Heart to beat #15 Back into the mountains (Anatolië 5)

Published at October 9, 2018 at 12:00 AM

In our last blog we wrote that we left the route along the Black Sea and choose to retreat into the interior of Turkey, back into the mountains. It turned out to be a good choice! In this part of Turkey you are off the coast within a few dozen kilometers between mountains of more than 4,000 meters altitude and you do not get bored of the many beautiful views and natural beauty. The northern mountain slopes are densely forested, the southern slopes are thinly overgrown and show the most spectacular rock formations. The Turkish government is busy with billions of costly mega-projects, particularly in the area of ​​infrastructure (tunnels) and hydropower (reservoirs). Villages are very thinly strewn, towns you find even less. Some villages have also disappeared under the water surface of a reservoir.

The last part of our route is the toughest, but during all that, the views are amazing. Turkey is so beautiful! On the other hand, we are also very excited about Georgia! Turkey has only two official border crossings with Georgia. One along the coast to Batumi, a very busy road full of freight traffic, and one in the high mountains north of the Turkish city of Ardahan. By retreating into the mountains, we also choose to cycle through Georgia to this second border crossing.

The first real challenge in the mountains is immediately one of the extremes: the top of Ovit Dagi at 2.640 meters. We have only been twice over 2,000 meters on this trip: the Timmelsjoch (2.509 m) in Tyrol-Austria and the Jaufen Pass (2.009 m) in SüdTirol-Italy. This time we climb the mountain from sea level!

We have already bridged the first 500 meters on this D-925 to the town Ikizdere. Now we are waiting for the stage where we get 2,140 rise meters in our legs. We never cycled so many ascenters in one day so far. In addition, we have seen that during our previous bike adventures we did not have our bikes as heavily loaded as for this around the world trip. We estimate that we both carry around 20 kilograms of luggage. We will see how that is going .

The ascent is long (36 km) and quite heavy. We do not get beyond the first gear. We continue to follow the small river İkizdere Çayı, which is becoming more erratic, rougher, and naturally narrower as we go up. Around us we see natural beauty, many waterfalls and this time for Turkish standards little litter. Here and there we see that that they working hard on upgrading the D-road, to a four-lane road: many tunnels are being built and at a height of 2.000 meters we see the contours of a mega-tunnel coming up for us: Ovit Tüneli, a more than 14 km in twin tubes. We are wondering why is invested so much: there is hardly any traffic.

However, we don’t entre this briljant tunnel, because we want to reach the real top. However, the road from the tunnel mouth to the top is ridiculously steep. Before we venture into this, we are called by a young man with a construction helmet on: “I know you, I have seen you on Instagram!”. It turns out that this young civli engineer from Erzurum is a good friend of Ahmet, whom we had breakfast with this morning. He wishes us good luck, already pointing at the steep road ahead.

With great effort we flounder the steep part of about 15% up, Harry reports that we break a “low-record”: 3.5 km/h! The tunnel is already deep below us when the gradient percentage drops to an acceptable 9%. We are already well above the tree line and the tops of the 3000+ mountains surround us. What a splendor and power. Here and there we see a few farmers’ houses grouped together with small garden gardens and meadows with a stone enclosure. Cows are grazing quietly here and there. On the road we only very sporadically encounter a car, the occupants swing to us or stick a thumb up. A few people stop and encouraging us in Turkish. We are enjoying it, but behind us dark clouds gather and after a while it starts to rain. We let our tormented leg muscles go a little further: a few kilometers ahead of us, the top is waiting. Hopefully there is a sign with the height! And after the top we can whiz down for 36 kilometers. Maybe we can manage without getting a wet suit. The thunder is increasing and the wind pulls firmly and blows us to the top. Behind us it is now completely black.

At the top we indeed see a sign that marks the top. We quickly stop for a selfie, where we try to make a smile with difficulty from our grimace. We do not even check if the pic has been successful; the wind pulls up to a storm and we quickly start the descent. It rains, but it is the storm that  forces us to stop. Cows hurry to their barns. A truck with hay under a large sail loses part of its load.

