Long Way Home
Arriving at the Turkish side of the border it was obvious that we were not considered a huge threat to national security and so were waved on through. First up was a trip down the Gallipoli peninsula where we camped on a peaceful beach just south of Anzac Cove – aside from a Turk manning the kiosk we were the only inhabitants. We had a good day out on the bikes visiting the cemetaries and memorials and largely had the place to ourselves (with the exception of six busloads of Turkish schoolkids who were clearly far more excited about the funny people on bikes than Turkey’s war history).
The Turkish people have been overwhelmingly friendly and hospitable. Our first close encounter came after a horrendous 140km slog into a headwind out of Canakkale. Camping opportunities had been non-existant with crops in all directions and barely a tree in sight. Finally we found a deserted old service station with a paddock behind and figured it would do. We’d set up and were lying down when we realised we’d been sprung and four men and a young boy were approaching.
The Turks have a way of walking directly towards you while acting as though you’re not there, and then they stop and look utterly amazed to see you right there in front of them. The group seemed to realise that we were harmless and possibly quite interesting so they made themselves at home and began to check us out. The ringleader, a Doctor from Bursa, also the owner of the old service station (and the new one up the road) was soon holding court. In a Turkish-English mishmash he extracted our names, ages, occupations, marital status, children’s details, itinerary and so on. Clearly he was not a man to be disobeyed so when he invited us to visit him in Bursa we said yes.
I brought out our folder of photos and the shot of my dad holding up his catch on a fishing trip out on Port Philip Bay was a big hit. When they’d finally left in a flurry of gifts, photos and handshakes we were exhausted and bemused – it was like being caught up in a whirlwind.
We then made a side trip into Istanbul for a few days; off the bikes we were just another couple of tourists which was nice as we are usually overrun with curious onlookers every time we stop.
Once back from Istanbul we headed for Bursa and our promised reunion with the Doc. Phoning him on arrival was bizarre with seemingly half a dozen people all on the phone at once, none of them speaking English. The day got increasingly crazy, starting with an insane “follow that car!” race across the city to the Doc’s clinic; a manic city drive with the Doc simultaneously driving, bellowing into his constantly ringing mobile, writing notes, gesticulating wildly and yelling instructions at us in Turkish; then dinner at the Police Club with Mustafa the Police Chief and his family, (the highlight of this was when the waiter came by and vacuumed the tablecloth), finally crashing a wedding party and having my hand stained with henna for luck.
The finale took place when we returned to the 24 hour medical clinic in the early hours of the morning (where we stayed in the staff quarters) – parked outside the Doc started to vigourously hand out medications from the piles in his car. To demonstrate the mouthwash he took a swig from the bottle, gargled violently and spat out on the pavement. We’d barely recovered when he launched into a graphic constipation mime routine and we finally lost it, rolling around in hysterics. It was indeed a night to remember.
Moving on from Bursa we selected a quiet back route through to Ankara. The scenery was pretty spectacular, meaning lots of hills to climb. There were several jagged rocky peaks soaring into the sky which dominated the landscape. We also followed a very pretty river valley for a while, where tractors were the main traffic and friendly farmers stopped us to offer delicious cherries.
At one point we got caught in a sudden thunderstorm which swooped in and caught us and all the farm workers by surprise. We barely had time to don rain jackets and crouch under a cherry tree before we were lashed with torrential rain. We pulled a tarp over our heads and huddled beneath as lightning crashed around and the ground dissolved into a river of mud under our feet. Tractors with trailerloads of farm workers hiding under an assortment of plastic sheets and tatty beach umbrellas rattled past, waving and giggling.
The temperatures are warming up and it’s often humid …… particularly cruel when you fry your brains all day in the sun, but still can’t get the washing dry in the evening. We have received wonderful hospitality from people everywhere we go here – numerous invitations to tea, small gifts and refusal of payment for bits and pieces. Such generosity makes it easier to forgive the often abysmal road surfaces and utter uselessness of our Turkey maps and atlas. Rivers, roads, towns are wrongly marked and distances are generally underquoted by 20-30 percent. For a cyclist, the realisation that your legs have to propel you a further, unanticipated 25km at the end of a long hot day can result in a nasty hissy fit/dummy spit – not a pretty sight!
Overall though Turkey scores pretty highly ……certainly the scenery is spectacular, the food is good (and cheap), we’ve enjoyed some peaceful pine forest bushcamps and the local dogs clearly regard sleep as far more important than chasing passing cyclists.
So …… we’ll keep pedalling eastwards (only another 25,000km to go!) and be in touch again soon.
