Turkey - episode 2

We are back in Turkey and we are quite happy about it! We liked this country a month ago, and we will like it a little more I'm sure. From the syrian border to Urfa, fields are greener, people are still happy to see us and the road is very bad. We didn't miss that last part! Instead of the nice and soft syrian asphalt we have to spend hours on these roads made of big rocks that have only one effect, which is to slow us down and wear our tires faster. On the other hand, you don't feel like you're going to slip...


Urfa is a beautiful city, a sweet mix of cultures. Here Arabs live together with Kurds and Turks. Meat is being barbecued and the markets are full of beautiful vegetables – spring is here! But this melting pot also has downsides : Turks don't seem to likes Arabs, and don't really like Kurds, Kurds don't like Turks, and Arabs feel like they have to not like someone who doesn't like them...


In the hotel, we are thinking about which way we'll be going. We would like to go for a ride in Iraq, in the Kurdish part, but we really need to go to Trabzon, on the Black Sea coast, and the two roads are not compatible. Why Trabzon when we could just stay in the south of the country? People say that in Trabzon, there is a wonderful iranian consulate that can issue visas in two hours! To get there, we will have to ride accross the kurdish mountains, despite all the warnings that we received from many people.


It's a little dificult to talk about 'Kurdistan' in this country where Kurds don't have any official status and no dedicated province. According to some people, Kurds look like blood thirsty terrorists wearing camouflage and hiding rifles in the wool of the sheep! We can see weapons, but they are from the hundreds of soldiers posted in this area.


During our first stay in Turkey, people were always very proud to be Turks and were always asking if we liked their country. Here, Kurds (mostly from the zaza ethnicity) clearly say that the turkish government is bad, that they are considered as tourists with no reason, and that all the projects of the hydro-electric dams in the region contribute to make them silent.


For us, it is difficult to make our own idea, but the testimonies are sometimes touching.

In Tunceli, half-way between Urfa and Trabzon, we meet Gulay who is from this area but who lives in Brussels. Her cousintells us about the history of the town and she translates.

During worl war one, the Ottoman Empire slaughtered Armenians (even though you shouldn't talk about that here, we call that a genocide). Armenians were deported in this region to be killed, and some Kurds were protecting them.At the end of the 30's some kurdish rebels started to have influence in Dêrsim. In order to shut them up and to 'civilize' Dêrsim, Atatürk decided to rename the town to 'Tunceli', and had tens of thousounds of people killed and had thousands of others deported. According to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, ''Dersim is a tumor for the Republic. Whatever the cost, it needs to be removed thanks to a permanent procedure''. Dêrsim's massacre had two goals : eliminate the last armenians hiden in the region, and get rid of thousands of Kurds. Simultaneously, some laws have been imposed, forbidding Kurds to express their own culture and beliefs, many persons disappeared, dozens of villages were burnt..

Today, local people continue to call the town Dêrsim, and the government is still imposing rules. With a big majority of Alevi muslims, people live here a more moderate Islam. Women are not wearing the scarf, Alevis don't go to the mosque but to Cem Evi. Nonetheless, mosquesare being built, next to the military bases, like a way for the government to impose more of its symbols and ideas.

Kurds live a constant dicrimination, mostly because of the actions of a minority, the PKK, which is on everyone's mind, but you never say the name. In this region, there is no work, no factories, no money, but the sadness and anger to be considered as second category turks. There are also the military bases, up on the top of the hills, watching this huge prison.

The mountain passes and uphills took me down, and my right knee too. Leaving Tunceli, I had trouble cycling because of a vivid pain. We end up hitch-hiking to Erzincan. The next day it still hurts, but I want to climb that pass anyway. So like the jackass I am, I try until the pain is too striking and I finally have to give up, Stef with me. With several trucks and buses, we get to Trabzon, disappointed to have missed these beautiful moutains...


So we are stuck in Trabzon, hosted by Ötkür from couchsurfing, and his roommates. The good news is that they are great and we can stay as long as we want. We have now three missions to accomplish : getting the iranian visa, receiving a package from Belgium, and healing this %#@!§ knee!!!


One of the most common questions that people ask us is '' What do you think of the entry of Turkey in Europe?'' After almost two months in Turkey we have the feeling that the economy of the country is much better than in Bulgaria for instance. What scares most of the French, and probably most of the Europeans, is that Turkey is a muslim country. But Turkey is not an Islamic Republic! Here, religion is not interfering with politics, not like in Iran or in Syria. Everyone is free to live his own religion – for example, many women don't wear the headscarf, and it doesn't seem to bug anyone.

The only obstacle for Turkey to join Europe would be, and it's only our opinion, the problem of respect of human rights in some regions. Also maybe french people fear that Mont-Blanc wouldn't be the highest peak in Europe anymore, against mount Ararat, with its 5165 meters... Anyway this subject makes people talk, a lot!

