Bicycling touring Dersim İli: Çemişgezek, Hozat, Ovacık

The posts about this bicycle tour from Antalya to (spoiler) Bitlis were written shortly after the section described.  Until now.  It’s been almost two months since Hacer, Ferda, and I entered Dersim Province, dropping into a pretty canyon, crossing the Rabat Çayı (a creek), and switchbacking up the other side above one of the many arms of the huge Keban Barajı (a reservoir).

The river marking the border between Kemaliye (Erzincan) and Çemişgezek (Tunceli) by bryandkeith on flickr

IMG_20200814_112647 by bryandkeith on flickr

I have multiple excuses for this post’s delay, but the main one is that this is not an easy region to write about.  There’s the Armenian Genocide of 1915, the Dersim Rebellion of 1938, the forced evacuation (and often destruction) of Kurdish villages in the early 1990s, and the current ongoing “operations” that are perhaps even more devastating than the 1990s.  It’s a grim recent history.

These events are hardly limited to Dersim.  They affected everywhere that Ferda and I visited from here till the end of the trip: Çemişgezek, Hozat, Ovacık, Dersim (merkez), Mazgirt, Karakoçan, Bingöl (merkez), Genç, Lice, Kulp, Muş (merkez), Güroymak, and Bitlis (merkez).  It appears that Dersim (or, perhaps more accurately, the Zaza areas which include Karakoçan and Bingöl as well) have mostly been spared from the current offensive, but those areas were the worst to suffer during Atatürk’s “Dersim Massacre” against Alevis in 1938.

Understanding is complicated by the fact that, as Christopher de Bellaigue (I have his book, Rebel Land, in front of me) points out, “Turkish historians … have whitewashed the history surrounding the Armenian Genocide.”  He goes on to say “‘a genocide fixation’ has blinded both sides to all shades of gray.”  The events in Dersim in 1938 suffer from the same problem: those who have elevated Atatürk to god-like status, one who can do no wrong, and on the other side, current president Erdoğan, who says the Dersim Massacre was “an operation which was planned step by step”.

Of course, we didn’t meet locals who remember either of those events directly, but plenty of people clearly remember the army’s advance through the mountains and villages in 1993 and 1994.  A few were even willing to talk about it.  One shepherd described what he remembered from the the village of Toratlı in 1993 (or 1994?): thousands of soldiers walked through the mountains, burning everything; they didn’t have tanks or vehicles, but they had helicopter support, dropping bombs.  This shepherd fled with most of his fellow villagers to Çemişgezek.

How were we affected directly traveling through this region?  Well, most visibly it was the frequent jandarma checkpoints and posts, situated on top of so many hills that we were rarely out of sight of one of these.  The second issue was that just hearing the names –Çemişgezek, Ovacık, Dersim– filled Ferda and Hacer with fears of “terrorists” (the word the Turkish press always uses when describing the government’s operations in this region).  Their leading questions and fixation on the negative responses meant that they were often scared of leaving main roads and camping, two essential aspects of bicycle touring.  One fear led to another: dogs (legitimate, to a degree), bears (irrational, as we not once saw tracks or scat), and covid 19.

Finally, even though we cycled less distance and elevation than when I was riding by myself, I found this section more physically challenging because we were riding in the heat so much.  On my own I had been doing most my riding in the mornings while with Ferda and Hacer we mostly rode in the afternoons.  They like to sleep in and take many long morning breaks.

Ok, sorry for the long introduction.  Dersim İli (Province) frequently has nice scenery:

IMG_20200814_151912 by bryandkeith on flickr

and rarely villages that still have people.  Here’s a door in Gedikler:

IMG_20200814_163842 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20200815_090236 by bryandkeith on flickr

For historic buildings Çemişgezek was our best stop in the province.  I would have spent longer, but Hacer was particularly scared of covid 19 here.  We missed the historic bridge over the Tağar River and the (perhaps?) Kapadokya-style dwellings in the cliffs on the other side of the river from town.  We did ride by this building:

IMG_20200815_113028 by bryandkeith on flickr

where Armenians were imprisoned before being killed in 1915.

Here’s the Selçuk Yelmaniye Mosque built in 1404:

IMG_20200815_113340 by bryandkeith on flickr

with beautiful tiles on the mihrab:

IMG_20200815_113611 by bryandkeith on flickr

From Toratlı to Hozat we were mostly on unpaved village roads:

IMG_20200816_080805 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20200816_105314 by bryandkeith on flickr

In this region it was common for gravestones of the first born son to be carved in the shape of a ram.  Sadly most of these have been stolen.  We found this one in the village of Segedik:

IMG_20200816_145136 by bryandkeith on flickr

In Hozat it was clearly pepper drying season.  The strings of colorful peppers reminded me of Christmas lights in the US.

IMG_20200817_144042 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20200817_113721 by bryandkeith on flickr

The most famous place in Dersim (province) is the flat Munzur Valley with the Mercan Dağları rising steeply to the north.

IMG_20200818_161302 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20200818_165502 by bryandkeith on flickr

We tried to sort of take a rest here with four different stream-side campsites separated each by a short day of riding and daily swimming.

IMG_20200818_184051 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20200820_171002 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20200820_120032 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20200819_162104 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20200821_103636 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20200819_060822 by bryandkeith on flickr

Our biggest complaint was the trash, and the worst of the trash was at the area’s most famous (and thus most visited and in hindsight most disappointing) attraction, Munzur Gözeleri.  In spite of the signs almost everywhere telling people not to leave trash, we filled a garbage bag of trash at every campsite before putting our tents up.  This is a problem everywhere people go in Turkey, but it was particularly disturbing in the Munzur Valley, being among the most beautiful places in Turkey.

The best thing about Dersim are the educated, open-minded people (the locals are the ones putting up the “no trash” signs).  Historically the persecuted (Armenians and Zaza (Kurdish Alevis)) have come to escape persecution, previously possible because of the region’s isolation.  As we’ve seen for over a century, that doesn’t work any more so the locals now live largely overseas.  According to this research, the ones who remain in Dersim are the most highly educated people in Turkey with the lowest levels of life satisfaction.

IMG_20200821_055913 by bryandkeith on flickr
Our bicycle route from Divriği to Tunceli via Kemaliye, Çemişgezek, Hozat, and Ovacık in August 2020 by bryandkeith on flickr

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2 Responses to Bicycling touring Dersim İli: Çemişgezek, Hozat, Ovacık

  1. Mike Painter says:

    Interesting, as always.

  2. Hi Bryan,

    My wife and I are presently staying in Antalya. Curt Bradner who like me is a member of crazyguyonabike community gave me your name as a possible contact in Turkey.

    We would be delighted to meet someone we could have a chat with. For now we booked an appartment till Dec 07 not knowing exactly what to do next.

    If you wish to contact us please call through WhatsApp at 05359461350

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