From Trabzon we headed inland and into the mountains. We were sad to leave Trabzon because we knew it would be the last time we saw the sea until we reach south east Asia in several months time. Another factor contributing towards our reluctance to leave was the knowledge that the going was only going to get tougher from then on, with lots of hills and very hot weather. Indeed our first day out of Trabzon didn’t disappoint, as it involved cycling uphill all day, from sea level to a height of almost 1900m over a distance of 60km. Hard, sweaty work! However the views from the top were spectacular and it was great to know that we are capable of that level of physical exertion. We were still with Tom and Ollie at this stage, which helped with the motivation and made things a bit more fun. We all camped just over the pass, which meant we had a wonderful downhill the next morning – 9km in 12 minutes! Good way to start the day. We were all pretty tired from the previous day’s efforts, and so had a short day, stopping just outside a town called Gumushane to camp in a park. It is nice that the authorities here are very laid-back about that sort of thing; they were perfectly happy for us to camp there, which meant we had most of the facilities you would get in a campsite for free.
Tom and Ollie decided to stay there an extra day, because they had more time than us to get to the Iranian border (because of the date on their visas), while we pushed on. The weather was certainly different from the coast, where it had been very hot and humid – instead it started to rain and was decidedly chilly. We set off anyway, figuring the rain would stop at some point. Unfortunately it got worse before it got better, and by the time we got to the top of the next pass we were decidedly cold and wet! However then the sun came out and we dried out very quickly. Around this time we stopped for a cup of tea to warm up, when Christine’s mobile phone rang. Normally we only turn our phones on to check for messages, but Christine had just turned hers on to text her sister to say happy birthday. That was lucky, because it was Tom and Ollie calling to say they had just been told by some locals that the day before there had been some sort of terrorist attack on the very stretch of road that we were on, and that we might have problems cycling along the road as a consequence. Of course we were quite concerned but the people in the tea shop seemed to think it was fine, and we figured we would keep our eyes open and take advice from the police if necessary. In the end we saw no evidence of an attack at all, and no police or soldiers on the road, so it was fine. Nonetheless it was a salutory warning that we were entering the Kurdish area of Turkey, which suffers from regular terrorist attacks by the PKK, who want an independent Kurdish state to be established. Indeed, since then we have seen regular military checkpoints and a noticeably increased military presence generally. But the soldiers are invariably friendly – they usually wave, even when driving by in tanks – and we have had no problems whatsoever. Kurdish Turkey not only has a greater military presence than the rest of Turkey, but is also noticeably poorer too, with much of the population living in basic huts and following a rural lifestyle. Because of the remoteness and isolation of this area – which lies at around 2000m, above the tree line – life is clearly hard. Some locals we spoke to explained that there is no mains gas in this area, and the electricity supply is expensive and not that reliable. Because of this, and the lack of fuel such as wood, people in the countryside here dry out cow pats for use as fuel in the wintertime, when it gets very cold. Hot water is a luxury that is not guaranteed to be found even in hotels. We have also unfortunately found the people to be less friendly and hospitable than in the rest of Turkey, particularly the children, who are prone to shout ‘money, money’ and occasionally chase after us and threaten to throw stones at us! They will get a shock if they actually do, as what they don’t know is that we all carry stones with us to throw at dogs!
After the excitement of the terrorist attack that we heard about, we decided not to camp that night and instead stopped in a rather godforsaken town called Bayburt. Because of the altitude it lies at (around 1600m) there are no trees, and the surrounding area is rather dry and desolate. The whole town felt rather dusty and run-down, and we were definitely a novelty for the locals. An interesting feature of this area is that some of the women here choose to wear burqas made of sackcloth – what a lovely look! Can’t be very comfortable, particularly not in the summer heat. After Bayburt we climbed one more pass which is called Kop pass and lies at 2400m. Our hard work was rewarded with spectacular views from the top for miles around, as well as free tea from the cafe there, and even better free ice-creams from a passing ice-cream van! Not to mention an awesome downhill afterwards. From there it was a short hop to Erzurum, the last big town before the Iranian border. We caught up with Dean, Tom and Ollie here which was great. We were planning on only staying for a day or two, but ended up staying for 3 days because all the guys, but not Christine, came down with a stomach bug that we suspect was due to a dodgy kebab. Well, it was going to happen at some point! Thankfully Erzurum is big enough to provide some entertainment, we even found a nice rooftop cafe with a bowling alley and pool tables which was good fun. Christine also took the opportunity to do some shopping for suitable clothes for Iran – by law she has to wear full-length trousers, a long sleeved tunic that also covers her bum, and a headscarf. Considering that it is currently over 40c in northern Iran at present, she is not looking forward to cycling in that lot! We also spent some time at the bank changing money, because due to the economic sanctions on Iran, neither debit nor credit cards will work anywhere in the country. Seeing as it is also quite an expensive country, and we will be there for a month, we are having to take a significant amount of cash over the border with us. Not ideal to say the least. Even more annoying is the fact that despite being adjacent countries, Turkish lira cannot be exchanged in Iran, and Iranian rials cannot be bought in Turkey. So our only option is to change lira (which we have already convered from sterling) into USD, which we will then change into rials in Iran. Talk about skanking travellers! Not only that, we have been told that the USD notes should be as new as possible, and of large denominations, otherwise they will attract an inferior exchange rate. Hence spending some time at the bank ensuring we have nice new crisp bank notes to take with us. Needless to say we are squirrelling the notes away in various places around our persons and our bikes, just to be on the safe side.