It is no longer safe to stay on the bike. That does not work either, because the wind blows us off the road. A village is too far from the road to give shelter. We stop at a dilapidated farm and put more clothes on: leggings, winter gloves and a winter coat under the raincoat. It’s too late for Harry’s fingers: he has lost all feeling in it. The peasant woman comes to see who these weird cyclist are, who are finding shelter at her house and starts babbling. She kindly strokes Roelie over her head. Meanwhile, the storm seems to lie down and we’re going down again as two mummies. But after the storm the downpour (and the real cold) comes and a kilometer further we have to seek shelter again, this time under a porch. Despite the thick clothes we get colder. We have to go further and we continue the descent. Harry has no feeling in his hands and he has the idea that he can no longer holds his handlebar. He spasmodically tries his fingers to hit the brakes.

A little further on we see the mega-tunnel emerge from the mountain flank. Yet traffic does not increase; only now and then we see a car. It starts to rain harder again when we arrive at a building that seems to sell something. The two men present there make tea for us and put the stove on. An hour and four teas later we are warmed up to the fourth attempt to complete the descent. It is already quite dim when the most beautiful rock formations pass us by.

It is dark when we arrive in Ispir, find a cheap hotel and tale a welcome warm shower. With a feeling of pride, we quickly search for the bed. When we get up the next day the sun shines as if nothing happened the previous day. Today a stage to Yusufeli is on the program. About 80 kilometers through the valley of the Çoruh river. We follow another D-road, but apart from the first 10 kilometers it could have been a back-road.

The valley is of an outstanding beauty. The mountains are only thinly overgrown, but the rock formations are impressive. You feel so small between these giants. Halfway through the trip, the stream enters a narrow but elongated reservoir and we are forced to climb to a newly constructed road uphill on the mountainside. The road is new but in some places already heavily damaged by stone avalanches. After we have passed the dam, we sit down next to the river for lunch. We get tea from two fishermen who ask us to take care of the caught fish. No problem, but a minute later two fish decide to get out of the plastic bag and we have to take action to get the slippery fish back in the bag. A fisherman throws us a caught fish from the river. That goes also in the bag.

After thanking for another tea, we continue our journey to Yusufeli. The road becomes narrower and meanders along powerful rock formations. Almost no one lives here and there is hardly any traffic. What a peace and beauty! At 10 kilometers from Yusufeli we encounter more traffic again, but the D-road continues to keep its rural character.

Yusufeli with almost 7,000 inhabitants lies in the middle of this very sparsely populated area, but is itself a charming chaos; something we have seen more often in the larger rural villages in Turkey. We are looking for a guest house, but that appears to be far away from the village and not in the place that GoogleMaps had promised us but probably on the spot that Maps.me indicated. A few villagers refer us to hotel “Barcelona”, but that is also outside the village and seems pricey. Eventually we end up in a shabby hotel Baraka, where for € 8 we booked a shabby room.

The next morning we are already at 7 o’clock in front of the restaurant where we had a delicious dinner last night. Contrary to what the owner had told us, the restaurant is closed. No problem, we make breakfast ourselves. On a small village square we find a shop that is already open. We buy tomatoes, ayran (a salty yoghurt drink), cheese and ekmek (bread) and eat it on a bench under curious glances (something like: I saw two europeans and strange clothes smearing a sandwich …). Again the village buzzes with activity and liveliness. Lovely to see.

We continue our way along the river Çoruh. Today we cycle to Artvin, a larger city, again something of 80 kilometers away. The beauty of the valley that we saw yesterday, is simply continued: a fast flowing river that makes its way into a narrow valley with beautiful rock formations.

After a kilometer or ten, however, we are sent into a dusty tunnel and we see a huge amount of construction traffic. When we come out of the tunnel we see why; a dam is being built. Later in the evening, when we search the Internet for information about the various reservoirs on our route, we read that this dam will cause a reservoir that will make Yusufeli disappear under the water surface. Not to realize if you have just stood in the middle of that lively village: all those people, all those buildings, all those shops: soon gone and only living in the memory of almost 7,000 people …

Immediately after the building site of the Yusufeli dam, the next reservoir starts and we are forced to climb from the dusty tunnel tube to a next tunnel tube, about 100 meters higher. The rate of increase is well above 10 percent and soon our coats are taken off. What follows is a route of 70 kilometers with maybe more than 40 newly constructed tunnels.

