Goodbye Turkey

So, we bussed out of Dogubayazit,  in a Dolmus to Igdir (50km, 16TL for us and 20TL for the bikes as they used all the Transit’s luggage space. Didn’t stop driver heaping more on top). On the bus we met Harun, a final year student. We chatted for a bit, struggling with Google Translate. He was also going to Kars, and offered to help us with the transfer. Most appreciated.

Unfortunately the Igdir to Kars bus was the worst possible type: a sort of mini real coach. Although it had a high passenger deck, the luggage compartments below were too small for a bike without extensive dismantling.  So, this 150km cost an eye-watering 140TL, with the bikes taking 5 seats. And turning the bars put a kink in Gideon’s rear brake cable. But in we all went, anyway.
We then had a luxurious 2 days in Kars, in a 3 star hotel Harun’s friend had worked in. Being rather expensive, we don’t normally stay in that grade of place. Why 2 nights when we’d just stopped for a day in Dogubayazit? Well, after all the warnings, and several changes in response, our route and schedule were in a mess. It was 26th July: we couldn’t enter Azerbaijan until 19th Aug, Georgia is not big, and we were about 2 days from the border. Tbilisi is supposed to be pleasant,  but probably not interesting enough to stay there 2 weeks. Equally, deciphering the Foreign Office website advice is very slow, it’s all place names which are off maps or spelt differently, one mandarin paragraph took an hour to relate to the map. By checkout time we hadn’t even decided where to go. We were also keen to check with the local police that the intended road was OK. By midday we’d got it sorted. The revised plan takes us 3 days up to Turkey’s Black Sea coast, then over the border and a few days in Batumi.
We had a potter around Kars castle, and Kars streets.
While wandering rather aimlessly, we espied a touring bike, well, a pile of luggage with handlebars poking out, wall-hanging outside an Internet Cafe (still common in eastern Turkey). Inside we met Engin,  only our second meeting with a touring Turk (the first was on ex-Istanbul ferry, young fellow going to Iran, but untalkative). Engin was another student (and author), on a sort of circular trip, but like us, replanning, in his case cancelling a swing south. We chatted (in English) ending up in a cay shop. Engin was much tougher than us, normally wild camping. I think he was genuinely appalled at the cost of our hotel, well so were we – I write this in a Pansiyon costing 90TL less! Engin pointed out to us how much of Kars’ buildings and streetplan was Russian, not Turkish. We’d not noticed, although I had read that Kars was ceded to Russia as the Ottoman empire crumbled in the 19th century,  only returning to Turkey after World War I. (Although Turkey was on the losing side, Russia was even worse off after its revolution, so Turkey gained some territory in the early 20s).
After the edgy feel of Dogubayazit,  Kars felt normal. Life was civilian, the police weren’t armoured. There was little hassle from boys. It felt more prosperous. Curiously, around Muradiye and Dogubayazit, the usual Turkish throng of banger Renault 12s and 9s and FIAT 131 derivatives vanished, replaced by fleets of Fords – not so in Kars (however Gid did see his first GAZ Volgas there, a brace of Az registered 31105s !). The other vehicular curio is that since about Muradiye,  we see occasional archaic looking trucks hauling tanker trailers. They have yellow plates with squiggles. Think these are part of Iran’s oil exports.
The attempted coup happened while we’re in Afsin. That evening and the following evening were both noisy.  When we got to Malatya there were hectic processions during the evenings, big political gatherings we could hear nearby, with a distinctive thumps and a rousing, but rather oppressive tune (no, not Turkey’s national anthem), together with a very shouty, repetitive,  one can only say rabble-rousing speech. We heard it some other places too,  and so repetitive one suspects a recording. This was interspersed with other speakers,  although one of these (female, at top of voice) also heard in other places, so it must have been video linked or recorded. One can only hope that the same very civil and courteous Turks we meet, listening to this, do not fall into any spell of intemperance from its awful tone. But the tune, and the recognisable bawling voices, were not heard in the Kurdish areas, after Malatya. From Ardahan the rallies resumed, but without the awful music and shouting. So one suspects we’re hearing the demarcation lines of Turkey’s political parties.


