Winter has arrived in Turkey, and it reminds me of home. It’s the weather that primarily drives this association, although there are other commonalities between local events and the steadfast traditions of a Canadian holiday season. Here too there are television advertisements, even news reporting recommending the purchase of winter tires. Complementary video clips of atrocious winter driving skills run alongside. And Turkey is certainly not exempt from the hysteria of year-end sales. Regardless of their religious association, when window arrangements involving Christmas motifs prove to be effective sales tactics they are shamelessly employed.
There are also a few differences. Here no one gives a shit about Santa Claus, the closest thing to carollers is the mosque’s call to prayer, and I actually have to pay attention to forecasts.
In Canada I pursued ignorance of the weather report with great dedication. Unless hiking or snowboarding were involved, I just didn’t see why it mattered. Perhaps I’d been jaded by Vancouver’s capricious skies, where an ever-present umbrella and a tolerance for soaked feet were my most reliable allies. I developed a distrust and skepticism of weather predictions. A sense of hopelessness resulted in packing layers and generally ignoring the forecast.
My ambivalence also sprung up from lifestyle. In Canadian cities, warmth and shelter for We The Privileged is never far away. Commuting on foot in thirty below, unremarkable for a January morning in Calgary, the skin on my knees under my translucent stockings would always sting. But twenty six minutes away, the office was reached sooner than frostbite, and its temperature-controlled comfort could be relied upon. ‘Plus’, I’d gasp enthusiastically to my coworkers, ‘the cold wakes me up in the morning!’
But here in Turkey’s winter, especially this year, eschewing forecasts either meteorological or political I’ve found to be ill-advised. I’ve had to seek out forecasts predicting both weather and human behaviour, and try to develop my own. Consequently this has meant postponing a visit to Kurdish-majority regions in the central and southeast of the country. Turkish Kurdistan, depending on who you ask. Instead I’ve opted to pass through Turkey along its northern Black Sea coastline, as many visiting bicycle travellers do.
My ideals, if you can call them that, initially drew me to southeast Turkey for different reasons.
It had become a region of intrigue for me. Turkish Kurdistan’s controversial neighbours (Iraq, Syria, Iran) its landscape (arid plateau) its people (Kurds, Turks, asylum-seekers, among others) and its political situation (no one is stoked) lent it mystery and allure. Contemplating cycling through it felt intrepid. Travellers lauded destinations in the region, ringing exotic the moment they were uttered: Nemrut Dagi, Dogubayazit, Kars, Lake Van, Diyarbakir.
And a most alluring forecast: the Kurds are reputedly awesome to hang out with.
Winters in the region are well below freezing, snowy, windy and dry. As it became inevitable that I’d be visiting during this season, the accompanying cold-weather suffering came to be seen as a trade off, and even part of the personal appeal the region held. Now in the possession of top-notch winter gear, I imagined myself piling on on all my layers in the tent and suffering. I’d struggle through it and the intention was that I’d grow a little in the process. In the moment I’d hate it and in hindsight I’d romanticize and reflect on it.
Departing Tbilisi bound west for the Turkish border near Akhalkalaki, I began my winter initiation as I climbed up to altitude and onto the plateau.
But talk is cheap, and the reality is I’m not where I hoped to be. I won’t be visiting Turkish Kurdistan this time around. Because of forecasts.
What is it that makes a forecast reliable?
Weather forecasts are driven by meteorological and climate sciences. They require context based on how short-term or long-term they are, and how many data are available. At their best they are based on observation, models and established trends. At their worst they fall prey to exaggeration and hyperbole in their passing from one source to another. Although weather forecasts can certainly induce fear and frenzy, they aren’t initially based on them. Rain is rain, a hurricane is a hurricane and we don’t make them into larger or smaller deals than they are based on our discrimination or condescension towards a particular weather system because we don’t like something about it.
Political forecasts are different. Bias, agenda and prejudice can cling on to forward predictions of a region’s human temperament and upcoming events. The whole process, from observation to interpretation to opinion-forming is vulnerable to contamination by fear and fear’s byproducts. The importance of objectivity in political prediction takes on a paramount importance. But how could I find opinions void of fear to assess Turkish Kurdistan’s short and long-term human forecast, and how it would affect me if I travelled there?
It is these forecasts of upcoming events in Kurdistan that have been the most interesting to gather. To do this I ended up adopting a strategy of compromise. I entered Turkey with conviction to visit its Kurdish regions, crossing at the southernmost border. This was spurred on by glowing reviews from travellers, and in spite of (or, perhaps, because of) warnings by media and the Turkish and Canadian governments. But I wasn’t heading south without first seeking forecasts from sources I felt I could trust. My aim was to talk to locals, make friends and have face to face conversations about my ideas and theirs.
And for all my tongue wagging about objectivity it’s hypocritical that my research was flawed from the start – I was biased, looking for justification for visiting these regions. So how interesting and unexpected that my search for validation had the opposite effect. It was those I met who most love Kurdistan and lauded the region that convinced me to forgo visiting.
There’s a logical reason for this. My bias was making it easier for me to write off warnings and negative sentiments from the media and the average Turk as fear mongering and overblown. Information from Kurds, Kurd-sympathizers and independent travellers held more weight with me.
Through fellow travellers Dani and Juan I managed to seek out a few such people, and their opinions seemed to me the most reliable. There was a feeling that we understood each other. I understood them as people abreast of current events, of skeptics, of people able to honour nuance and avoid generalization. They are people who love the Kurdish regions of Turkey either because they’re from there, they’ve lived there or they’ve visited. And they understood me as motivated to learn about this part of the world, to meet new types of people, to maybe toe the line a little, as someone with some tolerance for risk.
They helped me make my own forecast, one that is surely imperfect but nonetheless based on first-hand observations and experiences from diverse sources. Especially delightful is that the process itself yielded opportunities to learn about Kurdistan – my intention for visiting in the first place. I saw pictures, heard stories and music and become ever-more intrigued to visit one day in the future. But that will have to do for now.
The forecast I developed for what it would be like for me to cycle in Turkish Kurdistan right now precipitated a change in route. For me, the combination of roadblocks, police presence, armed conflicts on roads and low temperatures was too much to bear. The situation in the Kurdish regions changes daily.
To draw this conclusion from a scan of the news and weather reports of southeastern Turkey and the government – PKK conflict would not be difficult. But I needed to ask for myself. So I challenged these opinions, but not to the extent of visiting in person. In reality I expect I’d have been forced to turn around or board a bus by police before I was able to cycle much farther south from the Georgian border. There will be others who will travel these regions this year even though I’ve chosen not to, and admittedly I feel a small amount of envy.
My choices have swiftly removed me from anticipation of a winter in Turkey reminiscent of Calgary’s arid deep freeze, but the Canadian nostalgia persists. I’m now planted firmly back in Vancouver winter territory on Turkey’s Black Sea coastline. It’s a finicky smorgasbord of dark and light skies, wet and dry, rain and snow, wind and calm. Home Sweet Home.
With this return to Vancouver weather, my ignorance of forecasts has returned with a vengeance. They say it will snow tomorrow. Whatever. It snowed today, and rained, and was clear, and then snowed again. If I stayed inside every day the Vancouver weather report called for some sort of precipitation, life would not be much fun. The Black Sea’s temperament is much the same, so for the time being I am continuing to be ignorant and deal with the weather as it comes. I’m anticipating some soaking feet along the way. Forecast: A bit of everything. Except for, hopefully, civil unrest.