From Cappadocia our plan had been to ride north and check out Amasya, a fair sized city set deep in a river valley overlooked by enormous cliffs and mountains. From there we would strike the Black Sea at Ünye and then ride east, sampling the coastline to Trabzon and then decide how to tackle the rest of Turkey prior to our rescheduled visit to Iran. This plan was derailed by our GPS on the first morning…
The map suggested following a major carriageway northeast before swinging round northwest in what looked like the speediest way to reach Amasya. About 15 minutes after leaving Ürgüp, GPS said ‘turn left’, depositing us into a wilderness of rolling hill country populated by the odd small farming village. It was a tremendous ride as we allowed ourselves to get totally lost and disoriented with a big blue sky overhead, Anatolian grassland running to every horizon and ever-so-friendly farm folk waving us on our way from their toil in the fields. The road improved and we clipped along at a lively pace, the hills now blown by steroids into small mountains as we scratched around the fair sized town of Yozgat, hairpin bends yielding some impressive overviews of the city from the north.
By midday we had descended into the sleepy little town of Boğazkale, brown tourist signs proclaiming it as the site of Hattuşa, former hub and capitol of the mighty Hittite Empire. Over a decent lunch at the Hotel Asikoglu of ‘Hittite Kebab’, a sizzling little hot pot of stewed beef and potatoes, we sussed the guidebooks and decided that our GPS had directed us to a right little treasure. The owner, whom we dubbed ‘Mr Hittite’ due to the fact that he had been chosen to dress up as a Hittite warrior for a BBC Documentary filmed in the area (he had the garments framed and a big poster of himself in the role in reception), was keen to show us a lovely cool room for a decent price and within half an hour we had the bikes unloaded and were off hiking into the hills to see Hattuşa.
It was a fabulous setting in a natural amphitheatre of rock-strewn hills and the walk, an easy afternoon amble of a few kilometres round a circular perimeter road, took in all the pertinent points of interest; the reconstructed Lion Gate, the Sphinx Gate and a walk through the 70-metre long tunnel of Yer Kapi, which pierces a huge artificial mound. The place was mostly deserted apart from a few touts who had gained illegal entry and were trying to flog soapstone carvings. Hattuşa is surrounded by huge rocky crags and these provided a backdrop for the afternoon’s aerial entertainment in the form of the eagle colonies that live there. We found a high perch and settled in for a half-hour or so of ‘twitching’; watching the eagles perform mock combats in the thermals off the crags.
Hattuşa was another spectacular archaeological discovery. Found by a French traveller in 1834, it was quickly realised that these ruins were indeed ancient and special. Amazingly a full set of royal archives in the form of earthen tablets were unearthed at the site. Written in ancient Assyrian (the diplomatic language of the time), they provided a vivid window into this most ancient world of 2000BC. Prior to this the only references to the Hittites were a few passing mentions in the Bible and it is now known that they controlled a vast empire centred on Anatolia, extending down through the Holyland and on into Egypt where they clashed with the ancient Egyptians. One of the records details a peace treaty between the Hittites and Rameses II and a copy is on display at the UN building in New York as the earliest known international peace treaty.
Our afternoon at Hattuşa was made richer by an encounter with a lady with a black umbrella. Jo Wade, from Melbourne, Australia, was spending 6-months travelling alone around Turkey and we were soon comparing notes on where we’d all been. On learning of our intention to ride east into Iran she advised of recent events, which have led to most of the border crossings being closed in the past week. This was alarming news; an Iranian truck was hijacked and set on fire and there was a report of a minibus with 20 Turkish customs officials kidnapped, although we couldn’t find any supporting evidence for this story or indeed any news on what happened to the victims. This is of course on top of other recent bombings in the south east and indeed in Istanbul (July). We also learned that three of the four border crossings into Iran are now closed and all of this was food for thought as regards our own next steps and personal safety.
The problem lies with the fact that Shia Iran is supportive to the Assad regime in Syria (where you have a Shia ruling class overlording a majority Sunni population). The situation is compounded by the fact that there is no consolidated opposition party to the Assad regime, leaving a vacuum where ISIS can thrive. Throw into this mix the Kurdish question; an ethnic minority, sprawled across the areas where Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey all meet, looking for an independent homeland and taking sides with whoever is likely to grant them most support. In June elections in Turkey, the HDP (the political wing of the Turkish Kurds) managed to win sufficient margin to allow them representation in the government, causing problems for the current coalition such that a second election is now planned for November. Most Turks we spoke to (when the question was raised) were in favour of separation for the Kurds, as they don’t want to see their security forces dragged into a long terrorist war and already casualty lists are making front page news.
This has all wrecked the tourist industry; as previously commented, Turkey is empty. Outside the traditional resorts, the foreign visitors are just staying away, the Lira has devalued by over 20% and the southern provinces swell with Syrian refugees. I have to say that at no time in our travels in Turkey did we ever feel threatened or in any kind of danger. On the contrary folk are just getting along with their lives, dismayed at what is going on and the longer-term impacts on the country. They have been splendid hosts and we will always remember our time here with fondness. But as to the impact of these events on our trip? Already, following our need to return home, we had rescheduled Iran, slipping our arrival date by a full month. A solution presented itself over breakfast with Jo, who has travelled a lot in all of these countries; head north-east and then enter Iran via Georgia and Armenia.
