Turkey for Christmas
9 January, 2011 20 Comments
We flew down a steep country lane, swerving round potholes and skidding through gravel. It was late December but the warm sun and green valleys meant it felt like an English summer. We weren’t quite sure exactly where we were as this road wasn’t on our map, but we didn’t care as we enjoyed the adrenaline rush of being nearly-but-not-quite out of control.
We’d grown bored of following the same winding coastal road for weeks, so we had turned inland down a narrow country lane in the hope of finding a more interesting road. Previous deviations from the map had backfired spectacularly, but fortunately this time our decision to ditch the main road was rewarded – our boredom instantly vanished, and we met Muhammed.
We’d stopped for a quick lunch of water and bread by the local mosque when Muhammed, the village priest, saw us and invited us back to his house for a much tastier lunch. The dinner table was rolled out and loaded with a delicious feast – Muhammed wouldn’t take no for an answer and kept refilling our plates until we could take no more. Cycling onwards with bulging bellies wasn’t an option so we chatted using the invaluable Google Translate, watched Muhammed’s children ride Bex’s bike, and before we knew it we were eating dinner and preparing to stay the night.
We put a few big days in to arrive in Samsun on December 24th so we could enjoy a mini-holiday in a big city. For once when searching for somewhere to stay we considered factors other than just finding the cheapest possible price, as a stay in a hotel was to be our Christmas present. We ended up somewhere that felt like The Ritz compared with our usual standard of accommodation, it was definitely a nice treat for us to enjoy. Even better news was the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet – I was first in/last out each day, got a few strange looks from the hotel staff, and I’m pretty sure we ended up making a small profit from our stay.
On Christmas Eve we raided a newsagents for chocolate, cookies and satsumas and spent Christmas morning gorging ourselves in our room. We played games and read books over a few glasses of tea in a bustling cafe, surrounded by people oblivious to the celebrations back home. We gave the camp stove a night off as we went out for our Christmas dinner, which turned out to be a lamb stir fry with a couple of huge glasses of wine.
We left ourselves a long day of pedalling to reach Giresun where we hoped to have a few days off over New Year. We started nice and early, but a routine food/water/toilet stop at a petrol station in the afternoon scuppered our plans for an early arrival. We’d finished our admin and were just about to leave when the petrol station owner brought out cups of tea, swiftly followed by fresh jam, olives and cheese (like Muhamet, it seems he’d seen us munching on a plain loaf of bread and taken pity on us!) When we were finished and once again ready to be on our way the owner’s daughter appeared and could speak excellent English – a relatively rare occurrence outside of cities in Turkey. We stayed for a chat and it was nice to be able to explain our journey to her father who’d been so kind.
Unfortunately, when we finally got round to leaving we had an hour of light left, two hours still to cycle, and it had started raining. We were quickly drenched through (our new waterproofs were waiting in Giresun for us to collect that evening!) and covered in grit from the road. Cycling on the hard-shoulder of what is effectively a motorway in the dark whilst raining was pretty miserable and we were glad when we finally reached the Giresun city sign where we met Mertcan, our host from Warmshowers. A few parcels from home had arrived at Mertcan’s containing a mix of useful kit and fun treats – it felt like a second Christmas had arrived!
We ended up staying for four days to sort out some admin, relax, and let our hangovers subside after we had a great time at a student house party on New Year’s eve. People in cities are generally less conservative than in rural areas – virtually all women in the small villages we’ve cycled through wear headscarfs, whereas in the bigger towns and cities that we’ve visited many don’t. Likewise with alcohol – between Istanbul and Samsun we didn’t see any bars and weren’t offered alcohol when staying in homes or eating out. My first beer since Rob and I rocked the bar in Istanbul over a month before was consumed at Onder’s house in Samsun – thanks Onder, it tasted pretty good! Once we were back in larger cities such as Samsun and Giresun we saw bars dotted around, and the students we met certainly enjoyed a drink or two on New Year’s Eve!
After a month spent on its shores we finally left the Black Sea at Tirebolu, turning inland towards Erzurum, mountains and the Iranian border. The coastal route we’d taken until this point certainly wasn’t as we’d imagined from our extremely limited research – the road from Amasra to Sinop was hard, hilly and took us ages to cycle, but the coastline was beautiful and the weather warm and sunny for the most part. The main highway on which we’d naively envisaged racing across Turkey in a matter of days started at Samsun. Even with the benefit of hindsight I’m glad the road was full of surprises, even if they weren’t usually pleasant ones! If our research was so thorough that we knew exactly what the road ahead would look like, what would be the point in cycling it? The less planning, the greater the adventure…or so we kept telling ourselves as we were faced with yet another lung bursting climb.
