Saturday, October 10, 2009

Gravy Train in Dogbiscuit

Van, Saturday October 10 (16,000 km from Xian)

I am at the end of a delightfully relaxed day off from cycling, the first after 11 days of hard work to get here from Yerevan, and now it's time to put some of the events of that long stretch onto the page. I'm fairly sleepy, so this may be shorter than usual.

I left Yerevan for the last time a week ago Tuesday (September 29th). It had rained heavily the night before in the city, and all that precipitation fell as snow on all the surrounding mountains. It felt distinctly wintry as I rolled out of town, with the twin peaks of Ararat huge and in my face, and an entire line of other lower peaks looking very, very alarmingly white. If this is Armenia in September, I hate to imagine January! I passed early morning protestors outside the parliament building, making their unhappiness known about the rapprochement with Turkey. After an easy ride along the flat agricultural land as far as Metsamor, I turned uphill through grim lava fields dotted with grim post-Soviet apocalyptic towns and villages. I followed the Turkish border all day, and ended up camped less than a kilometre from the nearest Russian-manned Armenian border guard tower. It was irksome to think that a week later I would be only a few kilometres away on the Turkish side, but that I had a 500-kilometre detour because of the closed border.

It was a cold night in the tent, with lots of frost on the fly in the morning. I had an easier day of riding, with sunny weather and flatter country in the morning. A big flock of migrating storks, maybe 150 of them, passed overhead, headed for warmer wintering grounds. I zipped along as far as the regional centre of Gyumri. Founded by the Russians in the early 19th century as Alexandropol, it was the largest city in Armenia until the Soviet period. Lots of Russian belle-epoque architecture, although much of it is still in ruins, 21 years after a disastrous earthquake and even more disastrous botched reconstruction effort. In the afternoon, I headed north towards the Georgian border. My map didn't give me much warning of what was coming; I had anticipated a straightforward up-and-down mountain pass, but instead the road climbed to a high plateau and stayed there until the border. The high-altitude grassland reminded me of Mongolia and Tibet, and looked very pretty under the warm sunshine. I kept climbing as I got closer to the border, and I didn't cross the frontier until after sunset. The Georgian border guards were all busy shovelling vast piles of snow onto sun-warmed asphalt to melt it. I made it 500 metres into Georgia before camping beside a pretty lake.

It was perhaps the coldest night of the trip so far, but I managed to keep warm on my Li-Lo air mattress by piling most of my clothes on top of it as insulation against the cold ground. I awoke to strange bird calls in the morning, and stuck my head out to see a small group of cranes beside the lake: magic! I bumped downhill slowly along an appalling dirt track to the dismally poor town of Ninotsminda, through villages of subsistence Armenian farmers. This part of Georgia is ethnically Armenian, and seems to be neglected by the Tbilisi government. I got onto pavement after that and zipped into Akhalkalaki, where I had lunch to avoid a torrential downpour. From that point, I chose the road less travelled and bumped along a very primitive dirt road across more steppe. In the geographical middle of nowhere, I ran across an unexpected sight: an OSCE tractor-trailer carrying an ecology/sustainable energy roadshow explaining biogas, solar panels, solar water-heaters and reforestation to bemused local peasants. I rolled on into a grassland almost devoid of human habitation, until suddenly I found myself on the edge of the void. Below me was a 500-metre-deep canyon, on the opposite wall of which was a honeycomb of caves, the famous monastery of Vardzia. I took an hour to pick my way down a steep, switchbacked goat-track of a jeep road to a small guesthouse where I was very happy to sleep inside in a warm bed.

The next morning, I rode over to the caves and poked around. They reminded me strongly of the Buddhist cave monasteries at Bezeklik which I had seen seven years ago at the very beginning of this Silk Road odyssey. There was little to see in most of the caves, but the setting, clinging to the lower wall of the canyon, was spectacular. Only one church is still in operation, and a family was having a young child blessed that morning; the singing of the priest echoed perfectly around the cave. I rode away happy to have absorbed a bit of culture after three days of hard riding. The rest of the day was easy, a coast downstream through desert canyons and forested hillsides to the regional capital of Akhaltsikhe. I had a peek at the Rabati, the old citadel above town, which sports a mosque, a synagogue and two flavours of church (Armenian and Georgian). I had my beard trimmed in a barbershop (rather too severely, as I looked unshaven rather than bearded afterwards; in fact I looked remarkably like a blond clone of the barber), and talked to an English-speaking local. He said that Akhaltsikhe was once a majority Armenian town, but that over the past 20 years most of the Armenians have left for greener pastures in Russia or Armenia.

