Trouble in the East
In Erzurum, we both came down with a stomach bug. We had a fever, stomach cramps, nausea and were spending far too much time in the bathroom. Our recovery was slow, and we ended up spending five days in the city, until we finally got bored of counting mould stains on the ceiling of our hotel room. Erzurum was an ok city, with some nice cafes and restaurants, as well as some interesting buildings. Unfortunately they were also repaving the whole city at once, and most of the streets, footpaths and squares consisted only of rubble and mud, making it no fun to wander around. ||
In the end, we decided to leave even though we were not fully recovered. We were planning to take the “easy way” to our next destination, Doğubeyazıt, by staying on the main road and sleeping in hotels. This made for longer days to cover the distances between towns with hotels, but we didn’t really feel up for the excitement of camping, particularly as there was also a lot of wet weather.
As soon as we left Erzurum, we knew we had finally arrived in the real Wild East. We were firmly in the Kurdish area now. The villages looked quite poor, although even the smallest, most rundown buildings still managed to have satellite dishes. This is probably an essential purchase to get through the tough winters, where the temperatures often drop to below -30°C and the area is covered in snow. We can only imagine what it must be like to be crowded into these tiny buildings that are heated only with dried cow dung. The mosque, as always, is the most well maintained building.
Even tough the adults were still friendly, the kids were getting a little hostile. The first incident was a toddler who threw a rock at us when we refused his request for money. After that, we started to dread going through villages. Every village was different – in some, children would ask us for pens, sometimes, they would point to our panniers and demand snacks, and many times they would ask for money. Sometimes they just waved and said hello. There is no doubt the children in these villages come from poor families, but at the same time most children were dressed in school uniforms and looked well nourished. We often saw kids picking up stones when they saw us approaching, and throwing them just as we had passed. In the end, we sometimes stopped when we saw children with stones, and confronted them, which resulted in them getting quite embarrassed. Most of the kids probably think nothing of it. There must be many cycle tourers on this route, as it’s the only practical way to get into Iran, and somehow it seems to have become fashionable with the kids to throw stones. Not the nicest reception, but luckily their aim is usually pretty bad and we never actually got hit.
On our first day out of Erzurum we had a long, gentle downhill, which was good as we were feeling a bit rubbish. We ended up in Horasan, a rough looking small town, and found an ok hotel room. We cooked a simple dinner in our room as we could not face eating out yet. The towns and villages are even more male dominated than in the rest of Turkey, and we hardly see any women out in the streets. Certainly Freddie is always the only woman when we go to a restaurant or tea house.
The following day, we struggled up our highest pass yet, at 2,210m altitude. For the last few weeks, we have been crossing a 2000m+ pass almost every day, so we are quite used to it now, but we were still feeling weak and struggling in the rain and the usual headwind (during two months in Turkey, we only had one day with a consistent tailwind, the rest had been mainly headwinds).
Coming around a bend, we noticed a military checkpoint. The soldiers motioned for us to stop, and started questioning us. We expected that our passports would be checked, but the guys just wanted to practice their English and have a chat. The officer then ordered some other soldiers to make us a cup of tea, and while we were sipping it by the side of the road, three buses pulled up at once and were all duly searched by the soldiers, while the passengers got out for a smoke (Turks smoke A LOT!)
At the top of the pass, there were only sheep around, and some of them were grazing on amazingly steep slopes. We could not fathom how they had managed to get up there. We tried to ask some shepherds who had come over for a chat, but they didn’t really understand our question – it was probably totally normal to them, so the would not have understood why we were so puzzled.
After a lovely downhill we had to climb up a smaller pass, and just as we arrived at the top, a pickup truck pulled up in front of us. Some guys got out into the rain, one of which looked very familiar. It was Ulaş, the fuel station manager whose room we had slept in the previous week! He was on his way to Doğubeyazıt and offered us a very tempting lift. We did resist though, wondering if we would later regret our decision. By that time it was early afternoon, and we still had 50km to cycle. At some point we thought we would never make it before dark, but we did pull in to Ağrı just on dusk.
Unfortunately we did not feel welcome in Ağrı. There were a lot of leering teenagers, sniggering at us and cutting us off on their bikes. There were several hotels, but we struggled to find one in our budget range, which was not helped by some touts trying to drag us into an overpriced establishment whilst insisting that they were our “friends”. Eventually, we met Jay, an Iranian guy who was doing some business in the town and took us to his hotel, where he arranged a cheap room for us. In turn, we invited him for dinner and had an enjoyable evening together talking about life in Iran.
This hotel was similar to the one we stayed in the previous night, catering mainly to men who are in town for business. We never saw any women staying at these places, and in fact Freddie ended up in a couple of uncomfortable situations involving the shared bathrooms. Once, she came out of the toilet cubicle, only to find her way blocked by an older man washing his feet in the sink. He took ages lifting his feet out of the sink to let Freddie through, which was equally embarrassing to both parties. In the hotel in Ağrı, the men would spread out their prayer carpets in front of the bathroom door, which was a little awkward as we did not want to disturb them during their prayers. All in all the places were clean and quiet enough though, so we slept pretty well.
