!
Nathan Baba (as he likes to be called) and I left early on a Monday morning (because all good things begin on Monday mornings at 4:15), flew from Istanbul to the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, and, with AC cranked, drove north to Bingöl. Along the way we took a couple breaks to check out buffalo keeping cool in stream beds, had a picnic with a tortoise and about seven kilometers before the Bingöl border we spotted a sign that read “Büyük Magara” (meaning Great Cave) and seeing a huge opening in the cliffs decided to pull over and check it out. It was WAY better than we could have expected.
Before going up to the cave itself which is called Birkleyn Cave (or Bırkleyn, there doesn’t seem to be any agreement on spelling as far as I can tell) we introduced ourselves to some of the men working in the field and sat down for a cup of sour fizzy ayran. If you’ve had ayran before you’ll know fizzy and sour is not normal so we finished our cups pretty worried about what this was going to do to us. Turns out they actually mix normal ayran with lemon juice and soda water in this area so we had nothing to fear. (Don’t know what ayran is? Click here). In our chat with our host we learned that not only was there a cave but a beautiful river that flowed out from another cave as well as a number of reliefs and inscriptions carved into the rock at various points. He and the others we spoke to attributed them to Alexander the Great, though having done a bit of research, its more likely that all the reliefs are much older, from the Assyrians who conquered this region and considered this cave to be the source of one of the greatest rivers of the ancient world: the Tigris.
Other than a number of military checkpoints this was our first real look at the sad situation in Turkey’s southeast. We were warned that exploring the caverns and cliffs without any clear purpose could lead to us getting shot. Suffice to say that when we went on to explore a bit we didn’t wander too far! Having been told by some of the young guys that the cave should be safe I climbed up to take a look around. It was shockingly huge! The floor was covered in deep pits apparently dug by treasure hunters.
We easily could have spent a full day at the Birkleyn Cave but as it was already well into the afternoon and our goal was to be exploring Bingöl we figured it was time to go again. While the road was decent the going was slow as it was hay cutting season and crazily loaded trucks were everywhere trying to stay upright on the winding mountain roads.
The drive into the mountains of Bingöl was stunning, the landscape changing drastically from valley to valley. While the views were stunning it turned out to be rather hard to find the remote village of Direkli as there was road construction and no signs had been left up. Also we had no reception for the maps on our phones because, as we later found out, the local cell tower had actually been blown up by militants not long before.
After finding someone who actually knew of Direkli and getting some clear directions we finally arrived at our destination where we were quickly surrounded by loads of local kids and some men who welcomed us and offered to help us find the pool and waterfall we were looking for. Hoping to beat the sunset we set off quickly with a few of the village boys as guides on what we thought was going to be a couple minute walk down into the valley. It wasn’t a couple minutes away and Nathan and I were wearing cheap flip-flops which turned out to be a mistake. The pool was about a half hour hike away over a set of gravelly ridges and small hand-worked fields; if it hadn’t been for our guides we would never have found this little oasis!
By the time we had made our way back to the village of Direkli the sun had set and as there was nowhere to buy food the locals brought out a generous tray of food from their gardens for our supper and ended up sitting drinking cay with about 20 of the local men for a few hours before they put us up for the night in a spare room. It was exciting to be able to spend time with these people and get a glimpse of life in a very different part of the country. The local language was Zaza and at times I felt like I did a few years ago before I had learned any Turkish and had no idea what people were talking about. Thankfully everyone we met spoke Turkish as a second or third language and we were able to have a great time with our incredible hosts!
The following morning I got up at 5:15 to catch the sunrise but it wasn’t long until people were out beginning their workday in the scattered fields in the surrounding valleys. We had breakfast with a few of the men again while watching the news coverage of the crazy flooding that was going on back in Istanbul while I worried if I had closed the windows. I did thankfully!
Taking our leave from our hosts late in the morning we slowly made our way to Bingöl’s most famous attraction: the Swimming Islands in the eastern district of Solhan.
Now, I feel bad if I say anything negative about the Swimming Islands because it’s kinda like complaining about seeing a unicorn because it’s not pink enough or something. A group of natural floating islands that slowly drift around in the breeze is pretty cool in theory yet the reality was a little bit underwhelming. They basically just sit there.
Leaving the magical floating mini golf behind we began our drive back to the Bingöl city center, stopping along the way to catch some of the region’s natural beauty.
The next morning after breakfast we set out to start a minibus service. Not really, but we did pick up seven hitchhikers over the course of the day, some of whom were really helpful while others were toothless, unintelligible, deaf, and blind. Hopefully we dropped that last guy off in the right place.
