Tüz Gölü / Salt Lake
We cycle further into central Turkey and are now in Central Anatolia. Tuz Gölü (literal translation = salt lake) is our first goal. On the way there, we suddenly ride through a nomad camp: all tents and, next to them, garbage scattered over a few hundred meters. A little further on, we see the salt lake in front of us. It is gigantic: 80 kilometers long and in some places 50 kilometers wide. It is responsible for 70% of Turkey’s domestic salt consumption and they eat veeeeeeeery much salt here (we are always kindly asked to put salt on the tomatoes and cucumbers we are offered). We drive along a bumpy dirt road that runs 10 kilometers across the lake. It is indescribably hot due to the reflection of the sun on the white surface and there is no shade, but it is a special piece of nature that we would not have wanted to miss. Once we reach the other side, we decide to cool off next to an electricity box in the (only) shade. A truck driver comes to bring us two more cold drinks. We see the processing of salt, trucks driving back and forth. The road to the next village 10 kilometers away is even worse. In fact, it can no longer be called a road and we struggle to the tongue twister Şereflikoçhisar. There we sleep in hotel Has, the owner turns out to be a Dutchman. We notice that some of the older people in this region speak German because they have worked in Germany or Austria for a long time. Most of them like the fact that we can also talk some German with them. We go to a little restaurant in town. It turns out to be a good choice because they have dishes familiar to us, which we missed for a while. The owner explains to Eloy which dressings to put on his salad. During dinner, the same Dutch song comes on a few times: Traag (by Bizzey, Jozo and Kraantje Pappie). A rap song with a Turkish tune, which (afterwards it turns out) is also very popular in Turkey. Whether it was deliberately played to put us at ease is the question.
The next day we ride out of town on the highway. The wind is so strong that we are almost blown off our bikes. The (over)loaded trucks add another gust of wind. We stop at the first gas station on the route to eat yogurt soup. The owner tells us that cyclists from all kinds of countries pass by here every week. But even here it has been quiet for 2 years.
Aksaray and Selime cathedral
After about 60 km we leave the busy road and drive through a village, where obviously only farmers live. Everywhere there are agricultural machines, cattle being raised or we see hay bales. We climb a few dirt roads up the hill and soon the big city of Aksaray is in sight. Eloy buys some chocolate for the family where we will be staying, after which we quickly cycle on so as not to let it melt. When we arrive at the house we are pushed the last few meters by a couple of children. The welcoming committee is already seated. Grandpa and grandma, nephew and the mother of Fatih (whom we met earlier in Eskişehir through Warmshowers). The grandfather wants very much to speak German with us, he too has worked in Germany. Especially for us, after (another) yogurt soup, we are served delicious potatoes with vegetables. In the evening, 2 nephews come by. They have many questions about everything so it quickly becomes another late (but pleasant) evening.
After sleeping in and applying for our visa for Iran, we look at the family photo albums and then leave for Ihlara. Here we begin to see the volcanic landscape of Cappadocia. It’s hot and climbing out of Aksaray is a big job; halfway up the slope we pause at a gas station. The owner speaks Dutch and we immediately get 3 glasses of lemonade so we can continue climbing the mountain at walking pace. In Selime, we visit a remarkable cathedral from the Byzantine era carved into the volcanic rock and divided into several rooms and floors. It is almost unimaginable how they could have created such spaces and frescoes in the 8th or 9th century B.C. It was later put to use as a “Caravanserai. An ancient accommodation place for caravans along the Silk Road. It provided safety for traders, their goods and animals during their long journeys.
Ihlara Valley and Güzelyurt
A little further on we arrive in Ihlara. There would be a campsite near a restaurant, but it turns out it no longer exists. However, we can spend the night in one of the dining huts on the water. It is the first time we unpack the mosquito net, but we are glad to have it with us (water = mosquitoes!). The sound of the water is soothing, the sound of the mosque is regular and familiar to us by now, occasionally a quacking family of geese also swims by. A special place to sleep.
In the morning, we leave the bikes behind and head toward the Ihlara Valley for our first real hike this trip. It is very quiet and we see a lot of greenery. Slowly the rock walls get higher and there are so many caves to see that sometimes we don’t know where to look. There are as many as hundreds of churches and cave dwellings in this valley, some of which can be visited by many steps leading into the high caves. There are paintings on the walls, the floors consist of tombs and the churches are said to date back to the early days of Christianity. Suddenly, we also run into Lenie and Thomas. A Belgian couple that Audrey knows through her work at Medicine for the People and whom we also met in Istanbul. The world is not that big yet!
