I stand on the terraced roof of our hotel and scan the horizon. Doğubeyazıt (Daroynk to Armenians) reminds me of the Great American West. Could this be Wyoming? Perhaps. It is a cowboy town, a trucker town, a mountain town, a border town. It is gritty in appearance and demanding of all who pass. And pass they will; the settlement sits on a grassy plain ringed by the kind of rugged mountains that require a rest on the other side. Doğubeyazıt is just that place. I doubt if it has ever been a comfortable rest, but that is irrelevant at this point. The town serves a limited purpose and has done so for centuries: here you can fill your tank with diesel, fodder, or spiced meat, find a bed, and collapse.
That, of course, is why we are here. And after dinner, I stand on the hotel roof with Tanner and am reminded of why Doğubeyazıt isn’t Wyoming. Slender minarets signal the Islamic call to prayer. An armored vehicle rumbles down the street and is suggestive of Kurdish unrest in the region. The small walls that separate the house lots next to our hotel (and adjacent to the only small hospital-clinic in the region) are composed of animal dung-cakes, carefully dried and stacked. These will be fuel for the long winter to come. On a distant ridge, the ruins of a three-thousand year old Urartian citadel crumble downslope. No, this is certainly not Wyoming.
Alcan comes over and stands beside us. I smile and acknowledge his presence.
His white teeth flash.
Like me, Alcan is a stranger to this cowboy town. He is a proud citizen of Turkey who once served in its army. But he is also an Arabic-speaker whose roots are Syrian; he hails from Antakya, biblical Antioch-on-the-Orantes. He strikes me as an example of how the pan-Turkish dream of Ataturk has flowered. It is indeed possible for different cultures to unite behind the singular face of a “secular” government. At least in theory. The armored vehicle on the road below suggests that the success of this ongoing experiment is neither perceived nor appreciated by everyone.
Alcan has joined our little expedition to get a taste of the “adventure tour” industry. I am glad. We are already fast friends. I suspect this is often the case with him. He is easy-going, curious, and funny.
In the afternoon, Alcan and our group wander among Doğubeyazıt’s shops and stalls. Fruit, shoes, tea, sweets, and other commodities are readily available. We pick up a few items. Even in this remote place, I marvel at the number of cellular phone vendors. Turkcell signs abound. Are those the antennae of a gastropod? I push the button of my own phone. The device I carry was made in Finland, purchased in Palestine, and armed with a SIM card I bought in Istanbul. I should not be surprised–but yet I am–to discover a welcome message in English from a service provider in Iran. Does a true frontier exist anywhere anymore?
Now, the three of us, Tanner, Alcan, and myself, watch the sun setting over Doğubeyazıt’s plain. Behind us, the shadows creep across the gentle slopes of Tondrak’s flows. To our right, a tractor trailer runs through the gears, climbing toward the cellular signals of Iran. Immediately before us looms the silhouette of the mountain the Turks call “the painful one,” Ağrı Dağı.
We watch the night swallow the mountain from this cowboy town. Part of the exercise is simple relaxation; another part of it scratches our curiosity. We were told that if you look in the just the right place on a clear and dark night you can see the lights of the base camps of the climbers. Either this claim is not true, it is not quite dark enough, or we don’t know exactly where to look. We see nothing but a looming mountain. A dog barks somewhere in the maze of dung-lined lots below. It is a gritty place.