The “Wild East”
Sivas – Erzurum
Our rest day in Sivas was well chosen, as there was a thunderstorm and rain which lasted for most of the day. Unfortunately we found that the mosque and some of the seminaries we wanted to visit were closed for reconstruction, so the only one we visited was the Bürüciye Medresesi, which was built in 1271 in the Seljuk style, and most importantly had a lovely tea garden in the courtyard! We also found a very posh cafe and had our first cafe latte since Istanbul, along with a banana split made with Turkish ice cream, which is so rich and gooey that you have to eat it with knife and fork. Delicious!||
After a fairly easy day’s cycling, we found ourselves just outside of the small town of Zara. If we had had enough water to camp, we would have gone straight past it as its outskirts looked quite ugly and industrial, but as it was we had to go into town. Hordes of school children were on their way home and greeted us with enthusiastic hello’s. We stopped and met an English speaker who recommended a hotel, and some children then walked with us to show us the way. The hotel turned out to be lovely and very cheap, so we decided to stay. The hotel manager made us cups of tea and even offered to do our ironing. He would have had a very busy afternoon if we had been cruel enough to give him our clothes, which have been squashed into our panniers for months.
We ventured out to do some shopping, and first of all stopped at a small shop to buy superglue. Promptly we were invited for tea by the owner, who spoke a bit of English and a lot of Russian (no use to us unfortunately). Wandering on, we met a very nice local businessman who spoke fluent French, English and Italian, and also invited us for tea. He owned a flour mill in Zara and also had a another business which saw him travelling anywhere between China and Belgium to buy and sell jewellery. We found out that Zara, being a town of only 12,000 people, has a university and a thriving business community, with a disproportionately high number of shops. Many people speak foreign languages, and we really would have loved to stay a couple of days to explore the town.
As it was, we cycled on the next morning into a roaring headwind. We were climbing for most of the day to conquer our highest pass so far, at 2,190m altitude. It was hard work on rough tarmac, and we were glad to see the downhill on the other side. Freddie has a recent obsession with bears, so we decided to camp in a village rather than in the forest. Locals have also been warning us about the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist organisation fighting for independence, which is active in this area. Despite the whispered warnings and accompanying machine gun noises we are not convinced that they would really be interested in robbing camping tourists. To be sure, we asked in a small village if we could camp, and were happily pointed to a patch of grass, which was surrounded by a few houses. It later turned out that the man who gave us permission to camp was actually the village chief, and his house was next to our patch of grass, making us feel very safe.
Next to the village, just off the road, was a small river and an area with a picnic table. A couple of truckers had pulled in and were forcefully waving us over to join them. When we arrived, we saw that they had made a fire, on which they had placed a cast-iron skillet to cook a delicious chicken and vegetable stew. They spread out some newspaper on the picnic table, placed the skillet in the middle and prepared a small stack of roasted garlic, peppers, onion and bread for each of us. We tore off pieces of bread and used them to scoop up the stew. Freddie was told off by one of the truckers for being to girly, and shown how to eat like a man by piling big chunks of stew onto her bread crust.
With dinner sorted, and having washed in the local mosque’s bathroom, we retired to the tent. The following morning was cold and misty. We started with a downhill ride to 1,500m altitude, after which we tackled our next pass, back up to 2,160m. The gradient was gentle and the scenery lovely, but as soon as we came over the pass, a thunderstorm started up. We wore our rainjackets for the first time since leaving Vienna almost 3 months earlier. There was a ferocious headwind so we had to pedal quite hard to actually get down the mountain!
The scenery here is quite remote, and apart from the main road there are not many paved roads at all. Often, the road snakes through deep river valleys, which mountains towering left and right. There are many signposts for remote mountain villages which can only be reached via tiny, steep dirt tracks, with some villages being over 50km away. Some of the tracks involve river crossings, and the villages must be completely cut off in the winter by snow. They must be almost self sufficient, and indeed we saw some villagers preparing for the winter by drying cow pats for fuel. Unfortunately, many of the villages we see are built from traditional mud bricks, which is disastrous in an area as prone to earthquakes as Turkey, as they easily collapse.
So far, we had only been aware of Turkey being in an earthquake zone in theory, but this was soon to change. We were asleep in our hotel in Erzincan, where we took a rest day, when we woke up at 5am by our bed shaking and rattling. “Earthquake!” Freddie yelled, and we saw lights turn on in neighbouring buildings and heard doors slamming. The shaking quickly stopped, but we still decided to get out of the building to be sure. When we came downstairs, there were a few people milling around, but the staff just laughed at us and sent us straight back to bed. They must be used to earthquakes in this area, but for us it was quite a novelty, and pretty scary too. The earthquake recorded a 3.2 magnitude, so nothing major, but we did get a bit worried when we found out that Erzincan had been completely flattened by an earthquake in 1939. Over 32,000 people died and the whole town was rebuilt a little further north.