Newsletter Four – Approaching Iran: Alert But Not Alarmed …..
As we sit in our hotel room overlooking the smog and chaos of Tabriz in Western Iran, the tranquility of Cappadocia seems light years away…….We rode reluctantly away from the warm and friendly oasis of Goreme,with the vast expanse of Eastern Turkey looming in front of us. On the map it looked as though a can of spaghetti had been upended …… lots of wiggly bits of road everywhere and alarming increases in elevation marked ominously in red. After much soul searching and beating of breast we elected to wander vaguely north-east, forgetting that winds from precisely this direction had already plagued much of our cycling in Turkey.
We’d heard that we couldn’t expect the same level of friendliness from the Eastern Turks, and had even been warned of possible anti-western hostility. The reality was somewhat different, beginning in a bank in the city of Kayseri as I wandered in with a question about obtaining US$ cash, and soon found myself sitting sipping tea with the bank manager. The young ‘tea boy’ slipped quietly in and out with his tray, refilling and gathering glasses, smiling shyly at the funny looking tourists with their backpacks and bike helmets.
We hadn’t got much further up the road when a couple of young guys came dashing across the road from a dilapidated looking service station to invite us for tea. We joined the rowdy mob of students on summer holiday break sitting outside the ‘lokanta’ (roadside canteen) …..a little different to the genteel atmosphere of the banking chamber but no less welcoming.
Even the police manning the roadblocks were friendly, pulling us over more out of curiousity than anything else. The first question one pair of young officers asked was ‘are you married?’ and having passed this test we were waved on with much laughter. And so on into the city of Sivas where we got to work on a long shopping list. I found it odd to have a young woman dressed in full ‘hejab’ (fully covered and veiled) trying to sell me skimpy sundresses while I was in search of something pretty much like what she was wearing.
The hunt for velcro got very interesting as we struggled to explain what we were after. Eventually we acquired the assistance of young Hamza, who ran off to get his bike and guide us. He kept disappearing off into a maze of tiny shops and booths but incredibly, came out triumphant. We managed to extract ourselves from a mob of on-lookers and shot off to hide in a back street and catch our breath before the next onslaught.
We were having tea with another group when we met Ali – Head of Mechanical Engineering at the huge university in Sivas. Having done his PhD in Liverpool, and worked for NASA in Baltimore, his English was excellent. His kind offer of accommodation at the uni campus was quickly accepted and we had a very enjoyable evening staying in the quarters usually filled with visiting professors.
The next day we were tormented with evil gusty winds and gave up after a feeble 35km. We spent the afternoon curled up in the tent in a dusty awkward spot, drinking endless cups of coffee and reading while the wind whipped itself into a frenzy.
The coutryside became increasingly barren and bleak as we climbed up and over 2200 metres. For once we resented rolling back downhill as we knew we had to climb back up to the same elevation a second time later that day. Over the second pass the scenery was all bare blasted rock – stark and quite beautiful. We flew downhill into a valley surrounded by mountains to arrive in Erzincan. The town lacks any historical features after being largely obliterated by an earthquake in the 1930s but we spent a lovely evening here wandering the streets crowded with locals enjoying the balmy weather.
Arriving in Erzurum a few days later we stumbled upon a Tourist Office. Ed went in optimistically hoping for tourism information and caused a minor panic amongst staff as they’d clearly never encountered an actual tourist before. Then the boss arrived on the scene and was able to produce a map and guide to the region in English!
We loved this city, especially meeting Burac, a young aspiring Medical School student looking to practice his English, who accompanied us around the sights. He is very keen to get hold of English novels as they are hard to find here…. if anyone would like to mail him one his address is: Burak Alaylar, Ozdogukent yapi koop 6-2, Blok Katiz No: 4, Dadaskent, Erzurum, Turkey.
The day north from Erzurum was the most amazing ride of the journey to date. Things started pretty normally as we staggered downstairs from our hotel room and reassembled bikes and trailers out front with an appreciative audience.
It was slow going at first but we topped out over the pass and began heading downhill with some interesting rocky bits to look at. Past the little village of Tortum things started to get really spectacular as we descended into a narrow rocky river gorge. It just went on and on, with even more striking rock walls around each corner – a visual feast combined with effortless cycling ….. it was wonderful and we just kept going, past pretty little villages, the road diving through clefts in the sheer rock walls glowing in the late afternoon sun.
We’d intended this to be a two day stretch, but couldn’t seem to stop ourselves. I was well and truely on the ‘struggle bus’ by the time we reached the village of Yusufeli, located at the confluence of two of the icy rivers that run through the maze of valleys in this spectacular area…. home for the next few days at the peaceful ‘Greenpeace’ campsite alongside the river.
