Coast, mountains and ancient sites

Antalya to Ephesus via Pamukkale 

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On the road once more

The rain finally cleared and we were able to leave Antalya. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t enjoyed the total time out. Sometimes you just need it. We pushed out of the old town and followed the coastal highway, battling it out with some truly demented drivers. The cycling was beautiful though, the sparkling Mediterranean on our left and the mountains on our right. Sometimes we climbed into forests, other times we were right on the coast and able to swim. The weather stayed in our favour, at least for a few days.

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Lunch on the beach first day out of Antalya

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The gorgeous coast somewhere near Finike

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The Green Fairy and I enjoying the view. Could the winter be over? Oh and note use of stick. This is why we have them!!

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Another gorgeous bay

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I love being in the sea

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An early morning swim

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It’s not all gorgeous coastline. We saw many hot houses like these

On one day we ran  into 4 other cycle tourists. One Turkish guy, two French and a Swiss girl. After not seeing anyone throughout the winter it signalled to us that ‘the season’ had started. Cyclists were leaving Europe and beginning the long trek East. It happened that we all met in the evening and thus camped together in a place that wasn’t quite open for yet and therefore let us stay for free. Like always it was exciting sharing stories about where we had been and where we were going. It struck me again how close Europe is. Just that day we had marvelled at views of some Greek Islands.

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It was a tough 14 km up here but check out the view. Some of the islands are Greek.

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Lunch time with a view

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It’s not winter anymore! seven cycle tourists in one village!

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The campsite we were given for free

The history of Ancient Greece is also starting to creep in here. For the very next day we visited the UNESCO site of Xanthos. This city was around before the Greeks as an ancient Lycian centre of culture, followed by Persians before it was eventually Hellenized. The Romans came next and then later it was abandoned. Now some beautiful ruins with some very cute goats and tortoises remain. It is quite amazing to find these kinds of places on your cycle route!

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Xanthos

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Goats enjoy it too!!

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Just some casual morning UNESCO sites..

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This tortoise also calls Xanthos home. Poor thing was tipped on her back Brooke saved her.

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We had lunch in here

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The bikes wait outside..

Soon the rain found us again and then as we headed back into the mountains, the snow. We took this route in order to visit Pamukkale, a series of hot springs and travertines that are an amazing white colour and considered a highlight of Turkey by many. This detour from the coast gave us some tough times.  Firstly due to the agriculture and villages it was difficult to find somewhere to camp. We finally asked at a petrol station one night and were confronted with how different this part of Turkey is to the East. The first guy we asked was confused and sent us further afield. The second guy gave us some concrete to camp on, even though by this time it was snowing and he had a large warm room all to himself. It actually didn’t bother us to camp at all, we were warm enough. It was just the realisation that attitudes are changing as we get further west. We were still spoiled from Iran! Unfortunately the guy at the petrol station ended up being a total creep and came knocking and whispering at our tent at 2am and 4am. We told him to piss off and he eventually left. Thankfully this was our only creeper in Turkey.

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Night one heading back in land was beautiful..

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We cycled through beautiful mountainous landscape

Snow and a roaring headwind greeted us the next morning. Making sure to be extra loud we woke the creeper (I may have yelled at him) and then limped about 200m to the nearest open cafe and ate two breakfasts back to back. Eventually we had to leave however and it was one of those days that I almost questioned why the hell I was doing this. Almost. We pushed into a raging, icy headwind all day. Our only relief were the ever present petrol stations with their free tea. Intermittently we would collapse into these, consume food and tea and try and put off leaving. Towards evening the wind improved somewhat and the dull, over farmed landscape gave us some trees in which to camp amongst. I had been dreading another petrol station encounter. I really love the end of a cycling day. Collecting fire wood, building a fire, starting dinner, scribbling in my journal as the light gradually fades. It is at this time that I feel most at peace with the world.

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The next day was not so swell at the petrol station creeper camp

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This is what we woke to

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We cycled through this

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And this

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It was strange and beautiful

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But this is what we found at the end of the day

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Happiness is the sun!

Reprieve came in the form of sunshine and a light breeze the next morning. I was overjoyed and cycled the remaining kilometres to Pamukkale in high spirits. Poor Astrid had however woken up with ‘elephantitis of the face’. That’s what we called it anyway. One side of her face was puffy and swollen, we guessed from cycling into the wind all day. Sadly no photographic evidence exists. Once we reached the town we made the rather dubious choice of deciding to cycle 6 km up a steep hill to the campground. It took an hour and a half of arse breaking climbing to make it up there. The view was pretty great and the beer was pretty cold, so all was not lost.

