Van: Among Black Machines

[The travel writing continues! I know I ended the Dubai piece saying I found some better places eventually, but I think I’ll be getting to them much further down the line. For now we’ve got the city of Van, in Turkey.]

“No bus”, said the bus driver, leaning against his bus.

“…what?” was all I could come up with. I could see the bus right there, looking like something that had been dug up rather than built. I gestured meaningfully at the driver with my ticket while he took a short drag on his cigarette.

“No bus. No bus two days. Thursday, there might be bus… maybe” he said.

I looked at him while readjusting my backpack. These things have a tendency to get heavy all of a sudden. Had the driver forgotten how this worked? Planes and ships get delayed. Buses don’t. Some force was penning them in. Wondering if I was missing something, I looked around.

The city of Van didn’t have a bus terminal. Instead, the buses, minibuses and coaches of the town all lined up on one side of one of the main street, choking and spitting amongst themselves. What else was there to see? This was a still town, with flat buildings that made canyons of the streets. The only other structures I’d seen on the way here had been shattered stone castles and crumbling monasteries that lay like shipwrecks throughout the rolling, dark grasslands of Eastern Turkey. Ancient constructs built to last, long since twisted apart by wind and war.

The bus driver finished his cigarette and clambered back into the vehicle, and I wandered down the street to more idle drivers. Between them they had enough English to tell me how all public transport in this part of the country had been grounded for the country’s election, which was happening that night. Whatever was going to happen next, the government wanted it contained.

But I’d find a way out, and onwards, I told myself. There’s always a way.

I had the true extent of my shit situation outlined for me in the overwhelming beige and battered surroundings of a nearby travel agent. The man who worked there didn’t look like he knew anything about moving, let alone travelling, and was dressed like he hadn’t even seen someone wearing a suit properly in a movie.

“These are serious times,” he said. I heard from him that the radical Kurdistan Workers Party, aka the PKK, had that week issued death threats to some of the political candidates in Van. The PKK opposed EU membership and Turkey’s reform, and weren’t to be fucked with. They had training camps in countries across the region, followed a Maoist ideal that cities should be seized by force, had a long history of taking hostages and back in the 90s had even managed to get cyanide into the water tanks used by the Turkish air force. Would I like a hotel? He knew many fine hotels.

Leaving the travel agent I heard a distant rumbling, which turned out to be coming from a very different kind of bus.

Down the street from me was a monster that spanned the entire street. It was a riot bus, a black hole of a vehicle that could barely manoeuvre through Van’s boxy streets. About half of the synapses I’d built in my brain from years of playing videogames fired at once. The thing had tight metal grating over its tiny windows, a carapace of armour plating, a massive black snowplough, remote-controlled machine guns and a crown of three-pronged tubes that could be used to throw grenades. Destroy it! went my brain. Hide! Stand your ground! Run away! Look for a weak spot!

In response, the loudspeakers on the machine barked out a warning, the syllables hitting the street like hailstones. Astonishingly, no-one else was paying any attention to it. The few pedestrians I could see were all crammed against the glass walls of Börek shops and cafés, craning to try and see the coverage of the election on TV.

I went over and joined them, but it was pointless. The newscast was all in Turkish, punctuated with numbers and initialisms that meant nothing to me. This wasn’t my world. I heard the riot bus rumble past behind me and I felt its dark gravity.

As much as we might associate danger with the doomsday scarlet of blood and sirens, danger is not red, and it’s not loud. Danger is quiet, and it’s the same colour as ignorance and boredom; it is no colour at all. Danger is a void, or at most a hormonal uneasiness.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with those hairy men, trying to glean anything at all from the television, I felt that the sirens in the distance were a little too close together and that the distant shouts you can always hear in a city were carrying a different urgency. Then I noticed that the dusky guys around me seemed completely unaware of my presence, the attention a tourist usually draws now absent. I felt unimportant and unprotected, and began pacing back to my hotel.

Five minutes later I was walking down a smaller road, picking my way over roadblocks constructed from barrels and signs that hadn’t been there two hours ago. Were the sirens and shouts around me getting louder, or was I blindingly walking towards them? Towards the epicentre of.. whatever it was. My foggy comprehension of this scene had me picturing packs of furious men whose political ideals began and ended at blood, and lots of it. I pictured the government forces priming their menacing engines of pacification, eager to send any number of teeth rolling down the roads like dice.

Two men, bold in bomber jackets, emerged from around the corner. For all of my evil daydreams I only spared them a glance, so it was only when I got closer that I saw their lazy poses included the couching of black guns against their shoulders. They asked if I spoke English. I said yes. They were barely twenty feet away, which I calculated was a good murderin’ distance.

“You don’t go this way” said the shorter of the two, the taller one casually glancing back the way they came. “It’s dangerous.”

“Why? I need to go back to my hotel.”

“Go another way,” he said, pointing back the way I came with the barrel of his gun. I turned away from them and walked back the way I’d came. Where had they come from? Where do any of the men who grow up to wear bomber jackets and carry guns come from? I imagined thousands of them, squatting professionally under the manholes of Van.

So I went looking for another way. The streets I’d come down were even more empty now, lending themselves to Hollywood disaster movie level despondency. Loose newspaper pages blew back and forth between those tightly packed concrete buildings, the only colour coming from faded posters and peeling billboards, the only noise the distant orchestra of urban unrest.

By this point all curiosity in me was gone. If I was going to get the shit kicked into or out of me by a mob advocating national isolationism, or taken hostage by a terrorist organization in the excitement their finest hour, it was always going to be in a crap town on an uninteresting night like this.

I was half expecting to find said mob directly outside my hotel’s front door when I turned the corner, but there was nothing there. In the distance the roar of a crowd persisted, tinted with victory and zeal, and the sirens were multiplying. I scuttled through the door into my hotel, up the stairs to my room, and dumped my pack and myself on the bed with equal carelessness.

The springs squeaked their own protest as I rolled onto my back. Then I looked up at the ceiling, and I waited.



  1. This actually comes across as very important travel information in story form. It’s too easy to let one’s guard down in depressing places.

  2. “Teeth rolling down the roads like dice”. Epic writing, keep it coming!!

    I also like “good murderin’ distance”

  3. You’re a lovely writer.

  4. An excellent piece.
    Why go to the dangerous places, anyway?

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