Every single day in Turkey we’d been told that it was defintely impossible to cycle to Erzurum in the winter due to the mountains/snow/cold/ice. We hoped otherwise – our view was that if the road was ok for buses and lorries, then surely it could be cycled. We’d been checking temperatures on the internet and Erzurum (the highest, and therefore coldest, city en route) seemed to average daily highs of -2 degrees and night time lows of -17. England has had worse recently! We ignored the advice, turned right off the coast and hoped we’d packed enough jumpers.
The ascent from coast to Erzurum, which lies at 1900 metres above sea level, was stunning, and the highlight of the trip so far for me. We spent the first two days catching tantalising glimpses of huge mountains in the distance – we knew we were heading straight for them and would soon be more than two vertical kilometres above our current position.
We cycled along a deep gorge for two days, the road winding gradually ever higher up the steep sides. The temperature began to drop noticeably compared with the coast as we inched our way upwards towards the snow line. The road was a rare combination of smooth surface but little traffic and the views were incredible – it was impossible to get bored on this road whilst gazing at endless peaks, lakes and houses pearched crazily on the sides of hills. We ate lunch sat on a wall overlooking the gorge, legs swinging over the edge, occasionally holding our breath to appreciate the absolute silence.
One night we slept in a teacher’s hostel – they finish school early and spend the evening drinking tea and playing cards in the communal area. I challenged one teacher to a game of backgammon – Turkish people play in a completely different way to anyone I’ve played before. After playing a number of Turks over the last month or so, I think I’ve worked out their rules (apologies if you’ve no interest in backgammon!):
1) If it’s possible to take an opponents piece, do so at all costs.
2) When deciding between two moves, always choose the highest risk and most aggressive option.
3) Leave as many of your own pieces uncovered as possible.
4) Whatever the move, always slam your pieces down as hard as you can.
At least it makes for an entertaining game!
The following day we arrived in a town just before dark looking for somewhere to sleep. We couldn’t find a place to camp and the two hotels were both full, but luckily Servet, a jewellery shop owner with excellent English had spotted us. After phoning half of the town, we were handed the keys to his friend’s empty apartment. We lit the wood stove and rolled out our camping mats in the living room (the bedroom was freezing as houses with stoves tend not to have central heating).
So far we’ve crossed two mountain passes (of 1875 metres and 2409 metres – for reference, Ben Nevis is 1344 metres, and the highest mountain in last year’s Tour de France, the Col du Tourmalet, is 2115 metres) which came complete with summit signs for celebratory photos. These were much more fun than the short but steep climbs on the coast. On the coast the hills were short but incredibly steep, requiring every last ounce of our effort as we stood on the pedals to battle gravity, and as we began and ended each day at sea level our efforts felt wasted. In the mountains however, the climbs generally involve around forty kilometres of relatively gentle ascent (proven by the fact that Bex’s panting remains in earshot behind me), which takes a half a day of more measured effort. The road crawls between huge hills, the entire landscape white with snow with the exception of a strip of black tarmac ahead and behind. When we reach the summit we’re rewarded with a real sense of achievement – we’re standing on top of a mountain pass, with a photo to prove it!
The temperature is considerably colder at the top and although we’re warm on the way up the descents are extremely cold. Bex teased me for putting on every last piece of cold weather clothing I was carrying, but less than two minutes into the descent I heard a muffled squeak from behind as Bex was forced to stop and wrap up. The wind chill of a fast descent plus the fact our bodies are no longer working means the sub zero temperatures feel much colder and the feeling was lost from hands, feet and faces within minutes. My brain felt like a frozen pea by the time we reached the bottom. Once over the pass we dropped down on to a flat but high plateau, surrounded by 3000 metre peaks.
Our tent hasn’t had much use in Turkey as whenever we ask for permission to camp people usually say it’s much too cold to sleep outside and find us somewhere indoors to sleep. However we really wanted to camp for a night up high in the snow for a bit of fun so we snuck off the road just after crossing the final pass about 70km before Erzurum, found a flat spot of land and set up camp. The thermometer read -5 as we cooked up dinner and a hot drink, but the temperature soon began to drop as the light fell so we got into our sleeping bags at 5.30pm (rock and roll) and read our books by torch light. This was by far the coldest place we’ve stayed (because it was the highest), but we were nice and warm wrapped up inside the tent. It’s impossible to explain that to any locals though, given our extremely limited Turkish – they think we’re slightly insane just for cycling in the winter, let alone chosing to sleep outside in the snow.
We’re now in Erzurum giving our legs a well deserved rest after 4000m of climbing in the last week. The Student Winter Olympics begin here in two weeks – we saw the massive ski jump on our way in and there are hundreds of flags decorating the city.
We hope to enter Iran next week, after we’ve tackled the final two 2000+ metre passes that lie on the road between Erzurum and the border. We’ve heard that WordPress may be blocked in Iran – we’ll try and post a quick update to the website by email, but our next proper blog update will probably be from Turkmenistan in early March. Enjoy February!