This post comes to you from Ispir – a town nestled amongst the mountains 123km south of Rize, and not a place I originally intended to visit.
My plan originally was to follow the coastal highway from Sinop all the way to the Georgian border, past all the coastal cities like Ordu, Trabzon and Rize that I was told by so many Turks I absolutely must visit. This route has been traversed by countless tourers before me as they make their way to the Georgian border via the flat and fast freeway.
Sitting on this freeway my journey east had greatly picked up pace and I could have been in Georgia two days ago if I had continued. However after over a week of cities and flat roads the novelty had worn off and I was left feeling aimless and restless.
Despite the drawbacks of touring solo one of the major benefits is that you alone decide the route. Nobody is stopping you from, on a whim doing a u-turn, turning your back on the freeway and deliberately making your path more difficult.
Taking advantage of that fact, I have decided to take the long way round.
Bafra, from where I wrote my last post, is a fairly unremarkable city on the inland stretch of freeway between Gerze and Samsun. After a brief walk to get some snacks and people watch I spent most of my day in the hotel reception area trying to figure out how to use WordPress and hiding from the storm outside.
Umut, the hotel receptionist, was stoked to hear I was cycling through Georgia. He is Turkish but his family live in Georgia, and he spent a good while telling me all the useful Georgian phrases I will need while I wrote the phonetics down on my phone.
Later in the day he surprised me with lunch and tested me on what he had taught me in the morning, and kept me fuelled with çay until his shift was over.
Out of Bafra the rain continued. It had been raining now for four days and my feet were sick of being wet.
Viable campsites in the flat areas around the freeway were by now a muddy mess and although apparently petrol stations will sometimes let you camp behind them I didn’t fancy trying to sleep through the sound of trucks next to my head all night.
I bypassed the city of Samsun entirely. It’s a huge heaving place – the biggest city since Istanbul. Maybe I was in a bad mood from being cold and wet but I hated riding through it and couldn’t get out fast enough. Drivers seem to become reckless and rude around cities and I felt unsafe my whole way through as I was regularly cut off and honked at for riding too slowly through the pelting rain.
The day improved from there though. In addition to providing emergency camping spots petrol stations in Turkey sometimes serve free çay and I have become expert at picking the çay machines from a distance.
Pulling up for a brew I was greeted by this handsome duo. Between filling cars the station attendant relished in showing me all of his dog’s tricks. My relationship with dogs was a little strained after having been chased by so many since Istanbul – they’re truly a menace to the touring cyclist – and it was nice to let my guard down, have a tea or three and give this happy pooch a few scratches behind the ears before heading back out into the rain.
I set my sights on Çarsamba, a small but pleasant city past Samsun and built around a big brown river. Feeling stressed, depleted and soaked to the bone, I was sulking into town when I heard excited voices behind me.
The man on the right was standing in the doorway of his bike shop and calling me over. After giving Suzie a good look over and giving her the seal of approval he pushed me close to his heater and poured me some çay. His friend in blue spoke great English and we chatted while I dried myself. He jumped on the phone and arranged a night in a nice hotel for me in town, before leading me there through the rain in his car.
A welcome end to a trying day!
The rain had cleared by the next morning, replaced by persistent headwinds. Didn’t matter to me, I was just excited to be dry.
With another day of flat, uninspiring freeway riding ahead of me I set myself a challenge to ride the 120km to Ordu where a warmshowers host would be my reward. The headwinds didn’t make it easy, but six hours riding later and with a pretty sore ass I was there and happy to have recorded by biggest day of riding in years – and into headwinds on a bike weighing about 45 kilos!
Almost as a reward for my hard work the final stretch of freeway into Ordu headed through some rolling hills. Together with the slowly setting sun I was treated to my first piece of scenery in days worthy of a photograph.
Ordu is a pleasant little place and worthy of a days rest for anyone riding along the Black Sea. The foreshore and market areas are very walkable and I enjoyed some good people watching.
If street level bores you, take the cable car high above the city for panoramic views of the coast. Loads of fun – and a return trip costs about $3.50AUD.
Or, if the cable car is a bit too much just hang by the river and watch the fishermen go about their business. Maybe I was there at a bad time but I watched these guys for a good 30 minutes as they blindly tossed their nets into the brown murky river water and didn’t see anyone catch anything.
A lot of time had been spent inside recently, either in hotels or with warmshowers hosts, and I was feeling like a change. The daily repetition of long flat roads and sleeping indoors was beginning to become a grind and I was starting to feel distant from the country I was cycling through.
Tirebolu had a little patch of grass on one of the beaches on the west side of town. Not the perfect spot – a bit of noise from the road, some glare from the street lights at night and (as in so many places in Turkey) an (un)healthy scattering of plastic trash along the beach. But I have definitely camped in worse places and as I cooked my pasta in the light of the brilliant sunset I was glad to be outside.
I met a Belgian woman as I pulled into town, also riding across Turkey towards Georgia. She told me that since Istanbul she hasn’t camped once. Maybe travelling solo as a woman it is different and your guard would have to be higher than mine, your senses more attuned to which situations carry an element of risk. But as she rode on to a bed in the next town and I rolled down to my beach I couldn’t help but feel like she was missing out on so much.
After the high of my Tirebolu campsite the next day along the coastal freeway brought me to Trabzon.
Trabzon is a fine city. It has the steep, winding and cobbled streets of a city with ancient foundations. In the 8th century BC it was established as a major port town and has passed through many hands since.
Despite its history though Trabzon has a modern face with big shops and a large central shopping district. For the first time in a while I saw more women in skinny jeans than I saw in hijabs.
In another state of mind I’m sure I would have enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the place, but as I negotisted the heat and crowds of the central streets I began to feel claustrophobic. The last 500km of freeway riding and city visiting had worn me down. The loud noises and flashing lights of the town, like the regular blare of truck horns on the freeway, began to stress me out.
