GL016: Tea with Dog Biscuits

July 25th, 2016 — Salt Lakes and Volcanoes

After giving the bikes a check-up (and fastening my loosened gear shift lever) we are leaving Ankara. We’ve got our passports with Pakistani visa back and applied for visa for Turkmenistan, to be picked up in Tehran. So nothing is keeping us here anymore. We chose not to do any sightseeing in touristic places in Ankara due to the risk of attacks on such places in recent months and also because there are still demonstrations on squares and streets. Perhaps we’re exaggerating but we’re fine with our decisions.

The traffic on our ride out of town is light on this Monday morning. After two hours we find a restaurant/fuel station/supermarket combination that we have seen a lot in Turkey. As opposed to many European roadside restaurants these places have decent food and service. I suppose many long distance truckers and other travelers depend on it in this large country.

We were recommended to visit the salt lake Tuz Gölü when leaving Ankara in south-eastward direction. A service road was built on a dam in the lake and it’s a good photo location. Instead of searching for the harder-to-find west entrance of this road and riding it completely from west to east, we opt for the easier solution. We guess our way through an industrial estate which is lined with piles of salt. A man at a barrier waves us through and gives us some last directions. A bit more off-road practice and we’re there. And what a pretty place it is! Definitely worth it. The small neighboring lake is even pink instead of white.

Left of us, the rolling hills are slowly transforming to more mountainous terrain as we move along the main road again. There is a strong wind. A speed of 90km/h (55mph) is definitely enough in the strongest flurries. We take a well deserved break at another fuel station and are invited by a hospitable man with a small shack where he serves tea. It appears that he lived in Basel (Switzerland) from 1968 to 1971 and still speaks some German. Two truck drivers are also interested so we have a question-and-answer session in the garden about Switzerland, the motorcycles, our motorcycle gear and the navigation system. With an impending sunset and full bladders after three cups of tea, we return to Aksaray instead of pushing on. We find a hotel that is less expensive than it looks. Our room has a view of Hasan Dağı, a 3200m (10,500ft) high volcano, the 2nd highest mountain in Central Anatolia. The last eruption was more than 8000 years ago, so we should be safe tonight.

July 26th, 2016 — The Turkish BMW Branch

The hotel manager is interested in our trip and even helps us loading our bikes. On top of that we get two cups of coffee before leaving and are sent on our way with blessings for our travels.

Instead of making a direct dash for Göreme, the touristic epicenter of Cappadocia, we follow a southern route that was recommended to us by yesterday’s tea man. The route takes us to a 100m (330ft) deep Canyon at Ihlara.

The perfect asphalt close to Göreme is the first strong indication of this very popular place. We don’t want to imagine how full this place would be without a recession in Turkish tourism.

The main attractions in Cappadocia are the ‘fairy chimneys’: cone-shaped rock formations. Over the centuries, houses and monasteries were carved out of these rocks. Many houses have been converted to basic hotel rooms now. Our hotel room is not in a fairy chimney, but in a cave nevertheless. We have trouble finding it at first and we’re stopped dead at a very steep set of stairs. Petra searches for the hotel while I remain with the bikes, at a distance in the shade. As I am waiting, a seven year old boy enters the scene and hits the front of the BMW with a branch. The headlight protector does its job. He hasn’t seen me and is startled when I yell “Hey! Don’t do that!” in a booming voice. He drops the branch immediately and starts running as fast as he can to get fresh underwear at home.

My first botch job is successful: I had already glued a piece of plastic in the mounting point of Black Camel’s headlight fairing at home and it held for about 3000km (2000mi). Now it broke off again and vibrates at certain common engine frequencies. This drives me nuts and is probably not great for the remaining plastic mounting point either. All is well with some cushioning material and strong readjustable rubber cable ties (so bring those on your trip).

July 27th, 2016 — Cave Envy

We both haven’t slept that well in our fancy cave dwelling. It was quite cold and very humid, so we awaken like two arthritic Fraggles. Bonus points for you if you’re too young to know what Fraggles are because this post has meanwhile exceeded the Twitter character limit many times.