Escaped Poms Mike and Roz (now living on a yacht in southern Turkey), and Dave Manby, a kayaking fanatic who has been returning to this idyllic spot for many years, provided company along with regular visits from the campsite proprietor’s twin nine year old daughters. A local white-water rafting competition on the river through the village provided the entertainment as we all chilled out with a few beers. Finally we dragged ourselves away (as Mike said – ‘if you’re heading for Australia, you’re going the wrong way!’).
We were checking out a possible bushcamp site the following evening when we met up with Hayrettin – he had parked his truck in a nice place by the river and it was exactly the spot we wanted. He didn’t speak a word of English so it took us a while to figure out that he wanted us to follow him a couple of km to his village. As we bounced up a stony track to a rough hut in a tiny village of 70 people we looked at each other, wondering what we were in for this time. Any doubts were dispelled as I was warmly embraced by Hayrettin’s wife Yuksel. At 25 she has already been married for ten years and has two sons aged nine and seven.
We were welcomed into the little one room hut and soon joined by the extended family. Later I realised Yuksel had been madly heating water on a small woodfired stove out front as she invited me to wash. In a nearby shed she gestured for me to sit on a tiny plastic stool and ladled hot water over me. It is the most soothing experience as she shampoos my hair, and scrubs and massages my back expertly.
Later I get out our vege knife to help her peel spuds for dinner and she borrows it for slicing….. exclaiming over how sharp it is. The knife has a long history, having been bought by Ed on a family holiday to West Australia back in 1980 . It has since accompanied each Bourke and Wheels Expedition, slicing up hundreds of fruit cakes for hungry cyclists, then been around Australia and now travelled with us from London. It seemed like an appropriate gift so now our humble travelling vege knife has found a home in a little village in Eastern Turkey. It was a fascinating visit and opportunity to experience village life, and we rode off the following morning feeling uplifted and moved by the warmth and hospitality of these lovely people.
Over the next few days we painstakingly regain all the altitude lost in our descent into Yusufeli. Our route takes us close alongside the border with Armenia and we are aware that the road is closed overnight and patrolled by border guards between Tuzluca and Igdir. With this in mind we elect to camp before Tuzluca, so when we see a sign for ‘Tuzluca 9km’ we find a secluded spot amongst big rocks in a disused gravel pit and settle in for the night. We did pass a big security complex and roadblock just a few km earlier but these are not unusual and the significance didn’t register until I got up just after dark to see the rocky ridge above us illuminated by a giant searchlight probing the hills. Things were complicated by huge blasts of wind which were funneling down through the rocks and slamming into our tent, flattening the sides and threatening to shred our little nylon shelter.So we spent a sleepless night huddled wide-eyed in the tent – alternatively imagining the Turkish military having a ‘shoot first – ask questions later’ policy, and planning our next move for when the tent either collapsed or got blown across to Armenia.
Happily our location in a low spot meant we survived the night without being caught in a spotlight and overrun by suspicious guards looking for smugglers. After cycling up the road the next morning we realised that contrary to our map, we couldn’t have got any closer to the border if we’d tried – and 11km further along we saw a second sign, still reading ‘Tuzluca 9km’…..
The next day into Dogubayazit (aka ‘Dog Biscuit’), just 40km short of the Iranian border was a tough one. Knackered after the previous night, we struggled up a big climb in scorching heat, stopping every kilometre to rest. Shade is non-existant in this part of Turkey outside of the villages. Gifts of watermelon from thoughtful truckies helped to sustain us and we are rewarded with stunning views of Mount Ararat as we skirt the lower flanks of this very photogenic snowcapped mountain.
Slogging on into town we can see the Ishak Pasa palace high on a hill above – we know there is a campsite by the palace but keep hoping that it’s at the bottom. It’s no good ….. we begin to wind our way up a narrow potholed road frantic with weekend traffic. After one hairpin bend too many I’ve lost it – I’m cooked, utterly stuffed, miserable and I want to go home. I cause traffic chaos on the narrow road as concerned Turks stop to see if I’m okay as I slump over the handlebars dripping tears and sweat. Finally it’s over, I reach the camp and I’m revived with tea and sympathy from the friendly people at the tea gardens and restaurant.
After a couple of days resting and poking around the palace and other ruins we head off for the border, swopping our Turkish phrasebook for Farsi. For me it’s time to don the veil, and we approach the border with a little apprehension…. of all the countries on our itinerary Iran has sparked the most concern amongst family and friends.