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Resting on the way up to the campground

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The view from the campsite

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Clothes drying up at the campground – it poured and Brooke kindly shouted us a room for the night

The following day we hitched hiked down the hill and explored Pamukkale. This might sound a bit harsh, but I don’t think it was worth it. They have re routed a lot of the water and it really doesn’t look that spectacular anymore. Maybe it was also the weather as it was grey and soon began to rain quite heavily. Just above Pamukkale sits Hieropolis a Greco-Roman Byzantine city founded early in the second century. It was a spa town and many people came there to bathe in the healing waters of Pamukkale. I wish I could have seen it then. There was something quite atmospheric about exploring these ruins in the rain.

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The impressive colosseum at Hieropolis

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Hieropolis

What goes up, must come down and so it was for us. What had taken us so long to climb we now managed in under 15 mins on the way down. We wound our way through the countryside back to the highway and then something that rarely occurs happened. A ripping tailwind, smooth surface and good weather. Plus nice scenery. The cycling was so easy, at one point I wrote an email on my phone as I was pushed along by the wind! We made 120km easily that day and settled into an olive plantation feeling pretty happy with ourselves.

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Cooking dinner

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Our Olive camp

It was a short push to Selcuk the next day. This modern Turkish city is visited primarily to see the Greek-Roman ruins of Ephesus. This ancient city is huge and amazingly well preserved, I felt like I could get a real feel of what it must have been like to live in one of these grand cities as I walked around gazing at high columns and marble. Ephesus is also known as having the first ‘public toilet’. I am not sure if this is actually true, but the story is good and it’s fun to see.

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Rating the public toilet 9/10!

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What remains of the Library

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You can feel the scale of what it must have looked like

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Walking along the old road

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So I will leave you now and let Astrid continue with our journey Westwards, towards European Turkey and Greece.

Love

Jude

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Mesopotamia by Bike

 

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On the road west through a wintery Turkey

Mesopotamia always evokes images of great and ancient empires for me and the mystery that surrounds phrases like ‘the birth place of civilisation’. The area known as Mesopotamia covers sections of modern day Northern Syria, Iraq, Kuwait and to a lesser extent Iran and Turkey. It has seen the Sumarians, Babylonians and Assyrians (to name a few), and conquerors such as Alexander the Great. The Roman’s were there, as were the Persians and the Arabs and now it was time for the foons on bikes.  Yep, I wrote that.

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As we pushed our bikes across no mans land, I hoped that the Turkish side would be less hectic than the Iranian side. We were out of luck. The small room in which we were to pass through immigration was over crowded with Iranian women in their typical black chadors. The image of these women in the West is often of oppression and submission. These women were not living up to this stereotype. With all their rotund might they pushed and shoved their way forwards, crushing two confused cycle travellers along the way. We had elbows in our sides and hands at our back. As only one person was processing passports, pressing forwards was utterly pointless. Astrid and I did our best to shove back, but we were no match for these Iranian mamas. At one point a Turkish guard totally lost his cool and began screaming at the women to form a line. This was briefly obeyed, but before long we were all being crushed again.

I don’t expect or particularly want special treatment but I must say, when the Turkish border guy did spot us and ushered us out of the mayhem, I was grateful. It was time to leave Iran behind. Our passports and Astrid’s visa were barely glanced at before we were stamped into Turkey. Ninety days, multi entry, thank you very much. The first country in a long time where the visa process hadn’t taken loads of research, money and time. Turkey surely is the gateway to Europe.

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Tea is also a big feature of Turkish life

The first thing I noticed about Turkey was the female officer with her hair uncovered. The change between Iran and Turkey is immediate in this aspect. It was actually to cold for us to take our hijab off, although now it was okay for my hair to poke out.

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Happy to be in Turkey!

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Just over the border

The second thing I noticed about Turkey was that it was colder. For weeks the Iranians had been telling us that it’s so much colder in Turkey. We basically disregarded their warnings. For almost two years people have been telling us things are so and so in the next country (usually more dangerous, less friendly) and it is simply not true. On top of this Iranians totally (in our opinion) overheat their homes and therefore anything outside a sauna is regarded as cold. However, they were totally right in this respect. Turkey was fucking cold! The landscape was covered in at least one metre of snow as far as the eye could see.

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It’s colder and snowier here for sure!

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It’s so cold! And so beautiful.

