Reaching Osmaniye was symbolic; situated at the eastern end of the Mediterranean coast, it served as a base camp to the mountainous route north-east to Erzurum.
Everyone I had spoken to about cycling to Erzurum winced at the thought of making the journey by bicycle. “Rampa, rampa, sok, sok, kar, kar” roughly translated as ‘hefty mountains, bloody freezing, snow everywhere.’ By the time I reached Osmaniye I had mentally prepared to cross a Turkish Antarctica.
The road out of Osmaniye wasted no time gathering altitude, with the first one thousand meter peak reached before lunch. It was an agonising but inevitable warm-up to a week of escalating elevations. As a cyclist, the ever present cold was only felt intermittently. In an attempt to stay cool during the long, slow climbs, I removed my kagool, wearing only a sleeveless top and cycling shorts. The full force of the cold was only apparent on the fast descents, and at night.
Aside from the bare skin climbs in the cold, which were met with encouraging toots and waves from those passing by, it was the vast landscape that bestowed a faith in humanity I will forever hold dear. The peaks and troughs of the road were huge, yet consumed in the expanse of the immense backdrop of even bigger peaks. It is formidable, bewildering, and leaves you feeling vulnerable. The sense of vulnerability is dissipated by having faith that your fellow man will help you when you fall short.
It has taken four and a half thousand miles to really appreciate that travelling alone does not mean that you are on your own.
I pushed on through my planned stop in Türkoğlu, hoping to find shelter in Narli. I didn’t find shelter but was invited in for çay (Turkish tea) with a farmer and his family. It was a very sweet offer, but after two cups and conscious that light was running out, I had to keep moving. The light gradually transitioned into darkness and the vast landscape reduced to a twelve inch circle of light on the tarmac in front of me. Shit!
Pazarçik was another twenty miles further on and my only choice; it was pitch black, freezing cold, and every time I checked possible campsites I was deterred by the barks of dogs protecting their turf. I cycled to and through Pazarçik, unable to find shelter. The road was climbing and the wind was cold as ice. The buildings at the edge of the road looked lifeless, except one. Eighty-five miles on the clock, completely exhausted, I had placed all of my hope in finding shelter in Pazarçik, and only one lit building remained.
I opened the door filled with hope. The heat hit my cold exterior and I felt my cheeks glow. Tables were laid out with cutlery and place mats, and I could see people eating; if nothing else, I had found somewhere to refuel and recharge.
“Iyi aksamlar, yemek alibilirmi yim lutfen,” (Good evening, I would like food please). The manager (Mehmet) welcomed me in. I must have looked a right state; cycling shorts, illuminous yellow kagool, salt lines down either side of my face, and a liberal enough smearing of snot to distance most strangers.
I made eye contact with a chap sat eating and he gestured for me to join him. Outstanding! Despite, or perhaps because of my appearance, I was immediately welcomed. The chap sat eating shared his meal with me while mine was being cooked. It was a nice atmosphere, and the staff and customers were interested to learn where I was going.
We sat exchanging broken sentences in Turkish, interspersed with English, and backed-up with elaborate charades. I have become proficient in the art of non-verbal communication; single words, hand signals and props reveal a story, blank stares then gradually express understanding, or, if nothing else, amusement, but either way a message is translated. I’m quite sure the intended message is not always the one received, but the willingness to bridge the language gap with each other is a wonderful message which stands alone.
“Erzurum, buğün çadirimi nereye kurabilirim,” (Erzurum, where can I put my tent today?) straight to the point, I know, but I only had a few words, it was getting late, and I needed to make them count.
The owner allowed me to set my tent up next to what was a twenty-four hour truck stop. The chap that had shared his meal with me then paid for my meal and disappeared before I could even ask for his name. Fantastic, in such difficult conditions their kindness and willingness to help was incredibly generous – thank you Mehmet, Serdar and the rest of the crew.
Having faith is not necessarily religious, expectant, or tangible, it is a belief that is always present. It is a belief that, no matter what the circumstances, everything will work out ok in the end. Travelling alone over vast mountainous ranges, through the dark, and in sub-zero temperatures, one’s attention is drawn towards faith, and the strength it provides to cycle on. Faith and action together keep us moving forward in whatever way our circumstances require of us.
Pazarçik to Doğanşehir further emphasised the unrelenting stature of the landscape and the weather. Strong winds and freezing temperatures absorbed everything I had as I dropped short again, this time saved by a hotel attached to a petrol station in Sürgü. Cycling for seven days straight at higher than planned average daily mileages had put me ahead of schedule, so I opted for a shorter day of forty-two miles from Sürgü to Malatya.
