Monday, November 15, 2010

Tatvan, Turkey

Friends: We have paid full homage to Lake Van, completing a circuit of the 250 mile road around it. Our campsite last night overlooking its magnificent mountainous backdrops may have been our best. We joined a German couple in a camper on a plateau in a small cove complete wıth a stream and clusters of trees resplendent in their yellowıng fall foliage. To top it off we were guarded by a couple of soldiers from a nearby army base.

David and I happened to notice what we recognized as a European overlander, a heavy-duty van with tires and satellite dish atop its roof, one of the few we have seen, pull off the highway ahead of us and disappear down a dirt road. We had already begun scanning for a place to camp, though it was well before dark, so we decided to follow it. We could have pushed on to Tatvan, less than twenty miles away, but wanted one more night of camping. We had planned on an abbreviated day of cycling anyway, as David was low on energy, battling the first sickness either of us have suffered.

He slept little the night before and evacuated most of the food he had eaten and had no appetite for more. When we began the day he was hoping to eke 25 miles out of his legs, but made a bit of a recovery and had managed 40 by this point, including a heroic seven-mile, 2,000 foot climb over a steep ridge, the longest and highest climb of our lake circuit.

After a ways down the dirt road we spotted the camper and saw an older couple scouting out the terrain. David called out in German asking if they were German, a safe guess. They responded yes and acknowledged they spoke English. As we got closer, we said we didn't wish to impose on them, but thought we might camp in the vicinity as well. They said there was plenty of room for all of us and welcomed our company.

They had been on the road for seven months. For the first six they led a caravan of eighteen vehicles across Russia, Mongolia, China, the Stans and Iran before going their separate ways. They had passed us two days ago as we descended from Mount Ararat. We had noticed them too, though we didn't recognize them as the same caravaner, later doubling back just as we had. They were accompanied at the time by their son driving his car with his wife and young child. He had recently met up with his parents on the way to Iran.

The couple, Georg and Elfriede, had been travelıng the world in such a manner for years. They'd driven all over Africa (including Timbuktu), and the length of the Western hemisphere from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. In all they have visited 150 of the world's 196 countries, though they aren't bent on checkıng each off, just adding them as they come. In all their years of travel, this was the first time they had visited China and a handful of other countries on their present itinerary. They have a bumper sticker "roadgipsy" and website  Georg had at one time been a tourıng cyclist, but he said he was too old for that now, 57, David's age and two years younger than me.

After an hour of conversation as wide-ranging as the planet, we heard the approach of a pack of yelping dogs. Right behind them trooped a couple of soldiers wearing bulletproof vests and cradling automatic weapons. They were led by a husky guy in civilian attire. The leader spoke neither English nor German. He seemed to be trying to indicate that it wasn't permissible to be camping here.

None of us wanted to leave, so pretended we didn't fully understand him. We tried to communicate that we'd be staying for just one night and would be gone first thing in the morning. The man pulled out his cell phone and made a call. In the meantime the two soldiers and their canines scouted out the area, looking down into the ravine and elsewhere to make sure we weren't just the tip of a larger force.

Five minutes later a car pulled up and discharged someone who could speak a bit of English. He seemed surprised that we wanted to sleep out in the cold and invited us up to the military base. We insisted that we were fine here. After a couple of minutes telling him about our travels, we won him over. He assured us we would be safe. It wasn't until the middle of the night, though, when David and I heard voices above us did we realize he had posted a couple of soldiers to stand guard over us, fully insuring our safety.

The officer offered one final invitation to spend the night on the base and to join the troops for dinner.  As alluring as a military dinner was, we declined, knowing how strained ıt would be wıth the limits to our ability to communicate.  If David and I had been on our own we might have accepted, but we were enjoying our conversation with Georg and Elfriede too much to cut it off.

The night before David and I had the protection of a couple of dogs when we camped at a free campground beside an isolated restaurant just across from the ferry to Akdamar Island. A thousand year old Armenian Church resides on the uninhabited island, less than a mile from shore. The ferry makes the run to the island only when there are enough passengers. People will linger at the restaurant awaiting enough people to warrant the ferry going out.

David and I were too late for the last ferry of the day, just returning with twelve passengers, none Westerners. A small souvenir shop at the ferry termınal sold postcards and figurines, most featuring Lake Van's famous breed of swimming white cats with one blue eye and one yellow. Lake Van is also said to be inhabited by a Loch Ness monster of its own, known as Vannie. We saw neither of the creatures. We have seen stray cats, but knew there was little likelihood any of them would be a Lake Van white cat out and about as they are a prized commodity.

Though we do most of our bathing by pouring cold water from springs or streams over our heads, neither of us had the constitution to wade into the frigid waters of the lake, even to test its reputed cleansing powers. The lake is six times saltier than the ocean, and full of sodas, acids, chlorides and sulphates ideal for getting the dirt out. One method is to put one's laundry in a mesh bag and dangle it over the side of a boat, cleaning them as thoroughly as any washing machine.

We had considered taking a rest day in Van, a city of half a million and the largest by far on the lake, and a city that was held by the Russians from 1915 to 1917, but we saw nothing attractıve about the city, whose center is a ways from the lake's boggy shores, and biked right on through without stopping, other than to stock up on groceries at a huge new supermarket on its outskirts. We had also considered taking the five-hour ferry from Van to Tatvan to savor the lake's beauty from a different vantage and also to avoid the most demanding stretch of road around it. When we passed through town without seeing any signs for the ferry, we declined to backtrack in search of it. We were glad we opted to cycle on to Tatvan, as the stretch from Van to Tatvan was the most scenic of the circuit, plus it allowed us to meet Georg and Elfriede.

But it may have cost us David's digital/video camera. When he reached for it an hour ago at the ferry terminal here in Tatvan to take a picture of a train being loaded on, he discovered it had fallen out of the pocket of his pannier, about the worst thing either of us could lose, containing as it does the memory chip of all the footage he has shot so far, not only for the movie he had hoped to make of our travels but also of the many images he wished to paint when he returns to Telluride.

We know precisely the point he last used it, about seven miles back. Since I generally follow him, I would have seen it fall out, so it must have fallen out just at the point where he crossed to the other side of the road to take a picture before he biked back over to me. He's presently doubling back on his bike stripped of all his gear, while I fulfill my Internet duties.

Later, George

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