Later in the day, we grab our bikes again and head toward a small lake near Güzelyurt to camp. It takes a while to find a flat piece of ground, but eventually Audrey sees a tent in the distance. As we get closer, a little boy comes running toward us. We meet a French family on a cycling vacation. Mother and father, 2 teenage daughters and a 7-year-old son. Cycling across Turkey with 3 kids seems like quite a challenge for us, but they are enjoying it. With a campfire and marshmallows, views of volcano Hasan Dagi (3286m) and a visible Milky Way, the party is complete.
Narligol crater lake and Derinkuyu underground city
From our camping spot we drive along difficult dirt and gravel roads past cows and later large piles of garbage. The dogs running around are just as hot as we are and fortunately therefore hardly move at all. With a full headwind it is hard pedaling. We decide, on the advice of a family who give us apricots, to also visit the crater lake Narligol. The climb to it is terrible (too steep) and the vans with tourists are plentiful. The view, however, is beautiful.
Not much later, we try to make our way up even further. The sandy gravel road goes up to 15%, so we do ‘hike the bike’. Oopsie! Eloy yells, ‘are we supposed to like this?’ I exclaim: ‘women and navigation is a golden combination’. On top of the mountain we can even see little sand swirl storms. Racing back down the mountain, we pass a field where a family is sitting in the shade of their tractor eating lunch. Farmer Erdogan and his brother call out for us to join them for lunch. After an interesting conversation and a few words of Turkish, we take some pictures, exchange information and thank them again for their incredible hospitality. A little later than planned, we arrive in Derinkuyu. One of the largest underground cities in Turkey with room for 20,000(!!!) people and their supplies. The city was carved out of volcanic rock in the Byzantine period and was used as a shelter. There are churches, stables, storerooms, tombs, etc. We go up to 85 meters underground and we get a little claustrophobic. Besides some arrows through the corridor system, there are some hidden areas and we have to be careful not to get lost.
Once back at the top, it slowly begins to dusk and we rush to our sleeping place. We have a headwind and we don’t feel entirely comfortable because we don’t like cycling in the dark. We conquer another 1500m mountain, ride past a prison with a mosque and after a long downhill stretch we reach Uçhisar. Our navigation (Komoot) leads us through alleys with cobblestones and we have to lift our bike down several steps, but what a landscape! Hallelujah! Even in the dark it is bizarre. Finally we arrive at our sleeping place in Göreme, the heart of Cappadocia. We are relieved and, after a quick snack, soon go to sleep. If we want to see the famous hot air balloons at sunrise, we have to get up early again.
Eloy gets up at 5 a.m. to take a look at the hotel rooftop terrace. Unfortunately, no hot air balloons on Audrey’s birthday…. The wind is too strong. Nevertheless, it will be a beautiful day because we have mapped out a beautiful walking route. We walk (accompanied by 2 dogs who lead the way) through Pigeon Valley, a beautiful valley named after the thousands of dovecotes carved into the soft tuff since ancient times. It offers spectacular panoramic views of Cappadocia and there are few tourists.
We arrive at the top of the valley in Uçhisar, which we cycled through last night. We have lunch in a romantic spot overlooking the other valleys and can hardly imagine that we cycled all the way to Cappadocia. A little later we climb the famous castle of Uçhisar. At the top, we have to hold each other to keep from being blown away. It is immediately clear why no hot air balloons took to the air this morning. However, the view is again breathtaking. The second valley is the Love Valley, also very romantic according to Eloy😄. The photos say it all…
We look like ants in this landscape and feel humble. Again it is very quiet in the valley, there are almost no people in sight. As we walk back towards the hotel, suddenly hundreds of jeeps and quads tear past. The less active tourists are on their way to admire the view as well. With our eyes full of sand and dust, we still try to take in the sunset and have a nice dinner at a restaurant.
The next morning there are again no hot air balloons, but we are up early to hike to the Rose Valley. The expectation is that the wind will die down tomorrow so we can still spot balloons on the third attempt. Since the Rose Valley offers a nice view point for this, we go ahead and explore. This valley, which owes its name to the rose-colored rocks, is also an adventure to walk through. After a few kilometers, we pass an open cave church with large columns. The church dates from 1000 AD and is huge. Bizarre how this was carved into a rock. At the top of the valley, the view is amazing.
