Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Karadeniz (Black Sea)

We left Cappadocia in the morning, aiming to get to Trabzon within two days. The countryside was hot and dry, with wheat fields stretching for miles over gently undulating hills. Gradually, the scenery began to change and become more mountainous. When we reached Sivas, we were doing better for time than we thought, so considered pressing on further than originally planned for the day. Over another complementary petrol station tea, we asked the attendant how the road ahead was, and how long it would stay light for. He assured us the road was good, and that it wouldn't get dark until around 8 p.m.


What he must have meant to say may have been something like 'the road is extremely narrow and twisty, with large sections of gravel. These parts will be crazily dusty, and if you are unlucky enough to meet a truck, you may be unable to see entirely. By the way, it actually gets dark around 7 p.m.'


Whilst the route was beautiful and the scenery stunning, the light was starting to fade, and we were conscious of how dangerous the road might be to ride in the dark. We were negotiating a high mountain pass (over 2000m), and the temperature had dropped considerably, so we needed to find somewhere to sleep quickly. Our friend at the petrol station had showed us a village on the map, and said there should be places to stay as it is apparently an internal tourism destination. As we weren't too far from there, we pushed on.

The fabled village of Kümbet was not how most people might picture a holiday destination, but the people were warm and kind, and we quickly found a cheap room above a tea house. The room was basic, but the view was incredible. The owner offered us free teas downstairs, and told us to use the place as if it were our own home. In Turkey, these tea cafes are usually the domain of old men, and whilst women aren't banned, it would definitely not be the done thing to go. With this in mind, Oli and I sat in the corner and left the old folks to it. After seeing so many of these establishments in Turkey, I'm glad I actually got to experience one!

After our teas, we cooked some of our soup over the gas stove, and munched it down with a huge pide bread purchased in the village. The weather in the mountains is very cold, and our room was unheated. We snuggled down under heavy duvets and slept well.

We woke up the next morning to glorious sunshine, and Oli headed into the village and came back with what I thought at the time was a ridiculous quantity of cheese. It was made from a mix of sheep and cows milk, and was crumbly yet creamy at the same time. It was delicious, and suddenly the plentiful amount didn't seem quite so ridiculous after all....


After another twisty and mountainous drive, we arrived at the Black Sea (Karadeniz) coast. The road from here to Trabzon was excellent, and we arrived into the city in no time. The traffic towards the centre was horrendous, not helped by the hot and humid weather. Eventually, with much stress and many near accidents, we negotiated our way through the streets to the heart of the city.

We found a very cheap hotel without too much trouble, and as it was early afternoon, thought we might as well try and get my Iran visa sorted. When we arrived at the embassy and buzzed the doorbell, we were told to come back at 4 p.m. No problem, we thought, as we had nothing better to do, and went back to the main square for lunch. On our return, we discovered that they had actually confused us with another couple, and that there had been no need for us to go and come back. As they were due to close at half four, I hurriedly filled out my form and had my fingerprints taken. Obviously it would be too easy if you could pay the fee at the consulate, so we rushed to the specified bank (about 15 minutes walk away), hoping to be back in time to collect the visa.

We had no such luck. The bank was horrendously busy, and we waited for an hour and a half before we were seen. The payment was only accepted in euros, but to change money at the bank you have to have your passport... which the consulate still had. Luckily, Oli had his with him so could sort it.

By now it was an hour and a half past closing time, but we wandered back in the direction of the embassy. We ran into the two couples (one French, one French / German) who had also been there whilst I was filling in my forms. They are all travelling by bicycle, which made us feel like wusses! We discovered that their visas had only cost them 75 euros each, as opposed to mine, which was an eye watering 270 euros (plus separate fee to get an approval code through a private agency). I guess we have British foreign policy to thank for that.

After a lovely evening drinking tea and eating baklava, we collected the visa first thing the next day. Luckily, I have been given the maximum of 30 days. I guess travelling with my Turkish husband helped me there, as a lot of UK tourists only get 21.

We were expecting a package the following day, so decided to fill our spare time in the area with a trip to the Sümela monastery in the mountains. After a hair-raising ride up a winding and narrow road, (so steep in places that the bike skidded backwards when we had to stop to let other vehicles pass), we decided to park the bike and walk the last kilometre.

The monastery itself is imposing and dramatic, clinging to the sheer rocks overlooking a steep forested valley. It formed a little sanctuary, with the main area hidden from view. The main feature was a beautifully painted cave church, painstakingly decorated with intricate religious motifs. Sadly, as with a lot of the murals in Cappadocia, much of the artwork had been vandalised, with the majority of religious figures having been completely defaced.


We upgraded to a slightly nicer hotel in Trabzon that evening, as the other one was just a little too grim for more than one night. We picked up the package as planned this morning, and set off Eastwards.