We cycled through this frozen land and as the afternoon wore on it got colder and colder. All the clothes we had were piled on and we began to wonder where we would sleep. Deep snow lay everywhere and the wind was icy. As the evening grew dark we stumbled upon a 4 star hotel. Not exactly what we had in mind.

The warm air blasted my face as I dripped my way across the floor to ask about cautiously about the price. Everything was incredibly shiny and new and the guy at the desk spoke perfect English. The price reflected this but when I went out to discuss this with Astrid, she was turning blue. We took the room. Later we found out it was about minus 10 degrees Celsius.

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On the road to Van

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More winter beauty in Eastern Anatolia

The following morning we pushed towards Van, through the snow covered and frozen landscape. It was beautiful in a bleak, wintery way. By early afternoon we had reached Van. A SIM card was secured – this is a bit of pain in the arse in Turkey as you must register it. This costs 70 USD. If you don’t register it, the SIM will stop working after 2 months. This is the absolute max it will work for. Many travellers report 2 weeks but we got lucky and ours did indeed work for 2 months.

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Van

We met our first Turkish hosts in a cosy cafe and chatted for a while until Nathan, a French cycle tourist rocked up. Nate had crossed the border a few hours after us and was on his way home to France. He had been studying music in Tehran for the last 6 months where he had also run into Barbara. It’s a small world. We didn’t know it yet but Nate and our paths would cross a few times over the next few months.

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The town of Van and the lake

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The next day Mustafa our host took us on the most amazing tour of Van. First we went to Van castle, where we gazed at the snowy beauty of our surroundings and shared a Van Breakfast, a specialty of the region and incredibly delicious. Next we went to see the famous Van cat, that has one blue eye and one green. After checking the ferry timetable we headed to a bar and enjoyed a beer while looking over lake Van. In the evening we were introduced to Raki (a Turkish spirit) and mezze and a few friends came over to socialise. The independence of our peers was refreshing, as was the relaxed nature of the gathering. It was a dynamic we had not experienced much in our time in Iran and was quite exciting in it’s contrast.

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Van Castle

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Breakfast with a view

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Exploring the castle

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A sweeping view from atop the castle ruins

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The famous Van cat

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It’s been a long time between (legal) beers

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Amazing colours of a winter sunset and bike trouble

At some ridiculously early hour Astrid and I crawled out of bed, bade our host and Nate farewell and pedalled down to the ferry. To save time and for novelty we had decided to take the train/people ferry across lake Van. Unfortunately no one had been able to tell us the exact departure time of the ferry the previous day. Turned out it didn’t leave till 9am. It was currently 6.30am. Sigh. Never mind, this is Turkey and people are very kind. We were ushered into a warm room on the ferry and then served breakfast at the captain’s orders. After this I fell asleep, our ferry eventually left and cruised gently across Lake Van to Tatvan. We arrived in the late afternoon and were hosted by some very kind doctors.

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Sleeping on the ferry to Tatvan

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View from the ferry

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The ferry takes trains that come from Iran across the lake

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Tatvan

The following day it began to snow just as we left Tatvan. It grew heavier and heavier and soon we could hardly see anything. I had snow crusted on my glasses, sludge would spray up from the cars and the wind blew flurries into our hair. We inched our way along, concentrating hard on staying upright and not really being able to appreciate the landscape. Slowly we began to drop in altitude which meant the snow became sleet, then hail and finally rain. By late afternoon the weather was improving, with only the occasional shower. Then something else amazing happened. Green.

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Crazy snow and wind

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Pushing hard

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Astrid wears rubber gloves to keep her hands dry

For weeks we had been in the winter desert with only brown hues and then high up on the Anatolian plateau where snow lay metres deep. Now we were below the snow line and there were forests of pine trees. Astrid and I were so excited. It was something we had not consciously realised we had missed. That night we camped for the first time in weeks because it was so much warmer and we couldn’t resist a forest camp.

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Bare feet feel warmer than water logged feet!

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Our first forest camp in a long time

As soon as we had gotten to Turkey, we had spread out our big map and began questioning anyone we met, which way they would advise. Everyone had said, go south, it’s warmer.

‘But what about Syria and Iraq?’ we had asked nervously.

“It’s okay, the border area is safe. You are far away enough,” was the unanimous reply.

At first I was dead against going south. We had always planned to stay well away from the border areas of Iraq and Syria, heading north like our friends ahead of us. But everyone kept saying it was safe and the temptation of warmer weather in the dead of winter was great. I mean what are the chances of ISIS fighters stalking out two cycle tourists on the highway in broad daylight? I began to realise that maybe I was doing the thing I always try hard not to do, let the fear mongering media get into my head. We did some research and talked it over and finally decided that we would go south. Our compromise would be that we would not camp but couch surf or stay in the occasional hotel.

