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Cycling Eurasia : Turkish delight, Caucasus might

Josh Cunningham
30 Sep 2015

Josh continues his pan-Eurasian tour across the expanses of Turkey and the mountains of the Caucasus

Leaving Istanbul, over the so-called 'Gateway to Asia' that is the Bosphorus channel, was a timely occurrence. After ten days among the bazaars and minarets, allowing our European battle scars of numbed toes, chapped lips and grumbling coughs to heal, Rob and I departed with a desperate need to again rid ourselves of the sedentary life and get back on our bikes.

But we had learnt a valuable lesson on the way in to the city, and rather than tackle the urban carnage of Istanbul's streets again, we opted to get the ferry across the eastern tip of the Marmara Sea to the town of Yalova, where we guessed we would be able to ride into Turkey proper without the traffic. Our ferry was of course late, and by the time we docked in Yalova it was after dark. We began riding in what we thought was the direction out of town, but the road seemed to just ebb from one residential cluster to the next, with no sign of a potential campsite anywhere.

One valuable lesson from our travels thus far was to not fear looking for help however, and with no wild camp opportunities presenting themselves, we stuck our noses into a convenience store which had some land attached to it and asked if we could set up our tents there - a tactic I had used plenty of times before with pubs, petrol stations, shops and houses. In normal circumstances this would probably be thought of as a bizarre and quite possibly intrusive question to ask of a stranger, but another lesson that had been thoroughly driven home over the previous six weeks was that rarely does a cycle tourist find themselves in normal circumstances, and people are generally only too happy to help.

As it happened, our man gave a heartfelt apology and sent us on our way, but not ten minutes later, just as we were slogging up an incline and cursing our late departure, a young lad pulled up alongside on a moped and hailed us down. He had come into the same shop a few minutes after we left, had no doubt heard the story of the two idiot foreigners with bikes and a tent, and had thereupon set out after us. Another short while later, after much enthusiastic beckoning, the three of us were sitting in Ufuk's semi-built loft conversion, cooking pasta on our stoves, sharing amusing lifestyle trivialities, and as for Rob and I, happy to be living the unknown once again.

Wishful thinking

Throughout Europe, with its snow, rain, and wintery temperatures, Turkey had come to assume the role of a cycling Eden in my head. There would be sun, there would be warmth, there would be greenery and springtime pastures galore. Perhaps we would even enjoy the first days of summer on the beaches of the Black Sea, I optimistically fancied.

But little did I realise just how optimistic such dreams were. It was of course still only early March, and as we began to climb up onto the lofty plateau upon which much of inland Turkey lays, the temperature again dropped, evoking memories of Europe, whereby anything other than pedalling or sleeping was uncomfortable. Abandoned, derelict, or unfinished buildings became a prerequisite in the daily campsite search, as we craved the extra protection that these brought, as well as the added conspicuousness. Even better was when we woke up in a soon-to-be chicken shed and unzipped the tent to the sight of an entire team of builders, totally unfazed by our presence, and only too quick to slide a glass of chai (as tea is generally referred to eastwards of Europe) in our direction.

We were to discover that this sort of unassuming hospitality, as well as that of Ufuk in Yalova, was typical of the Turkish, and our entire crossing of this mammoth peninsula was punctuated by these small acts of kindness, which gave as much personal warmth as the hot tea.

Our initial destination was Cappadocia and its network of ancient cities, burrowed beneath the ground in labyrinthine warrens, or built into the curiously formed rocks above with a level of sophistication that The Clangers could but dream of. A couple of rest days were spent under its charm, and a tremendous show of light and colour came by way of watching over a hundred hot air balloons drift into a dawning sky over the town of Goreme, before we turned north east, in the direction of the Black Sea, and Georgia.

Plain to sea

On the road east our paths crossed with another cycle tourist for the first time, and we duly spent the next five days in the fine company of Will, from Ireland, whose intrepid route through Eastern Europe provided many a tale in the evenings - the three of us cooped into a two man tent to eat, or sleeping under motorway bridges to escape the elements.

The landscape of Turkey unravelled magnificently beneath our tyres, and suggested our crossing from one continent to another equally as fully as the cultural, religious and ethnic pointers. Great expanses of land - the sort whose scale one just doesn't find in Europe - fell away on either side of the road for kilometre after kilometre. Strings of mountains, with shades of umber that were again distinctly un-European, could often be seen lurking on the horizon, but the road, almost always perfectly sealed, seemed to take a path that never fully confronted them; they were mere guardians of these empty inland plains, watching our three specks make their way slowly pass through.

The fluidity of the road, the largely rural, small town nature of Turkey's interior, and the ongoing constraints that the weather was dictating, combined with our growing familiarity with life on the bike, combined for some of the most rhythmical times that my trip would experience. From trivialities such as how each item I was carrying had now found its natural place within my panniers, or recognising the right people to approach for information, to the efficiency with which our campsites were now constructed and dismantled, and the sheer mileage that our post-lunch through-and-off sessions were able to deliver.

But as we drew closer to the coast, the unobtrusive mountains that had defined Turkey's tectonic arsenal up until that point became far more offensive in character as they took the form of The Pontic Mountains. We waved goodbye to Will, and to the rhythm of Turkey, at an anonymous junction between Sivas and Erzincan, and watched his solitary figure, framed on an empty road passing beneath two imposing walls of rock, slowly slide from view; as Rob pointed out, a poignant, if a little cliché, image, of the cycle tourist facing his opponent.

