TURKEY, 12th – 23rd July 2017
I felt awful. All of the muscles in my body ached, particularly my leg muscles, which were, of course, turning the pedals on my bike. My head span. I felt like collapsing in a heap at the side of the highway. We’d gone 200 metres.
There was no way I was going to get in a motor vehicle. Sure, I was dangerously dehydrated, with no food or water in my system, and I hadn’t slept all night, but if there was one thing my body knew how to do on autopilot under any circumstances, it was ride a bike. I was pretty sure my body could ride a bike even if I was unconscious, which was a theory I was getting perilously close to testing out. After a long two kilometres we came upon a gas station and I simply had to stop, leaning down my bike and taking a seat. Dea was concerned, and bought me some cold water and a can of sugary orange juice. I sipped at the drinks cautiously. There was still fifteen kilometres to go to Tokat, and my chances of making it under my own power seemed to rest on whether I could hold these drinks down. While I tried to mentally talk my stomach muscles into not turning themselves inside out again, Dea ran off to ask the gas station attendants questions. She found out that there were lots of hotels along the main road into Tokat, but unfortunately the city hospital was way out on the far side of town.
I didn’t really want to get up, but I knew it was better that we continue before the day grew too hot. I wobbled my way back onto the road and focused on just turning the pedals to Tokat, counting down the kilometres. I was expecting to be on my knees vomiting at any moment, but by some miracle the water and juice stayed down. With this little bit of hydration my confidence grew, and slowly but surely we made our way towards Tokat. The city was big and busy, and there were no hotels on the main road like we were promised. Instead we diverted in towards the city centre, but none of the people that we asked were able to help locate any kind of sleeping facility. It was a nightmare. All I wanted was somewhere to lie down. Then we sat down at a cafe to ask to use the wifi, and spotted a cheap hotel behind it at about the same moment the owner came over and, seeing my condition, told us that there was a hospital just across the street. We’d made it.
We moved into a small room and I slept. When I woke up I was feeling a bit better, and, now that I was able to eat and drink a little, the hospital was thankfully never required. While I rested, Dea walked around Tokat. She had a jolly time of it too, as I understood it, as she excitedly revealed she’d found an old caravanseri, and saw old ladies decorating cloth with ink-stained pieces of wood.
That night Dea also got sick, though thankfully not as badly as me, and we took the next day off in Tokat so that we could recover. Unfortunately, this made Dea more worried about our lack of progress. The Pamirs in winter was still a concern, and now it was not clear that we could make it to Uzbekistan in time for the start of our visa. To make us both feel better about this we worked out a schedule that would get us to Baku in 24 days, roughly what we needed to do to keep on track for our visa. It only required us to cycle 80 kilometres per day, and I even made a spreadsheet, and came up with the imaginative name of the ‘24-day Tokat-to-Baku challenge’. At first it made us both feel better to have this target written down.
The next morning I did not feel so good about the 24-day Tokat-to-Baku challenge. I was still feeling pretty rotten and I did not want to leave and go out and cycle again. As we packed up and left I felt annoyed because I didn’t want to be riding at all. If I’d been on my own I would have taken another day off to recover, but I knew I had to consider Dea and I knew that she wanted to keep moving. I was very irritable and not myself, getting frustrated by things. I was still not really in a fit state to be cycling under a hot sun and my mind felt extremely weird. I was in a strange mental state, almost like I was in a dream. But it was at least easy enough cycling on the shoulder of the highway, and I just turned the pedals and looked forward to sleeping.
Gradually over the next few days I returned to normal, but the atmosphere of our trip seemed to have changed. Up until Tokat it had all been so good, but for these days neither of us enjoyed ourselves so much. The 24-day Tokat-to-Baku challenge, far from making things easier, seemed only to add extra pressure, and cycling on the highway being constantly beeped at all day every day brought few moments of joy into our lives (even though the scenery was at times spectacular). This was not the way that either of us wanted to experience this trip.
We left the highway and took some smaller roads for a few days, which made both of us feel better about things. The small roads went up and down some steep climbs even though they nominally followed a river valley, and it took us through some villages and back to the real Turkey. Then we followed an even more dramatic river valley. It was mostly unpopulated and it was great to be somewhere so remote, cycling on a little traffic-free road through scenery that was at times truly breathtaking. We both had big smiles on our faces again now.
