Excerpt from Turkish Diary
Thursday 23rd August.
The van sways and heaves itself up though a small brown village. Everything has been worn down by poverty; the rutted, washed-out track, a scattering of stone and mud brick hovels, chickens and dogs waddling around mounds of dung, pecking and sniffing. Half a dozen chubby children squat in the dirt tossing pebbles at a wall. Two thin, worn women thrash wet clothes against flat stones by a small grey stream.
Further up the slopes we pass stubbled fields, a harvester and a couple of tractors with about twenty or thirty dark and wiry men standing around the machinery. Still further up, a grader digs into the flanks of the dirt road, and an excavator pours the rock into an old truck whose axles and fenders are weighed down with mud. High ahead, on the flanks of the mountain I can see two faint trails of wire, cross-hatched with black support towers and tiny hanging benches. This is a newly developed ski area, and the reason the road is being improved. The work is not being done for the villagers or the summer day-trippers, but for the money that will hopefully pour in during winter.
The Czechs sit in front of us, snuggling as the van twists and heaves over the stones. Achim and I sit up back, legs and shoulders getting close, hands between each other’s thighs. The Czechs turn and smile occasionally, half aware, uncaring. I have no idea whether the driver or his aggressive boss have anything in particular to notice. The road climbs to the summit, the rim of the crater, high above the lake stretching to the hazy eastern horizon. The crater blew out aeons earlier, blocking a river and creating Lake Van, which has no outlet. My heavy morning mood lifts and flies away.
We stop for photos at the rim, and a minute later, another minivan stops, with six passengers ushered out by the garrulous old man who had accosted us in the hotel lobby early this morning. He drones on about the view to a couple of Asian girls. The others in the van appear to be Turks. The view is spectacular, slabs of blue and yellow brightness stretching over the east and south horizons, with softer washes of red, green and violet in the cool scree within the crater. Below us, the large serpentine crater-lake is a metallic blue void, and the smaller warmer one, a muddy moonstone.
It’s eleven a.m. now, and we must negotiate a slow descent to the lake. But first, both vans brake, turn up a steep track and stop at a black outcrop of rock. It’s a steam vent. We all pile out to have a look, and the old tour guide goes on about it for a bit, before we all get back into our vans for the last fifteen minutes of bumpy drive to the base of the crater.
Below us in the distance we can see a large green tarpaulin tent and a wooden, canvas-topped shelter, with a few indistinct figures moving about. Achim thinks it’s a Bedouin camp. But when we get there we see that it’s a tourist camp, with stacks of cans of Turcu Cola and Fanta, and preparations being made for kebabs for those who want to buy lunch. Piles of rubbish and plastic wrappings smoulder in a fire in the gully at the back. A couple of other white vans are parked there, with a few elderly northern Europeans wearing sunbonnets and sensible khaki touring clothes. The two of us manage to escape. Our guide has become less bossy, realising we just want to enjoy some peace and quiet, and sees that we’ve bought our own picnic. He waves us towards the rocks, with “hot spring, hot water, very good.”
The smaller lake, which is supposed to be warm, is about as cool as an Australian lake in summer, but at this altitude – 2600 metres or so – it’s relatively warm compared to the breeze. I strip off, put on my bathers and dive in. It’s briskly exhilarating, then deliciously tepid. Achim strips off to his underpants and dives in too. We swim out to the middle of the lake, gazing up at the ravens and the multi-coloured crags, with tufts of cloud sailing over swiftly, the ragged black doom-birds circling and sinking. Time slows down and I forget everything else.
We swim back, and find the warm pool of water surrounded by a wall of stones, and wallow in it languidly. The water is quite dirty, and from the corner the stream from below is quite hot, stirring up the sediment. A smell like shit wafts around us. I try to imagine that it’s a sulphurous smell, from the volcanic vent.
We hear a cough from somewhere up above; just time enough to adjust ourselves modestly. It’s the Czech couple. The girl sits on a rock, quiet, perhaps a little bit melancholy, and her boyfriend tiptoes over the jagged rocks to reach the water’s edge.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I am going to strip off naked,” he says.
We don’t mind at all. I would have stripped before, but I didn’t want to offend any Muslim eyes that might notice. He strips off, swaying on a steep rock at the water’s edge, and dives in. He is beautiful, with very white skin and fluffy balls like soft white apricots. Achim murmurs his appreciation into my ear as we sit there, nonchalantly not watching, but not avoiding him either. I strip off too, and dive back in. I call out to the girl, “come on, dive in.” But her boyfriend tells me that she is unwell. Maybe she’s having her period.
We swim around, laughing, and as we clamber out, a car comes into view in the distance, bumping along the track. It stops halfway around the lake, and a couple get out and walk down to the reedy edge of the water. The woman is wearing dark flowing clothes and a veil. They might be able to see us, but not any details. We laugh and hide behind some rocks, pulling our underpants on quickly. As I dress and find my socks, I see a used diaper wedged between some rocks at the water’s edge, and a bit further up, a large scab of dried human shit. I’m shocked out of my dreamy day. Why on earth would anyone relieve themselves here, right beside the hot spring?
A couple of other cars pass along the track as well. I guess we could have hitch hiked up here after all.
Achim and I leave the Czech couple to themselves, but invite them to share our lunch if they want. We find a slab of rock to eat our picnic on. We’re busy on some peaches, and a group of locals wanders by. We smile and say hello, and one of the men gestures, showing us his camera. He wants to have his picture taken with us. He wedges his slight, muscular frame between us with a big grin, and Achim and I put our arms around his shoulders for the shot. How amusing, a local playing tourist and we being the exotic ‘colour.’
Our bossy tour guide wanders over too, quite mellow now. He asks if we had our swim, and we both look up at the sky and smile. He smiles. It’s become obvious that we are gay. “We go at three, OK?” He stands before us for a couple of minutes, silent, inscrutable, solemn, with his hands plunged deep into each pocket, his fly bulging. We pretend to notice nothing.
After lunch, Achim and I wander over the shrubby trail to the larger, deep blue lake, walking hand in hand. We find another hut, by the water, and two more white minivans parked nearby, with a dozen or so men, the guides and drivers, eating a substantial lunch. Further on amid the rocks and shrubs, families of locals are loudly enjoying their own picnics.
At half past two, the day ends, and we return to the van. On the return journey down to Tatvan, we see the field workers moving slowly through the dry mountain grass. Closer to the road two men carrying guns stand watching them. Why, I wonder? Are they out shooting foxes? Or are they guarding the workers in case they escape?