Back in the (former) USSR

After over a month of riding we eventually reached Georgia and the Caucasus, a trio of countries – Georgia, Armernia and Azerbaijan – caught between continents, former empires, and great frontiers of physical geography. I was immediately captured by the uniqueness that permeated so much of the country, from the distinguishable Georgian complexion, cuisine, and totally undecipherable language and script, to the ornate, timbered architecture that abounded from central Tbilisi to the high Caucasus mountains themselves, and spoke of a mysterious, degenerative opulence. Christian Orthodoxy continues to be a mainstay of life in Georgia too, but while the country has retained these character traits, something equally as noticeable were the telling signs of our entering the former USSR, with soviet architecture providing a juxtaposed partner to the traditional Georgian style, and peeling Cyrillic signs often frequenting the roadside. Added to the monumental beauty of the country, and Georgia would prove itself to be a treat.

There was of course a price to pay to enjoy these curiosities though, and a small bout of arduousness descended upon us on the 2020m Goderdzi Pass. The paved road had stopped over 30km ago, and after effectively two days of climbing, we had bounced, skidded and pushed our way to the summit, between two walls of snow that lined the roadside. As a curious side note, a group of men then appeared from the mist wielding a dead eagle, which was presented to us, along with the obligatory offer of vodka, before they disappeared back down the mountain into the now-falling snow and darkness.

After a few minutes we found ourselves in a modest blizzard, and in the muck my brake pads duly wore out on the descent, forcing me to adopt a 12-year-old's tactic of dragging my foot along as a speed-checker, while squinting through the snow in an attempt to negotiate the many crater-sized pot holes. It was simply too cold, dark and miserable to stop and adjust anything - we just needed to get off the pass. Refuge (he says) came by way of the village of Adigeni at around half past eight, and we set up our tent in the basement of an abandoned building, desperate to get inside. But it wasn't until we began cooking dinner that we noticed the entire floor was formed of congealed cow pats, and in the corner of the room were the very obvious pointers that this was also a popular human toilet too.

A bat then appeared and began flapping all over the place in the fearful, capricious manner that only a bat could manage, and the silhouette of a stray dog padded around the entrance of our shameful pit. It took all of five seconds to decide whether or not to move on: Too cold; too much snow; too hungry; too tired. The Toilet Towers resort of Adigeni, mysteriously absent from the Lonely Planet guidebook, would have to do.

The race is on

Time constraints, namely the fast-approaching start date of our 19-day Azeri visas, and the necessity to get there on time in order to obtain visas for Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as well as organise passage on a freight ship to Kazakhstan, before they ran out, meant that we were unable to explore too much of the Caucasus mountains proper. But we nonetheless endeavoured with a motorised excursion that took us to within 10km of the Russian border, to a town called Stepantsminda, for a hike up to the impressively located Gergeti Trinity Church.

While not having the time to explore these mountains by bike, we simply couldn’t leave without seeing what, by some definitions, are classed as the highest mountains in Europe, due to their peaks falling on the northern side of the Caucasus watershed. Mount Elbrus, the tallest, reaches 5642m. In the same way that the plains of Turkey betrayed their proximity to Asia, so too do the Caucasus; their scale and proportion seemed too great to be west of the Black Sea, and rather than the watchful, overbearing closeness of a range such as The Alps, the Caucasus were aloof and unconcerned with our presence, as though they didn’t have to remind us of their might. To not have the pleasure of appreciating this from the saddle was a great regret, if not for the heightened experience then for the difficulties of taking photos from the middle isle of a packed mini bus. ‘Sorry buddy, can I just lean over you there? Spasiba.’

Through Gori, the birthplace of one Joseph Stalin, we raced, and on past the capital of Tbilisi, to the only open border with Azerbaijan, which nestles on a plain at the base of the first ramps of the Caucasus and provides a spectacular panorama of the range.

Our final few days in Georgia appeared to have coincided with the much welcome signs of a change in season, and once in Azerbaijan we were blessed with enough sun and low altitudes to even ride in t-shirts. But again, the real warmth came from the people, and where the Georgians had been reserved in their approach to us, the Azeri way was far more vociferous and confident, which belied their Turkish heritage only too obviously.

Tea, rather than the thick, rich Georgian coffee we had been enjoying, again became the drink of choice, and the spoken language - a kind of Turkic-Russian hybrid - was a lot easier to grapple with. With our chosen route across Central Asia, a land with strong Turkic and Russian links, these two languages would become very important to our everyday lives. Words that I had learnt in Istanbul would continue to serve me over six months, and 10,000km, later in China's Kashgar, and the basic Russian that I struggled with upon entering Georgia would mature into conversational chat with yurt-dwellers, on family, food, religion and work, by the time I left Kyrgyzstan.

But Kashgar and Kyrgyzstan felt so far away at this point, as we rolled into the capital of Baku on the shores of the Caspian Sea, with the adventure of Central Asia lying beyond, that they may as well have been in another world. Indeed, in some respects they were, as we continued to learn that despite the trans-continental travel, the world of the cycle tourist is by default often incredibly parochial, with the immediate concerns of food, water, direction, and one's immediate company, almost always taking priority. Our world was the bubble we rode in, from one day to the next, through awe-inspiring landscapes, mundane towns, remote backwaters, and boundaries of nation, ethnicity, language and belief system. We cycled and lived them all. 

For Part 1 of the journey: Preparing for the off

For Part 2 of the hourney : The adventure begins

You can follow Josh on Twitter: @coshjunningham or on his website

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