Our main destination that mornıng was Çır Waterfall only about a half hour drive from our hotel if the bridges hadn’t been washed out and if we had gone the right way. While there is a sign to the waterfall on the main highway there were no more directions after that. Thankfully we found hitchhiker #1 going in the same direction who guided us.
On the way up he told us about his village’s vastly superior, watermelon-bursting spring and pointed out the village strongman as we drove by him and his donkey pulling logs to the village. Apparently this guy saw a bear, went crazy, and fought it!
He also warned us that, although the area below the falls was safe, going to the rocks on top of the falls would be dangerous and that we could be shot. Like many we spoke to he didn’t speak directly of what was going on politically and only mentioned the “troubles.” So again we didn’t explore too widely and stayed on the slopes below the falls.
Due to Bingöl’s extremely dry climate Çır Waterfall is seasonal and, even though it’s a massive roaring torrent in the spring, by the end of July there’s little more than a trickle. Despite the lack of waterfall the cliffs were still sweet and I’ll just have to use some white-out on any pictures I get developed.
Leaving the falls, we stopped in the little town of Yenibaşlar, where we were met with some heavy suspicion by the local shopkeepers who wanted to see our ID and took down our license plate number. Apparently they’re not so used to foreigners there! On the road we passed by Karacehennem Ormani, meaning Dark Hell Forest. Not only does it sound intimidating but this was one of those explicit no-go zones for us and so we went directly to Karliova.
Karlıova, in the northeast of Bingöl is a high and wide plain (Karlıova means snowy plain) famous for snow, honey, and prairie landscapes. Apparently Soğukçeşme, a town along the Bingol Kaliova road, is famous for its kavurma but we only found that out from a hitchhiker once it was too late.
Getting back into town we went to visit a guy who we had met before that said he could give us more information on the next location on our list. The two guys, Şener and Şahin, owned a shop together and as it turned out Şahin was from the town that I was interested in! We only met because we happened to park in front of his shop and ask a few questions! While Nathan’s trip ended up being cut short at this point due to falling ill I ended up spending the better part of that night at the store chatting and eating genuine cig köfte, or raw meatballs wrapped in lettuce and flat bread (Nathan felt sick before the raw beef so we won’t blame that) with Şener and made plans to meet Şahin the next morning so he could show me his village!
Abandoning Nathan in his sick bed I met Şahin in the city center and he took me out to Oğuldere (sometimes referred to by its Armenian name of Buban), his home village where I got to meet his grandmother, aunt, uncle, and cousins. They said I got along so well with his grandmother, whose mother tongue is Zaza, because our Turkish was at the same level! After introductions we went out to a couple of the hillsides with fairy chimneys though they were actually scattered all over the valley.
After that we went up to the ruins of the old town where Şahin and his uncle pointed out the houses that they were born in before an earthquake destroyed many of these historic buildings. We checked out a couple caves near the old town, some natural and others that had been homes long ago. Throughout these there were signs of recent excavations and damage done by treasure hunters looking for buried Armenian gold.
After a lunch of stewed green beans and cow tongue with another new type of ayran (this time made with garlic), Şahin and I went back to the city to find Nathan feeling well enough to hit the road. Saying our farewells to Şahin and Şener we started our drive back to Diyarbakir. Other than a quick stop in Genç to find the utterly underwhelming Sebeterias Castle ruins (if the sign is correct it’s about 3000 years old and built by the Urartians though there’s only a tiny chunk of wall left now) and a brief stop at Birkleyn Cave where we noticed a set of steps cut into the cliffs, we drove straight on to Diyarbakir which was shockingly close leaving us enough time for what turned out to be the best burger I’ve had in Turkey at a place called The Hunger.
Showing up at the mall, which is always a very modern and fashionable place in Turkey, I suddenly became aware that we were spattered in mud and our clothes full of thorns and burs. The security guard got a handful of thorns when he patted me down!
While we didn’t end up being able to see as much of Bingöl as we had hoped, what we did see was great and better yet we got to spend more time than usual with local people. We got a glimpse of life in a unique part of the country where the culture, language, and in many cases the form of Islam was very different from what we normally see in the western part of the country. By far the best part of this trip were the things that you can’t capture in a photograph: the time we got to spend with people and the warmth of their hospitality.
OK, Steve McCurry can capture it but I sure didn’t.
Other than the names of the people I travel with there is a good chance that the names have been changed for the sake of people’s privacy.