With sleep still in our eyes, we go out around 4:30 in the morning and there is bizarre traffic on the road. Countless tourist vans and vehicles with trailers drive out of the village and we are sure ‘it’ is going to happen. Full of enthusiasm we walk the familiar path, but soon a group of stray dogs comes running towards us barking loudly. After some anxious moments, we carefully walk on and they walk with us. The entire hike they stand by our side and enjoy the balloon spectacle with us. The first balloons take off as we stand at a viewpoint and they come so close to the rocks that we can almost touch them! It must be quite a job to guide those balloons through the valleys, especially with those crowds in the air! 200 balloons! The pictures speak for themselves.
The next morning, after 3 days of cycling rest, we move on and leave Cappadocia. We cycle along busy roads and suddenly a public bus stops in the middle of the road and the driver waves for us to get in. The bus is empty and he is heading towards Kayseri where we should be. Considering it is very hot and we have promised our host for tonight’s sleepover to cook, we welcome the offer and load the bikes into the bus. Arriving, Audrey searches the supermarket for Dutch food and it will be potatoes, vegetables and meat with bechamel sauce. Fortunately, the hosts like it and we are happy about that.
We spend the next few days cycling along major roads toward Erzurum, where we can pick up our visa for Iran. When we search a small village for the only hotel that can be found on Google Maps, it turns out to be a student complex in disrepair. Everything is barricaded shut. We bike a little further when Eloy sees a woman and child waving at a farmhouse. We walk there and ask in our best Turkish and hands and feet if we can pitch our tent here somewhere. Later, when a man who speaks a little more English arrives, it is clear that we can stay with this family. Grandfather is ex-mayor and the house looks beautiful inside. After we tell our story, the farmer takes Eloy to the tea house to socialize with the men among themselves and show his guest of honor. Back home, we have dinner with the whole family and sleep in the side house. It does not have its own toilet. Wanting to go to the bathroom before sleeping, we knock on the family’s door. We are expected to drink some more tea and eat snacks. This then causes Eloy to have to go to the bathroom again in the middle of the night. This time we use the toilet in the garden, but before reaching it he has to endure a puppy attack.
The next day we cycle on and suddenly find ourselves in a real bicycle race along the way. The road is blocked off and there are traffic controllers everywhere. When we reach the top of the hill with our heavily loaded bikes, they are cheering and the press photographer quickly takes some pictures. A while later the real fast riders come along.
Eastern Turkey is kindness itself
We have now truly entered eastern Turkey! The wind is also blowing briskly from the far east, sometimes so hard that we crawl forward at a miserable 6 km per hour. ‘We’d better walk, that’s even faster,’ I try to shout above the wind to Eloy. Why are we doing this again? Physical exhaustion is testing us. At nightfall, we do reach a town, the setting sun shining on the mountains bringing calm.
In eastern Turkey, we also find more and more Kurdish villages. We stop at a small village, Begendik, to stand in the shade of a tree for a while. It takes a few seconds before we are called inside in the German language. Many of the former inhabitants of the village now live in Germany, but they are currently here on vacation with relatives. Aziz and his entire family offer us food and drinks, then a shower, a washing machine, fruit and then dinner with homemade yogurt and meat. Meanwhile, the whole village comes by and the village chief gives us permission to sleep in the former schoolhouse. They teach us that Kurdish villages are recognizable. There is no mosque, the women do not wear headscarves and when there is dancing or partying it can be heard and recognized from afar. According to Aziz, there is little investment in Kurdish villages, in this village there is running water every 2 days. The government makes a distinction between Kurds and Turks, but people from this village and neighboring Turkish villages get along well.
One of the next days it literally gets too hot under our feet. We climb a mountain pass, but on the descent it gets hotter and hotter every meter. The road surface radiates incredible heat and we feel as if we are cycling in an oven. The wind is hot, the road surface is hot and there is no shade, and although we are going downhill at high speed we have to cool down every 5 km. At the first parking lot with a water fountain, we duck off the road and decide not to cycle again once the temperature rises above 35 degrees. A Kurdish tank truck driver immediately points to his cooking gear next to the truck. He makes pasta and cuts melon and we have to eat with him. Later, a car with an Afghan family stops. We are asked to take food for the road and road workers come to bring tea…. The hospitality in Turkey is almost impossible to describe in a few sentences. And this while in Serbia we were warned about the people in Bulgaria, in Bulgaria about the people in Turkey and in Western Turkey about the people in Eastern Turkey. Until now, the opposite was always proven with our own eyes. The further eastward we cycle, the friendlier and more sincere the people become.