Arriving into Malatya early afternoon allowed for a longer rest, and I woke the next day fully charged, and I was encouraged to see a relatively flat, short day ahead to Elazig, but then I really should know better by now. It was a fantastic day for cycling; sun shining, rolling hills, and long flats assisted by the wind saw Shurly and I flying along at thirty mph at times. Not ready to stop when Elazig appeared, I cycled on. And on. And on… Somehow it doesn’t feel like the day is complete unless I’m absolutely exhausted and out of light.
The availability of amenities became more thinly spread between larger towns the further north-east I travelled, and on several occasions I was unable to find water, food or shelter when required. Although aware of this, I was painfully inept at making use of amenities when they were available, which is why I ended up 105 miles further on in Kovancilar.
During the day I had been thinking about how I might get in touch with teachers to find out if there was a way to get more schools involved in the Dough Disco World Record attempt. Incredibly, I eventually found shelter in a ‘Teachers House’, which is a state owned building, purpose built to house teachers. Once vetted at the local Police station, these buildings also accept stray cyclists. I spent the evening in the company of a nice chap called Osman, himself a new recruit, appointed there by the government, who had only been there for three days. He bought me dinner and explained that three to five year old Turkish children would not be able to understand Dough Disco in English. A good point, I’m thirty-six and don’t fully understand it, perhaps an expatriate English language school was my best hope. Thanks again for dinner and for making me welcome, Osman, and good luck with your future teaching career.
Pushing on into the unknown when the going is good, in an area where amenities are sparse, stretches the physical and mental limits beyond what you think is possible out of necessity. It is uncomfortable at the time but makes you stronger; every struggle is requisite, and timely preparation for the next challenge ahead.
The road to Bingöl brought a noticeable drop in temperature, and much to the amusement of crowds of teenagers leaving the numerous schools in Bingöl, I rolled up inappropriately dressed in cycling shorts, visibly shaking from the cold. It was pretty intense; the jeers, goads and laughter from the school children drew the attention of everyone else. Smiling, and trying not to look as helplessly lost as I was, I scoured the buildings for somewhere cheap to stay. At over eleven hundred meters above sea level, surrounded by intimidating mountains, Bingöl had the feel of a rough and ready ski resort, but without the skiers. I got the impression that tourists, particularly those travelling by bicycle, were not a common sight.
In the morning, only two days from Erzurum, I finally succumbed and donned my super sexy Biblongs to keep my legs warm. Within half an hour I had removed my kagool and extra cycling top, leaving just the Biblongs and a sleeveless top. What a look; somewhere between a scuba diver and cat woman. Nice!
The road to Karlıova was stunning; there was something magical about being out in such a remote area surrounded by snow covered mountains of enormous proportions. The air so cold and fresh, and the silence absolute, formed a presence and connectedness with the mountains that felt almost tangible, like the physical boundaries between rider and landscape no longer existed. Or perhaps those mushrooms for lunch were of the magical Philosopher’s Stones variety! Either way, it was a proper Zen afternoon – at one with the mountains.
The motel owner in Bingöl happened to own another motel in Karlıova, and as I passed two gentlemen stepping off of a bus on the way into Karlıova, I decided to about-turn and ask them for directions. I very rarely turn around for anything, but something urged me to, so I did. Being aware of gut instincts and acting upon them is something that has served me well as I travel, so even if they appear counter intuitive, I act upon them. Unbelievably, Mehmet was an English teacher and Ali Osman a Turkish language teacher, what are the chances? Mehmet new of the hotel, gave me directions, and then invited me for a coffee at his apartment.
After several cups of tea (coffee is rarely drunk in Turkey) and enough biscuits to fuel the last seventy miles to Erzurum, Mehmet offered to host me for the night. Amazing! Mehmet had a prior engagement to keep with his girlfriend, so Ali Osman bought me dinner and we conversed via Google translate before going back to his apartment to meet his friends, who were also teachers. It was a fantastic evening spent discussing everything from schools, poverty, and the imbalance of wealth around the globe, to dough disco-ing, travelling, and having faith in humanity. Clearly, their English language skills were far in advance of my rudimentary Turkish jibber-jabber. A massive heart felt thank you to Mehmet, Ali Osman, Serkan, Halil, Hasan, Muhammet, Erdem and Hüseyin; you made me so very welcome, and your kindness and generosity was overwhelming. Having faith in your fellow man is only made possible by meeting people that extend such generosity to complete strangers. This encounter reminded me of a quote I heard recently from Dave Cornthwaite, “Strangers are just friends waiting to happen.” I couldn’t agree more.