The ride the next day, as I left the Caucasus republics behind for good, was unexpectedly tough, as I climbed the most vertical metres of any day this year so far (2600 metres). I rode uphill from Akhaltsikhe, through bucolic scenes of the fall harvest, to the border; again, the Georgians have a rutted dirt track leading to their international frontier. On the Turkish side, I set my clock back, resigned myself to not understanding anything anyone says to me, and resumed the climb. The road soared high above the river valley, passing through reforested zones that were a riot of fall colours. The Turkish government seems to be doing more to reforest its denuded hillsides than either the Georgians or (especially) the Armenians. No sooner had I climbed 500 metres from the border than I had to give most of the altitude back. I screamed downhill, past the town of Posof, then spent the afternoon sweating my way up to a 2500-metre pass. I made my way downhill across a hilly steppe, past thousands of people harvesting hay, and camped in an already-cut field.

The ride into Kars the next day was relatively easy and unremarkable. The forests of the previous day were a distant memory, and the landscape consisted of endless rounded hills and farmers harvesting hay. The town of Kars was an interesting place to spend the night. Held by the Russians for a few decades from 1886 to 1920, the town has a bit of a Russian feel, but the Ottoman castle above the town, and the beautiful Armenian church below it, give it an atmosphere all its own.

The ride the next morning to Ani, the former capital of Armenia, now located just inside the borders of Turkey, on the western side of the river that forms the frontier. The ride was easy, and I got there by noon. This gave me enough time to really enjoy the city and its impressive, atmospheric ruins. I had a picnic lunch beside the oldest building in the city, the Zoroastrian fire temple, and played some guitar in the warm sunshine. The snow that had blanketed the nearby hills the previous week had all melted, and we were back in summer. Finally, I bestirred myself and trotted around the huge site; Ani was once home to nearly 100,000 people, making it one of the largest Silk Road cities during its 11th-century heyday, and now it consists of huge extents of unexcavated ruins, dotted with immense standing ruins of churches. I particularly liked the huge Cathedral, the circular Church of King Gagik (very similar in architecture to Zvartnots), the Church of the Redeemer (half in perfect condition, half completely collapsed following a lightning strike 50 years ago) and the perfectly-situated Church of Tigran Horents. The stonework was, of course, intricate and endlessly fascinating, and there was an air of great antiquity and history to the city that I loved. On my way out, I met a Dutch couple in their overland vehicle with whom I exchanged some stories from the road; they have been exploring Africa over the past two decades, and are now trying to tear themselves away from Africa towards Central Asia.

That evening, I thought I had picked a perfect, hidden campsite, but what I didn't realize was that I was actually very close to a large Kurdish village that was just out of sight around a hill. I was spotted, and a steady stream of visitors came to check me out. The last group were three young men, somewhere between 18 and 25, who were the most annoying, offensive visitors imaginable. They showed up as I was cooking and stayed for an hour and a half, methodically asking me to give them everything they could see, asking me to have sex with them, and then demanding 5 lira ($3.50) so that they would leave. I eventually did offer them a used tea bag, but they didn't find this as hilarious as I did. I had to chase them away physically, and then, long after dark, I decided to move my tent in case they went home, got drunk and came back looking for trouble. It was a tedious process, but at least I got a secure night's sleep.

That was the start of the Kurdish Problem. I had been warned that the Kurdish areas of southeastern Turkey are notoriously unfriendly to cyclists, but I had assumed that the problem was with vicious sheepdogs. This is (so far) not the case; Georgian dogs gave me far more problems. The real issue is the humans, or more particularly the males under the age of 25. For four days I have rarely passed a group of non-adults without them coming running after me demanding money (or pens, or candies, but "Hello! Money!" is the universal greeting for cyclists in these parts. The kids try to block the road (trying to run them over generally gets them out of the way), try to hit me as I pass, and then pelt me with rocks. Having rocks thrown at me is not something I like; it enraged me in Pakistan in 1998 and in Tibet in 2001, and it does the same now. What angers me even more, though, is the indulgent attitude of adult Kurds, who stand around watching the kids beg and throw rocks and do nothing, except to protect them from angry Canadian cyclists. I even had a Kurdish grandfather throw a rock at me after I chased his rock-throwing son into the ditch. One man explained to me that the Almighty would smite the kids for their bad deeds; I lacked the Turkish to reply that clearly fear of supernatural retribution wasn't having the slightest deterrent effect, and that a few well-aimed slaps to the head might be more effective.