The road through the valley is no longer there, it is under water, just like a few villages. Because of the reservoir, new infrastructure had to be built, higher up against the mountain flanks. In this case, due to the capriciousness of these mountains and rocks, they are forced to build dozens of tunnels. We estimate that we have traveled 50 kilometers through tunnels of those 70 kilometers. How happy we are with the extra bright flashing light that we took with us even with so little traffic. Between the tunnels, we can occasionally cast a glance at the reservoir.

The water level is very low: on the mountain slopes we can see that it is about 15 meters lower than the level in the spring. Suddenly we see a minaret of a mosque towering above the water level. It is / was the mosque of the drowned village of Narli. The minaret has become visible again because of the low water level (later we read that this is the first time since the commissioning of the reservoir 5 years ago): beautiful and dreary at the same time. It makes the realization that Yusufeli will not be there in a few years, even more tangible.

The reservoir runs up to Artvin, where it is stopped by an imposing, 249-meter-high dam (larger than the famous Hoover Dam). Through the tunnels we are taken away from sight of the dam, but we know that tomorrow we will be sent back into the mountains on the other side of the reservoir, and be able to have a better look on the dam. Once out of the tunnels and beyond the dam, the descent to Artvin follows.

During the descent we can take a first look at Artvin. The city is indeed on the river Çoruh, but the city is built against a steep mountain and if we are not mistaken, it seems that the center is a few hundred meters higher …. No! We have already climbed enough! We are tired! But we are forced to descend further down to the river. For a moment it seems that we can score a hotel right down by the river: Harry informs despite of the vague indications on the façade (bar / disco with the silhouette of a pinup girl): “Fully booked”, says the owner. Harry does not believe it, but this is no place for a cycling couple looking for a bed. There is no other option than to climb to the center of Artvin, according to Maps.me over 300 rise meters within 3 kilometers, or on average 10% through the town. Perhaps we will encounter a hotel earlier? Not so; we plod our way up and in the burning afternoon sun we brave about 15 hairpin bends and exhaust fumes of crawling trucks. In between, the countless minibuses that carry people are crawling from bottom to top and vice versa. Almost an hour later we fall into each other’s arms, soaking wet with sweat. We stand in front of the fancy Grand Artvin Hotel. A room costs something like € 42, far too above our budget, but we think if we have earned it once, that moment has now arrived.

The next morning we get up early on the pedals for the stage to Şavşat. The elevation profile shows two challenging climbs in the 75 kilometers that we have to cover: one at the start and one at the end. But first of course … again 300 meters back down through the city of Artvin. During the descent we yell to each other: “did we really cycle this up yesterday?”

Once we cross the river, the first ascent of about 15 kilometers begins, which takes us higher and higher along the reservoir. As expected we get a beautiful view of the mega dam and later on the reservoir behind it. The size is huge.

When we descend we cycle along one of the side branches of the reservoir. Eventually the road becomes of lesser quality and narrower and we reach the end of the reservoir. A fast flowing river comes down from a gorge and plunges into the reservoir. We will follow this river until Şavşat. As we cycle through the gorge along the rugged stream, we realize that no matter how beautiful a blue-green reservoir between high and steep mountain slopes is, this gorge is many times more beautiful. If we later see three otters playing happily and swimming through the sparkling water during our lunch, we also realize that a lot of nature is being sacrificed for the electricity supply. The gorge itself is again of unprecedented beauty, the road through it is again narrow with hardly any traffic. Again, no village to be seen.

Again the clouds above us become darker and darker. We know that the last kilometers to Şavşat will be quite steep and hope that we can reach the town before it will rain. We almost succeeded; two kilometers before the town it starts to rain.

We sit under a large parasol at a minimarket and put on the raincoats. The temperature decreases and the gloves and hats are also dug up from the bags. Şavşat is buzzing like in other large villages, small towns. It remains special after a day by having cycled a virtually unpopulated area, than in a center where everyone is out on the street (even when it rains). There is one hotel in the town, but that has a questionable appearance and reputation. We decide to climb another 5 kilometers to the Green Valley Hotel. Meanwhile, we buy a few beers for the evening at a Tekel shop, which are very small in Şavşat. Here you stay outside and you have to place your order through a local window. As always the beer is put in a black plastic: nobody can see that you have bought alcohol, haha.