On the way to Erzurum, the last really big city before Iran, we pass through bizarre landscapes and we reach the 5,000th kilometer of our journey. The same day we also ride more than 100 km in one day for the first time! With incredibly tired legs, we stumble into a village and sleep amidst the gasoline smell at a gas station, get no further than the 5 meters from the gas station to eat something and fall asleep like a log. And because we love gas stations and the next day it is too hot to cycle to Erzurum, we sleep at another gas station, because that means toilet, water and ice cream! And here again we are showered with food from strangers and ice creams from the pump owner, because he really can’t believe his eyes today.
Then we are in Erzurum, a city of just over 300,000 inhabitants and located on a plateau at almost 2000m altitude. You wouldn’t tell this walking around the city, here and there the mountains surrounding it are visible. In Erzurum, we pick up our visa for Iran at the Iranian consulate. The consulate itself consists of an almost unrecognizable little office, but there is an Iranian flag on it so we think we are correct. Iran is cut off from international payments, so we prepare for a cumbersome day. We are given an address of one specific bank, at that bank we must make a deposit in euros or dollars. That means we must first withdraw Turkish lira and exchange it at an exchange office. When we get back to the bank it turns out that the 50 euro bill has a tear so they don’t accept it. Yay, back to the exchange office a few kilometers away. After depositing at the bank, we go back to the consulate with a bank statement. Wait, wait, wait and then the door opens with the visa for Iran. It was a hassle, but we are relieved that we managed to get it!
The following days are filled with even more special encounters with people. We have reached a point where we can’t go shopping unseen (the whole store comes to help), can’t go to the bathroom undisturbed (because then Eloy will surely be gone for tea somewhere) and stand still (because then we will be asked to come to dinner with us). For the people who thought that whole days of cycling is boring…. Even on the days when the roads are busy, long and boring, all sorts of things happen. We no longer plan, let it happen and live from moment to moment. For example, we suddenly meet a Portuguese cyclist on the shoulder of the road. We decide to spend a day cycling together. Uphill we look for shade, but there is none. A truck driver waves and quickly pulls out watermelons and cookies. Communication is by hands and feet, as there is no Internet here, but that only causes more hilarity.
There are also anxious moments with large shepherd dogs. The well-known Turkish Kangal guard dogs almost eat us alive on 2 occasions. The second time the shepherd comes out of his house with a stick, because Audrey shouts everything together. The dog doesn’t listen to the shepherd one bit, so he gives us some stones and tells us to throw them at the dog as we cycle by. That day Audrey threw a stone at a dog for the first time in her life.
In Ağrı, a smaller town with a predominantly Kurdish population, we are invited by our Warmshowers host Furkan to go along to a Kurdish wedding. What we see here is so different, but so special to witness. Throughout the evening there are traditional dances, which of course we have to learn, because everyone participates. There are more than 1,000 people, there is food, fireworks and a real gift ceremony. Guests often give money or gold and they also shout through the microphone what someone is giving. Can you imagine it in the Netherlands! We are watched by everyone and Eloy’s dance moves are of course appreciated ;).
Just before we reach Turkey’s last city, a storm erupts. Fortunately, we manage to stay ahead of the approaching storm all day, but it’s not very pleasant cycling when black clouds are close on your heels. Just before we enter Doğubayazıt, we duck into a gas station. The man sitting there looks surprised; he doesn’t understand what we have come to do. Audrey points to the sky and says ‘not good’. He thinks of his own. Five minutes later, the world seems to come crashing down: hailstones, rain and thunder. The gas station is flooded in no time. Later, as we continue cycling through Doğubayazıt, it appears that the city has turned into a huge mudslide. It is abundantly clear that the water drainage systems are not built for this kind of downpour. The surrounding mountains cause the water to collect in the center of the city like a mudslide.
The last days in Turkey
We spend our last days in Turkey in Doğubayazıt. The city lies at the foot of Mount Ararat, which at 5137m is the highest mountain in Turkey. On its summit is eternal snow and the peak is often hidden in the clouds. We are lucky and can admire the summit from a distance. Furthermore, Eloy pays a visit to the barber, we drink more tea with strangers, and we empty all the ATMs because we can no longer use debit cards in Iran due to years of international sanctions.
Turkey has taught us a lot and greatly exceeded our expectations. After almost 2 months and 2000 km of cycling through this gigantic country, we will be leaving the country in a few days! The landscape and climate were a big challenge in terms of cycling. The economic situation of the country and of many people is currently harsh and this too was tangible and visible in various ways. Despite this, the hospitality and helpfulness of the people was unseen, sometimes almost boundless (like wanting to give money?!). We cannot imagine Iran adding to this, but we will see!
Güle Güle (Goodbye)!