This can't be little Hussein, his uncle cried As he drops to his nephew's side, holding his cane Just give me a name, of who has inflicted this bitter sickness, and left us to witness. -Wu Tang Clan, A better Tomorrow
Our crash pad in Antalya was a real score. Someone that Maggie met briefly at a party in Madison just happened to have a spare apartment for a week and we had the entirety of a three bedroom flat to ourselves. Antalya is a name we have seen spelled out in Cyrillic outside of nearly every travel agency in Russia and other former Soviet states. It is a very popular destination for Russian travelers and we could hear the familiar tongue flowing from every cafe we passed as we navigated our way down to the Mediterranian. We felt really out of place standing there by a five star hotel waiting for our contact to meet us. We looked so salty and dusty that it seemed security might run us off! This is a common dichotomy in a world where the class divide can run fairly close to the rural/urban divide; Out in the country we feel like the fanciest thing since Alexander the Great, but in the city we look like we should be begging for bread. New money buys fancy clothes, and a car to match.
Our hosts were more than gracious and fed us a meal of
soup, salad, and Tajik plov made by a Tajik student. Antalya is the sort of town we would normally snub our noses at but we found ourselves a bit behind the scenes and experienced little of the hustle of a very touristy place. We rode out of town feeling refreshed, with slick drivetrains, tight spokes, and clean clothes.
The road out of the city was fast and smooth. We found a beach to camp on and jumped into the cold sea. It was not really the prime season at this lattitude but the Med has a way of calling you in. The next day, just outside of Alanya, the flat road came to an abrupt end and a rough strip of badly worn tarmac ascended off into the coastal ranges of southern Anatolia. We took a midday swim in a tiny hamlet where the bumpy road dropped to the coast. Our hopes that warmer weather and sweaty bodies would make the sea warmer were quickly dashed but floating in salty water is rarely bad. When we emerged, shivering from the blue waters, a man who had been reading a book on a nearby deck called to us in perfect
english; "would you care for some hot tea after your swim in the cold sea?" We were a bit surprised to hear our language in this remote village but he turned out to be as Californian as Turkish. He had lived in San Francisco for twenty years and offered us the ultimate in rare Golden State delicasies: Avocados!
We crossed a few more passes that day before the city of Anamür appeared below us. We had heard that this coastal town was famous for banana production and we wondered how this could be true with snow capped mountains hovering above. Standing there on the hill above the city in perfect evening light we saw how it was possible to grow tropical friut at such lattitudes; millions of square meters of greenhouses. We joyfully descended at 70 km/h on a new road to the city below, where we met with a feast, and another camping spot among ancient ruins. In the morning we explored the local necropolis, jumped into the sea, and bathed in cool well water beside the beach. This is cyclists luxury at it's highest form. We left the city on another cranky, bumpy road but in the near
future this will not be the case for cyclists traversing the southern route. A new road is being built to connect Anamur with Mersin, a large port on the Turkish Mediterranian. This high tech road includes many kilometers of tunnels and intense engineering. It will cut a day or more off the bicycle journey and half the transport time for those pricey bananas on their way to the port. However, it will probably end a bit of the romantic feeling for that part of the mountainous coastline so we felt lucky to climb up and down on the bumpy road before it is gone forever.
After Mersin the mountains flattened out and our pace increased. We were headed into a part of Turkey less travelled and many people had given us their (often negative) two cents about the people we would encounter. "There are snakes and thieves" they quipped. "The Kurds will rob you if you try to camp, you will need to stay by the police base or a gas station!" said more than one person. In truth, Eastern Anatolia has a reputation for being a bit wild but we had our suspicions that none of these people
had actually been where we were going. Kerem, our friend in Istanbul, travelled in the region by bike years ago and reported nothing but positive sentiments about the Kurds and the treatment he recieved. We have been told that camping is dangerous in every country we have traversed and, with the exception of a nearby disco in Crimea one night in 2009, never have we had a problem.
In Adana we encountered our first Syrian refugee. She was a lovely young woman with a cheeky baby in a restaurant where we stopped for a much needed kebap. Her English skills were limited but her words were chilling: "In Syria, there is no life". This sentiment was echoed by several other Syrians we met in the days that we spent close to the border. One young man was photographed at a demonstration. When authorities came to his mother's home to rough her up, she had her son sent to an uncle in Turkey before narrowly escaping herself. Another young man in Gaziantep left his home in southern Syria when several of his friends were killed by random sniper attacks, a fear tactic that he called an everyday event. These are
the fortunate cases. They come from families and circumstances that allowed them to leave with their skin still attached. Many others are living in tent cities subsidized by the Turkish government. Countless more are trapped in a game of russian roulette south of the border that they cannot escape. Those who have made it to Turkey are lucky to be there. Between government policies that provide healthcare and medications, and the generally sympathetic attitude of Turks and Kurds towards those less fortunate, they are in a good (if temporary) place. The man we met from southern Syria was working as a waiter at Iman Cagdas, one of the most famous baklava shops in the country. He barely spoke Turkish but the customers and his coworkers seemed to make kindly jest of the situation as they gently corrected his pronounciation. He spoke splendid English and when asked if he ever wanted to go back to Syria, he told us something we will not soon forget: "Just as your country is your motherland, and a part of you, Syria is a part of me. The soil is my blood. I am happy for what I have here but of course, I want
to go home." It is a sentiment echoed by many other people from his homeland. Nobody wants to be a refugee forever but, unfortunately for Syrians, there seems to be no resolve in sight.
We rested our legs in Gaziantep but gave our tastes a workout. The city is well known for a host of delicasies, not the least of which is baklava. Over two days we became amateur connieseurs of the flaky stuff in its many forms and varieties. The last two years have been troublesome for agriculture in the region and strict regulations have forced pistachio horders and speculators from holding product from the market. If that has in any way caused a stumble in the quality of baklava in the region we were wholly unaware as we crushed through the finest confections ever to grace our palletes. Beyond baklava, several other regional dishes caught our attention including the Ali Nazik kebap, which comes served in a paste composed of grilled auberguine and yoghurt. We also enjoyed the massive pre-meal mezza of sauces, salads, herbs, and lemon that comes with every feast. Somewhere in the middle of it though, we made a fatefull traveler's flaw; we drank
tap water offered to us at a baklava place and could not resist it in such a cold, long spouted, frosty metal pitcher.....
Out of Gaziantep we rode with our spirits high and our legs refreshed. On the morning of our departure, two men across the street from our hotel invited us for coffee in their shop. There, with the help of Google Translate, we heard for the first time the Kurdish take on the conflicts between their ethnic group and the Turks. We heard versions of this same story from many over the following weeks as we ambled about in the Kurdish regions of eastern Anatolia. Many Kurds feel that the reforms of the early to mid twentieth century deprived them of a cultural identity by rolling them into the overarching sphere of Turkish nationalism. They expressed great concern over the presence of increased national police presence in their region and were quick to point out the difference between western Turkey and the traditional Kurdish regions of Mesopotamia where their people have lived since time immemorial. Many like to throw out the term Kurdistan to deliniate a seperate nation in these regions, but the majority of the educated
Kurds we encountered expressed no subnationalistic intentions other than the desire to speak their own language amongst themselves and pass on cultural identities to the next generation. These issues became famous during the last US incursion in Iraq which ended with the formation of an autonomous Kurdish region in Northern Iraq. Since then, a variety of groups, most notably the imfamous PKK have launched agendas and terrorist attacks in the region in a call for greater autonomy for Kurds living in other nation states, namely Turkey. The Kurds we have talked with, and we have chatted with quite a few over countless glasses of tea, wished to distance themselves from such agendas. Regardless of the amount of "autonomy" they hope to gain, we have not spoken with a single Kurd who wished to seperate their regions from the rest of Turkey. It would be foolish and they know that. It would seem to be another classic case of people merrily drinking tea and working hard while politicians and gangster-types create a profitable hooplah on television. On the ground, few people actually seem to be mad at each other, just a bit irked with extremists, politicians, and the implications of their
rants on the daily lives of those who just want to work, and enjoy time with their family and friends.
In a village set in a landscape similar to many of the wheat-belt regions of the US, we sat with a Kurdish farmer named Ibrahim. He had trained as an engineer in a large city and learned English fluently. We sat watching a common spectacle unfold in wheat country; the repair of a quarter-million dollar machine called a combine. They are the heart of any industrial wheat harvest and if you are not harvesting with a combine, you are probably involved in some stage of maintenance. As we sat and talked about wheat prices and the late snow a few weeks back that threatened to destroy the whole crop, an officer from the police base across the road stopped by to tell Ibrahim to not tell us anything bad about Turkey. Ibrahim told him that we already know too much, more than him probably and the man laughed, swapped handshakes with a few locals and drove off waving. Moments later, a guard in one of the towers called to Ibrahim's nephew to bring him a pack of cigarettes. The
whole idea of strict national secuity in the middle of a grain patch seemed a bit silly, but our friend was quick to point ot that at least it gave local people jobs more stable than agriculture.
Two days out of Gaziantep our tap water caught up with us. It could have been one of those glasses of tea really, or some arugula, or a handshake, who knows but we found ourselves limping through the heat of the Euphrates basin looking for a hotel in the city of Urfa. There we sat for two days in a state of incontinence, running to the head to play the "which orifice goes over the toilet first" game. Luckily, the toilet had a shower included in the stall for those most special moments. We managed to slowly rehydrate and, when our appetites returned, we rode on for lovely Lake Van.
By this point we were feeling the remoteness of the country. The hospitality of the adults was unbridled and we often had to plan our escape from hosts in order to keep moving. The children were hit or miss however, namely the usual suspects; groups of pre-teen boys. Luckily even those
who were amiss had bad aim with their rocks and we could just laugh at them, call them girls, and ride on knowing that their cardiovascular abilities were not that of their counterparts in places such as Ethiopia. Many people out on the steppe are disenfranchised in some way or another but in this case the cultural tendancy to have child after child has insured a steady flow of new mouths to feed on meager resources. It is another one of those sad situations where men like to talk about how many children they have.... as they set around drinking tea and smoking cigarettes with other useless men. Women tend to not be seen here and children who are not intrinsicly scholarly have no push to do anything besides wander the streets looking for trouble. Often we found that adults would come to tell them to piss off on their very approach to our bikes but several times we had to run them off like dogs and it is easy to imagine that, had we spent another week or two in the region, we would have resorted to our own brand of gang justice. It would be unfair however to
label the children as a whole in the region as derelect; most of them were kindly, smiling, and approachable. But seeing young boys beg us for money and then light up a cigarette is disheartening and it seems that, so long as their culture continues to produce more humans than the high, rocky, barren steppe can support, they and their children will continue to grow up without direction. We are familiar with the sadness of unnecessary death. Could there not be concurrent sadness associated with unnecessary life?
Lake Van was a sight for sore eyes. The canyon leading up to the huge gem of a landmark was spectacular and the Iranian truckers at the watering holes were a joy to chat with, if only in pantomime. We would love to visit their country someday, and we would be there right now if visas were more easily available for US citizens. We arived in Tatvan in the morning and learned that a student protest on the previous night had been put down with water cannons and tear gas. Pretty average stuff really. We had been in a market that night where people would only speak to us in English after
we greated them in Arabic. Upon leaving the market, a student approached us with a phone that read: This is not Turkey, this is Kurdistan. Moments later another student approached us with another phone that read: There is no Kurdistan, it does not exist. Both of these messages followed a conversation that had nothing to do with the subject, but rather with the goodness of Turkish food. An appropriate message for them might have read: We don't care about you or your silly phone, but can we camp in your dorm?
A ferry runs from Tatvan over the lake to the city of Van. At a little over four hours for a little over two dollars it is a true cruise value. The old rust heapes make the crossing every few hours primarily to ferry train cars over to the lines that run on to Iran. We had the run of the ship and we could even go into the captains deck and check out things through the scope. Also on board was an Indian man who was on holiday from his work in London. We all thoroughly enjoyed our half day of budget traveller paradise before rolling onto
the dock in Van just in time for a nasty wind event. After we had finished lunch and locals had cleared the tree limbs from the street, we rode out into the suburbs to find a Warm Showers contact named Levent. We were happily surprised to find that he was also hosting another cyclist from Italy who was riding around (and often pushing as it were) on an old Soviet-era single speed. The four of us settled in to Levent's hospitality, constant roll of eighties tunes, and his medical texts.
Levent is a doctor of hyperbaric medicine in a new hospital in Van. This is one of six hospitals in the country with such facilities and by far the lowest preference for those in the specialty. Most physicians in Turkey are conscripted to several years at one of the government hospitals following their education and few of them would like to come this far east. Levent is a rare exception to this norm as he has embraced his surroundings and taken to enjoying the local mountain environment. He seemed to know everyone involved in outdoor sports in the area and we were thrilled to accompany him and the Van
cycling club on a morning brunch adventure. We met at a local bike shop for tea and then tea again before procuring a host of goodies and heading off into the mountains. It looked like Kyrgyzstan where we finally came to a stop and hiked up to a grove of aspens at the head of a spring. We filled up on strong cheese, honey and clotted cream on bread and then scrambled around on the loose, sharp limestone that rose above us as the frozen rain came down. The whole image of the day was utterly beautiful and nostalgic. Heading off in a bike gang loaded with bread and cream and honey and tea, some smoking cigarettes as we rode, getting stares from the locals..... It was like the roots of mountain biking re-lived, and it was perfect.
We found it hard to leave Van. The surrounding mountains are very Tahoe-like and Levent is a great cook. He also had a refreshingly multilateral position on the issues facing the region. He has had more than his share of issues with local patients who seem to grow more and more demanding with the passing of time. He has been threatened
by hordes of family members to "fix" a chronic disease process "or else..." on several occasions. He could speak volumes to the global issue of the overuse of antibiotics and the implications on his practice. When we asked him about his aspirations to enter private practice (infinately more profitable than working in the public sector) he replied that the thing he likes about his current situation is that he can just practice medicine, learn, and let somebody else do the business. "Now I can stop a series of treatments if I think someone is not benefitting from them and reccomend another course of action. If I were in private practice I might not want to do that and that is not good medicine" he said. Sage wisdom for a man in his mid-twenties embarking on a career in public health.
After three days we were back out on the steppe and headed for the Georgian border. It felt like Mongolia as we passed under the shadow of Ararat, stopping only briefly to resupply in dusty little towns. People were kindly out in the high country and we found our camp visited by shepherds who were pushing huge flocks from
pasture to alpine meadows. Twice we slept so close to international borders that we felt the need to keep our profile low. In these instances the concept of borders seemed the most ironic. Three nights ago a passing shepherd pointed out the lights of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, less than fifty kilometers away. Because the border between Turkey and Armenia is closed, we are still days away from Yerevan as we had to come into Georgia to get to Armenia. Considering the brisk trade between Turkey and Armenia, and the large number of Armenians living in Turkey despite a century of really bitter relations, maintaining a closed border seems like beaurocratic silliness. None the less, we rode on to Georgia, with Armenia often less than 500 meters away.
This part of Georgia is lovely. We descended off the steppe from our highest pass in Turkey and into a verdant green forest. The border guards shared some tips for sights along our route and in we came with a stamp and a warm welcome. In two hours we found ourselves in the town of Akhaltisikhe checking into a Brezhnev era Intourist hotel relic, eating famous cheese pies, and washing
them down with bubbly Borjomi mineral water. Initial concerns that our Russian would not carry us through in western Georgia were quickly vanquished as we strolled down the dark hallways of a world that was, chatting away with the lone lady who keeps the old hulk of a guesthouse running and clean. It is all nostalgia in these places but, much like the other former Soviet republics we have visited, Georgia is already proving to have a heart of its own, only slightly covered by the veneer of a language, and old cement. We will be at the Armenian border tomorrow night, and when our time there is finished, we will settle back into this country to soak up the pleasures of language, mountains, music, and cheese pies. Our time in Turkey is always too short. It is still our favorite country to ride in for reasons too numerous to mention. As long as they will have us, we will continue to spend time with the Turks and their lovely land. Crossing the border was made much easier with the thought that, in a few months, we will again find ourselves sitting with Kerem, looking over the Bosphorus, and eating
the cuisine of sultans.
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