(Emily) Mum, before you read this, don’t worry – we’re fine and have reached Tbilisi in Georgia! Hostel has wi-fi so should be able to add more later; our last few days in Turkey were generally great and there’s lots to tell. However, I wrote this last night at the end of a bit of a nightmare day…
Currently shivering in our tent, on a grass verge by the side of a main road, next to a military outpost and ten metres from a machine gun nest (the bikes are parked next to it, we weren’t allowed to stay). These guys mean business; this is Kurdistan territory and the locals are not big fans of the Turks. It’s raining, our gear is covered in mud and the barracks spot lights keep sweeping past us. WTF?!
Basically, we’ve had a bit of a day. All going well(ish – relentless rain and late start meant we weren’t sure we’d make the Georgian border as planned). We pulled into a petrol station at about half past two this afternoon, narrowly missing the latest in a long line of torrential downpours. Pretty soon all signs of the surrounding mountains had disappeared into a wall of dark grey in every direction. We were high up on an exposed plateau (too high for trees – think Brecon Beacons on a bigger scale) and so we decided to wait it out; it was easy to monitor the weather system from our position. Also, the two lovely guys manning the station took upon themselves to ply us with chai and, when it was clear we were in for the long haul, brought out a delicious lunch of fresh bread, tomato and watermelon. The hours rolled by and, although it started to clear, the one place it still looked ominous was exactly the direction we were headed for. We had two options – head 10km back to the city of Kars where we could be sure of a hotel, or press on the 50km to Ardaham. No one likes going back on themselves, right, so as James has now reminded me several times at opportune moments, I said we should ‘risk it for a biscuit’… Fool!
It was about 5pm when we left. Only 50kms? We’d be there by six, giving us time to shop around for a cheap place to stay. Error. After about 10km, the tarmac ended and the gravel and shingle extravaganza ensued; bad enough at the best of times but just short of lethal after several days of heavy rain. The road had been further rutted up by the trucks and diggers going back and forth but with my ankle still playing up, this was not a good time for me to be introduced to ‘standing on the pegs’ as a way to minimise jolting. God knows how, but I managed to struggle on for a good 15km (which took well over half an hour – when were these ‘road works’ going to end anyway?) Then we suddenly found ourselves riding in thick, oozing clay. A new experience for me. Not a good one. I could feel both tyres veering from side to side as the treads quickly filled with mud, and worse, I could see James slipping about in front of me too. In my mind, it was a question of when, not if, we would fall off (James: me too). Bear in mind we were also on a slope and in the middle of harsh, barren wilderness.
We were only going about 3mph but I had to stop (how I did this without slipping over I don’t know). James, my absolute hero, got himself onto harder ground then came back for my bike, muttering that it was a wonder neither of us had come off. Alas, our miracle was short lived – James had no sooner got on my bike than his front wheel starting going to the left, his rear wheel to the right… he managed to keep going for another 5 metres, practically riding sideways, before the front wheel gave up and he went down. Our problems, however, were only just beginning, as so thick and gooey was the wet clay, that even standing was an issue – we both tried to pick the bike up but it, and us, were just sliding about. Meanwhile, a kilometre back up the hill, two articulated lorries we edging their way down towards us. At first I was reassured when I saw the hazard lights flashing – phew, the truck has seen us and would perhaps even be able to help – but then I saw the driver’s panicked face and frantic gesturing: despite the fact he had started to brake a good 500m away, his wheels too had lost all traction and he was literally sliding straight for us. At this point, we abandoned our fruitless attempts to get the bike upright and just started desperately to push and drag the bike across the mud out of the truck’s path. This was seriously one of the scariest moments of my entire life; we were properly freaking out, not sure whether we should keep trying or just get the hell out of the way ourselves. It was like a slow motion scene in a disaster movie.
I kid you not, the truck came to a stop about 5 metres from my fallen bike. The driver, clearly shaken, jumped out of his cab and with his help we managed to get the bike up. Not ideal that my right foot had to be used a wedge to stop the rear wheel from sliding again. Together, we managed to get it out of the danger zone, but even with two of us pushing on foot, the rear wheel was still all over the place. Needless to say, I was somewhat traumatised and couldn’t get back on the bike. James, covered in mud from the fall and no doubt pretty shaken up himself, took control of the situation and after a big hug for me, he rode his bike, then mine, a kilometre up the road to where the surface was more compact, while I slowly trudged up on foot.
The appalling surface then carried on, though thankfully never again turning into a clay quagmire; either way we had to stay in first or second gear and never got above 15 mph. Occasionally, we came onto tarmac again and thought we’d reached the end but all too soon it would deteriorate once more. To add insult to injury, it was by now starting to rain again and to get dark. We were in the middle of nowhere – the only signs of life being small dwellings constructed from stones and tarpaulin perched up in the exposed rocky outcrops – and the thought of camping in the wet surrounded by stray dogs did not appeal. Surely the town of Ardaham had to appear soon, we’d been going like this for nearly 40km and it had taken almost three hours. We finally came over the top of another mountain and we could see lights blinking in the distance. Surely this would be our target town, with the promise of a hot shower and, more importantly, a stiff drink. But no, northern Turkey was not going to relinquish its hold on us that easily. After tackling a steep downhill, still without proper road surface, a sign cheerfully told us that Ardaham was 12km away. Crap. It was now actual night-time and, upon inspecting the road that would take us to salvation and finding it to be loose shingle and steep, we decided that enough was enough. Tempting as it was to do those last few km (so close but yet so far…) we weren’t going to be that stupid. We’d just have to find somewhere here for the night.
And so that brings us to our current situation. A group of passing locals laughed and shook their heads when we gestured sleep and pointed to the village here. James asked about a police station and they directed us up the road. No sooner had we approached the front entrance of the base when a search light swung road and whistles were sounded. I think they take security pretty seriously here, and it doesn’t help that our engines sound like gunfire… Our plea for a place to stay at first fell on deaf ears and we were repeatedly told there was a hotel in Ardahan – it didn’t seem to compute that it was simply not possible for us to travel any further on the treacherous roads in the now total darkness. However, perseverance is key (James didn’t even need to resort to football chat) and they eventually acquiesced that we could park our bikes in the barracks and set up camp outside the front. So here we are, sitting soggy in our tent on a steep slope, ‘reassured’ by our hosts that despite it being ‘dangerous’ here (bear in mind there’s effectively a civil war going on here between Kurdish militants and Turkey), we are safe (cue a jaunty wave of the gun, just to reiterate). They even brought a sandwich and a pot of hot water for some tea. Admittedly a hotel would have been nice but I was feeling frankly euphoric to be alive. James, on the other hand, had been banking on using the hotel ‘facilities’. Enough said!….
I’m going to stop now and try to get some sleep. Am sure everything will be right with the world once more when we wake up to glorious sunshine and head for Georgia. Right now, however, I’m feeling pretty petrified of the dog that is barking its head off what seems to be a couple of yards from our tent. ‘It’s alright’, says James, ‘they’re probably dogs that they have here on the base, not strays.’ Er, yeah, in which case they’d be trained to kill. Goodnight!