Conscious that the final day of cycling was tougher than the previous eleven days, I was keen to make an early start. At seventy-one miles, the road to Erzurum was not only the longest cycle through mountainous terrain, it also crossed the highest peaks to date. I didn’t know the specifics of what lay ahead; the map I had been using didn’t clearly illustrate the number of peaks, let alone the individual heights. Ignorance is bliss though; these details may have been more of a mental burden than anything else. It is sometimes easier to commit to an outcome and then just keep going until you get there. Faith in humanity is the safety net that will catch you when you fall.
Karlıova means snow (kar) place (lıova), and at over nineteen hundred meters above sea level it lived up to its name, yet the surrounding mountains towered above in every direction. It was a day dominated by three major peaks and countless smaller peaks in between. From Karlıova, the climb to the first and highest peak of the day, Çirişti, began gently, and progressively fluctuated in ever greater undulations until it was one almighty climb to the top.
Over the last couple of weeks, three categories of climb have repeated themselves often enough to warrant their very own descriptions. From easiest to hardest, they are:
The Hill That’s Not A Hill, Hill – incredibly frustrating, the gradient is imperceptible, but they go on and on, draining energy and slowing progress. These often occur before or after a steeper or longer climb, the combination of which sucks every last ounce of energy from the tank.
The Heart Attack – the most intense of all three and not for those with a weak heart. Steep, winding switch backs have you gasping for air within the first fifty meters. Muscles scream for oxygen, and the heart rate is out of control, pumping blood around the body in a frantic attempt to meet the oxygen demands. Sweat streams from every pore, legs and arms shake uncontrollably, and the sensation of nausea builds until you pass out, stop, or reach the top.
The Life Of Climb – long uphills of six to fifteen miles, with varying gradients throughout, there is no escaping the relentless onslaught of physical and mental abuse. Steeper and longer than The Hill That’s Not A Hill, Hill, less intense than The Heart Attack, The Life Of Climb feels like a life sentence, breaking you one crack turn at a time, hour after hour. It is the tour de force of hill climbs. The trade mark is the never-ending summit, the horizon appears within reach, but the closer you seem to get, the further away you actually are. Only once you completely surrender to a life of never-ending climbing does the summit eventually begin to close.
Following a series of ‘Hill That’s Not A Hill, Hill’s,’ Çirişti was a ‘Life Of Climb.’ Standing at an impressive 2390 meters, I had no idea it was there until I was deliriously staring at the tarmac, convinced the climb would never end. A blue sign up ahead indicated that I was making progress and that the end might exist after all.
The relief of reaching the top brings an immense release of endorphins, and the body feels rejuvenated. The mental burden is lifted as happiness flows from where despair once was, and only fifty miles to go….
Time and again, the joy of descending was quickly checked by the realisation that the hours of climbing had been relinquished to mere minutes of carefree decent. You must enjoy what you earn though, or there is no point to it. The mountains remain as extremes, whether you choose to climb them or not. If you are not prepared to climb and descend with equal enthusiasm, you might as well stay at home.
Climbing back up to Çat, at 1930 meters, presented a welcome opportunity to meet some locals and to refuel. Strangely, the map of the area on the bar bag on Shurly Anne attracted a lot of attention, and I wondered if maps were freely available in the area. Probably not.
The climb out of Çat quickly became a ‘Heart Attack,’ receded into a ‘Hill That’s Not A Hill, Hill,’ and then ascended into a ‘Life Of Climb’ over a distance of thirty miles. It was a brutal afternoon. I cycled on staring at the tarmac, occasionally looking up to be reminded of the daunting, boundless provocation that only mountains can wield. It was more manageable to impartially transfix on the road ahead, once again resigned to a fate of endless climbing. Still twenty miles from Erzurum, I speculated of what might lie ahead, the mountains now expressing the passing wind as an all-consuming wail.
Marked by another blue sign, the final peak beckoned, and the anguish of uncertainty dissolved into delight; Yaylasuyu Geçidi, 2380 meters. Twenty miles stood between Yaylasuyu and Erzurum, only the hope that the road would surrender to the surrounding vistas, forced enough life into the legs and mind to cycle on.
A long, cold and jubilant decent ensued; nothing could tarnish the elation of finally touching the streets of Erzurum.
Be vulnerable, have faith, make friends, and climb whatever mountain stands in your way.