Kars is within the area with a substantial Kurdish population,  although I’m not sure it’s a majority. In our southern Turkey travels we met quite a few Kurds, including some of the folk we mention in the blog. It is often an early part of their introduction,  so it’s clearly very significant. I rather get the impression they really do feel somewhat trampled, and want to have a recognised homeland – but none of them suggested any support for violence, more usually the opposite. As we travelled in the Kurdish areas, we may have inadvertently caused some irritation by greeting people in Turkish, perhaps “Hello”, which is widely used, is more neutral. As so often when a people has a problem, some react at extremes, and a guerrilla / terrorist war has ground on in parts of Turkey’s southeast for decades.
The buses passed through areas of rolling upland hills and between Igdir-kars, one or two substantial passes. There was a lot of grazing land, but the view was rubbish compared to that on a bike.
After Kars, we headed – on Bikes again – north to Ardahan. Now we could see the upland grazing clearly, as our legs could feel the gradients. Adding bus and bike, there was probably 200km of it at least. Sumptuous grass full of wildflowers (and bee hives!). Rather shacky buildings probably only lived in in summer. Villages of white tents (and blue polythene). Herds of brown cows, with herdsmen. Flocks of sheep and goats, also herded. Quite few horses, sometimes pulling carts or hay making machines. Flocks of geese near villages. Small boys who never really managed to pester, but sometimes clearly intended to. There was visibly a lot of manual hay making, even scything, but also lots of tractors and balers. It seemed like all possible resources were on the hay making, as from our second night in Kars, there were occasional heavy thunderstorms.
We don’t have as many photos of this traditional life as we’d like: The small boys and the big dogs made us reluctant to stop for any time when near a flock/herd/village/camp, especially if the next km wasn’t downhill.
The Ardahan outskirts were busy with a big new bypass and splendid new university campus. Probably explains why first two cheap hotels were full. While in town looking for our next hotel (there are at least 7), it pissed down, and a very kind Turk from France invited us to sit it out in his new Chevrolet – how hospitable, how Turkish.
We knew Ardahan to Arthingworth would be tough,  100km+, and mountainous terrain. The first 20km was pleasant and speedy. We met Ando, from France, going the other way. He was right: Georgia (and China, his destination) were East; it was us going West that was odd. But it’s sensible for Batumi.
The next 25km were a well graded drag on a good road. This gained us the plateau, intermittently shrouded in low cloud. There were numerous herds and flocks. Then a rather disorganised looking village: old buffers drinking cay, younger men looking more industrious. Around and inside the village was boundary-less rough grazing, giving the village a sort of unclear edge. The climb continued another km maybe, rising gently, to a sign saying 2581m. (Approx. 3 hrs to reach the top.)
The next 25km or so were downhill, losing loads of height into a deep river valley (a tributary of the famous Coruh, for any paddlers reading). Although no higher than the side we’d come up (!), this terrain was totally different. The early part of road was seriously steep, with lots of hairpins, many of which were gravel strewn, so we went pretty slowly, with boiling wheels from all the braking. Whereas the road up was wide and well finished, the downwards one was narrow and sometimes only gravel or dirt.
The views on this downhill were stunning. Every slope seemed to be 45 degrees, and all shades of verdant green, steep forest as well as grass. Far below the sun glittered on the tin roofs of a village. So the descent was much slowed by photography. This took us into the town of Ardanuc. After that we cruised along a river gorge for a bit. A headwind started to blow up the gorge, at times we were in a low gear, going downhill. Then it started to go uphill again, still with a headwind…
After an hour or so of grinding away at this, around 16:30/90km in the day, a tea shack appeared on the left. We pulled over and flopped down for a reviving drink. There were a few chaps there, centred around an old fellow on a bench. We knew we were about 20km from Artvin, but our electronic and Turkey paper maps are all crap at showing height. So Clare started doing charades with the guys to glean how much more “up” lay ahead. 2km. Her face fell. Then, a huge grin, as one of the guys thumbed towards his pickup. Would we stoop so low?
After finishing off the climb, we could almost immediately see Artvin. It looked about 4km away, if that. Trouble is, one of the km was vertical. The descent wiggled all over the valley, giving amazing views over Artvin and one of the new Coruh dams (beneficial for locals but cursed by kayakers, rafters, and I guess archaeologists). Artvin seemed one of those mountain towns where everything is steep. I didn’t much fancy exploring it! Eventually, the truck got to the river level, our benefactor pulled over and announced “Artvin!”. Then asked “Borcka?”… He was going to the next town. Would we stoop so low?
Well, that saved 20km off each of 2 days, and an awful lot of steep climbs. It was easy enough finding a cheapish hotel (Oojooz Otel is the phrase), the bikes again in the laundry room.
After Borcka, most of the morning was spent trundling slowly up a river valley,  until, inevitably, the road reared up and to the right, to get over the hills to the coast. At about this point, an unfinished twin bore tunnel stuck out from the hill. It must’ve taken an hour to climb the 600-700m pass, not including our last cay stop, and a cow-in-road photoshoot. The road was moderately busy (quiet by English standards), and lacked Turkey’s usual hard shoulders. But well graded, pretty smooth,and wide enough to avoid heart-in-mouth moments. Spectacular views at the top, and a whizz down to Hopa. Just before the town, we saw the other end of the nascent tunnels. Hopa initially presented industry and scrapyards,  bearing out Wikipedia’s unenthusiastic writeup, but ended with a pleasant seafront for our picnic lunch.
In the afternoon, a fast flat cruise along the coastal main road was notable only for the nearside lane being full of waiting trucks, the numerous tunnels, and the lack of any view of the sea. Border processes were a little slow and convoluted, but trouble free. So, bye bye Turkey, next is Georgia.
This entry was posted in Asia.

One comment on “Goodbye Turkey

  1. Andy and Helga says:

    Have a great time in Georgia, and hopefully no more coups on the way! Andy from Vienna


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