Saturday, November 13, 2010

Edremit, Turkey

Friends: It was nearly dark when we finally crested a nearly 9,000 foot ridge dappled with patches of snow all around. It was our final obstacle, we hoped, after a day of climbing from Lake Van, that would at last reveal Mount Ararat, a moment we had been anticipating for hours and days. But no, there was another high ridge hiding Ararat.

We were exhausted and momentarily debated whether to camp at the summit amidst a rugged field of lava clumps. With hardly a flat, smooth spot to be seen it was much preferable to keep riding, not only in search of flatter and smoother terrain but also to descend to a warmer, more protected, elevation. Nor were we quite ready to give up on spotting Ararat before our day was done.

We bundled up for the wickedly cold descent. Less than a minute after we began our plunge, the towering white crown of Ararat popped into view through a crook in a ridge, nearly taking our breath away. Even though it was more than 30 miles in the distance, it loomed so large, lookıng as regal as any mountain on the planet, we felt as if we could reach out and embrace it.

With only its upper snow-covered reaches visible, it appeared suspended in midair. A few minutes later, three miles after we began our descent, we rounded a bend and had a full, unobstructed view of its entire majesty. Its summit wasn't a dramatic pinnacle, but rather the flattened cone of a volcano. It has been more than 150 years since it has last erupted. It had the aura of any of the greats--Everest, Denali, the Matterhorn. It was clearly not just another mountain.

Just beyond us down the road we could see a village, while to our left a flat plateau with a small quarry over its lip offered just the campsite we were looking for. It was near dark, and cold enough, with patches of snow about, that what shepherds might have been out would surely be home by now, always a concern when we're searching for a campsite here in Turkey.

Ararat gradually faded in the dimming light, but it greeted us with supreme magnificence the next morning. It was such a thrilling site, we felt as triumphant as if we had reached its summit, not an altogether false premise after our strenuous climb of the night before.

We'd had a cold night at over 8,000 feet, but surprisingly not our coldest. Our water bottles didn't even freeze, as they have previously. We could have continued on for another thirty miles or more for an even closer look at this 17,000 foot deity that is said to have been the resting place for Noah's Ark, but we had no need for that, especially since it would take us through a city that had a bad reputation and would require a hard climb back.

We warmed up quickly climbıng the three miles back to the summit, then had a forty mile descent to Lake Van. We sped past the army post five miles from the summit where we'd stopped the evening before to fill our water bottles. It was our first military road check, even though we have passed quite a few military bases. Our first impulse was how much we would like to take  a picture of the tank and the barb-wired encampment at this outpost just over a ridge from the Iranian border, but knew our cameras would be confiscated if we did. But when the commanding officer pulled out his huge Nikon and asked to take our picture and took a series of shots with clusters of soldiers, we pulled out ours and asked if we could have shots of them. They were honored.

Earlier that day the owner of an Internet cafe in Çaldıran wanted a photo with the both of us as well. The adults treat us with great hospitality and respect, in contrast to the adolescents. The non-adults are like pesky rodents circling about us hoping for a handout while waiting for us to let down our guard so they can quickly pounce and grab whatever they can, such as the cycling gloves David had swiped. They torment us in whatever way they can. Lonely Planet warned that kids in certain cities could make life a misery for travelers. We'd both encountered bothersome kids before, but nothing like these.

A shepherd wearing a mask for warmth and carrying a rod to control his sheep charged us screaming "money, money," as we climbed the 9,000 foot ridge, causing us a bit of a fright. He looked all the part of a bandito. With no traffic within sight up or down the road he might have been tempted to waylay us. We would have certainly been at his mercy.

We are continually vigilant and on edge. A teen-aged boy gave both David and I a hard swat with his fist as we passed he and his cronies later in the day as we pedaled along on the flats. Our first reaction to Lake Van was how beautiful it was and how nice it was going to be to spend several days cycling around it. David imagined returnıng with an inflatable kayak and paddling its circumference. But now after all the harassment we have endured, such a proposition would be unthinkable.

Even before we entered the simmering Kurdish country and were inflicted by the stone throwing and aggressive behavior, the frequent "friendly" horn toots and vociferous "Hallos" from people along the road were rubbing our nerves raw. David wished Turkey's president could join us for a day. He was certain that if he experienced all the abrasive "whoopıng and hollering" of everyone along the road, he would issue an instant national order to his citizens to let up and be more considerate to tourists, as tourism is so important to the country's economy. "These people need to get a grip," David griped.

After we returned to Lake Van, about an hour before sunset we saw two tourıng cyclists approaching us climbing a hill we were descending. It was the Polish couple we had chatted wıth for a few minutes as we biked into Göreme while they were on their way out. They had taken a more southerly route out of Göreme than we did into the more populous and dangerous regions of Kurdish country, even passing through Diyarbakir, city of two million, that we had been warned by many to steer clear of. It had been a horror for them, continually harassed by feral youth.

They were so shell-shocked and urban-weary, they feared venturing into Van after taking the ferry across the lake, so stayed at a campground on its outskirts. They were eager to get out of Turkey and into Iran, just a couple days more of riding for them. They were struggling to do 50 miles a day, as they were extremely overloaded. "Its our first tour, we didn't know better," they explained. Nor did they know enough to send home about half of what they had brought. They were impressed by our lighter loads, especially David's ultra-light load. David is the rare touring cyclist making do without front panniers. Just as us, they had not seen another touring cyclist in the past two weeks.

We have 75 miles to complete our circuit of the lake and then another 200 miles to Syria. It will be a relief to be out of this Kurdish sector of Turkey despite its exceptional rugged beauty.

Later, George

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