When we arrive at the hotel we see that Roelie has suffered a flat tire in the last few meters. What a joy that this has not happened a few kilometers before: it is raining harder and the temperature continues to drop. However, the hotel restaurant is closed; the season has past. With hands and feet we try to ask if we can get something to eat or order something from the village that is brought to the hotel. In no case want go back down again (and especially not upwards again). We are very grateful that the hotel is offering a table for us and prepare a stew with bread. Saved again!

The weather forecast for the next day is very unstable: a lot of rain and very cold. We are over 1,300 meters altitude and the next stage brings us another 1,100 meters higher up. No fine prospect and certainly no view. The day after the weather will be better again. We therefore decide to stay extra night  and finish off a lot: fixing the tire puncture, editing the Turkey film, sewing socks and coat, blog updating, personal care, just to mention a few things.

‘Fortunately’ the weather forecast comes to thruth: it is raining, it is cold and when we look at the mountain above we are glad we do not cycle up there. The action list is neatly finished and at the end of the afternoon it is time to do some shopping in Şavşat, another few hundred meters downhill. When she returns to the hotel, Roelie notices that her saddle bag is open and the multi tool is missing. She lost it on the way down. What follows is a search of an hour in the rain back towards the town, but the tooling is no longer found. We expect that we can only buy this important and indispensable tool again in Kutaisi or Tiblisi in Georgia. Nothing to do about it and so much we have not needed it, right?

The next day the low hanging clouds disappear quickly for the sun and the surrounding peaks become visible. It is still quiet cold, about 5 degrees Celsius. Dressed warmly we start the climb that takes us to the pass ‘Cam Gecidi’, at an altitude of 2,470 meters. After a few kilometers we see a goat with a newly born lamb.

Halfway through the climb we pass a village with wooden houses and shacks of zinc plates. Men along the way advise us to get cay (tea) at the end of the village. We stop for a break and meet the owner and his girlfriend. He speaks English well and we chat a bit. This village (and another similar village higher on the top) is only inhabited in the summer, in the long winter the people (and their cattle) retreat further into the valley. Only this man stays in his tea house, the road remains open all year round.

We stick a little too long and then continue to go up. The route is once again breathtakingly beautiful. On the mountains the trees are shrouded in white from the night frost and on the further high tops there is snow. We meet large herds of goats that are thick in their fur. Everyone honks and waves at us and we get a big applause from the people in a fully packed bus.

The top is on a bare plateau, where we note that the plateau is not really flat. It is still a lot of climbing to arrive at that so beloved sign with ‘Rakim’ because that is the highest point and then the well deserved descent can begin. This time we are almost sorry that an end comes to to the climb. It is so beautiful! We have lunch at the top and a begging and skinny stray dog gets enough of our sympathy to have a bit of our lunch with us. It is not the best place for a stray dog.

During the descent we see that we ended up in a completely different landscape than before the summit. No trees, no mountain, no green grass, no goat to be seen. We descend into an endless world of the steppe landscape with cows. It seems to us a harder world and we think that we also see it in the people we meet. The boundless hospitality here seems to be hidden under a somewhat more restrictive attitude.

The top is on a bare plateau, where we note that the plateau is not really flat. It is still a lot of climbing to arrive at that so beloved sign with ‘Rakim’ because that is the highest point and then the well deserved descent can begin. This time we are almost sorry that an end comes to to the climb. It is so beautiful! We have lunch at the top and a begging and skinny stray dog gets enough of our sympathy to have a bit of our lunch with us. It is not the best place for a stray dog.

During the descent we see that we ended up in a completely different landscape than before the summit. No trees, no mountain, no green grass, no goat to be seen. We descend into an endless world of the steppe landscape with cows. It seems to us a harder world and we think that we also see it in the people we meet. The boundless hospitality here seems to be hidden under a somewhat more restrictive attitude.

The town of Ardahan does not look inviting and we pass by. We only stop at a gas station along the road for a break and are confronted with a police and army blockade. So far there were so-called traffic controls, but this has a more serious appearance. We will encounter them more often up to the border with Georgia.

From Ardahan we can choose between the brand new main road on which it is still 31 kilometers to Hanak or for the shortcut of 21 kilometers. When we are at the intersection we see that the shortcut is also a good asphalt road and therefore opt for it. Very quickly (and again a control post further) the asphalt disappears under our wheels. The gravel is not so bad until very soon the road goes up quite steeply and the gravel has some pretty unpleasant unloading stones.