We had dared to believe that this perfect cycling could continue for several hundred kilometres, but unfortunately the road grew much busier and more dangerous further east. The valley continued, but there was a dramatic change brought about to its appearance and atmosphere, by the hand of man. In a series of places the river had been interrupted by hydroelectric dams, and instead of a peaceful little river, all there was to look at now was a series of giant reservoirs. The valley has been flooded, and the people who once lived in it were long gone. The new road that we cycled on clung high up on the cliffsides, and it was a horrible, lifeless place. The reservoirs blocked the valley from cliff to cliff below us and we felt like we did not belong.
Beyond the town of Yusufeli the flooded valley became narrower and the only way the road could continue high up on the cliffs was through a series of tunnels. And when I say a series of tunnels, I really do mean a series. Thankfully they were never more than two kilometres long but when one ended there was usually only a short reprieve before the next began. It was ridiculous. Over the course of a day and a half we passed through around fifty tunnels. Fortunately they were well-lit and had paths for us to cycle on, but these paths were not without obstacles. Usually there would be a big kerb to get up onto them, then there would sometimes be random slabs missing which would require bumping down into the road to navigate around, occasionally there would be road signs or sharp metal poles sticking out at head-height that threatened to decapitate us for not paying attention, and every so often a truck would beep loudly at us… in a f*cking tunnel.
It seemed almost impossible to find anywhere to camp in this strange world of tunnels and steep cliffs and man-made reservoirs, but we were lucky. As we left one tunnel and started over a bridge we noticed a road leading down the cliffside to a small town below us. Most of the town had been submerged below the waters of the reservoir when the dam had been built, and it was sad and a bit spooky to look at the shells of buildings that stood half in and half out of the water and to think of those poor people that had once called them home. But there were a few houses higher than the water level, and some flat ground that looked good enough for the tent. We made our way down to it.
We caught the attention of the man who owned the land and he came over to us. He was a nice man, far more cheerful than you could expect of someone who’d seen all his neighbours disappear underwater, and he was happy to let us camp next to his barn, though he very strongly warned us to watch out for snakes. He offered us apples and showed us his sick cow, then he sat down with us and watched us eat our dinner. I liked him, even though he talked an awful lot in a language I could not understand, and laughed at me for doing the washing up (woman’s work, obviously). We thought he might stay all night, but after a while he left, and we had a good night’s sleep.
The next day we reached the big town of Artvin, a strange and welcome sight for it meant the end of the hydroelectric dams was near. We stopped in town to buy groceries and bumped into two foreigners. Simon from Sweden and Ann from the US were long time travellers who’d been in Georgia trekking in the mountains and had just arrived in Turkey to do the same. They were really very nice people and Simon had done a lot of bike travelling, but I found that it felt a bit strange to talk with foreigners again. Then we realised why – they were the first non-Turkish people we’d met in the whole country.
That night we found a space high on a hillside to pitch our tent and enjoyed our last evening in Turkey looking down over yet another reservoir. The hills were covered in clouds, the weather changing as we neared the Black Sea coast. Looking down on the water we reflected on our time in Turkey. It seemed to have gone by so fast, yet there had been so many experiences in there. At times it had been brilliant, and at times it had been very hard work. The people had been wonderful, but some of the roads and the intense heat had been tough, and we both felt a sense of achievement to have made it through.
On our last morning in Turkey we cycled up a pass on a narrow road, through lush green forest and tea plantations, up hillsides shrouded in mist and cloud. It reminded me of Costa Rica, and was such a contrast to the hot, sunny and dry environment we’d experienced through most of the country. We made light work of the climb, and enjoyed a long, long descent down to the Black Sea. Here we joined the coast road, the big highway that we could have followed from Istanbul if we’d wanted to, and we realised we had made the right choice to cycle further south. It was not at all enjoyable on the boring, busy highway, and there were even more tunnels to go through here.
About fifteen kilometres from the border with Georgia we stopped to spend the last of our Turkish lira. Not surprisingly, it went on ice cream. As we sat there beside the highway we agreed that we’d had a good time in Turkey, a country that we already knew, yet had both rediscovered over the past weeks. It had challenged us in many ways, but we were closing this Turkish chapter stronger than when we’d started it. Then, as we finished up our ice creams, a touring cyclist pulled up alongside us. He was a man in his fifties, dressed head-to-toe in layers of clothing, looking more like he was riding in mid-winter than mid-summer. He pulled down his neck-warmer and greeted us.
“I’m Vassili,” he said. “I’m from Greece. Well, actually I live in New York now, but there’s plenty of time to talk about that. Which way are you going? To Georgia? Me too!”
A new chapter in our journey had begun.
Tokat – Susheri – Bayburt – Yusufeli – Artvin – Hopa
755 kilometres cycled