It was raining when we left the restaurant where we had breakfast and where the waiter had attempted to overcharge us. We walked down to the local bus station and caught a bus up to Ob (1,000TL each) and from there a dolmüs into the town of Çaykara, squashed into a narrow wet valley. The market square where we were dropped off was a scene of total chaos with people everywhere shouting and jostling and showing off their wares and passing vehicles blasting their horns to make way.
A troop of Jandarma1 found us a place in a dolmüs jammed with men, women, their groceries and their chooks, and we headed off further into the steep rain-soaked mountains following the course of a steep mountain stream. As we climbed higher into the dark, misty hills the river steepened until in places it was just a series of rocky waterfalls. Suddenly we top the lip of the valley and before us was the town of Uzungöl, with the lake of the same name barely visible through the fog just beyond.
We got out of the dolmüs in the centre of town and walked off into the mist, following the road around the side of the lake, it’s waters a sallow grey colour in the deepening gloom as the fog swirled lower and lower until it merged with the water itself. The Uzungöl Hotel is a fairly new one built almost entirely of local materials and catering for rich non-backpacking-type people. We sat out on the porch drinking soft drinks and looking bedraggled and chatted to some American tourists staying there on a package deal. I trudged further up the road looking for a campsite but everything was wet and swampy and not very inviting at all. When I got back to the hotel I told Linda and Kelly to stay put while I walked back down to the village and bought some bread, cheese, oranges and a tin of tomato paste.
Back at the hotel, the mist had finally turned to cold driving rain so with the help of an American lady who spoke fluent Turkish we asked if we could sleep on the porch. The manager let us sleep in a little hut beside the river so we set up camp inside on the floor, had a meal then went back inside the hotel where it was warm.
We yarned for a bit to some of the Americans several of which were from the NATO base in Izmir. Finally, with a thick, cold mist hugging the ground, we went to bed in our little çay hut and slept warm and dry.
REST DAY We got up at 4:30 a.m. broke camp and went down for a swim in the sea. We walked 3km into the town of Ahavi and caught a bus to Rize. We spent an hour or so at the local tourist office gathering information about places to visit in the hills then found a cheap hotel and stopped…
THE RUSSIAN BORDER…ALMOST. We woke up at 7 a.m. and broke camp then hit the road to try our luck at hitchhiking to the coast. It was very hot in the gorge and we were all sweating like hell after only a couple of kilometres. We stopped for a wash in the river at 8:30 and as soon as we hit the road again we got a lift with two men from the Electricity Department. They took us about 30 km down the gorge and even shouted us a glass of çay at a roadside café. Eventually, they dropped us off and after a bit of a spell in the shade of a tree we caught another ride with a truck driver all the way to Hopa, on the coast. The lower part of the gorge was a violent cataract of churning water hemmed in by sheer cliffs. Then, about 2 km downstream from Artvin, we left the river and began the climb over a pass leading to the coast.
As soon as we left the gorge the landscape changed from sheer, scrub-covered rock to steep mountains covered with lush subtropical forest coloured deep green. Down the rocky valley ran a crystal clear stream tumbling over boulders and cascading over small waterfalls. As we topped the last hill, the Black Sea, Kara Deniz, came into view below and 20 minutes later we were dropped off in the town of Hopa.
The driver wanted money so we gave him 10,000TL then went and sat in an outside cafe and had a beer. We decided to go up and have a look at the Russian border, 18 km away at Sarp, so we caught a dolmüs along the coast and got off about 5 km short of the border2 when a camping ground came into view. It turned out to be no good and another dolmüs wanted 30,000TL to take us back to Hopa so we told him to fuck off and caught a bus back for 500 each. From Hopa we caught another dolmüs heading west towards Rize. We got off that one too but in the middle of nowhere and found a place to camp out of sight in a quarry and settled down on a rock ledge overlooking the sea to wait for it to get dark so we could sneak our tent up.1
We sat and watched the golden sun sink into the calm waters of the Black Sea, then gathered up our gear and walked into the quarry to our campsite where we pitched our tent, ate the last of our food, and once again fell into an exhausted sleep.