Harry goes down in a first hairpin turn and we realize that the shortcut may have been a bad choice but we go on cheerfully. It is in fact a route with some trees and which are already in autumn colors. We can not watch a lot of it. The road deserves utmost concentration and technology. It is almost dark when we cycle through the main street of Hanak in search of the police station. Not because we want to report the missing multitool, not because Harry has fallen down because of the bad condition of the road, but because our Warmshowers host Cuneyd is a policeman and told us to ask for him at the office. On the main street we stop for a moment to look at GoogleMaps where the office is located, when we are approached by a man on a bicycle; “Are you looking for the police station? I am Cuneyd, Hos geldin”. Yes! Evet!

In the nicely heated police station we find a friendly club of policemen in a control room, but quickly we are transferred to the relaxation room where tea awaits and a football match on TV. The policemen are already a bit familiar that occasionally a crazy cyclist asks Cuneyd for shelter, but the surprise remains that people travel such a long distance by bike. Cuneyd does a lot of cycling on the days he has free, on a real Dutch Santos bike!

Cuneyd lives in the same building as the police station, four floors higher. We can take a wonderful hot shower and get a tasty nutritious meal. He suffers from migraine and dives into his bed early. We also. We want to go to Georgia the next day.

In the first village after Hanak we expel the cold from our bodies with a toast. It tast so good that we order another. Then follows a somewhat flat stretch followed by a 7 kilometer climb to the pass. After a mile of climbing Harry loudly moans that we have a problem. Roelie’s rear tire is half empty and to change it we need an key from the multitool that we no longer have. We pump the tire and cycle a few hundred meters and pump up again and cycle a few hundred meters again and we pump up again and eventually go walking. We stop every 200 meters during walking to inflate the tire. A completely empty tire is in fact heavily pushed.

We want to get a lift from a pickup or van to get to the next town of Posof but it is Sunday and there is almost no traffic. The redemption comes just before the highest point of the pass. A Chinese man on a world trip stops his car that is covered with stickers and looks in the car and roof box until he finds after about fifteen minutes the right key. The tire is then quickly replaced but the wind is dreadfully cold and despite the nice sun our Chinese friend gets too cold. He sets off again and leaves the key with us. We finish the job. We will not go to Georgia today, but we can cycle again!

The Chinese leaves us a big bottle of Georgian beer and we really want to break it but we also find it cold at the top. We descend until we are stopped by by two men at a drinking water source. They tear off pieces of warm grilled chicken and invite us to eat. One man is from Azerbaijan and drinks (a little hidden) a beer with his grilled chicken. We break the pot of beer from the Chinese. Soon more cars stop at the source and we still feel uncomfortable with the beer in this still just Islamic country.

When we finished eating and the men leave, we put the leftover beer in the waste container and complete the descent to Posof. Posof itself is unfortunately a bit higher up the mountain. The road to it has a not very bike friendly slope. We are happy when we arrive at the top of the main street and check in at a cheap hotel. Yet another night in Turkey!!

Oh, how about that package that has been trying to find its way to us for 5 weeks? Cuneyd received the package with contact lenses. Harry pulls open the package in the bathroom in Posof and (on the 100th day of our trip) applies new perfect contact lenses. The disappointment is huge when he does not see sharply. In fact, he even sees very blurry. When we check the boxes it turns out we made a stupid mistake in June and ordered + instead of -. The old lenses are removed from the trash bin. In Georgia contact lenses will probably been sold without doctor’s prescription.

The border with Georgia is 14 kilometers away and in between we still climb a bit. We probably would not have achieved that yesterday even without the puncture-misery. At the border there is only 1 waiting before us. A suspected Armenian family is not getting a break from the Turkish policeman and all in all, we are waiting a long time before we can leave Turkey. The passport control officer of Georgia is a jovial man who is interested in our journey. After his friendly reception, a more formal check of our luggage on drugs follows. He looks in some bags (for the first time during our trip, by the way) and leaves us with a friendly attitude. And then we leave Turkey really behind us. It’s a wrap. What a fantastic time we had in Turkey! Hello Georgia!!!