The bus arrived in Erzurum at 7:30 a.m. and we unloaded our stuff and went into the bus station to find onward transport. We got a bus to Tortum for 3,000TL each and got a board to wait for it to depart. Erzurum is the highest town in Turkey at over 2,000 metres and the beautiful steppeland around it was lush with spring growth. A myriad of alpine flowers were growing in the fields amongst thousands of small clear streams. As the bus drove further into the hills we passed many mobs of sheep and cattle tended by shepherds as they grazed the lush pastures.
Finally, we drove over a saddle and descended into a long rugged valley until we reached the town of Tortum, nestling in a canyon full of poplar trees. We walked up into the centre of town and asked about transport down to Tortum Golu and were told the only way was by taxi which would cost 4,000TL. We agreed on the price and loaded our stuff into the boot of a battered old car and drove down to Uzündere, 37 km away. When we got there we were still 5 km from the lake so the taxi driver waited while we bought some bread and veggies then we carried on down to the lake. We couldn’t find any likely camping spots as the lake filled a deep gorge, its sides plunging straight into the water so we carried on down to the bottom end of the lake where a 45m waterfall dropped the headwaters of the Çhoru River into the valley below.
Then disaster struck! The taxi driver wanted 70,000TL for the trip – he reckoned that the fare from Tortum to Uzündere was 40,000…not 4,000. We argued with him for 10 minutes and gave him 17,000TL and a 5 pound note, telling him he would get 100,000TL for it. He left in a huff and we decided not to camp straight away but to walk a few miles down the road. Unfortunately, the taxi driver wasn’t as stupid as we thought and he came back about 2 hours later with the local bank manager who reckoned the fiver was only worth 27,000TL, which was about right! We had another long argument and ended up giving him another £5 and US$5.
Feeling very pissed off we walked on down the road which now entered a deep gorge with the river becoming progressively swifter and wilder as the valley deepened. We managed to hitch a ride on the back of a truck which took us 10 km down the gorge to a service station. We had a drink there while the local men leered at us, then hit the road again. Only 200m from the service station we met an American guy sitting beside the river with four kayaks reading a book. We got talking to him and he told us that there weren’t many campsites all the way down to Artvin, 70 km away, and that the gorge got even narrower further down. While we were talking to him, his five mates turned up in two very tired rental cars and we yarned to them as well. They were all rich know-alls from California and when we left them Kelly was spitting sparks about rich yuppie computer geeks!!
About a mile further down the gorge we finally found a spot to camp on a small flat area of ground under some towering cliffs about 50m above the road. We set up camp and I built a low rock wall to screen the tent from the road1. It wasn’t an ideal spot but it was better than nothing and after sneaking down to the river for a cold bath,ducking behind rocks every time a vehicle went past, we fell exhausted into the tent and slept.
1Freedom camping in Turkey, especially close to the Russian border, where we were, was illegal. We therefore had to make sure that we weren’t observed whenever we camped over the next few days.