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!

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