The last few days of our two weeks becalmed whilst waiting for the new credit card were spent in a pleasant (and thankfully free!) camping spot on Bozköy beach about 10km east of Amasra. With nothing to do but drink beer, swim, sleep, fight off the incredibly persistent ants and observe the local beach café owner flirt with his student customers, there was plenty of time to get creative.
Hopping on a bus back to Amasra on Monday, I returned triumphal with the new credit card, and we were off again along the brutal but beautiful Black Sea coastline. Though we yomped over one rugged headland after another, progress remained slow – 40 to 60 km per day – but the gorgeous countryside and the kindness of locals who readily invited us to camp in fields, village greens and town parks along the way, more than compensated. The hospitality, cheery greetings, and endless invitations to stop and drink tea (only a few of which we could accept if we were to get further than 10 km in a day!) sustained us along the road, and will remain part of our fondest memories of Turkey.
Nature also offered us some perfect campsites, such as this nook, just a couple of hundred meters from the road yet completely hidden, next to a clean, fast-flowing river, tucked under a towering natural cutting supplied with plenty of fire wood from trees which have tumbled from the cliff-face. We celebrated with a day off and shish kebabs.
But tiring of hauling ourselves across (or rather, over) the coastline, and tempted by tales of the Silk Road running parallel just to the south, we headed inland. A 30km-long steady climb was the price to pay for leaving the sea (which ironically we chose to do just before it all flattened out after Samsun); more stunning mountain scenery and virtually empty roads were the reward. To our astonishment, apart from a small store where we bought ice cream 7 km into our journey and a tea house about 15km up the hill, there wasn’t a single shop or restaurant for the next 70km, even after we got over the mountains and down into the valley on the other side. Stuffed our faces at a small café in a town called Boyabat, under the disbelieving gaze of the staff who had probably never seen a girl eat so much, and rolled into the tent exhausted in some woods just outside the town.
The combination of slopey camp sites and the toughness of the terrain (which admittedly was gentler once we were inland) meant my back problems were returning in full force, making me an increasingly grumpy and unenthusiastic travelling companion. As well as taking difficult decisions to part with some beloved but heavier items (don’t worry, we’ve still got the violin, trumpet and melodica), we decided to have a rest and make up for the 2 weeks lost over the credit card incident by catching a train across to Eastern Turkey.
The two day train journey from Sivas to Kars, up near the Georgian/Armenian border, would be a lifetime highlight for any train enthusiast. The old joke goes that the German engineers who built this line were paid by the mile, hence they planned the route to snake around through the most remote snickleways of the Turkish highlands. Stations serving settlements of half a dozen sheep farmers seemed to be the norm, which suited us fine, as we were treated to a rolling tour of uninhabited valleys, weird crags and plateaus brimming with wildflowers.
Despite feeling like a fraud for skipping 1000 km by train, and experiencing twinges of regret that the bike computer no longer truly reflected the distance we had travelled from England, I was personally rather excited to arrive in Kars, the setting for Snow, Orhan Pamuk’s ice-bound exploration of love, suicide and Islamic fundamentalism. Having climbed (whilst sitting on a train – hurrah!) to around 1,800m, we found the summer had not yet quite reached this proud old city – an enticing, if run-down mix of Armenian, Ottoman, Russian and modern architecture. Lilac trees were still in bloom, and the memory of recent snow lingered on the high ground. Our Warm Showers host, Fatih, picked us and the bikes up in his car and gave us a quick tour of the city, including a drive up to the citadel. Great views, but as we so often found in Turkey, information boards at the castle were of limited use, ignoring most of the pre-Ottoman medieval history of the place.
We were fascinated to discover that Fatih, a high school physics teacher, was working on a PhD in calligraphy. We strongly feel that there should be more of this sort of thing in the world. He’s also learning ney (vertical end-blown flute) and gave John a one-note lesson.
From Kars, we struck out for the Georgian border across the wide, grassy steppe of Eastern Turkey.
A truck driver keen for a chat warned us that the Aktash border was not open, despite being marked on the map (note for other cycle tourists – he was right: don’t trust anyone who tells you otherwise) but recommended taking that route anyway in order to camp by Lake Cildir, which proved to be excellent advice:
[UPLOAD VIDEO WHEN ITS DONE!]
We were, however, left with an extra day and a half’s slog over to the Posof border, which included a 2,555m high pass: not such a challenge as it sounds given we were already quite high. Nevertheless, worth a photo.
Although the Georgian border was still a day’s ride away, the change of landscape on the other side of the pass was profound: the wild steppe gave way to lush, forested mountain valleys. Hefty stone houses started to appear, intricate wrought iron gates adorned front gardens, and things started to take on a decidedly European (or maybe Russian) feel.
And then, before we knew it, before we’d even had a chance to buy a last pot of ayran (beloved salty yoghurt drink) or hunt down a single final gozleme (oily layered bread), we were in Georgia.