Our last week in Turkey came to a rapid end. From Cappadocia, we were supposed to visit Mount Nemrut and the massive statues from its Royal Tomb, but we had to give it a wide berth after reports of an ISIS camp nearby. This meant we were also giving Lake Van’s swimming cats a miss too. Even though we were gutted at this change in itinerary, safety first so we made the best of it. Instead, our new route had us heading to the Black Sea, where our first stop was the very ancient Unye Castle. That night we bush camped on the beach of Tirebolu, smack dab in the center of the city. Amazingly, we were welcomed with open arms, given permission to camp and use the nearby facilities, and had a bride and groom crash our dinner preparations (wedding crashing in reverse!). At dusk, a pod of dolphins even made an appearance, giving us a warm welcome to the Black Sea. From Tirebolu, we hoped to see the insanely popular Sumela Monastery. Unfortunately, it was closed for renovations, so we only got to admire it from afar. Next up was a spectacular drive through the Kackar Mountains, culminating at the mountain village of Yusufeli, which is definitely off the beaten path. At Yusufeli, we heard about the nearby annual Kilickaya Bull Festival, where we spent a pleasant couple of hours checking out the dueling sets of bulls. Our last town in Turkey was Dogubayazit (aka “Doggy Biscuit”), where we hiked up to the lovely Palace of Ishak Pasha to soak up the sunset views. Then it was a quick dash over to the border town of Bazargan so we could exit Turkey and enter Iran. Turkey definitely surprised and impressed us, and we left country number 1 of our Silk Road trip with some great memories.
12 May – Drove to Unye and visited an old hilltop castle from 200s BC. The castle has been occupied by 30-40 different nations over the years. From Unye we made our way to the Black Sea and drove along the coast to Tirebolu, where we camped on the beach at a beach park area. The area was chained off to vehicles, but the owner opened the chain for us so we could set up right next to picnic tables by the beach. Facilities included basic toilets and outdoor showers for rinsing off. Gunji took the opportunity to strip stark naked and showered nude much to the horror of the locals. Kate had to have a little one on one talk with him about what is appropriate in Japan isn’t appropriate in a Muslim country…not a fun conversation! Around sunset several dolphins breached the surface of the water to our delight. A young couple in their wedding finest ended up crashing our cook group preparations…they were reluctant to pose for photos so we didn’t push the issue.
13 May – Today we had a morning drive to Sumela Monastery. It had been under renovation and we were informed that it might be closed. However we suspected that we could at least get some nice photos of the cliff face monastery from the outside. From the parking area, it was a fairly tough hike up a steep hill for about 20 minutes. At the top of the path there was a gate that was closed and surprise, surprise…no view of the monastery from the top! At least we got some good exercise though. There was a partial view from the midway point, so we took what photos we could and then backtracked to the truck for lunch. Kevin and Daniel didn’t heed the departure time that Kate had put out and they showed up over an hour after everyone else had eaten lunch without an apology for making the group wait for them…they are not making a good impression on the group. From Sumela, we drove further along the coast before tucking inland toward the Kackar Mountains. Our bush camp was by a raging river in a deep canyon along the road. Becky had cook group and it rained, as has been the case nearly every time she has been on cook group duty. After dinner we built up a big camp fire to warm and dry us out. Mark slept outside under the stars and Kate opened the truck beach top, thinking optimistically that there would be no rain. It was a gamble that didn’t pay off because of course it did start raining later in the night and soaked everything in sight. Poor Kyle had to wake up in the middle of the night to help Kate close up the beach.
14 May – From our bush camp, we drove to Ispir where Robby had to do cook group shopping. Meanwhile, Becky took the opportunity to check out Ispir Castle. After Ispir, we opened up the beach on Habibi for the first time and were soon rewarded with two juvenile brown bears! Dya practically manhandled poor Connie out of her way in her excitement with a loud “GET OUTTA MY WAY!!!” combined with an elbow or two. Seeing the bears was totally unexpected and a highlight of the day. We need to start opening the beach more often, ha. Our route took us through a snow capped mountain pass where quick thinking Kate and Kyle made a command decision to stop and fill up the coolers with some fresh snow to keep our beverages cold. Great call! Up in the Kackar Mountains, we found out that Kyle has an accurate arm…he pinged a few people with well aimed snowballs, making us glad we weren’t in the middle of the fight! As we made our way toward Yusufeli, we drove through some awesome landscapes. The roads were extremely narrow with only a few inches to spare on either side of Habibi, but Kyle drove like a champ. One driver could not easily pass us from the other direction and became impatient, scraping the side of our truck after he got himself stuck between a stone wall and our truck. What a major arsehole…he drove off before Kyle could get his vehicle insurance details. Thankfully there was only superficial damage done to Habibi. Once we finally pulled into the mountain village of Yusufeli, we camped at the comfortable Green Piece camp site. There, we got a chance to do laundry and take a hot water shower before joining the gang up on the second floor balcony for drinks. Robby’s cook group made chili for dinner which went down a treat.
15 May – Today almost all of us had coordinated a visit to remote Kilickaya village for a local bull fighting festival! The bull fighting was a bit dangerous at times because the bulls would sometimes escape their locked horns position and rush into the crowd. Imagine a 2500 lb bull rushing towards you out of control…fortunately no one was injured while we were there! While at Kilickaya, we befriended Esra and Mustafa, two local kids who were keen to practice their English and teach us basic Turkish. Great kids! Back at camp in the late afternoon, Kate had us all get together for a massive truck clean. Unfortunately, it started pouring buckets just after we started so it took a while for everything to get dried. Happily, since everyone contributed, truck clean didn’t take too long and we were done in about an hour. Afterwards, we relaxed with a couple of drinks up on the second floor porch until dinner was ready. The quad cook group (Daniel, Kevin, Denise and Mark) made onion soup and garlic bread…yum!
16 May – We left Yusufeli early in the morning for a long drive towards the Iranian border. There was a short stop in Kars for cook group shopping before the onward drive to Dogubayazit, which is just under an hour from the Iranian border. In Dogubayazit, we camped at Murat Camping which is located a few kilometers on the outskirts of town up a mountain, just below Ishak Pasha Palace. We climbed up a slight hill to the rear of the campsite to reach the palace (amazing views) and then set about organizing everything for the border crossing. Kate wanted us all to have all our stuff packed away in our main big bag just in case the border police demanded we have our bags inspected tomorrow. After dinner, Lars led the charge to the campsite’s bar where there was free Raki on offer. We opted to bypass that lively scene as nursing a hangover during a border crossing was not our cup of tea.
17 May – It was an early morning so we could be the first to cross the border when it opened, so breakfast was at 6:30 am. Dya had created a concoction of Vermicelli for breakfast which Becky loved but everyone else (including the 2 camp dogs) hated…poor Dya! Good effort though, ha. Then we loaded up for the Bazargan border. The uniform of the morning was smart casual, with everyone dressed in their best long sleeved tops, long loose flowing bottoms, and closed toe shoes. As required by law, the ladies also had headscarves on. After dressing so freely in Turkey, it was quite a shock to our bodies with everyone sweltering with all that extra clothing. Kate advised us that the time in Iran was forward 1.5 hours so we set our watches accordingly. While trying to exit the Turkish side of the border, we discovered that paper copies of our e-visa were required. The first few members of the group didn’t have theirs (either taken at the airport when first entering or misplaced) and they were sent to the police station at the other side of the building. We had ours handy and were the first two through the chaotic queue. Several aggressive locals kept plowing through the group and cutting everyone off, so eventually the group wised up and did their best to prevent the locals from taking advantage of them.