1 Freedom camping is illegal in Turkey so whenever we wanted to camp we had to be sneaky about it!
2This was as close to the sensitive border area that tourists were allowed to get.
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.
Steve and I got up at 4:15 a.m. to watch the sunrise. The wind was still howling in from the west and the sunrise was, like the sunset the previous night, wholly unremarkable. We packed our gear and walked back down to the hotel where a dölmus arrived to take us back to Malatya. As we descended the steep hill we passed the same people as yesterday, riding their donkey’s up the hill to gather winter feed for their animals. The women kept their heads bowed to avoid looking at us but the driver stopped to talk to one man and his daughter couldn’t help but look at us. She was beautiful, with long dark hair and alert blue eyes. Sadly I thought, it will only take a few years before the harsh climate and hard work will turn her into a weathered crone like the rest of the women we saw up there.
The trip back to Malatya was quite speedy despite having two flat tyres, and we got there at about 9:30a.m. We walked up to the information office to see what else we could do in the area, but there wasn’t much to see around Malatya so we decided to catch the night bus further east to the town of Erzurum.
After a meal at a lokanta1 we lugged our gear to the bus station, bought tickets and left our packs in the waiting room. With a whole day to fill in we went first to a trashy Chuck Norris movie overdubbed in Turkish, then found a tea garden and sat there for 2 hours. We watched an army parade in the main street and wandered around the market for a while. I bought a little sheep’s bell from a hardware store and we sat drinking çay with the owner while we worked out a price (2,500TL).
Finally with nothing else to do we walked back to the bus station and had a wash in the toilets. A kiwi guy called Tom was waiting for a bus to van so we swapped stories with him for a while. When the bus turned up it had been badly overbooked and it was an hour later when we finally left Malatya and began our uncomfortable 10 hour journey to Ezurum.
1 A lokanta is a small, family-run restaurant serving food through the middle of the day.
IN THE LAP OF THE GODS1 We got up at 8:00 and showered then paid for our room and went out to have breakfast and find the tourist office again. A dölmus arrived to pick us up at 12 and we loaded up our gear along with a Canadian guy, 2 Americans and three people from Hong Kong. Our two Kiwi friends were there too and we set off out of Malatya and into the hills.
At first the road was flat and straight but soon began to rise until we were winding our way over a high pass with a stiff wind blowing from the south. All around us terraced farms and small villages clung to the hillsides. We stopped for çay on the way down the other side of the pass, the road descending towards a huge braided river flowing east-west at the bottom of a vast valley. Once we had crossed the river (I thought that it may have been the Euphrates but decided that we weren’t far enough east yet) we began to ascend again, this time up a gravel road through round, eroded hills on which grew many varieties of trees. We stopped for another çay break at a small hospital then descended once again into a deep, rocky gorge.
The surrounding mountains were composed of stark, bare rock but even so, small farms and houses sheltered with stands of poplars clung to patches of flat land. There was arable land on the valley floor and many of the farms were irrigated by complex channels built around bluffs and along metal channels. The features of the people, too, were changing, their features weathered and dark with slightly oriental eyes. The houses no longer had pitched roofs but now had flat roofs constructed of mud and timber.
We crossed one more river then finally began the last ascent up the steep, zig-zag road leading to the top of the range, at the end of which reared Nemrut Daği. Huge bluffs of shattered grey rock towered above us and even at that altitude (6000 ft) there were summer pastures for stock marked out by neat stone walls. In several places shepherds sat watching flocks of sheep, goats and cattle and down the road came a stream of people leading donkeys loaded up with grass cut from the highest meadows for use as feed for stock in the coming winter.
We stopped at a two story hotel nestled in a basin below the summit and Linda and I along with Kelly, the Canadian guy Steve, and the two Kiwi guys, Tony and Russ, had a long argument with our slimy little Turkish guide and the hotel owner about sleeping out on the summit. They couldn’t come up with a valid reason why we couldn’t do so, so we loaded our packs back on to the dölmus and went on up to the top.
