Into the Dragon’s Belly

When we finally liberated ourselves from the spell of the stone world we cycled 71km north from Goreme to the city of Kayseri. It felt like a fleeing of sorts, from an area a little too close to suffering. As we have journeyed through Turkey reality has nipped at my conscience – blood is being shed, thousands are on the move and ethnic tension is high. In our transient existence we were fortunate to escape all these realities, only hearing, now and again over a cup of tea, of Turkey’s problems or the occasional rallying cry of village youth to go defend an unrecognized homeland. One sage commentator summed it up as we discussed Britain’s problems (he’d just informed me about the murder of Jo Cox MP):

It’s not yours or mine problem…you understand…it’s just political. It’s the same problem everywhere, greed and racism. Not our problem.

We, the lucky ones, know that it is ‘not our problem‘, that we do not live by the same rules as the bloodletters, the warmongers, the greed-driven political ego-puppets, their masters and the sycophants that surround them. Not our problem; so we cycle on. Dogged all the time by a feeling that won’t go away – that it probably is our problem after all, that if we don’t do something it will never stop, but at the same time taking lazy solace in the knowledge it has always been this way.

Another man, a lovely whirling Dervish from West London, comforted me as i despaired about the eternal dilemma: Am i doing the right thing?  “The one thing I’ve learnt is: there is no path. There is only now – this moment – it is perfect, it cannot be improved on.” I’m not so sure about this, the Dervish’s perfect now seems to be the domain of the comfortable and things are getting a little bit uncomfortable all round.

But I digress. For now we cycle on lurching from one existential crisis to the next, via endorphin induced euphoria and exhausted ‘bonks’. On reaching the city of Kayseri we made an uneasy decision, to catch a train. This is only the second time since Bucharest that we’ve taken any form of transport other than our bikes. The first was a short ferry-hop across the Bosphorous, but this train-leap of 600km felt like a firm declaration that we were no longer ‘cycling’ to India. We’d always said we were not limiting ourselves to cycling, but still it felt like a cheat. Fortunately it was a spectacular train journey on the Dogu Ekspresi travelling east along river valleys, glimpsing secret scenery we wouldn’t have seen from the road, to the city of Erzurum.

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An overnight train with no available sleeping bunks is never a restful option, so we arrived in Erzurum pretty tired. This did not deter us from our now mandatory extended scout around every pansyion in town looking for the best place to stay.We made our choice, after the inevitable friction, and as we started the process of unloading, two cyclists rolled up. And what dashing, fun Gents they were too. Ed the Englishman with his resplendent `tash (of which Ioan is understandably envious) and Mads the Norwegian, had cycled together from Cappadocia. We mumbled something about a very scenic train journey and continued the process of unloading whilst the bemused Hotel staff found space for four bikes (Mads’ stead was stabled in a closet). That night we enjoyed our first evening with other cycle tourists, exchanging tales from the road and discussing bike maintenance needs over the delicious local specialty Cag Kebab.(Three out of the four diners had been vegetarian prior to taking to the road, but that is another story).

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Edward and Mads

From Erzurum we headed north east back to the Black Sea coast, with hopes of reviving those hazy beach day dreams that had been washed out in Bulgaria. Our route would follow the D590, which proved to be one of the most amazing roads either of us had ever cycled along. It started out on the plateau of Erzurum before climbing to 2,116 metres with breathtaking mountain scenery. The green land of meadows and trees was welcome after the dry stone world of Cappadocia but it didn’t last long.Soon we found ourselves in a hot land of sleeping dragons. They slept beside the waters and waited for their time. We climbed their serpentine backs and were punished by the heat that reflected off their scales. In the late afternoon the skies darkened and the rain fell monsoon style, turning roads into rivers and evoking our fears of mud slides.

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Dragons sleep at Tortum Lake

For two days we followed the magical Tortum river until at 8pm, still searching for an elusive camp spot, we reached were it merged with the Coruh river. And here things changed, we were confronted with our first tunnels and a land where the dragons were being slayed to dust. The river Coruh is toted by the Turkish tourist board as the ‘last wild river’ in Turkey and by the WWF as a biodivery hotspot. And yet it is in the process of being damed by 15 large hydroelectric schemes. The raging torrent is being tamed and with every blast and rock fall the water grows a little muddier, a little deader. It is heart breaking and awesome all at the same time. At the construction site of the Yusefeli dam we were advised to turn back and find a place to sleep somewhere in town.

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And so we awoke in a bustling town that in 2 years time will be submerged by the damed river waters. There was something utterly eerie about standing in a busy supermarket queue with people patiently waiting for the water to rise up and swallow their world. To watch young children on the swings in the cool evening air, water babes. The project has met with much local opposition but the few people we spoke to seemed resigned to their town’s fate. Many have left for coastal cities others sit and watch their new town being built on higher ground. They fought and they failed; it is ‘their problem‘ after all.

After learning that there were 34km of tunnels under construction on the 70km stretch of road north to Artvin, we made yet another uneasy decision to take a minibus. There was something deeply challenging about the prospect of cycling into the Dragon’s Belly. To choke on her dust, to feel the heat of her rage and glimpse the wisdom behind her pain. But sense prevailed and we winced as our bikes were bundled onto the roof of a minibus taxi.  A recent Rough Guide commentator calls the stretch of road a ‘vast, post-apocalyptic mess’ and as the hot bus careered at breakneck speed through the dark, dusty world my chest tightened. We counted over 50 tunnels and I knew we had made the right decision; the easy one. Ioan still got his tunnel time, as they continued after Artvin, it’s just they were short and not under construction and therefore not quite so hellish.

As we neared the sea the landscape changed again becoming once again lush and green.We cycled through mist into a land of tea growers. It was harvest time and all along the roadside strong, rain soaked women and children carried and loaded great sacks of tea. Pulley systems had been erected to transport the sacks from the steep terraces to the roadside where they were collected and taken to a central sale point. It was a scene more reminiscent of India or Kenya. Below the tea plantations the thundering Coruh river had become a litter strewn rivulet, just about mustering enough weary power to reach the sea. The Black Sea welcomed us once again with the biggest downpour yet and we wandered bedraggled into Hopa, our last town in Turkey. On our last day in this welcoming, beautiful, and diverse country we awoke to the news that a bomb had exploded in Istanbul airport. The shadow of all this carnage is in direct contrast to the light, love and warmth we have been shown during six weeks cycling here. Thank you Turkey, may you find the peace your people deserve. Selamünaleyküm.

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