Amasya, our next stop, is probably the loveliest city in all of Turkey and we spent a pleasant afternoon here ambling the streets, admiring the unique Ottoman architecture and strolling the riverbank promenade. Then it was on over the mountains to the Black Sea. We stopped for lunch at a little place called Akkus where we had the most delicious Kofte (meatballs) at a roadside halt on the way onto town. The young lad who ran the place was a fantastic waiter and made every effort to explain his non-english menu. They also served delicious Ayran, a refreshing drink made from yoghurt, salt and water. The place was very remote with few other customers. After lunch we paid and Mags disappeared to the loo while I went over the get ready at the bikes. You can imagine her surprise when she returned to find me surrounded by a vociferous crowd of six-foot plus young men, all of them pointing and asking questions about the bikes. She relaxed when she discovered that they were a Turkish volleyball team, come to train in the high mountains and dine at the best lunch-stop for miles…
Most coastal roads in the world are a pleasure to ride but ultimately this Black Sea road would disappoint. The road itself is mostly 4-lane highway constructed right along the coast such that it severs local access to the sea. At times you feel you are indeed on a major highway but then it runs directly through a busy city like Ordu or Trabzon, instead of bypassing it, so you hit inevitable congestion and traffic lights. Finally the road is a conduit to coastal landfill sites that pollute both water and air. Twice we stopped for a break only to move on when the pungent odour of decaying waste assailed our nostrils; the coast is becoming a huge rubbish dump and that leads me to one of our few dislikes about Turkey; littering.
All across Turkey littering is endemic. Sites like Pergamon and Pammukale are full of day-tripper rubbish all through the simple habit of people just discarding their trash as they go along. Everyone does it; we watched a little tot in Amasya walk past a litter-bin to throw a crisp-packet into the river. Everything from tissues and food-wrappings to plastic bottles are dropped by the wayside, leaving a toxic trail of glittering detritus in the sun at every site. In the mountains north of Trabzon Mags remonstrated with a family of five after they ditched a sizeable bag of trash out of their car onto the road while parked up to look at an ancient Ottoman bridge. They were a little embarrassed so the father picked it up off the road and tossed it into the bushes!
Our first stop on the coast road, Ordu, was a rambling little city with a rare, decent promenade. We took a 2.5km cable car ride to the summit of 550-metre high Boztepe for impressive views of the city, sea and surrounding mountains but had a moment of major panic when the whole contraption stalled about two thirds of the way up, leaving us dangling silently in the wind for a few scary minutes.
For all the disappointment, the Black Sea coast road does string together a series of little jewels once you head inland away from the coast. North of Trabzon we spent some time in the mountains near Rize, centre of Turkish Tea production. The Turks call it çay (pronounced chai) and a little glass of çay became one of our staples. Çay is made by brewing the tea and then removing the leaves to stop it getting too bitter. The pot is then kept warm and a cuppa is then made by taking some of the brew and topping it up with hot water. We were offered complimentary cups of çay at gas stations and even once while waiting in a bank. In Çamlıhemşin the tea harvest was in full swing and from the balcony of our little hotel room we watched sprightly but ancient ladies work all day long at the backbreaking job of picking the tender leaves from knee-high tea plants. Their task is made even more arduous by the fact that the tea bushes grow all up the sides of the lush green, vertiginous valley walls requiring an extreme effort to even attain the upper plants.
They say there is no such thing as a stranger, only an old friend you’ve yet to meet. With our time in Turkey coming to an end, what better way to mark this than spending the last few days in some fine company. Back at Motocamp, Bulgaria, we spent a pleasant evening with a Turkish rider, a lovely guy with a gentle smile, Ahmet Bengöz who like us was in the early days of a big journey, only in his case he was headed North through Europe and Scandinavia to reach the Arctic Circle (see www.motocyclestories.net). Ahmet recommended we pay a visit to a friend of his, Sedat Bozkurt, at his hotel the Bintepe just outside Trabzon. A fellow overlander, with an amazing ride on his R80GS from Turkey to South Korea under his belt, we were welcomed with open arms and a massive grin by Sedat at the hotel which housed his three old but immaculate R80 / 100GS’s in the foyer. We spent a grand Friday night on the tiles in downtown Trabzon and then a hungover Saturday exchanging tales from the road and absorbing his recommendations for our way forward through to Iran. Sedat, you are an absolute gentleman and our only regret is that we don’t live closer to share more great times like this!
A few days later we rode the last section of the Turkish Black Sea coast road. It ended in a tunnel that deposited us right at the Georgian border crossing at Sarp. We were about to enter a country that, up until about a week ago, wasn’t even on our itinerary and we knew very little about. We were in for a right surprise!
The photogallery for this blog post cane accessed by clicking here: ‘BlackSea Re-Route’