Nemrut Daği is the last resting place of Antiochus I, king of the land in High Mesopotamia called Commagene. Antioch I lived 2,000 years ago at a time of peace in the land between the rivers and had nothing to do but consider the afterlife and his passage into it. So he built on the summit of Nemrut Daği, 2,150 metres above sea level, a huge tumultus or funerary mound, flanked by huge statues of the Gods facing east and west.
We paid 2,500TL each to a sly-looking attendant then began to explore the extraordinary area. There was a very strong wind howling across from the west and the view was reduced by a haze of dust but even so the power of the place captivated us. The heads of the statues have long since tumbled to the ground and now stare sightlessly out over the surrounding land as if the sight of 600,000 sunrises and sunsets has blinded them forever. The tumultus is also a mere shadow of its former self, having been reduced by half by the heavy-handed searching of treasure hunters and archaeologists for the tomb of Antioch I but it is still an impressive structure.
We set up camp in the lee of a metre high stone wall which gave us some protection from the screaming wind then walked around the foot of the tumultus to the westernmost set of statues to watch the sunset, along with about 200 other people who had mysteriously appeared from the village below. The sunset itself was unremarkable but it is easy to see what a beautiful and magical place the old King had chosen as his final resting place.
We went back down to our camp and had a meal of bread, tomatoes and red wine and talked for a while. Later on, Russ and I took our camera gear over to the foot of the east-facing statues to take some photographs of the heads staring out across the ghostly moonlit hills. It was eerie and quite unnerving walking around amongst the toppled heads, their stone features casting long, silent shadows across the stony ground on which they stood. Above us the headless torsos of the statues sat immobile in the wind as if awaiting the day when the gods they represent would return to replace their lost heads in their rightful places. We took several photographs each in the pale silver light and I went and stood out on the flat stone altar in front of the statues. The wind out there was fierce and it was impossible to stand still enough to take a photograph so we left the statues and went back to camp.
Tony suggested that because we were up there, we might as well climb the tumultus so the three of us – Russ, Tony and myself – walked around to the west-facing statues, took a few more photographs then began the climb to the very top of the mountain. The going was steep and the footing was loose and dangerous but we forged a rapid pace and it only took us 5 minutes to reach the top. As we stood on the 2,150m summit, our breath coming in ragged gasps, the wind screamed out of the caverns of the night as if Apollo and Zeus and the spirit of the old King himself were shouting at us to be gone from their sacred spot. We only stayed long enough to take some photographs then left the summit to the spirits and the wind and descended back to camp.
Tightly wrapped in our sleeping bags (in my case two sheets and the tent) we sat and ate biscuits and drank the remaining wine while we listened to Cold Chisel on Kelly’s walkman. I spent a cold and sleepless night.
1In this instance, the heading in my diary for that day refers to an instrumental track of the same name from the Alan Parsons Project album Pyramid. I am listening to the track as I write this entry.
GÖREME TO MALATYA We met Kelly down at the bus station at 10:00 and were lucky to just be there in time to catch the direct bus to Kayseri which saved us having to go to Nevshir first. The road followed a long, gently sloping valley towards the towering bulk of Erciyes Daği, rising out of the morning haze with all the foreboding that an extinct volcano can muster.
The ugly town of Kayseri sits at the very base of the mountain and when we alighted at the bus station we were mobbed by touts selling bus rides all over Turkey. We bought tickets to Malatya then went and had a snack and found a shady spot to wait until the 1:00pm departure time. At 2:00pm there was no sign of the bus and then the ticket-seller came over with tickets for a substitute bus. We weren’t about to grumble so we boarded the bus and found our seats at the rear.
Once we were out of Kayseri the landscape changed to steep and torturous mountains, their sides bare of soil and vegetation but the valleys between green with crops and fertile farmland lined with graceful lombardy poplars. Later on, the landscape changed again, this time to wide plains of wheat and barley. We entertained ourselves joking with the bus’ attendant until we arrived in Malatya at around 8:00pm and were immediately pounced on by the local tourist officer (just as the Let’s Go1 guide had said he would!) who shepherded us into his office and told us about the tour to Nemrut Daği2 and where we could find a cheap hotel.