Turkey - the end

We finally stayed 3 weeks in Trabzon. 3 weeks, 3 doctors, some doubts and fears about the rest of this trip. We have our iranian visa, but after this border, we will have to be counting days until India. Until now we didn't have this problem, but visas will be one of our main preoccupation in the next few weeks and months, so it raises a lot of questions in our minds.

But once again, we are take care of very well. Otkür and his roommates make us laugh and take us everywhere : hitch-hiking to Georgia for a week-end, four days in the mountains for rock climbing and some walks, eating pide and dürüms, … and we spend a lot of time practising our okey skills in a tea house, we make friends with the boss and he takes us to Sumela monastery for a visit.

Thanks to all these people, what would have been a difficult time turned into a stay rich in memories. We finally received the package that we were waiting for, and it happened to be full of belgian surprises! (thanks Philippe!!!) Julien's knee is better, so we're back on the saddles and we head to Erzurum hoping that everything will be alright in the mountains.


Along the Black Sea coast, the highway is snaking at the bottom of the mountains, where hazelnut trees are filling all the free space. The light green of the trees turns darker near Rize where the mountains are covered with tea fields. Tea needs a lot of humidity to grow, and we can say that there is enough here! The clounds coming from the sea are bumping into the Kaçkar mountains, up to 3500 meters. We have to cross this Kaçkar range to reach Erzurum.

After a three weeks break and a not so well knee, we need some motivation to climb the 2640 meters to the Ovit pass. I change my position on the bike and I strap my knee so it hurts less.

The climbing is easy until Ikizdere, but then the road becomes steeper. By the road we notice a van, with a french licence plate. Inside, there is Dominique and Sylvie who are travelling across Europe, from France to Turkey and back. We drink hot cocoa, and we share our turkish adventures, we exchange books. A nice talk... We pitch the tent not far from there and tomorrow we will go for the pass.


Today we have to cross this pass. We get up earlier than usual. I put my head through the zip of the tent to notice that the mist from yesterday is gone. The road is even steeper and in a bad state. We climb slowly spending sweat and some swearing until the last village – the pass is only 15 kilometers away... We didn't think it was possible, but the climb gets more and more difficult. The road is starting to look like a dirt track and the inclination is incredible. Tothis, we have to had hunger and exhaustion. The sun is burning and the drops of sweat are running down my forehead, to my eyebrows until they crash on the bike's frame. The asphalt is bubbling with the heat and sticks to the tyres. Stef is 500 meters behind and has a lot of trouble catching up. She's missing one or two speeds on her bike to be able to climb here. Snow is covering the side of the road and is getting thicker and thicker. It's 2:00 PM when finally we cycle this pass between walls of snow. A few pictures, a little proud when we look back and we start going down with empty stomachs.


There has been other passes on the way to Erzurum. We didn't expect to climb 1400 meters again until Gölyurt pass (2380 meters). It's more difficult to climb when you're surprized and constantly waiting for the sight of the sign ending your pain. After this exhausting climb we roll down a green valley full of grazing cows. It was worth suffering, it's beautiful here.

We are invited home by Ali in Zeyrek. Kusturica didn't invent anything, in his movies. Here, we walk in fieces, ankle deep, with chicken and ducks running in the 'streets'. The weather is cool in this mountain village, and the smoke from the chimneys is forming a mist after dusk.

A few more hills and here we are on the Erzurum plateau, 1900 meters. In May, thunderstorms are common here. It's pouring rain on the iron roofs, and rivers of rain are flowing down the streets. People run covering their head with whatever they find, from plastic bags to newspapers. In Erzurum people are more traditionnal and this is a little taste of Iran in advance. Women are more covered and restaurants have 'family rooms' where ladies can go alone.


It was a long time we didn't cycle in the right direction, I mean to the EAST. ON the road to Ağrı, under the non stop rain a moustachy man offers a ride in his car. 200 kilometers in two hours, it's better than 3 cold and rainy days of bicycle. In his car we chat and watch the lightnings tearing up the sky.

Ağrı is an exclusively kurdish town. Cycling to Doğubeyazit and Iran, I don't feel comfortable with all the ''money, money'' that kids shout from the side of the road, while they throw rocks at us. It's only small rocks, but I ask myself why they do that? Is it a game? Anger? Or just Stupidity?

A kid stops Stef and asks for water/

«  - You have money?

  • A little...

  • Where?

  • ... »


To this we have to add the dogs, the sadly famous Kangals that all cyclists are talking about. In villages, the beasts start chasing us showing their thoothy jaws. Ten centimeters from my legs I can see their teeth, and the rocks I throw at them don't change anything.

Iran is only 35 kilometers from Doğubeyazit. Some more tea, the visit of Ishkar Pasa palace, and we will enter this country we were waiting for so long, with so many questions in our heads.