I've been pondering this for the past four unpleasant days of cycling, and it seems to me that, as in Tibet and northern Pakistan, this sort of behaviour seems to manifest itself in areas where the adult population feels marginalized in their own land by foreign overlords (Punjabis in Pakistan, Han Chinese in Tibet, Turks here), and where outsiders are consequently viewed with suspicion and hostility. As well, the native culture of the land is often damaged or destroyed by the actions of the foreign occupiers, leaving the young people feeling disaffected and alienated. (Think of native North American reservations in Canada in this context.) Either that, or the Kurds are merely innately evil schmucks! I certainly hope that the rock-throwing, which reached a climax in Dogubeyazit (aka "Dogbiscuit"), dies down as I head towards more prosperous, more Turkish parts of Turkey.

The cycling, aside from the hail of stones and the incessant begging, has been pretty good since Ani. I took a day to reach the outskirts of Igdir, coming down the Turkish-Armenian border only a few kilometres from my tracks a few days earlier. At one point, near Tuzluca, the Armenian and Turkish border towers were only 50 metres or so from each other, close enough to have conversations if the soldiers wanted to. This part of eastern Turkey has the feeling of an occupied country, with the military everywhere, in encampments, manning roadblocks and driving around in armoured personnel carriers. It's ostensibly aimed at protecting the border, but I think it's more to keep the Kurds and the PKK in line.

The ride from Igdir to Dogbiscuit was surprisingly easy, around the shoulder of Mt. Ararat (hidden in clouds, sadly). Dogbiscuit lived up to its name, a sprawl of concrete shanties across a plain, full of evil kids. Its only redeeming features are that it's close to the Iranian border (generations of overland travellers have passed through Dogubeyazit and mangled its name), and that it's overlooked by a pretty 17th-century palace (the Ishak Pasha Saray) and some 2700-year-old Urartu-era fortifications. It's ironic that my childhood nickname, Gravy Train, was a brand of dog food. Appropriate that I ended up in Dogubeyazit!

The last two days of riding saw a huge pass (2644 metres above sea level) and then a beautiful long downhill to salty Lake Van and its Armenian and Urartu-era ruins. I spent yesterday exploring the castle and Urartu-era inscriptions at the Rock of Van, and today looking at more Urartu ruins at Cavustepe. I had never heard of the Urartu civilization before, but it was pretty major and the forerunner of the Armenian state.

So now, after a day off from cycling, the road west starts; I hope to be in Antalya and Ayas, the twin endpoints of this odyssey, within three weeks. How quickly the end is coming!!

Peace and Tailwinds

Graydon









Riding Day No.

Date

Distance

From Bushehr

Daily

Distance


Final Elevation

Vertical

Metres

Cycling

Time


Average

Speed

Maximum

Speed

Daily Destination
58
9/29
5275.4
102.6
1461
1076
7:01
14.6
35.7
Anipemza
59
9/30
5372.2
96.8
2205
1884
7:00
13.9
56.4
Bavra, Georgia
60
10/1
5450.3
78.1
1220
531
6:24
12.2
34.4
Vardzia
61
10/2
5517.3
67.0
955
744
4:12
15.9
47.1
Akhaltsikhe
62
10/3
5592.6
75.3
2090
2603
7:04
10.6
55.8
Damal, Turkey
63
10/4
5695.7
103.1
1768
1307
6:40
15.5
51.3
Kars
64
10/5
5763.0
67.3
1601
753
4:48
14.0
47.1
Kozluca (near Ani)
65
10/6
5861.7
98.7
923
991
6:20
15.6
53.9
near Igdir
66
10/7
5947.3
85.6
1706
1486
6:05
14.1
48.6
Dogubeyazit
67
10/8
6060.0
112.7
1722
1486
7:14
15.6
49.9
NE corner of Lake Van
68
10/9
6136.1
76.1
1774
770
4:33
16.7
53.4
Van

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