Petra’s mood is not helped by the cold cave and aggravated by the fact that my shower water is warm but hers isn’t. We have no choice but to thaw her in the morning sun. All is well again after a good breakfast.

We’re leaving Göreme because we’re not happy with this touristy place. It would have been nice to stick around for a day to take photos but we want to move east (and prevent another night in Fraggle Rock). This feeling is amplified by a queue of very slow cars and tractors on a super steep cobbled road out of Göreme. There are few places to overtake safely and they’re so slow we need to stop and let them all pass, otherwise we’d fall over.

We’re making good progress on our way to Kayseri. We’ve left the cone-shaped rocks behind in Cappadocia but nature is pretty here too. The grandiose landscape reminds me of Scotland. The last bit before the city of Sivas leads us through a nice canyon. The contrast with the city couldn’t be larger: it’s very noisy and crowded and we’re gawked at by everyone. The first hotel is full and the second one, without appetite for negotiation, asks 200 lira (US$ 62.50, € 57,00) for a smoky backroom with wall view. We’re out of here. It’s only 5pm and we will find something on the way, we think.

The hotel in the town of Zara is awful. So far, Petra has been very successful in finding places to stay by going in first and asking. We’ve now reached an area where her visit is misinterpreted, which she notices when the hotel manager wants a handshake and a goodbye kiss. This will be my job from now on (asking and checking the room, not the goodbye kiss).

With the sinking sun in our faces we backtrack to a roadside hotel/restaurant we remember from 30 minutes ago. They have rooms but are in the middle of construction work. Except for the lack of warm water, the rooms are fine but the stairwells have been stripped bare. There are some sturdy wooden planks to bridge several two meter (7ft) gaps. This is already dangerous without a lot of luggage so we have to pass again. We’re both very annoyed that we didn’t prepare to camp when we still had time to do so. And now it’s too late. We don’t want to go back to Sivas so we have to ride east and hope to find something. Crap to the power of three.

We’re riding east, as fast as is sensible on the milled down road surface of construction areas. Eventually we reach the village İmranlı. We find ‘the’ hotel. Guess what? They have a smoky back room. With wall view. It’s a one-person room so Petra is camping on the floor with her inflatable mat and sleeping bag. In the bathroom, the shower head is above the toilet. In fact, I believe that the toilet and the wash basin are technically in the shower. It even has a chair because there isn’t any shelf to put your stuff on. The only consolation is that this room is four times cheaper than the room in Sivas. We have a quick mediocre dinner, buy the missing toilet paper and call it a day. We’re jealous of the Fraggles in their cozy cave.

July 28th, 2016 — Böüntÿ

The local minaret starts making noise at 4:15am. Being annoyed by the constant smell of smoke isn’t helping to get a restful night either. The shower doesn’t work and we wouldn’t like using it anyway with the barely lukewarm water from the boiler. If we could only have woken up in our tent close to the river. That would have been ten times better than this hole. We refrain from taking a picture of the room before leaving because we believe it might damage the camera sensor.

Because there is no breakfast in the hotel, we grab our stuff and buy breakfast from the local shops. When loading our bags on the bike, we are stared at by a handful of children and eight men. They are curious but not cordial. Maybe it’s because Petra is not wearing a headscarf? Perhaps they are afraid that their mostly invisible women will also want a plucky little BMW and ride off into the distance?

We’re riding to Erzincan, a larger town further east. We get to see the first trucks with exotic looking Iranian number plates. The pitted and bumpy road is not a joy but it improves just before Erzincan. If you put your boots down when standing still, you can feel how they stick to the gooey asphalt. At a long red traffic light I ponder about riding off while leaving my boots stuck in the tar. Petra would definitely find that funny.

At the roadside near a pretty lake we have brunch. We’re being honked and waved at by at least half of the drivers. Suddenly we hear music. It comes from a slowly approaching tractor on the emergency lane. The driver stops, gets out, greets us with a smile and treats us to Fanta and the Turkish version of Bounty. Then we take some photos with the bikes and he’s off again. How often has that happened where you live?

