This blog covers our route from Izmir across Central-Eastern Turkey, making our way up to the Georgian border. We undertook this route from mid-end of August, visiting Pamukkale and the Cappadocia along the way. You can read about our journey along the western Aegean coast of Turkey here.
As we shared in our previous blog, we love Turkey. It is a beautiful place to cycle both because of the landscape and people. As we had to get to Central Asia before October to avoid cycling in the winter, we had to get coaches across central Turkey. We had no trouble with the coaches aside from the very last leg from Nevşehir to Erzurum. The drivers only asked for our front wheels to be removed. However on the last coach, the driver wanted money to accept our bikes despite there being plenty of space. We paid it to save face - approximately the price of another bus ticket. In hindsight we probably could have argued it…
Remaining flexible about your route is key to the success of a bike tour. As mentioned above, whilst in Izmir it became apparent there was no hope of getting our Iranian visa (without paying for an organised tour which was out of our budget). Gone was our plan of crossing the Middle East by bike. We now had a new commitment to Central Asia and riding the much-loved Pamir Highway.
Looking at the timescales, we soon realised we’d have to drastically speed up to avoid winter in mountains over 4000m. It pained us to accept it but we’d need to get coaches across central Turkey to save a few weeks. The tragedy of this was three-fold: our cycling journey was broken for the first time since London, we would be missing out on large areas of a country we felt we were beginning to intimately know, and we wouldn’t be taking advantage of the amazing exchange rate with the Turkish Lira...
Not wanting to skip the whole of central Turkey, we decided to do a ‘best of’ tour taking in the highlights. First up was Pamukkale - a geological phenomena with nearby ancient ruins. This is Turkey’s most visited tourist attraction, with over 2 million visitors a year. We took a short coach from Izmir to Denzili (220km), after which we rode through open farmland to Pamukkale. We’d read warnings the town of Pamukkale Koyu - which had grown purely to cater for visiting tourists - wasn’t much to shout about. The warnings weren’t wrong. I’ll spare you a detailed log of our two days there. I hope this brief summary will encourage you to think twice about making a dedicated visit to the place in the height of summer…
Pamukkale (meaning ‘Cotton Castle’) is a UNESCO World Heritage sit and geological wonder of travertine terraces. Situated above are the ancient ruins of Hierapolis (‘Holy City’) dating from the 11th Century. It certainly is a very alien landscape; the brilliant white of the hot spring pools feels cleansing, ruined only by the sight of the bunioned feet of other tourists wading through them. Get there first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds. Return in the afternoon to laugh at the contrived photos that couples take - see below…
The ruins are beautiful. We spent a peaceful morning sketching in the vast archeological site. All but the amphitheatre was quiet, the most obvious and closest thing people were drawn to.
Every hotel in the town seemed to be built from the same set of circa 1970’s architects plans; an L-shaped footprint set around a pool claimed to be filled with natural spring water, and a restaurant area on the top floor to afford views of Pamukkale. Ours was no exception, aptly named ‘Hotel Pamukkale’, a short walk from the entrance to the main attraction and we were happy with it.
To put it plainly, the food here isn’t good. We asked the hotel owner where the best place to eat was and he said “I can recommend nowhere”. We didn’t eat a vegetable or reasonable portion size in our two days there. In desperation we defaulted to a Chinese restaurant, catering to the large number of Asian tourists. We sat down and were handed a ‘western’ menu, with little on it actually available. A group of Chinese tourists sat down next to us and were handed a Chinese menu…apparently not available to us. There’s also a shortage of chicken throughout the town at this time of year. If you still want to visit Pamukkale, I recommend doing so on a day-trip a little earlier or later in the year and not staying in the town.
Next stop was the Cappadocia, another geological phenomena and Turkey’s second most visited attraction - but one we had higher hopes for. We had been excited by the idea of cycling for days through the desert to reach this fairytale landscape but had to jump on another coach to save some time (500km). We did, however, feign a sense of approach by getting off a few stops early in the town of Aksaray. This allowed us to ride through the volcanic landscape of the wider area, including the stunning Ihlara valley - a teaser of what was to come.
We reached the Cappadocia after two days riding, approaching from the south in the town of Uchisar. This offered commanding views over the caves and rolling rock formations of the Cappadocia itself. We spent an amazing day winding through with our bikes, taking in the Goreme open air museum in full lycra. We ended the day in an unforgettable wild camp spot thanks to a tip off from our mates WorldSpokesPeople. We enjoyed beers at Crazy Ali’s Panorama cafe and then cooked dinner accompanied by an amazing sunset back at camp. In the morning we witnessed the unforgettable spectacle of over 100 hot air ballon rising from from the valleys and silently rolling towards us. Words cannot describe this - simply see the video below…
After this humbling experience we made our way to our final coach bound for Erzurum where we’d complete our last leg of cycling to the Georgian border. Nine hours later, we arrived in the city and hunted out some ‘Cag’ kebab. This is a regional twist on the standard Turkish kebab, and lead to my best restaurant experience ever. Within 30 seconds of sitting down, the arms of five waiters placed a range of side dishes in front of us. Another 30 seconds and we were presented with a mound of meat on skewers and accompanying flat breads. The owner even made the first one for me to demonstrate the preparation method. Our drinks were the only choice given - coca cola or water. All restaurants should be like this. No waiting around for people to choose, or for girls to instagram their meal prior to eating…
The following morning we set off towards the Black Sea. The 300km descent was marred only by a strong headwind and tunnels; lots of tunnels shared with lots of trucks. Much of the valley area has been dammed and so this relatively new road has to punch through all the mountains, high above the old road. Looking down on either side of a newly constructed bridge, only the minarets of the mosques can be seen in the flooded valley floors.
The villages that remained along the way were very welcoming. We were invited for çay by the guards before the Artvin-Yusufeli road and later, into the family home of Kadir for an amazing feed. They plied us with so much çay that by the end we felt almost drunk.
The final tunnel before the coast was the 5km Cankurtaran Tunnel. We drew the line at this and decided to take the 15km Cankurtaran Pass detour. The ascent was gentle before an exhilarating decent to the Black Sea through tea plantations and farmland, spoilt only by our arrival into Hopa - the first of a chain of charmless, heavily polluted towns on the coast. We put the gas down along the D010 and got through the final few unavoidable tunnels before we made it to the Georgian border… M
Current Stats (03.09.18):
Total days cycled: 82/92
Total rest days: 10
Total distance completed: 5,194 Km
Recent bike repairs: New brake pads (Beck 3 - Matt 1)
Best camp spot: Wild camping in the Red Valley, Cappadocia