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Text and Photos: KAĞAN AYBUDAK
We are embarking on a journey that will not only transport us physically but soothe our souls to boot. We are going to cross Eastern Anatolia by train and motorcycle on mountain roads from Antep to Kars.
We are somewhere near Niğde. In the dark of night I only realize that when I open my GPS. The click-click of the train for hours on end in the dimly lit compartment is our only connection with reality. In the morning I awaken in the foothills of the Taurus. Just beyond them lie the wheat fields of Adana. Suddenly the weather is warming up and the landscape looks completely different.
RAIL AND MOTORCYCLE ROUTES
The best way to understand a country, experience its seasons, and get to know its people by covering distance is, of course, on foot. And the other ways must surely be by train and bike. Often overlooked despite their many passionate enthusiasts, these two modes of transportation separate the traveler from the tourist, the man who takes his time from the man in a hurry. We make a plan to combine the use of these two vehicles that will take us where we otherwise would have no hope of going on four wheels, and set out to 'ride Anatolia'.
We heard that the Taurus and Eastern Expresses traverse the entire country, crossing certain mountains and valleys that are passable only by train. For us, this meant seeing Anatolian landscapes we could see no other way. And when we considered what it meant to get as far as we could from the asphalt roads on our bikes and feel everything around us, our excitement was compounded. Now with the train added in, we are even more keyed up.
A LONG LIST OF SUPPLIES
Maps, route charts, phone numbers of local contacts, and camping equipment are just part of it. We spend time too on the electrical devices that will operate our photography equipment and video camera, our telephones and, perhaps most crucially of all, our GPS receivers, enabling us to travel for days without having to go down into the city. We also take along winter clothes, a cook stove that will enable us to camp under any conditions, sleeping bags and a tent. We're especially careful in choosing gloves and clothing that will protect our necks, because we're anticipating strong winds between Iğdır and Kars. Spring has come almost all over Anatolia, but the meteorological charts show that snowfall can be seen in parts of the East up to mid-May. We anticipate feeling the change of seasons especially in the mountain passes where we will begin our ascent from Southeastern to Eastern Anatolia.
A PLEASANT CHAT ON THE TRAIN
We set out with an old man from Kütahya and spark a conversation by offering him some börek. The old man talks and I write. The more he sees me write, the more he talks. They had never heard of the potbelly stove in his village. Then one day somebody said, “a fire will burn right in the middle of the house”. People said he was crazy but then the stoves arrived. We spend a third of the 36-hour journey chatting with this old man and I realize that the conversation is never going to end. It's not a short distance.
FROM ANTEP TO KARS
The Taurus Express takes us on a journey of more than a thousand kilometers lasting almost a day and a half. It's a relaxing trip on which we store up energy for the days to come. Going 1200 kilometers before having to get on our bikes is an added boon.
Our plan is to get off the train at Antep and, continuing through Adıyaman-Kâhta, Elazığ, Harput, Diyarbakır and Batman, go to Bitlis, Van, Doğubeyazıt and Iğdır, ending up in Kars.
LANDSCAPES TO RIVAL THE HIMALAYAS
When we enter Mt Nemrut National Park, the wind starts blowing so hard that we can't ride our bikes into it. We're going to try to reach a sheltered campsite somewhere in the vicinity and then travel over the mountain roads to Arsemia, from there to Eski Kâhta and the villages of Malatya and on to our next stop, Harput.
We consider ourselves very fortunate not to be one of the thousands of tourists who come this far but never even get near these valleys. Actually the only thing you have to do to reach this landscape, the likes of which can be seen only in the villages of the Himalayas or the Mongolian steppe, is to pack your bag with a little curiosity and hit the road. Arsemia, the Karakuş Tumulus and Cendere Bridge all lie in close proximity of each other.
FROM HARPUT TO GEVAŞ
We take care to go only north and don't check our route unless we come to a confusing turn in the road. The asphalt roads that connect the provinces of the east are so good that we take the sharp curves like kids on a tilt-a-whirl.
Around Buzluk with its view of the Tunceli mountains and Keban Dam we pitch camp. Harput exhibits its exceptional nature with a high-altitude panorama overlooking thousands of turbehs, old stone houses, an Assyrian Church, Keban Dam and the city of Elazığ. Unfortunately we are going to leave here early in the morning because tomorrow is the big day when we make our way to Gevaş via Diyarbakır, the longest leg of our trip. The way through Batman, Siirt and Bitlis is so beautiful that we change our plans just to ride through it. I'm sure we'll have to take a break, especially for the view of Beyçayırı from Beşiri.
We when reach Kuskunkıran at 2234 meters, I am only able to hold on to the handlebars thanks to my thick gloves and electric hand warmer. As we descend to Gevaş, the weather mellows a bit, as if we are approaching a southern town on the Mediterranean coast.
THE BEST BREAKFAST IN THE WORLD
Gevaş is a large township that we have to visit to get to Akdamar Island. There are campsites all along the lake shore. Directly opposite Akdamar Island in the foothills of Mt Artos there is a quiet spot with a lovely view of Lake Van. After this view, one of the best in the world, we pay a visit to Van's famous breakfast street for one of the best breakfasts in the world: 'kavut' and 'murtuğa' (two kinds of porridge made with wheat flour or cornmeal), fresh clotted cream, honey, herb cheese, ‘cacık’ (garlic-flavored yoghurt with chopped cucumber), thin flaky rounds of yufka, eggs, walnuts and much more. This street, where you can deck your table with literally dozens of choices, is a journey itself into the endless array of local flavors.
FROM DOĞUBEYAZIT TO KARS
The harsh winds we were prepared to encounter on the road to Kars catch us near Şeytan or Devil's Bridge before we come to Muradiye Waterfall. The 2644-meter Tendürek Pass, the highest point we must traverse to reach Doğubeyazıt, makes us don our winter duds again.
The change in the seasons is so apparent these days that you hear talk of 'global warming' everywhere you go. After complaining at a teahouse in Doğubeyazıt of having to ride into the wind the previous evening, now, in a township high in the foothills of Mt Ararat, we sweat just strolling around in our shirtsleeves. In other words we are going to try to squeeze Noah's Ark and a meteor crater into a sweltering Doğubeyazıt day. And by evening's red glow we will have pitched camp in view of the imposing İshak Paşa Saray.
A day later we're again riding long and hard with a majestic view of Ararat to the east of us. We step on it on this last long stretch. Up ahead endless meadows, Ardahan, Aktaş and the lakes of Çıldır await us.
They don't tell you everything in the books. Is it preferable, for example, to go to lots of places, or to go back again and again? Does it make any difference, I wonder. What we were looking for was what's not in the books. We rode slowly all over Anatolia. To stay longer, to experience more.
We are grateful to rideanatolia.com for their contributions.