We’re not sure what was in the Turkish Bounty because we start seeing strange things like traffic signs with a speed limit of 82km/h (51mph). I would have loved to be present at the meeting where they decided that that was a good idea. Perhaps it was a negotiation and they met in the middle? Or was it an auction? “Do I hear 83? Do I hear 83? … No? BANG! Sold to the man with the big black mustache!”

We find a hotel that is much better than the one we’ve stayed in last night. We take the opportunity to wash our clothes including our motorcycle gear. They have a gym and fast internet allowing a complete photo backup. We’re staying an extra night here.

July 30th, 2016 — Garbage Dump

In order not having to hurry to reach Iran, we skip our planned northward detour to the Black Sea coast. Although the scenery through the mountains of northeastern Anatolia should be very nice, we know that we’ll be riding too much every day to ‘see it all’.

At the bakery, we accidentally buy what must be the driest bread in the world. The main road to Erzurum is good and leads us through beautiful and wild nature in a narrowing valley along the Eufrates River. More honking and waving by overtaking drivers and passengers. At our lunch stop, where we try to soften up our bread with tea, we’re shocked to see how much plastic waste is left in this otherwise beautiful nature.

Erzurum is another hectic city with lots of impatient drivers and too many curious onlookers. We take a hotel outside of town where the bikes can be parked safely. I spend most of the evening selecting photos for the blog.

July 31st, 2016 — Alpine

We can certainly get used to the leisurely pace of 150-190km (90-120mi) per day. Skipping the Black Sea coast to ride less was a good idea. We’re venturing out into the mountains of eastern Turkey today. Most of Turkey as been a plateau at around 1000m (3300ft) altitude. There have been some barely noticeable inclines and passes of approximately 1500m (5000ft). It’s all very gradual. Here in the eastern highlands we’re surprised to see 2100m (6800ft) on the GPS without having noticed much but a small drop in temperature. We see quite a few warning signs for snow on our route. A winter time crossing of eastern Turkey could be tricky.

We’re the attraction of the town again when filling up in Horasan. Almost everyone understands only Kurdish or Turkish except for one older man who speaks some French. Two boys say nothing and simply stare at Petra all the time, which she has learned to ignore. They ask the usual questions: where we’re from (standard answer: Holland, because everyone seems to know Holland), what the bikes cost (standard answer: 10,000 Turkish lira), what the engine displacement is (standard answer: 650cc) and where we’re going (standard answer: Malaysia). They also ask why we say we’re Dutch but our bikes are from Swîsre. So far, nobody seems to have noticed that the bikes have Swiss plates. Not even customs employees. We thought we’d need to explain a lot, but because the bikes are registered to our name, nobody seems to bother.

There is noticeably more police and military presence in this area. Government buildings usually have a big fence, sometimes adorned with barbed wire and usually guarded by armed soldiers between sandbags.

The main road to the village of Sarıkamış is of surprisingly good quality. Nature is not as dry as in other places we’ve seen. There aren’t many deciduous trees at this altitude anymore and the mountains are overgrown with light green moss and other low vegetation. Close to Sarıkamış the surroundings turn truly alpine with fir trees and even ski lifts.

After an unnecessary detour through the partly paved village we find a hotel that is mostly used by skiers in winter. We expect it to be empty but there is a big crowd inside. There is a car decorated with flowers, so we think that a wedding party is going on. Upon entry we’re told that we’ve just missed the end of a circumcision ceremony for a young boy (no pun intended). I’m not sure what I find more disturbing: the circumcision itself or the fact that there is a big ceremony for it.

We’re lucky that we found the hotel in time, because there’s a serious downpour. We postpone unloading until it’s dry again. Meanwhile we get to talk to the owner of the hotel and learn that this place is not only visited by Turkish tourists but also Europeans as it is a lot cheaper than skiing in the Alps. Apparently one can leave from Western Europe in the morning, fly through Istanbul and Kars and spend that same afternoon skiing around Sarıkamış. The larger carbon footprint will probably slow you down a bit, though.