We walked up into the centre of town and met a couple of Kiwi guys who are going on the Nemrut tour as well. They directed us to the hotel where they are staying and we went there to see if there was a room available. The grubby but comfy Mercaz Hotel cost us 6,000TL each but it was an OK place for the night.
1The Let’s Go guidebooks were an American series of guides aimed at backpackers. Like their Anglo-Australian counterpart Lonely Planet, these guides were full of sometimes-useful, often inaccurate or occasionally downright incorrect information. Our friend Kelly had the Turkey section of the Let’s Go Europe guide and it was a standing joke with us that it’s best use was for lighting fires with!
2 Nemrut Daği is a 2,100m peak in Eastern Turkey notable for a collection of massive statues and a tumult (burial mound) on its summit. Over the next few days we would make an epic trip to Nemrut Daği which would become one of the highlights of our travels. For some background information about this amazing place, check out this link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Nemrut
We got up at 8:00 and had a Turkish breakfast (omelette, flat bread and tea) then walked down to the dolmüs station and caught a ride to Nevshir, then a minibus to Kaymakli which took about ½ an hour. We negotiated “student” discount to get into the underground city which was bored into the solid rock by Christians escaping purges by Muslim armies1.
The first large chamber, just inside the entrance, was a stable and from it a maze of narrow, twisting passageways and interconnected rooms led us deep into the ground. The entire city consists of eight levels but only the top level is open to the public as there are dangerously low levels of O2 deeper in the complex.
That, however, didn’t deter Mark and I from following several long, pitch black tunnels leading down into the bowels of the Earth. The first one was a dead end but the second passed through several tiny rooms, each with a huge boulder poised to be rolled across the opening in order to seal it off. As we descended, the tunnel became lower and narrower and began to dip steeply so we decided that was far enough and retraced our steps back up to the lighted passage where the girls were waiting for us. We guided them down to the second room where we took some self-timer photographs. We then carried on exploring the underground city, including dropping stones down a 100m-deep vertical shaft.
Back on the surface we had some lunch then caught a bus back to Nevshir and from there a dolmüs to Üçhisar, a rock village on the hill above Göreme. We walked down the hill behind the village, taking photographs then split up from Mark and Kath who had to return to Göreme to catch a bus back to Istanbul.
Linda, Kelly and I decided to try to climb down into one of the narrow valleys below us so we followed a steep gully down into the intensively-farmed land amid dozens of graceful rock pinnacles. We wandered slowly down the valley following a small creek which had been diverted onto the farmland through a 30m passage hewn through the base of a larger pinnacle. The valley was quiet and peaceful and the crops were healthy and well-kept. Near the bottom of the valley I remembered that I had the key to our room where Mark and Kath2 had stowed their gear for the day so I ran all the way back to Göreme to catch them.
We saw them off on the bus then walked back up to the pension where I grabbed my camera gear and walked up to the top of the hill where I sat for an hour and a half and watched the sunset. It wasn’t very spectacular but the eroded cliffs on the far side of the valley cast cool shadows while far off in the distance, the towering bulk of Erciyes Daği, the volcanic peak that had produced the soft rock of Cappadocia, glowed blue and purple in the sky.
Back down at the pension we showered then walked down to the village. We had a small meal at a restaurant then went up to the pension where Kelly is staying for a beer.
1The first underground shelters at Kaymakli were constructed by Phoenician refugees in the 8th century BC. Successive waves of refugees escaping from persecution by Mongols, Muslims and Turks enlarged the underground city into the massive, and largely unexplored, labyrinth that exist today.