I couldn’t work out what had happened here but it looked like a whole city block had been totally levelled. Maybe a fire – maybe the price of progress? It was strange to just see it sitting here with no sign of machinery, clean up or construction.
My tense outlook in Trabzon was due in part to these vans. They serve as a form of public transport in the city. Each appears to be individually owned, and the drivers regularly modify them with aftermarket tires, wheels, larger engines and skirts like the one pictured.
These vans are a menace to the tourist cyclist. They swerve across lanes without indicating, accelerate hard and brake even harder. They do not give you space when they pass. The 10km of road either side of Trabzon, as well as the city centre, are filled with them. Like in Samsun I felt unsafe the whole time I shared the road with them and had my fair share of close shaves.
I retreated from the noise of the city to some of its quieter sights, like the Aya Sophya mosque. Originally a Greek Orthodox Church it is now a functioning mosque doubling as a museum. The grounds and exterior are lovely and the frescos in the western doorway, if unfortunately a bit damaged from historical vandalism, are interesting.
There is apparently a great painting on the inside of the dome, but sadly it has been permanently hidden from view by a tarpaulin-type sheet so the space can be used as a mosque. Ah well!
The rest of the day I spent alone and away from people, drinking tea, reading books and deciding what to do from here.
Clearly the flat roads and large towns that were once a relief were now becoming a burden. I glance at my map and look at how much of Turkey I haden’t seen while I was city-hopping along the freeway. Huge chunks inland bypassed by the sprawling four lanes of trucks and busses.
Although the road into Ordu days ago had been nice…
… more often than not it looked like this…
… punctuated by long tunnels with no shoulder that I, with my heart in my mouth, shared with semi-trailers and tour busses as they blasted the fastest way down the coast.
The next day I rode to Rize, again along the freeway.
Reflecting on my total lack of satisfaction upon arrival I decided that, within a day of easy riding from the Georgian border, I would do a u-turn to a turnoff leading me south into the mountains where I would hopefully rediscover the spark that appeared to have died on the flat coastal roads.
The Easiest way is not the Best Way
The very instant I left the freeway the scenery changed, and with it so did my mood. The looming mountains that for weeks had been to my right were now right in front of me. Two days riding would take me 115km into those mountains and over a 2600m high pass, and for the first time in ages I was excited to be riding!
The road doesn’t climb too much at first, winding lazily alongside a slowly flowing river between hills with what I think are tea plantations (?).
Small villages across the river connect themselves to the road via suspension bridges – some of which look distinctly home made. This was one of the more impressive I saw.
The new scenery was thrilling me already, but I had seen nothing yet.
The road and the river both narrowed as the hills on either side became steeper. With each new bend in the road a snowy peak would steal a glance at me over the horizon.
It was clearly cold up there but down here it was humid and warm! The breeze couldn’t make it down the walls of the valley and I was sweating up a storm.
I stopped briefly to pick up supplies in Ikizdere before continuing up the road and camping in the tree line at 1100 meters.
A Turkish family was there when I arrived having a picnic. They tipped out the embers from their BBQ when they left, which I revived to make my first camp fire of the trip.
The sides of the valley were littered with small streams, presumably from snow melt, all following the terrain down into the central river I had been riding along all day. I was able to find one near my tent and with a bit of engineering turn it into a constant waterfall in which to shower and wash my pans!
That night as I washed away the days salt crust from my skin under the freezing stream I realise this is one of the best moments of my time in Turkey.
Riding out of camp in the morning I absent-mindedly tick past a milestone. My first 1000km is in the bag!
The road continued to climb through the morning and the beautiful hills were a good distraction from the lactic acid building in my legs.
The cows and shepherds lining the roadside looked at me with equal incredulity as I ground through their towns at 6kph.
I had set my sights on completing the summit and descending into Ispir by the end of the day. The distance to the summit from my campsite I estimated to be about 22km with 1400m of climbing. I was confident I could make the distance, but it was still to be determined if I would beat the rain forecasted for the early afternoon.
The trees became thinner as I approached the snow line…
… until they disappeared all together.
With no protection from the trees the wind began to pick up and whip at my bare legs, arms and face.
It was clear the weather was closing in and I decided not to stop for lunch – that it would be better to go hungry and dry over the summit than wet, cold and full.
As a lunch replacement I ate a snickers bar and some gummie bears.
Despite feeling the approaching weather I couldn’t resist the opportunity for a set shot! I took this snap at a point I thought was right next to the summit, so figured I could spare the time. It turned out my calculations were slightly off and I was still two-ish kilometres away.
The weather arrived and it finally started hailing on me as I was riding away from the photo shoot. As I took the next bend and realised I still had about twenty minutes of climbing ahead I had to laugh a little at my error.
Looked like I’d be going over the top wet and hungry after all.
The final push to the summit felt extremely slow and cold. The sleet persisted and cold water seeped into my socks and pooled in the toes of my shoes.
It wasn’t until I stopped to check the map that I realised my fingers were completely numb. Still smiling though, kinda.
The unceremonious summit.
In good weather the view is probably amazing from up here! No time to savour the victory though – it was time to get out of the clouds.
I can’t tell you much about the descent into Ispir other than that it was incredibly unpleasant and I saw most of it through wincing and frozen eyes. All my extremities were soaked and totally numb and although I pulled my neck tube right over my face for protection the sleet was still painfully bouncing off it at 50kph. Shivering uncontrollably though, I soon rolled into Ispir at 1200 meters and went straight for the kebab shop.
I’m warm next to a heater now and despite the testing riding I regret nothing of the past two days and am feeling excited and re-energised!
From Ispir I will take the road east towards Artvin, more hills ahead.