Things have continued to go well since I ventured away from the Black Sea freeway and into the Kaçkar Mountains. The riding was definitely tougher, but also regularly spectacular and each day I felt like I was doing justice to Turkey. I don’t know why that coastal route is popular with so many riders!
My route from Ispir took me north east through steep winding valleys towards Artvin, then east up the 2400m Cam Pass to Ardahan and the Kurdish populated Anatolian Plateau. From there the road to Georgia bee lined north up one final climb to the border town of Turkgözü.
Not everything went entirely to plan and I ended up leaving Turkey a little later than I’d hoped, but changing plans are just an opportunity for new experiences. Luckily for me, my delays led me to one of my favourite ever campsites and some great times with the local herders that populate the areas around Ardahan.
After my difficult and freezing ascent and descent into Ispir I decided to take a rest day in a hotel. Ispir is a quiet little place with the remains of an old castle perched on the cliff overlooking the town, and the day was spent slowly wandering the streets and refuelling with çay in the local cafes like this one.
Çay is one of the best parts of Turkey and tea houses are effectively to Turkey what a pub is to Australia if you replaced Australia’s pool tables with games of cards and backgammon. They are a place to congregate catch up on the local town gossip. You can bet that from 4 to 6 pm each day you will struggle to find a table to yourself at a good one. As a solo cyclist, they are usually a great place to have a conversation. 5 minutes is usually all it takes for a man to come and ask me a question and after that suddenly the table is surrounded and I have some new mates for the duration of my stay.
Where it differs from a normal pub is in its demographic. Most patrons are men and often older men. It did strike me as odd that not once did I see a woman in one of these places anywhere in Turkey, neither as an owner or a patron. I asked a warm showers host once where the women drink their tea and she said ‘at home while they cook the men dinner, who sit in the tea house’.
Çay on the go. You always see these guys running around the neighbourhood delivering tea to owners of businesses who need a caffeine hit but can’t spare the time to get to the tea house.
The road out of Ispir towards Yusufeli is gorgeous and a huge amount of fun. It rewards those who have made it over the mountain with a day of rolling roads through steep impressive valleys. I spent more time looking around at the view than I did at the road, a big smile plastered on my face.
On one side of the river is a nicely paved road taken by all the cars (few as there were when I rode it), but regularly on the other side secondary roads emerged connecting small villages on the other side. I was enjoying myself so much that I often swapped over for some unnecessary dirt riding on these secondary tracks, where the view of the valley only improves. Some of the startled looks I got from people farming in their yards as they saw me winding past their houses on the gravel track were truly hilarious.
After Yusufeli however the road changed dramatically. The sheer rock faces that line the Çoruh river from here to Artvin have forced the road up and for around 70km it was either blasted out of the rock face or tunnelled straight into it. The sheer amount of work that went into building this stretch of road is stunning. I was told that there are forty tunnels in total and although I forgot to count them all, I believe the stat. It isn’t the best road to ride a bike – very dusty tunnels and a large amount of truck traffic – but all day I was amazed by the engineering that brought it into existence.
This was one of the more amazing sights along the road. The Çoruh river feeds the large reservoir being held back by the enormous Deriner Dam next to Artvin. Clearly the dam has caused the river to swell and towns had to be evacuated and sacrificed in the name of progress. The water line on the rocks suggests that sometimes this old town is totally underwater. The sight of its minaret reaching out from the depths was surreal and beautiful I thought, if a bit haunting.
Some towns, like Zeytincik here, were clearly high enough to avoid the purge and look like little oasis perched on the hillside. I wonder what goes on here – in this tiny town on a rocky outcrop in the middle of nowhere.
The source of all this trouble. The Deriner Dam provides hydroelectric power to Turkey and while renewable energy is in principle a good thing I shudder to think of the environmental impact of its construction.
A big day with a total of about 1800m of climbing brought me to Savsat, a town about half way up the climb to Ardahan. Rolling up the main street I was waved down by Aytekin here who brought me into his shop, sat me behind the till and poured me cup after cup of çay. My Turkish was ok by now and I had a few crucial sentences memorised so was able to have a pretty good conversation with him about how his son was in the army and his family were living away from him in Istanbul. I even understood when he made fun of me for not being able to grow a full beard. The fact that I could speak some Turkish was hilarious to him and he would crack up at the end of all of my sentences. Maybe he was laughing at my poor pronounciation – whatever it was, funny interactions like this are what really brighten my day.
Out of Savsat the road rose further from 1200 to 2400m. Looking at the map I was dreading this climb but a combination of rest and good weather made it an absolute pleasure.
Not a bad lunch view.
What a difference half an hour makes though – I was soon sheltering under someone’s porch on the summit from a sudden and violent downpour, wondering again to myself why I had decided not to bring any waterproof pants. I had read that on the plateau the weather was known to rapidly change and localised storms were a regular occurrence. My time up here would prove this to be true. If you are riding up here expect all weather.
Ardahan is a city sitting at 1800m on a sweeping plateau. Some liken the landscape to the steppe of Mongolia but I think it looks more like remote parts of Scotland, with large rolling hills, impossibly green grass and threatening clouds always bubbling away on the horizon.
Entry into Ardahan marked my entry into Kurdish territory. Before coming to this area I unfortunately associated the word ‘Kurdish’ with the Kurdish terrorist group, the PKK. Obviously this was just a product of the nightly news, and the people around Ardahan were lovely, approachable and just as inquisitive about me and my bike as everyone else. From a glance you can see the area is clearly far more under developed than many other parts of Turkey. It has a distinctly agricultural feel to it with tractors rolling around the streets and cows controlling the flow of traffic on many of the poorly surfaced roads. There’s is also a noticibely larger Turkish military presence and I rode, luckily undisturbed, through a number of military checkpoints where drivers were being pulled over and their ids checked.