2We only knew Mark and Kath for the 3 days that we were at Göreme. But in that short time we became friends and as the years passed I had sometimes wondered what became of them after their travels in Turkey. Exactly thirty later, as I was prepping this diary entry, I re-connected with them using a Google search and Facebook. My source information was an address that Mark wrote in my diary and by using this to cross-reference the search engine results I was able to track them down in their Canadian hometown. In 1990, as we explored those tunnels beneath Kaymakli, we could never have imagined the amazing technology we would one day have access to!
I got up at 4:00am and in the cold darkness just before dawn, walked up the ridge behind the pension to watch the sunrise. It was an overcast morning and a few spots of misty rain were falling as I stood on the ridgetop with the sounds of awakening birds and animals echoing up from the valley. At 4:20 the mournful sound of the Muzzins1 began to ring out from the mosques of Göreme and in the clear, still air even the calls from the nearby town of Urgip, 9km away, were audible.
The sunrise never happened so I went back down to the pension and went back to bed for 2½ hours.We had breakfast on the terrace of the pension then headed off down the hill to the village and from there we walked 1km out of town past small fields of grain and vegetables in amongst clusters of strangely shaped pinnacles to the Göreme Open Air Museum. This small, abandoned village contains the greatest concentration of cave dwellings in Cappadocia. The churches, convents , houses and monasteries are all hewn out of the soft volcanic rock called tufa (or tuff) which was spewed from the huge volcanic peak of Erciyes Daği, which lies about 100 kilometres from Göreme, around 150 million years ago.
The dwellings are the legacy of Cappadocian Christianity from the Byzantine Empire and were built by monks between the 4th and 10th centuries. The monks inhabited the village until the formation of modern Turkey in the 1920s. The churches are decorated with frescoes, many of them in remarkably good condition.
We spent 2 hours exploring the area then clambered down into the valley below the museum and walked out to the road through a quiet and peaceful orchard. We crossed the road and walked up into the head of a tiny valley where many cave dwellings were visible in the surrounding pinnacles amongst neatly tilled fields. There were no tourists here and we sat at the top of a small hill watching a half a dozen men, women and children working at their farm plots. Mark and Kath joined us and a short while later another American, a girl called Kelly came and sat with us too.
The 5 of us walked down past the farmers and the children gave us some fruit to eat. It wasn’t ripe but we pretended to eat and enjoy it. We wandered down the valley towards a strangely-eroded cliff then tried to follow a gully leading up into a maze of gullies. Eventually, we were stopped by a sheer cliff so we turned back and returned to Göreme.
In the evening, we had a meal at the pension followed by some plinky-plink Turkish music. Kelly came up for a beer with us then Linda and I walked her back to her pension, stopping for a glass of çay on the way.
1 Muzzins call the faithful to prayer five times per day in the Muslim world.
It was nearly 10:00 before we woke up so we hurriedly showered then packed and checked out. The hotel bill came to 70,000TL (a mere £15) and we caught a dolmüs out to the bus station and bought tickets to Goremё for 8,000TL each: student price!
We bought a drink each and sat on the steps outside the terminal talking to other travellers while we filled in the 2½ hours until the bus left at 2:30. The 3 hour trip top Göreme was across wide rolling plains etched with the patterns and colours of intense agriculture. From rolling, fertile hill country we crested a ridge and before us was spread out the most amazing landscape we had ever seen. The valley was a maze of twisted rock formations, eroded gullies and towering pinnacles: hundreds of thousands of them stretching as far as we could see. On the opposite side of the valley the hillsides were a multitude of eroded cliffs and canyons coloured pink and red in the late afternoon sun.
The bus dropped us off on the side of the road in Göreme and we walked up the hill to a pension called Kele’s Cave. On the way we met the 4 Aussies from Denizli and we had a bit of a chat with them then carried on up the hill and checked in to the pension. Both Linda and I, and Mark and Kath1, got rooms hollowed out of the rock and the view out over Göreme was spectacular. After we had settled in, we walked down to the centre of town and had a feast of exquisite Turkish food for less than ￡2-50 each, then went back to the pension and sat in the bar, also hollowed out of solid rock, talking, playing some Turkish musical instruments and listening to Chris de Burgh and Tracy Chapman on the stereo.