(James) Having read Em’s account of our traumatic day last Sunday (which I’m pretty sure she wrote in our tent that night as some sort of therapy!) I thought it might be an idea to say that despite our belief that Turkey didn’t want to let us leave, we had an amazing time and are just saddened that events in Istanbul meant that we had to rush through and miss so much of what is clearly an amazing country. That’s not to say, however, that we didn’t still have some great experiences. So, Cappadocia and our trip east out of Turkey.
It would be a major understatement to say that we slept soundly on our first night after the 800km day and despite our late rising (just to catch breakfast before they started serving lunch!) we were still pretty groggy. We’d decided to have a rest day so we hopped (quite literally in Em’s case) on to one of the bikes to visit the ancient towns and landscape that give the region its fame. Best known of these is the ancient settlement of Goreme which was a settlement 2000 years ago for Christians escaping persecution in the holy lands just to the south. Some geological quirk means that the rock is highly malleable and this allows it to be carved into much like wood (something we also saw in Matera, Italy where they actually filmed the film of The Last Temptation of Christ). Wind and rain over the millennia have eroded the rock creating tall rock formations which the early Christians dug into, creating what might be described as the world’s first high rise living communities – some of the ‘blocks’ were several stories high. As you can imagine, given the reason that Goreme’s first residents decided to seek sanctuary there in the first place, there are plenty of chapels in the rocks (they didn’t seem to do much other than pray) many still displaying the original frescoes on the walls and ceilings. Without sounding too much like a savage, I’ll summarise by saying that we were quickly all ‘chapelled’ out (once you’ve seen 10 ancient chapels carved out of solid rock you’ve seen them all) and decided to ride to the ancient underground city of Kaymakli and through the stunning landscape of the area filled with dramatic naturally occurring rock columns of soft rock with harder granite stacks sitting atop. They’re known as fairy chimneys, but we couldn’t help but think that was a marketing ploy designed to turn your attention away from the fact that look exactly like giant…, well you’ll have to look at our photos and see for yourselves…
Much like Goreme, Kaymakli was ‘built’ to hide Christians fleeing persecution, except where Goreme seemed to have been a haven for monks and nuns, Kaymakli appears to have been for Christian families and so was much bigger. Not being able to find a rock big enough to accommodate them they simply dug down into the ground creating a ‘town’ that ran several stories under the surface, and contained homes, food stores, wineries, and all the facilities that a community of 5000 people might need. The entrances were hidden by giant circular rocks that were rolled into place when required. The corridors such as they were, were extremely narrow – barely shoulder width and at points little more than a couple of feet high so not a place for anyone with even the mildest claustrophobia or physical infirmity (such as that picked up, shall we say, in a motorcycle accident) but after a couple of rest stops we made it out!
The following morning we headed north-east towards the border with Georgia and through Kurdish east Turkey (or Kurdistan if you ask anyone who actually lives there). We had been warned by some that the area could be dangerous and that we should be very careful. After a few kms through barren semi-desert we made stopped outside a petrol station to re-adjust Em’s luggage which we’d not done properly in our rush to leave and were just getting ready to pull out when we saw 2 motorcycles approaching, both of which were heavily loaded. Seeing us they pulled over to say hello and introduce themselves as Axel and Vincent from Belgium who are on a tour of the Caucasus. We were both commenting on the fact that we hadn’t seen any other motorcycles since we’d left Istanbul when a Turkish motorcycle rode past, turned round and came over to say hello too! This was clearly too much for the 2 truckers sitting in the station who came over to say hello (despite the fact they couldn’t speak a word of English) and give us a big bag of fruit whilst we swapped information on the way ahead.
We continued on our way and at our next petrol stop were invited over by the people who worked there and a couple of customers to have chai with them – this increased friendliness, we were to find out, was customary for Kurds and was only the first of numerous examples of the generosity and kindness to strangers we would experience over the next few days. By about 5.30 that evening, Em reported that she was starting to fade (it had been nearly 100 degrees all day) so we stopped at the town of Sivas to find a supermarket, with the intention of camping somewhere suitable to the east of the city. An hour or so later, we turned off the road and up a farm track, found the farmhouse and asked the farmer if we could camp in one of the fields nearby (our Turkish not being up to much, we managed to communicate this using our ‘point-it’ book – literally a book full of pictures of different objects, something we think will become increasingly handy from this point onwards!) We were soon set up and having dinner with a bottle of red wine!
We were woken before six the next morning by the sound of a tractor pulling up by our tent and reasoned that if it was early enough for him to start his day, perhaps we should do the same! Although we’d gone to bed under an incredibly clear starry sky, the morning that greeted us was grey and hinted that today we might be getting a bit wet. Just as we were about to leave, an old woman, presumably the farmer’s mother as she must have been in her eighties, trudged the 1km down the hill from the farm house, carrying a rake and offered for us to go back to theirs for breakfast. We’d have dearly loved to, but a combination of needing to get miles under her belt and the fact that we couldn’t allow her to walk all the way back up the hill again, meant that we had to decline. As we continued riding, we found that at every single stop we were given chai and offered food. By late morning, we began to gain altitude as we rode into the mountains, reaching almost 3000 metres above sea level, directly towards the black clouds that has been threatening all day. Eventually, the rains hit us, creating pretty treacherous conditions on the roads, not helped by the fact that we were in a line of lorries travelling on what is the main road to Iran.
The weather steadily deteriorated all afternoon and in the early evening we were struck by a monster thunder storm which reduced visibility to near zero and forced us into a petrol station to take cover. No sooner had we got off the bikes than the two guys who worked there, Yacop and Sendar, brought out some chai and let us sit at a table and chairs inside. As we sat warming our hands on the tea glasses, they kept refilling our cups and eventually gestured that they were making us dinner! We were expecting maybe some bread and melon but on going into their ‘office’, were stunned to see that they’d laid out a proper cooked traditional Kurdish meal which was absolutely delicious (Em: the best food we’ve had since Italy!!) We tried to communicate through our little Turkish phrase book, which caused them much hilarity! They were quick to tell us that they were most definitely Kurdish, not Turkish, and proceeded to show us lots of videos and photos of local Kurdish guerrillas who are effectively engaged in a civil war against Turkey. All very surreal. The weather had clearly set in for the night so we went to find a hotel in the small town we’d passed through a km back and ended up staying in what was the only hotel in town and which clearly doubled as either a sanatorium or some sort of institution! (Incidentally, Kurdish hospitality came to the fore once again when a local guy hailed a taxi specifically for us to follow him when we’d stopped for directions, then he stood out in the rain until he was satisfied that we were safely checked in, demanding nothing in return.) The hotel was a bit of a toilet and had a comedy communal bath in the basement with an industrial sized valve instead of a tap that delivered salt water!
It rained through the night but in the morning, despite the dark cloud cover, the rain had stopped so we heading off but not before stopping in for breakfast with Yacop and Sendar – they had made us promise and were waiting for us with yet another tasty spread, including their own home made natural yoghurt which was better than any we’d ever tasted. After eventually dragging ourselves away, we headed north filled with hope that we could make it to the Georgian border that day but as we rode even higher onto a large, desolate plateau we could see that the weather was closing in on us. And that, dear readers, brings us nicely to the epic already covered by Emily!!