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Well below the snow, enjoying the green

Feeling relieved to have made a decision we turned southwest towards Batman. Yes, Batman. That is the real name of a town in Turkey. Batman proved to be much more than a city with a cool name. Sefik our host proved again to us how much richer your experience is by coming into contact with locals. Firstly he took us for tea, which is drunk with as much enthusiasm in Turkey as it is in Iran (although the glasses are smaller). Then he took us across the road to a Syrian Kurdish refugee camp. We brought the kids some treats and everyone came out to meet us and some of the kids spontaneously started to sing. It was a really moving experience. These people have lost everything fleeing ISIS and yet they remain so warm hearted and interested in the weirdo foreigners on bikes. It is not the Turkish government that is caring for these refugees, but the municipality of Batman which is in Kurdistan. Since Western Iran we had been in Kurdistan but it was not something I knew much about but it now became very relevant as people mostly identified as Kurdish, not Turkish in this area.

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Batman!!

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The cafe where we were served tea

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The building that houses the Syrian refugees

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A Turkish Hamam. Yes, we were spoiled.

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Breakfast at a fancy hotel, why not!

In brief, the Kurds are an ethnic minority in Turkey and live mainly in South Eastern Anatolia. Historically there have been violent clashes between the Turkish army and Kurdish freedom fighters. The Kurds like many minorities would like independence/autonomy, depending on who you talk to. The traditional homelands of the Kurds stretches across the international lines of Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

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Tea is an integral part of Kurdish life

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Lunch with a Kurdish family

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Happiness is holding a baby sheep

Now the word on everyone’s lips in Kurdistan is ISIS. The Kurds have been instrumental in fighting ISIS as it is often their lands that have been targeted. The Kurdish women fighters in particular have been highly publicised. We were showed pictures of these female fighters and told proudly of how brave they were and how effective. While the politics of the Kurds, the Turks, the government, army and ISIS is probably too complex to go into any great length here, this being a cycling blog and all, it was fascinating for us to hear and learn about and prompted me to do some further reading.

The next day, although not initially our intention, we stayed in order to visit Hasankeyf, a city thousands of years old, built as caves into the mountain side from around the 1st Century CE. Hasankeyf should be UNESCO listed. It is at least as interesting as Cappadocia in our opinion. Sadly, the Turkish government will not put it forward for world heritage listing, instead it is planning on flooding it. Yep, flooding it by building a great big dam. It’s a controversial project which has seen many foreign investors pull out, but as yet the Turkish government is pushing ahead with the plans. Did I mention the government historically doesn’t particularly like the Kurds? Seeing a city so old and so unique was simply amazing and was one of the highlights of our time in Turkey.

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Walking through gorge

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Goats!

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The view at the top

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This was a city of several thousand people

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With our kind ‘tour guides’

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An impressive landscape

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Goat on rock

A day cycling in this part of the world barely goes by without a random act of kindness from a stranger. On the day we cycled to Diyarbakir, there was no exception as once again we were invited in for chai (meaning lunch) by a kind family. The Kurdish city of Diyarbakir had a really lovely vibe and we stayed again with a kind WS host who took the time to show us some of the sites in the morning before we headed off.

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This man pulled over on the side of the road and invited us in for tea (lunch).

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Look! A hint of Spring!!

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Old city wall, Diyarbakir

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Amazing breakfast, Diyarbakir

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Behind me are the fertile plains of Mesopotamia, the birthplace of western civilisation

Although the weather had been fine, in the afternoon the rain and wind hit us hard once more. It was a desolate strip of highway without many trees or shelter, the ground already soggy. It grew darker and wetter and just as we were about to pull over and just pitch amongst some rocks we spotted a hut. It was abandoned and perfect for pitching a tent out of the wind and rain. Oh and man were we lucky we found it, for the wind picked up ten fold and howled all night, shaking the building and making parts of the all ready collapsing roof fall in. The following day it was still so wet that we only made it about 20km down the road before conceding defeat and crawling into a hotel to warm up and dry out.

