Of Holy Mountains and Dirty Hotels

How not to find lodging in the shadow of Mount Ararat.

By / June 2012

It was called the Tahran, the hotel I never made it to. It had come at the recommendation of a friend. Was it fate or fatigue that pushed me off course? In the end, I landed somewhere off the itinerary.

But I suppose the Tahran Hotel was never my terminus anyway. After all, people do not come to the far-eastern Turkish town of Dogubeyazit for the lodgings. They come for Mount Ararat, which in both Muslim and Christian tradition is the postdiluvian docking place for the boat that saved human civilization, Noah’s ark.

When we neared Ararat on the bumpy, hill-riddled drive into Dogubeyazit on an afternoon in May, my mind had filled with Sunday school images of Noah’s floating zoo. The passengers on the minibus snapped pictures frantically. Flooded with sun, the mountain was magnanimous.

In a metropolis of peaks, Ararat seemed a skyscraper without rival, a big island in the open sky. Little wonder the summit remains a fixture of religious and folkloric allure. Could there be a better anchor for a vessel lost in time?

Ararat’s snowy peak looms over Dogubeyazit, both overshadowing it and bathing it in reflected glory. Apart from Ararat-related tourism, the economy of Dogubeyazit is buoyed, in part, by a strong military presence due to the city’s proximity to the borders of Iran and Armenia. Perhaps it was how the sunlight was waning, perhaps it was how the shapeless buildings obscured the mountain vista, but by the time our minibus rolled into downtown, my attention had turned from the cold glow of Ararat to the warm grittiness of Dogubeyazit.

Rusty street lights buzzed to life as I fumbled about my backpack for a fleece to check the cutting breeze. After three hours of jostling on a bus through the hills that skirt the border with Iran, I pined to stretch my legs and fill my stomach with kebabs and pide (Turkish pizza). First I needed to find a room.

At the bus stop, a taxi driver dressed in a white button-down offered a ride. When I told him I was looking for the aforementioned Tahran Hotel, he motioned up the hill, saying it was only a few hundred meters away. I started walking. He came alongside, asking would I mind if he led the way? I consented, hesitantly, uncertain about the tip etiquette for a cab ride on foot.

Up the main drag, men were chatting out front of teahouses, convenience stores, and tour companies advertising Ararat. We passed one hotel and, after swerving around a vegetable cart, entered the courtyard of a second. It wasn’t the Tahran. The sign said “Urartu,” the name of the ancient civilization that ruled these mountainous lands during the Iron Age.

Our handler, reading the confusion on my face, insisted we book a room here instead. “The Urartu is clean,” he swore. “Let me take you to my friend, the owner.”

A cursory glance at the dreary lobby threw the appraisal into question. Almost immediately I mentally reneged on the tip and asked the clerk to see a room. He unlocked a few doors and, as if rehearsing prepared lines, announced, “They’re all clean!”

The declaration was specious. The beds were short and sunken. And the ability to use toilet and shower simultaneously in the bathroom left me more determined than ever to find the Tahran. I thanked the taxi driver and clerk for their help and set out into the street.

As if on cue, I stumbled across a second guide. This time, it was the manager of the neighboring hotel, the Grand Derya. His face was pleated. He was dressed neatly in a timeworn charcoal suit. Another gentleman walking with him uttered the increasingly familiar line, “It’s very clean.” With skepticism I followed them both, wondering if I’d ever find the Tahran.

On the third floor of the Grand Derya, I stepped to the window. There before me were the snowy heights of Ararat. It was the first time I’d seen them since exiting the bus in Dogubeyazit. Awestruck again, overcome by the history and the beauty of the mount, I forgot all about the Tahran, booked the room, then bolted into the streets for one final jaunt before nightfall.

Shopkeepers, closing up for the evening, pulled down screechy gates. At what looked like the edge of town, I dipped into a brightly lit carpet store. The proprietor was a Turk with exceptional English. He said he’d spent two decades in Australia but recently moved to Dogubeyazit to open a carpet factory on the side of the mountain and a store in town.

In the midst of observing gorgeous Armenian, Kurdish, and Iranian carpets, some with scenes of Noah’s zoo, my stomach reminded me of the hour. The carpet salesman suggested the restaurant next door. “It’s a clean place,” he said.

After while, I returned to the Grand Derya and collapsed into the oversized leather couches in the lobby. Near the front door was a rack of tear-out postcards of Dogubeyazit, a car parked in the middle of town, a small minaret and mosque — not a single one of Ararat. The manager sold me a handful then returned to his bucket of murky water. I made my way upstairs to the mountain view. In the entryway, he slapped his mop on the dirty floor.


Brian McKanna is a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler.