I was sure I was going to get soaked leaving Batumi, Georgia. It was belting down when I woke up and the Internet forecast said there was 80% chance of rain and thunder storms all day along the Black Sea coast (where my route into Turkey took me). It was hardly surprising considering this coastline is usually soaked in rain due to the presence of a high coastal mountain range, and I had already been lucky with the weather for the past week. I looked at the map to see if there was another less wet route to Turkey, but there wasn’t.
I thought about leaving it for another day, but the forecast was rain & thunder all week. “Oh well, I can’t win them all” I thought.
After breakfast I was surprised when the rain stopped and the sun came out. Not sure how long it would last, I quickly loaded up and set off as fast as I could, making sure my holey ‘dry bags’ were well wrapped up in bin bags.
Batumi is only 30 minutes north of the Turkish border and amazingly it stayed dry all the way. The Georgian exit was very quick and smooth, as expected, but then I hit a long line of cars and trucks waiting to pass through the Turkish side.
The Tiger’s starter motor problem was very inconvenient at borders (and fuel stations), because when I turned the engine off it wouldn’t start up again until it was cold. This usually took between 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the external temperature. At previous borders I had kept the engine running, but at the last two the bike got really hot (although did not overheat) and coughed and spluttered as I rode away. So this time I switched the engine off, guessing I would be in the queue for at least 30 minutes anyway, which would give the bike time to cool down.
I had assumed Turkey would be a doddle to enter, as it’s practically in Europe (well, west of Istanbul), but I was surprised (again!) to discover I needed a visa to enter. So much for not doing my homework! I also needed motor insurance, but luckily I could buy them both at the border for 20 US dollars each.
An hour later I was through (customs didn’t even want to search the bike), and I re-joined the Black Sea coastal road towards Trabzon. I was pleased to find the weather forecast had been completely wrong, and I was now riding in clear skies and lovely warm sunshine.
From the minute I was waved through Turkish customs, I continued to like Turkey more and more. Everyone I met was very nice and polite, and the roads were good quality with hardly any traffic. Most of the main roads were dual carriageway, which was the first time I’d seen such things for a very long time. I felt I had entered a completely different world as I rode along huge, empty roads with the calm, blue sea on my right and green, lush mountains on my left.
Trabzon is a sizeable city of over 1.3 million, but the highway ran right through the middle with hardly any delay or drop in speed. I did see the occasional traffic speed sign, but nobody seemed to take any notice of them.
Here I swung inland and south towards Macka as I wanted to see an old monastery I’d seen pictures of, built high up in the mountains.
As I rode through small town Macka, my eagle-eye spied rows of chickens roasting slowly away on a rotisserie spit. My mouth started watering instantaneously and I had to stop to buy one. I also bought a fresh loaf of bread from the shop next door while my bike kept running outside so I wouldn’t have to wait an hour to start it again.
Sumela Monastery is incredible. Having previously heard nothing about it, finding wonderful new treasures like this is one of the reasons I love traveling so much.
It was built by Christians in the 4th century, carved out of a sheer rock face in the Pontic Mountains 1,200m (3,900ft) high. Legend says it was built after an icon of the Virgin Mary was discovered by two priests in a nearby cave. The monastery was inhabited up to 1923 before it was abandoned, and has since become a museum and a popular tourist attraction.
The road to the monastery rose quickly up from Macka with rugged mountain views along the way. It was high; goodness knows how they managed to get all the materials up there to build the monastery 1,600 years ago. I would imagine it was not a good time to be a slave.
The car park at the top of the mountain was 300m from the monastery, but the nice guard let me ride another 100m further on up a small cobbled path. When I could go no further, I attached the shoulder straps to my tank bag (with all my valuables inside) and hiked the rest of the way up a cool forest trail that led to the foot of the monastery.
Inside you were free to wonder around the old accommodation, kitchen, store rooms and churches, where 18th century frescoes were still preserved on the rock walls. If I had to be a monk, I could think of much worse places to spend my life.
Onwards and downwards
On the way back down to Macka, I stopped halfway at a shady picnic bench by a river and cracked open the roast chicken I had bought earlier, along with the fresh bread and huge, ripe tomatoes – one of my favourite all-time meals! Yep, life was good.
After lunch I needed some fuel, so rather than start the bike, I coasted down the steep hill back into Macka and rolled into the first fuel station I met. That at least saved me half an hour or more waiting for the starter motor to cool down again.
It was 645km to my next target, the ancient ruins of Nemrut Dagi, so I thought I’d try and get as far as I could in the good weather. I rode south through Torgul, Kelkit and Erzincan and carried on south over some great, twisty mountain roads towards Tunceli.
Time to Camp
Late afternoon I passed Pulumur, 500km from Batumi, and started looking for a place to camp. It had been a while since I’d camped rough (Tajikistan was the last time), so I was looking forwarding to getting back into the old Japanese Special.
I joined a small, rural road that followed a river, and after a couple of false excursions, I eventually found a great camping spot on the river bank, hidden from the road down a small dirt track. It was now 6pm, so I set up before sunset, had a refreshing bathe in the shallow stream, and cooked up the old favourite tuna pasta in tomato sauce.
I was healing well after my accident, and my ribs were now much better. The new skin was also healing nicely on my arm, although it was still very thin and I had to be careful not to break it by knocking it (as I had done several times, being so heavy handed) or get it sunburnt.
I slept well…
There’s nothing better than waking up in the morning (a good start!) to bright sunshine shining through your tent, knowing you have food, fuel, and a great day ahead of you exploring a new place.
I had breakfast, packed up and hit the road south towards Nemrut Dagi.
Lovely Central Turkey
I think I may have mentioned it before, but it was a real pleasure biking on Turkey’s pristine roads. The highways continued to be 2 or 3 lanes each side, traffic was sparse (which meant I flew along), and there were plenty of awesome sights to admire along the way.
In fact, every turn I made it seemed the views just kept getting better.
Even in the cities (which were few and far between), most drivers continued to ignore the speed limit signs and belt along at high speeds. The city streets all seemed pretty new and well planned, and multi-lane bypasses meant you could speed along quickly without getting bogged down in traffic if you didn’t need to enter the city.
Most of the time, I found myself riding though lush, fertile fields, and along the roadside there were frequent fresh fruit and vegetable stalls. I stopped by one to buy some lunch, including a whole watermelon, and made my way down to the shores of a large lake to eat it. Well actually I could only manage half of the watermelon before I became stuffed, but I gave it an admirably good go!
I took the turn-off to the archaeological site of Nemrut Dagi just before Malatya and climbed up and down over a series of mountains until I reached the highest one, Mt Nemrut at 2,134m (7,000ft).
The final stretch of the road, past the admissions gatehouse, was extremely steep over loose, rocky ground. For a moment I feared for the safety of my 3rd clutch, but the Tiger made it OK. From this height the surrounding views were unforgettable.
At Mt Nemrut, the megalomaniac King Antiochus I Theos of Commagene built his own mountain out of rocks (as you do) in the 1st century BC and surrounded it with huge 9m (30ft) stone statues of various Greek, Armenian and Iranian Gods. King Antiochus included himself in their ranks, for good measure, and he lives on to this day, albeit somewhat weathered.
The statues were originally all in a seated position, but over the years, and perhaps due to vandalism, the heads have all been removed and now lay in various positions on the ground. The colossal man-made mountain, though, remains intact, and is still thought to hide the as yet undiscovered tomb of King Antiochus himself. I thought about embarking on an exploratory dig, but a guard blew his whistle at me when I stepped over a barrier.
With few other visitors to this remote location, it was nice wondering around at leisure enjoying the history and spectacular views (the correct side of the barriers).
West towards Cappadocia
Carefully weaving back down the steep track, I had to back-track to the main road to Malatya, and then started the 540km ride towards Cappadocia. I thought I could break the back of the journey before sunset.
As the afternoon wore on, I thought instead of cooking another pasta camp meal, I would have dinner at one the restaurants that always seemed to be attached to the fuel stations. This was also very convenient, as it meant my bike could cool down whilst I ate, foregoing the need to delay myself.
My first meal in Turkey consisted of the famous Turkish shish kebab, salad, bread and tea – simple, cheap and delicious. The waiter/owner was also extremely nice, and gave me a free roadmap of Turkey. I started to like Turkey even more.
It was then I hit upon my great game-changing plan: as so many fuel stations had attached restaurants with great, cheap food, all I had to do was time my fuel-stops with mealtimes, and my starter motor problem would become redundant!
By the time I’d thoroughly enjoyed my meal and extra helpings of Turkish tea, I’d left it a bit late to find a camp spot, as it was already getting dark. Whoops!
I studied the map and followed a track that was supposed to lead to a river, but the river was dry. I kept riding, searching for a suitable place to pitch the tent, but I was in an arable farming area and all the land seemed to be occupied by farms or crops. I could have asked a farmer if I could camp on his land, of course, but I fancied somewhere more remote, so I kept riding.
It was now dark, but the roads were good and well lit, and I thought I may as well take advantage of the cooler weather riding at night.
I made good progress until 10pm, when I suddenly became really tired. I was also riding towards black skies and a thunderstorm, so I thought I’d call it a day and hope the storm missed me.
With my eyes peeled for a suitable camping spot, at last I entered a mountainous area where I could see no lights either side if the road – a good sign that no-one lived there. I turned off the main road onto a small gravel track and ventured on into the darkness.
Under the moonlight, I could just make out rolling hills to the right, so I pulled off the track and rode directly over highland rock, heather, thistle and moss until I lost sight of the highway and all signs of civilisation. It was almost a full moon and very peaceful, and I thought I could have almost been in the middle of the Scottish Highlands.
I woke up early to a great view of the surrounding rolling heathland and watched the sun rise over the mountains as I ate bread and jam for breakfast.
Although it was a sunny day, the air was lovely and cool, being high up in the hills; perfect biking weather. Out of the blue, a familiar thought crossed my mind, as it usually does: how lucky I was to be riding my bike through such beautiful scenery in such beautiful weather, with nowhere I must go and no deadlines to meet!
Fuel, Food and Showers
At lunchtime I chose a fuel station with a nice looking restaurant attached, and had a great lunch of lamb shank, beans, salad, fresh bread and Turkish tea, while my starter motor cooled.
However, this was no ordinary fuel station and restaurant – it was probably the best fuel station and restaurant in the world! Not only did it have great food and friendly service, it also had a hot shower that was free to use! This was exactly what I needed after my night of rough camping, and after lunch it was such a great feeling to be full, fuelled and squeaky clean. I think I could have probably lived at that fuel station for quite some time.
Could Turkey get any better? Well, yes it could: then I arrived in Cappadocia.