August 1st, 2016 — Jandarma

We leave our pleasant Hotel Habitat in Sarıkamış and head for Kars. The main road is deceptively good: perfect asphalt mixed with the odd very deep hole, without any warnings for these, of course. At least they’re working to improve infrastructure in Turkey, as we’ve noticed on most highways since Çeşme. They’re not motorways but long distances can be covered in a day, if necessary.

To our surprise, we find a Migros supermarket in Kars. As I go shopping, Petra collects more stares from the locals in this neighborhood. When I come back I see two boys on bicycles who have dared to come closer. They are discussing whether Stiff Spring is a BMW or a Mercedes.

We leave Kars in the direction of Iğdır over high plains with cattle, wild horses and geese. Pretty here. We manage to prolong our record of not riding in the rain since Italy by just missing a looming thunderstorm. The wind is picking up as we move along the Armenian border. A few switchbacks take us down from the plains to 1000m (3300ft). It is noticeably warmer here in this fertile valley lined with jagged rocks.

According to our Ministry of Foreign Affairs we are now in an unsafer area marked as ‘only travel here if necessary’. We need to get to Iran, so we think this fits the bill… Upon entry of the province of Iğdır we are stopped by four armed military policemen (Jandarma) at a checkpoint. They check our passports and find the holograms on our Iranian and Uzbek visa most interesting. All seems to be fine. The officer in charge tries to start a conversation, but the only thing we understand is ‘KTM’. I get a pat on the shrugged shoulders and we can move on.

The landscape changes again. Red, green and yellow hills seem to be in fashion here. There is suspiciously little traffic until we reach the town of Iğdır. The road out of town ascends steeply and gives a good view of Mount Ararat (5100m, 16800ft). Noah’s Ark is nowhere to be seen.

We expect to see two big lakes between Mount Ararat and the city of Doğubeyazıt when riding down the mountain but they appear to have dried up completely and turned into big meadows. There is one last military police checkpoint. More sandbags and armored vehicles. The soldiers mandate every driver to open the trunk so they can check for weapons and other unwanted equipment. We just hope we don’t need to open all of our luggage. Our hope is honored by a soldier laying on his hands on the outside of our bags and thereby sensing that everything is OK. We’re not complaining. The second line of soldiers want to check our passports. They’re very friendly and wish us a good trip.

When we reach Doğubeyazıt (widely nicknamed ‘Doggy Biscuit’) we see that main street has been ripped open for construction work, but nobody is working. Apparently it has rained not so long ago because there are big puddles of water in the holes of this bumpy street. The street itself isn’t even that hard to ride but the very slow other vehicles make it difficult to stay upright. Mix this with suddenly crossing pedestrians and you can probably see that this is not very relaxing. We do find an oasis of calm in a hotel in a quieter street. We can leave the bikes across the street in a guarded parking and out of sight.

After a well earned rest and a shower, we find out that we’re quite close to the central pedestrian area of Doğubeyazıt. Petra is the only woman on the street after dark. We only see men drinking tea and playing games, but the women are conspicuously absent.

August 2nd, 2016 — Iran-Proof

The ‘reli-alarm’ wakes us up at 4am — the exhaust fumes at 6:45. We’ve planned a second day in this town, not because it is so pretty or pleasant, but because we want to visit the Ishak Pasha Palace (built 1685-1784). Except for the roof that was added later, it is a pretty place with a stunning view of the surroundings. We spend a lot of time taking photos and enjoy that the palace is not filled with other tourists.

When we’re done, we take the Ford-Transit taxi back to town. The van has reassuringly many cracks in the windshield. Our driver manages all tight turns one-handedly while he is on the phone. Back in town we search for Iran-proof clothing for Petra. The girls at one of the local clothing stores probably don’t understand why a Western woman would want to buy head scarfs and wider clothing and find it all very funny. In another shop the young personnel is at first distant, but after we’ve answered some questions another photo session unfolds with everyone taking photos of everyone else. We join in.

In the evening we prepare for tomorrow’s border crossing. We count our cash and read on the internet about the allegedly most difficult border crossing of Iran. Let’s find out.

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