After Erzurum we cycled on with Dean, expecting to take 3 days to reach the border town of Dogubeyazit. It turned out to be an eventful 3 days. First of all, on the afternoon of the first day we were overtaken by a tractor and a trailer, the driver of which unfortunately was clearly not used to cyclists and pulled in before he had fully passed us, knocking Dean off of his bike. Thankfully he wasn’t actually run over and in the end suffered just some bruising, but at the time he was concerned he had damaged the elbow he broke previously in Bratislava, which would have been a disaster. Not much fun at all. Then in the afternoon we had 2 punctures which was annoying. In the evening we set up camp on a dried river bed, a nice secluded spot that was quite comfortable because of the sandy river bed. None of us slept very well though because we were woken up by what sounded like something big padding around our tent and growling or grunting! Pete was brave enough to investigate but whatever it was disappeared by the time he got out the tent, only to come back when he got back in! It was probably only a fox or something, but then we are in bear country (indeed Tom and Ollie saw a dead bear on the road just a few days before) and it certainly sounded big enough to be a bear. Not only that, the bag of rubbish that we had placed about 50m from the tent before we went to sleep (in case anything decided to investigate it) was missing the next morning, nowhere to be found! The joys of wild camping!
The next day Dean realised in the morning that the previous day’s collision had left his front wheel wobbly and potentially dangerous. We all agreed it was best for him to hitch to the next big town to get it fixed. This proved to be quite easy because we came across a military checkpoint where Dean enlisted the help of the soldiers, who were only to keen to help. They stopped the next bus and got the bus driver to take Dean and his bike (well the bus driver was hardly going to say no to an armed soldier) to Agri, 80km away. He didn’t even have to pay! When he got to Agri he was able to get his bike fixed without a problem, and we caught up with him in the evening. While he was waiting he got talking to some locals and ended up with an offer of accommodation for all three of us for the night, very welcome after the long hot day’s cycling that we had. The climate has really heated up now, with temperatures topping out at between 30-35c every day. So hot that the sunshine melted the tarmac on the roads, not great for cycling at all. We are hoping that Iran and other hot countries use something different for their road surfaces as it is no fun cycling on tyres covered in melted tar! We were planning on reaching Dogubayezit the day after we stayed at Agri, but we had a late start talking to our hosts, it was really hot and then a tremendous headwind kicked in. We had been told that there were some nice hot springs about half way to Dogubayezit so we decided to have a short day and spend the night there. Wasn’t quite what we had envisioned – it turned out that the thermal hotel was open, but was primarily used to billet soldiers and police in the area, rather than being aimed at tourists! By the time we established this it was too late to cycle on, and the hotel said we could stay although the thermal baths weren’t operational. It was very cheap and the rooms had baths in them – not quite a thermal spa but a bit of a luxury nonetheless – so we decided to stay the night. The next morning we had only gone 10km up the road when amusingly we bumped into Tom and Ollie again – they had left Erzurum a day after us but hadn’t had to deal with being knocked off their bikes, bike repairs etc, so had caught up with us without knowing it. They were camped in a small Kurdish village, all of which came out to watch when we pulled up on Th our bicycles, no doubt a fairly unusual sight round here! Tom and Ollie had also met another cyclist called Ian, a GP who it turns out lives juts down the road from us in London – small world or what! He is on a long-distance trip to Kathmandu so has joined the ‘gang’ for a while. That means that we are now a group of 6, 5 guys and Christine, who is feeling rather outnumbered but quite safe which is good! We had a nice 50km ride into Dogubeyazit, which lies at the foot of Mount Ararat, which is 5137m tall. Crazy to think we will be cyclign to almost that altitude in just a few weeks! It was Christine’s 30th birthday and Dean’s 32nd birthday so that night we had some beers in the hotel, along with cake, balloons and presents (mostly stickers for our bikes and that sort of thing!), before heading out for a kebab and a water pipe. A very pleasant evening all round.
Tomorrow we head into Iran, where we expect that websites such as facebook, our blog and many others will not work, so this may be the last update for a while. Think of us sweltering in 40c heat (in fact it is 44c in Tehran today, ouch) – suddenly cool British summers seem quite appealing!