This also explained why the town felt so modern, with a wide avenue, parks and shopping centres. Not quite the “Wild East” we had expected. Surprisingly, there were quite a few local cyclists in town, something we hadn’t seen anywhere else in Turkey. On the way out of town, we stopped at a fuel station to check our tyre pressure, and one of the guys working there told us that he has clocked up over 21,000km cycle touring around Turkey! This was the first Turkish touring cyclist we had met, and even though we did not share a language we were still able to talk about bike tyres, saddles, routes etc.
We had a lovely, fairly flat day cycling through a narrow gorge. The highway became single lane, but there was a massive construction project underway to widen it by redirecting the river and building the highway up above it, supported by pylons. In the late afternoon, cycling through a wide valley, we passed a fuel station (even these are now few and far between), and at the last minute spotted a grassy patch behind it. We decided to check it out and see if they might let us camp there. As it happened, the owner was a very nice guy who spoke some English, and showed us a spot to camp. We set up Boris and got the cooker going for some much needed tuna pasta (nobody here worries about fires or cigarettes at fuel stations…)
Even though we like Turkish food, we find eating out quite repetitive. Döner kebab and shish kebab are normally the only options, especially for us being on a budget and not able to afford the more expensive restaurants. We haven’t seen any international restaurants since Istanbul, probably a result of Turkey not having an immigrant culture and therefore not benefiting from the diversity of foods that immigrants bring with them. The supermarkets on the other hand are great. Particularly after the uninspiring and basic markets of Eastern Europe, we are loving the shopping here, with good quality foods available everywhere. We also often find nice bakeries, and the fruit and vegetables are fresh and quite cheap.
The fuel station owner, Ulaş, had pointed out the attached restaurant before, so we felt a little guilty for cooking our own food. Sure enough we got busted. Ulaş just laughed and shook his head, before inviting us into his office for tea and rice pudding. We love a good rice pudding, so it was the perfect dessert for us. He proceeded to shower us with gifts – T-shirts, keyrings and pens, before taking us on a detailed tour around the property. We found out that his father owned the fuel station plus 30km² of forest land around it, which included a lovely river just behind the fuel station. Ulaş explained that this was the Karasu river, one of the two main tributaries that later form the Euphrates river which flows all the way to the Persian Gulf.
The tour continued and we were also shown a small mosque which was part of the fuel station (this is very common here). In the mosque, he tried to present us with a beautiful Qur’an written in Arabic, which we firmly declined. Not only would we not be able to fit it into our panniers, but also it was much too special to give to us infidels! We ended up in Ulaş’s room watching TV for a bit, before he got ready to go back to work. Just as he left he passed us the remote control and said “You sleep here tonight, no tent!” We protested, as it was clearly the room where he usually slept, but he insisted, saying he has another room to sleep in. Boris was happy to be taken down, as there was quite a bit of wildlife around and he had in the meantime been peed on by a dog and pooped on by swarms of birds.
Guiltily we tucked ourselves in Ulaş’s bed and spent a comfortable night inside. In the morning, we had breakfast at the restaurant (the cashier later got in trouble for charging us, but we were glad we were able to pay for something!). Ulaş looked pretty sleepy, he had probably spent the night in a store room or something… After a cheerful goodbye and group photos, we were on our way.
We cycled uphill pretty much all day. Again we had a pass to conquer, this one at 2,060m, and somehow this tired us out for the rest of the day. In the afternoon we were struggling along and taking another break, when two Swiss touring cyclists pulled up. This was the first time we had met touring cyclists randomly on the road since Istanbul. They were both going to India, so we had a lot to talk about and will probably run into them again on our way. Funnily enough, out of the 10 touring cyclist we have met in Turkey, 6 were Swiss!
We chatted for a while and then suddenly dusk was upon us and we still had over 20km to cycle into Erzurum. We hit rush hour, it was starting to rain, and we were still cycling uphill and were thoroughly knackered when we finally arrived in town just as it got dark. We stopped to look at our guidebook, and passerby gave us a city map. When we looked up from the map, we saw that we were surrounded by about 20 people, including school children, a police man and a lot of random people who just wanted to say hello. There were also three brainy looking Iranian students who offered to answer any questions we might have about Erzurum or Iran. “So, do you have any questions?”, one of them asked earnestly. We looked at each other, standing there in the dark, wet from rain, and could not think of a single question. All we could think about was to get to the hotel and sink into those soft sheets! We must have looked quite dumb when we could not come up with a single question. Needless to say we eventually made it to the hotel and had a very long, deep sleep.
We are still about 300km from the Iranian border, but Erzurum is the last big town in Turkey that we are coming through. We are planning to spend a couple of days here, not only to eat ice cream and drink coffee, but also to buy a new outfit for Freddie (she will have to wear a head scarf and long garment to cover her bum in Iran), and to exchange some cash into Euros or US Dollars, as Iran is not connected to the international banking system and our bank cards will therefore be useless over there.
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