Sadly I spent a total of only half an hour in the city of Ardahan itself, topping up food supplies. I was keen to make headway towards Georgia and put myself within easy shooting distance of the border the next day.
Out of Ardahan I had a choice of roads to take me to Hanak. My plan was to camp maybe 10 or 15km past Hanak from where I would continue to the border. I, as I had started to enjoy doing, chose the less developed over the major road.
Along the way I pulled up for a quick break and a chat with this photogenic shepherd grazing his cows in the fields. I have a theory that people with deep wrinkles around the corners of their eyes are always nice people, because I think you get them by smiling a lot. I will nearly always trust a stranger with some good eye wrinkles, and this guy had some great ones.
He told me (through a combination of Turkish and gestures) that the road I was on was very badly surfaced, and heading to the main road might be a good idea. I looked at the kind of lumpy tarmac and assured him I was fine, I’d ridden far worse. A few kilometres down the road though I was off pushing my bike through rough, technical gravel sections that I wasn’t able to ride through. I never even made Hanak because of the delay, and camped 20km short of my goal.
I thought that with an early morning I could make up the lost ground and still get set up in Georgia by the end of the day. But this was not to be and on my last full day in Turkey I was treated to some very poor conditions.
My early morning plans were thwarted by a violent localised storm that landed on my little tent as I was about to pack it up, leaving me sheltering inside for an hour as I waited for it to pass. Soon the thunder and water were gone, but the wind remained and blew for the rest of the day.
I was trying to find a visual representation of the winds I had to deal with on this day, and this was the best I could find. You see all that brown grass lying flat against the ground – that would normally be standing upright.
The wind on the plateau wasn’t like any I have ridden through before. It didnt whip and gust, it was just very forceful and very consistent, like someone started a giant fan on the far side of the mountains and left it blowing right in your face all day.
The outcome was that even on the flat stretches I was in my climbing gear struggling to average 11kph.
So beautiful – so windy. My final climb of Turkey was easy on paper, a few kms long and about 400m of ascent but it was the hardest of the trip so far and took me over an hour of hard slog. The headwind and incline often reduced me to below 4kph – a speed too slow for my speedo to register – and it instead started to read 0kph. Not a morale building number to see when struggling up a hill.
The stuff you notice when you’re going at a snail’s pace.
About half way up I came upon this chilleur of a shepherd sheltering from the wind behind a dirt mound. A wave from him was the only prompting I needed to stop and join him for a few minutes while we snacked together on one of my Kit Kats. Clearly others were having a hard time getting up this hill too because while we were snacking a semi trailer stalled on the bend and it took some very loud noises to get it going again.
At the top I was of course treated to the obligatory incredible views before a beautiful 15km descent into the valley and out of the weather.
The weather had held me back and again I fell short of my goal – I wouldn’t reach Georgia today. A little disheartened I pop into a shop to grab some dinner food and am greeted by a loud ‘Ahhh! Parlez-vouz Français?’
Turns out this shop owner worked in France on farms as a younger man. Trying my best to remember my year 9 classes I respond (in French) that I only speak a little because I am from Australia. He bloody loved it and we have a half French half Turkish conversation while I wander around his shop and play with his adorable grand kids.
I thought that maybe he asked me if I speak French because I am clearly a tourist here, but as I left a Turkish man entered the shop and was greeted with exactly the same question. Maybe he just asks everyone hoping to get lucky!
Just minutes after that hilarious interaction I spied an incredible camp site down a hill away from the road and next to a secluded lake. 5km from the border, picturesque as hell, and a beautiful place to spend my last night in Turkey. I left my bike up the hill and walked to scope out the site when I was joined by a large herd of cows being herded by this man. Thinking that maybe he owned the field I went to introduce myself and ask if I could camp there.
He reached to shake my hand then just never let go, speaking rapidly at me in Turkish. Still holding hands we walked together back to my bike. Often you see men who are friends in Turkey walking with linked arms or holding hands so as funny as this was for me I took it as a sign of friendship.
At the bike I was released and he trusted his shepherding staff into my hands and jumped right onto Suzie. Passing someone your staff must be the Anatolian equivalent of saying ‘here hold my beer’ before you go and do something stupid.
Loaded with food and water the bike is pretty heavy and after a few pushes to try and gain speed it fell flat on its side and took him with it, where he lay laughing on the grass. The bike was picked up and staff returned, and I turned down his offer to have him return and light a camp fire for me later in the night.
As I continued to the lake he moved his cows over the far hill, and with that ended my time with my favourite shepherd on the plateau.
By the water I broke out my warmish celebration beer purchased from the Francophile a town earlier and soaked in the serenity while listening to the croaking of the frogs and the afternoon call of the birds. This campsite was like a beautiful gift from Turkey to see me off on my final night.
The hill on the far side of the lake had a mind blowing view over the valley below and I perched myself on a ledge with my beer in hand as waves of euphoria washed over me and the Georgian mountains darkened in the fading light. It had been a hard day with a perfect ending but I was endlessly grateful to the delays that led me to this place.
Turkey was very good to me. It was the perfect place to start this trip, with enough tourist infrastructure to shelter me when I was overwhelmed but enough wilderness for me to whet my appetite when I had one. It’s a fascinating country with some beautiful people and places and I know that one day I’ll be here on a bike again. It’s a shame that just when I was starting to get my feet and feel comfortable with the language, routine and way of life, my time in Turkey has ended and I’m again in the deep end in an unfamiliar place.
Time to adjust to the road ahead…
… into Georgia.