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The crazy rock landscape with sheep

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Our shelter from the howling wind and pouring rain

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Drying out

Sanliulfa came not only with another generous Turkish host but the amazing Gobekli Tepe. Gobekli Tepe is an archaeological site that has significant ramifications for all of us. Until it’s discovery in 1994 it was largely believed that Neolithic people did not practice religion and that only once we stopped being hunter gatherers, when there was more time did we develop religious practice. Apparently not so. Dated at almost 12,000 years old, when humans moved around the earth in nomadic groups, Gobekli Tepe is a mysterious Neolithic temple made from immense stone structures. The place made quite an impression on us as we reflected what our forbearers had managed with seemingly little technology.

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Balikgol (Fish pool) in Ulfa

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The sacred, also rather creepy fish

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Looking cool

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The Megalithic pillars of Gobekli Tepe

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Engravings almost 12,000 years old

When we left Ulfa we headed southwest towards Biracek and the Euphrates river. This strip of road would be the closest we would be to Syria. Signs of the conflict were visible in the forms of huge refugee camps, some yet to be occupied. Seeing the camps upon the desolate winter plain made my heart go out to the people who had fled the war to make these tents their home, while the rest of the world attempts to justify why they can’t look after them, or worse uses them as a fear mongering political tool to win votes. It should be enough that they are human just like us and as fellow humans we have a responsibility to take care of the world’s most vulnerable, but somehow that just doesn’t seem to cut it these days.

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How green this must become in spring..

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A refugee camp with Syria in the background

Aside from gazing at the Euphrates and dealing with badly behaved children (a warning, Eastern Turkey is full of bratty little boys who harass foreigners) we discovered the Bald Ibis. Yep, that’s it’s name. And it is bald. We met a very enthusiastic Bald Ibis and bird lover, Mustafa, who took the time to tell us all about his favourite bird. Sadly the Bald Ibis now has to be locked up in a large (very large) cage during the winter as its migratory path goes south into Saudi Arabia and other middle eastern countries where despite being endangered it is poached. So, now they live a semi wild existence. Unfortunately we also just missed the release of the Bald Ibis from it’s winter home. Mustafa said it would probably be the next day or the one after.

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We cycled to the Euphrates!

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The Bald Ibis in it’s winter cage

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Bald Ibis statue

Leaving Biracek with substantially more Bald Ibis knowledge we pedalled steadily towards Gaziantep. It was one of those arrivals into a city where everything went a little wrong. Google maps directed us to the wrong place. The phone went flat. Little brats harassed us (Astrid ended up chasing them with a stick) and it was rapidly getting colder and darker. When we finally did arrive at Irene and Ismail’s apartment all the difficulties just evaporated. We were met with so much kindness, happiness and understanding that we immediately felt completely at home. When you couch surf or use warm showers you almost always meet wonderful people, who you share a meal and some stories with. Often that’s as far as it goes, it’s very much an ‘in the moment’ experience and doesn’t necessarily translate to lasting friendship. It’s not a bad thing, in a way it’s the beauty of it. You have this positive connection with a stranger who will forever be part of your life journey.

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In cafe with Irene and Ismail

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Exploring Gaziantep

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In the Bazaar

Sometimes though, you make real friends and so it was with Irene and Ismail. The four of us really connected. It was more like being with housemate friends than couch surfing. The next few days were spent exploring Gaziantep and just relaxing, along with Nate, who had also turned up. Then it was time to take a bus to Ankara to meet our friend Brooke.

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Drinking wine and cooking equals much happiness

Taking a bus in Turkey proved to be a piece of cake. We just acted like we were supposed to be there, took our bikes apart and put them in the bus. No men bossing us about, or trying to ‘help’. It was a relief. And, for the first time EVER we were not charged extra for the bikes. Once on the bus we were served tea (served tea!) and snacks and there was even a USB charging device. So far Turkey, you win on bus quality.

We reached Ankara and it was snowing and dark. Eventually we found the small flat we had rented (cheaper than a hotel) and waited for the arrival of Brooke. Here we would rest a few days and prepare for the next leg of our adventure.

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Before I sign off however, I do want to convey how much we loved Eastern Turkey. Not a day went passed where we did not look at each other and  exclaim something along the lines of ‘this place is amazing.’ It was not something we had expected as many people had told us Eastern Turkey was full of stone throwing kids, creepy men and vicious dogs. In a way I had been bracing myself for it, while at the same time trying not to have a fixed idea about what it would be like. Well, it completely exceeded our expectations in a positive way. While the kids can be brats and the dogs vicious, we really didn’t have enough issues to complain about. Overall the people were so amazingly generous, the food delicious and the landscape beautiful. We were well and truly won over.

Jude

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Umbrellas cause slipping cars?