We decided to continue our journey over the mountain roads via Of, İspir and towards Erzurum, and although it took longer, the scenery was completely worth it. The mountains were lush and green with plentiful tea plantations. This gradually gave way to more Alpine style vistas as we climbed higher, eventually ending up on a huge plateau at 2600m. There were numerous temporary looking shelters and houses there, and Oli stopped to chat to a man walking along the road with his two young sons. Apparently everyone lives down in the villages most of the year, but comes up for the summer to graze the animals. The guy was warm and friendly, and insisted that he give us lunch. Sadly, we needed to make up the miles, so managed to politely decline.


The change in climate as we began to descend was stark – whilst the side we had come from was lush and green, this was again harsh and dry. The road was subject to major works, so large sections were gravelly and thick with dust. Oli and our wonderful bike December made light work of it, and we made surprisingly good time despite the difficult conditions.


As we were tired, we decided to stop in Erzurum tonight, and drive the rest of the way to Kars tomorrow. We think we will only be in Turkey for another two days at most. The last three months have gone so quickly, but we have had a great taste of this brilliant country. On to Georgia!

Saturday, 24 August 2013

In to Anatolia...

We set off from İzmir with emotional goodbyes. It was the first time Oli had been back to the motherland in three years, so leaving was difficult after almost three months there. Once we had managed to get ourselves and all our gear on the bike, we set off towards Cappadocia.

As the drive was too far to make in a day, we planned to get there via Konya. The journey took us across huge, dry plains without a scrap of shade. This part of the country is very agricultural, and in places wheat and sugar-beet fields stretched for miles. Oli was excited to see simple trucks with single cylinder engines which are called “pat-pat”, and are the common work vehicle of the farmers in the Konya valley.

Now that we are getting further east, the bike is certainly drawing more attention, and people are keen to chat to us whenever we stop for petrol. They are a little surprised when Oli speaks Turkish! Nevertheless, people are incredibly friendly, and at one petrol station even insisted on giving us free teas. They also wanted to bring us homemade sucuk ekmek (Turkish sausage and bread), but Oli managed to refuse this as we had eaten not long ago, and he didn't fancy explaining my vegetarianism! About 80 miles from Konya, we met a family whilst we were stopped to check the map. The kids were very interested in the motorbike, and waved enthusiastically when we set off. On the way to the city we kept seeing them on the road, waving at each other every time. We saw them for the last time as we headed towards the centre.

After a long day of riding we arrived on the outskirts of Konya as the sun was starting to set. We located the main hotel district without too much trouble, and went to try and find a cheap room. The first hotel Oli asked at looked to be a bit of a dump, but we figured that would mean it was cheap. When he enquired as to prices, the owner quizzed him on whether or not we were married, and accusingly asked if we could prove it by having the same surname (I guess the concept of women keeping their own names after marriage hasn't made it to Konya yet...). Anyhow, it wasn't cheap enough, so we kept on searching. We eventually ended up in an okay place with friendly staff, who also wanted confirmation that we were married. This is indeed a more conservative city.

The contrast between İzmir and Konya is very noticeable; İzmir is widely recognised as a fairly liberal and secular city, whereas Konya is perhaps the most religious. The Islamic scholar Rûmî (Mevlânâ) had spent some of his life and was also buried here. Konya was also the capital of the Anatolian Seljuk Empire between 1076 and 1080 and also an important city for the Ottomans.

Oli was keen to try the local specialty, tandır (tandoor) cooked lamb. Sadly for me, the Aegean glory days of plentiful veggie food seem to be over, and I was stuck with bread and yogurt. Still, Oli said his lamb was incredible, and I was happy enough with my food after a long day on the road. We finished off the evening with a stroll and some tea in the beautifully maintained and flower filled Alaaddin Tepesi park.

After a good night's sleep, we were up early to see the main attraction of the city – the Mevlânâ. This was essentially an Islamic monastery for the Sufi order, who were famous as the whirling Dervishes. The museum was full of old artefacts, beautiful metal work and original clothing. Most people come here to see Mevlânâ's grave and to pray. The grave itself is beautifully tiled, and the space was incredibly atmospheric.

We also paid a visit to the Sultan Selim Mosque, located opposite the Mevlânâ. It was beautiful in a non-ostentatious way, with little decoration apart from the intricately painted ceilings.


After our sightseeing tour, we headed back to the hotel, repacked the bike, and were on our way to Cappadocia, the landscape slowly becoming more arid. In places, the air picked up the dust and whirled it into narrow columns hundreds of feet high, which was incredible. The drive was about half of what we had done the previous day, so we arrived close to our destination without too much effort.


The final part of the road into Göreme was surprising. After wide main roads, it suddenly became much narrower with a rougher surface. As we reached the open-air museum, hair-pin bends seemed to appear out of nowhere. However, the scenery was spectacular, with the ancient cave dwellings clearly visible in the rock formations. After asking around at a few hotels, we ended up at the Peri Cave hotel, which has lovely rooms for a very good price. We settled in and unpacked the bike, then headed off to explore.


Cappadocia is famous for its cave dwellings and unusual rock formations, and we strolled in the late afternoon warmth and drank in the view. As the sun was beginning to set, we decided to head down a gravel track, where apparently we could see a cave church. The signs outside said church proudly proclaimed that it was open, but it was anything but, and all the doors were locked. Nevertheless, it was beautiful in the setting sun, and glowed golden yellow against the bright blue sky.