The final 100km to Doğubeyazıt were a little too “exciting” for our taste, but they did teach us not to mess with the Wild East. We left Ağrı to the sound of teenagers showering us with rocks, and thankfully had a reasonably flat day ahead. At a fuel station, we had a quick stop and Freddie went to the loo. While she was in there, she looked up and noticed a guy peering into the small window above her. Immediately she yelled at him, using all sorts of expletives reserved for such rare moments, and he quickly disappeared. Guy came to the rescue and saw the man running away behind the building. He had been standing on some sandbags to get a good look at Freddie in the bathroom. The fuel station manager came over, and we explained what had happened. He was very embarrassed and went to find the guy and tell him off. Freddie was a little shaken, but we laughed it off and left.
Shortly afterwards, we had our first quite uncomfortable dog encounter, when a pack of five large sheepdogs appeared out of nowhere and chased us, barking like mad and flashing their teeth. We yelled at them, and they soon backed off. So far, we have not encountered many aggressive dogs. Only the odd one here and there, but never in packs, and they never came closer than within a meter or so. Naively we thought the dogs in Eastern Anatolia would be the same, but this was not the case. A little while later, another dog came shooting across the street towards Freddie. Freddie yelled at the dog, which usually does the trick, but the dogs was undeterred and, quick as a flash, sunk his teeth into her rear pannier! Freddie quickly stopped, and the dog lost interest and ran back to the house where it had worked itself up into a frenzy devouring a huge bloody chunk of meat. Freddie wiped off some bits of blood and meat (not hers) from her pannier (and a few tears of shock from her face), and thanked her lucky stars the dog went for the pannier and not her leg.
Some Kurdish hospitality made up for this unwanted excitement though. It was raining and we were looking for a place to stop and have a snack. We were passing through a small village, and some builders called us over to have tea with them. While we were there, they were also preparing their lunch and invited us to join them. We all sat in a circle, on mattresses on the floor of the partly constructed building. Newspapers were spread out on the floor as a makeshift tablecloth, and we were presented with a delicious potato, aubergine and tomato stew, as well as pasta and bread. It was the perfect cyclists lunch, and we felt much revived when we offered them some Turkish Delight as a gift and said goodbye.
The cycling into Doğubeyazıt was lovely – nice gradients, a fairly good road, and jaw-dropping scenery. We saw our first snow-covered peaks and were very excited at the prospect of seeing Mount Ararat, which is the highest mountain in Turkey at 5,137m altitude, and forms the backdrop of Doğubeyazıt. Unfortunately this was not to be as Mount Ararat was shrouded in clouds when we arrived.
Doğubeyazıt sits in a valley surrounded by mountains, but the town does not really do justice to the majestic setting. The outskirts are very poor, with a lot of low stone buildings and too much mud. When we asked the kids in town “what is your name?”, the response was invariably “Moneymoney”. It is more innocent than in Ağrı though, and thankfully they haven’t caught on to the practice of throwing stones yet. We found a nice hotel with a comfortable rooftop lounge. Our room would have had stunning views of Mount Ararat if there were stricter building regulations in Turkey. As it was, someone was building a new high rise right in front of our window, so that we could only see half of Mount Ararat. It is still an impressive view, but such a shame for this hotel, which had previously enjoyed an unimpeded view of the mountain.
Doğubeyazıt is firmly on the backpackers trail due to the proximity of Mount Ararat, the Ishak Pasha Palace, and the fact that it is on the way to Iran. We have met quite a few other travellers already, which is enjoyable as we haven’t seen any foreigners since Cappadocia. On our first evening, we met a Frenchman called PY and went for dinner together. He is travelling from Paris to Kathmandu, and we hope to see him again in Australia next year.
We visited the Ottoman Ishak Pasha Palace today. It sits on a hill near Doğubeyazıt and is very classy. It has beautiful mountain views from all the windows, and is decorated with intricate carvings throughout the building. It usually has a great view of Mount Ararat, but again the mountain is shrouded in mist today.
We will leave Doğubeyazıt tomorrow to cross into Iran. Freddie’s outfit is ready to go (we will post some photos in the next blog entry!), although she is not quite sure how it will hold up when it rains.
Some websites are blocked in Iran, and we have decided to keep our Iranian blogs more factual than overly opinionated so as to not offend the powers that be. It will be strange to be in a new country after spending two months in Turkey which really feels like home now, but at the same time we are ready to leave and explore new pastures.
We have posted a new photo gallery with our favourite photos since Istanbul, and in the process we have upgraded our photo slideshow player to make it easier to view galleries with our comments. View photos from Turkey >>
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