As the hotel we are staying at has a kitchen that guests can use, we decided to save our pennies and cook dinner ourselves. We were both missing red wine, as we hadn't had a glass since İstanbul, and managed to find a half size bottle of decent local stuff. Upon getting back to the hotel we realised we had neglected to bring a corkscrew, and this utensil was sadly absent from the kitchen. Cheekily, Oli solved the problem by nipping down to a local restaurant and asking them to assist!

The next day, we set off for the underground city of Kaymaklı, fuelled by a huge breakfast. The settlement was apparently used by Christians hiding from marauding armies and religious persecution around the fourth century A.D. The city consists of vast numbers of rooms, connected by tunnels and served by ventilation shafts. Scrabbling through the narrow tunnels and exploring the many hollowed out areas was fascinating, and we couldn't help trying to imagine what life must have been like down there.


Following our subterranean tour, we headed back to our room for a rest. I had used my powers of encouragement and persuasion to get Oli to agree to try horse riding in the evening, and he had decided to go for it despite his nerves. Wisely he had told them he was a total beginner, so they gave him a kind and calm horse.

Riding through the rocks in the evening light was a brilliant experience, and it felt really good to be back in the saddle. My horse wasn't such a novice ride as Oli's, and we had one exciting incident where she was most upset by another tourist's parasol. I tried to get the lady in question to stand still so I could get past without the horse panicking, but she didn't really get it.

After about an hour, we arrived at the top of a hill with a fabulous view over a valley. We dismounted and clambered down to an old church cut into the rock. The original frescoes were still visible in places, and it had an eerie atmosphere. We climbed back up and sat on the rocks watching the sunset light up the cliffs. Our guide produced a bottle of local wine and shared it round, telling us not to worry, as the horses knew the way back.


Typically, the horses were a lot keener on the way home. Mine got a little overexcited and kept sticking her head in the air and trying to jog. It wasn't really a problem until the horse in front of her trotted to catch up, we were very close to home and mine took off at speed. Luckily I managed to stop her without too much trouble, but was panicking that Oli's horse would have followed. There was no need to worry though, as his lovely pony had looked after him well.

Riding through the Cappadocian landscape was a fabulous experience, and Oli was really glad he had given it a try. However, it was a little worrying that they stuck total beginners on horses and took them out with absolutely zero instruction over rough terrain! I ended up keeping an eye on what Oli's horse was doing, and also having to shout advice to a German guy who had never been on a horse before, and had no control. Having said that, we all made it back in one piece, and had a brilliant time.

This morning was spent at the Göreme open air museum, a collection of cave churches carved into the rock. The frescoes were still in relatively good condition in places, but the majority had been defaced. Apparently this occurred when the country became more Islamic, and people believed it was offensive to depict Jesus and Mary, as they were recognised as holy figures. Despite this, they were still beautiful to behold, and I suppose the vandalism is just another part of their rich history.


We took the long route back to our hotel, clambering amongst the rocks and up and down steep slopes. There are no restrictions on where you can go, so we were free to explore, and even saw some more intricate frescoes.


When we arrived back at the hotel, there was a note on our bike from a fellow Africa Twin rider, which was rather lovely. There is almost an Africa Twin community, with riders always excitedly waving to each other or stopping to chat:


We hid inside for the hottest part of the day, and then decided to ride the bike to a village we had gone through on the horses to see if we could find some local wine. We got there via an off-road and gravel track (we did film this on the Go--Pro, but sadly the memory card has corrupted so it didn't save). When we arrived, Oli asked a guy where we could buy some wine, to which the man replied that he makes his own, and would we like to try it? Not needing much persuasion, we went inside.

After a glass of wine and a chat, we ended up buying 1.5l of the stuff, divvied up into three 500ml water bottles to make it easier to pack. It was as local as it comes, and was made with molasses. Oli asked the guy what the percentage was, but he didn't know, but just makes it how he always has done.

We rode back to Göreme, parked the bike at the hotel and headed to the hillside, where we planned to watch the sunset over the Rose Valley and drink some of our wine. In the event, a cloud covered the sun for the crucial period, but it was still spectacular, and the wine made it extra enjoyable!


As it was our last night here, we decided to treat ourselves to a meal out. Just for the hell of it we thought we would try the number one rated place on Tripadvisor, but when we arrived and they greeted us in English, Oli asked for a table in Turkish and was told they were full. Fair enough we thought, we hadn't booked. However, when Oli told me in English that there was no space, suddenly a table was  available. We thought this was a pretty crummy attitude, so went elsewhere.

We ended up having a delicious meal at Kale Terrace restaurant, and found ourselves chatting to some Swedish bikers, who were heading to India via Iran and Pakistan. Maybe we'll see them on the road!

We are setting off from Cappadocia tomorrow, and are hoping to make it to Trabzon by Monday to pick up my Iran visa.