28th June – 5th July
Given that Turkey’s been trying to join the EU since 1959, it’s somewhat surprising when we’re asked to stump up $20 each for a visa at the border.
Ever diplomatic, we politely remark that the (equally ambitious) Georgians have done away with their visa requirements– but our observations fall on very deaf ears. All immigration officials are masters in the art of indifference, but these ones take passivity to a whole new level.
Other than that the crossing into Turkey is smooth, swift and uneventful; we can tell we’re closer to Europe than Asia now when a customs officer asks us if we’re carrying large quantities of “cigarettes and alcohol” rather than “guns and drugs”.
We drive west from the border, following the Black Sea coast, to Hopa. The coastline is as dramatic as it was in Georgia; the coast road sandwiched neatly between densely forested mountains above us and rocky beaches below.
From Hopa we turn inland, weaving our way along serpentine mountain roads, through Turkish tea plantations and alongside narrow gorges. Whilst it’s beautiful, we can’t believe how developed it is: towns marked as small on our map comprise battalions of high-rise blocks, spilling along the valleys in every build-able direction. Sprawling Artvin reminds us of a Chinese city whilst even the tiny back roads are in pristine condition.
We stop for lunch at a little restaurant tucked in the woodlands off the main road and our first Turkish food is excellent. Local Alabalik fish (small Turkish trout), dolma, kebabs and olive-filled salads. But it’s not cheap; the equivalent of £15 – even here, in an eastern backwater.
Food’s not the only thing that’s expensive out here: Turkish fuel is almost the most expensive in the world. Petrol’s a whopping £1.60 / litre; diesel is a little better at £1.35 / litre but still a hell of a shock to our systems – we haven’t consistently paid more than 60 pence per litre for months!
After lunch we follow a narrow gorge southwards towards Yusafeli, our first night’s destination. A fierce river thunders through the bottom of the gorge and we’re flanked on either side by yellow rocky cliffs that rise 300 metres above us. It’s dramatic but we can’t help notice the dozens of deserted villages: a massive dam construction project is underway here and in a few years the road we’re on will be submerged beneath 100 metres of water.
The following day we push on west – Turkey is a vast country (the largest in Europe) and we’ve only 9 days to get across it. Past vast Erzerum, the high plateau of eastern Anatolia holds little for us in the way of scenery and we make the most of the new motorway, covering nearly 400km before lunch.
Oil, oil everywhere
Progress after lunch isn’t quite so smooth. Within 100km we suddenly lose 4th gear, on a slight incline, and typically – exactly halfway between two of Turkey’s large cities (Erzincan and Sivas) – in the middle of nowhere. The underside of the car looks like the Gulf of Mexico – not a good sign.
It looks like a huge leak in our gearbox somewhere, so we empty our remaining transmission fluid into the car and limp on, praying there’s enough fluid in there to prevent the gearbox grinding itself into an oily pâté.
Luckily, another 10km on we find a fuel station – being so developed here (it’s all relative!) they even sell transmission fluid at the filling stations – and can refill the box properly and carry on. Good timing, as shortly after we drive through one of the worst thunderstorms either of us have ever experienced – so much so relieved to make it through the other side without succumbing to a direct lightning strike.
After a good night’s sleep in cheerful, untouristy and pretty Sivas we head on to Cappadocia, stopping at the Toyota garage only to be told there’s nothing drastically wrong with the car. We’ve heard that before, days before our cylinder head cracked in Laos…
Cappadocia is another shock to our systems. The region is deservedly Turkey’s second biggest tourist attraction behind Istanbul, but we certainly weren’t prepared for the crowds, or the caravans, or the campervans… Suddenly, our overland adventure is over and we’re firmly back into European camping holiday territory.
It’s certainly not all bad though. We check into an extraordinary campsite, Kaya Camping, which for £12 per night gives you incredible views over the Göreme valley, a wonderful swimming pool, washing machines and free wi-fi… Our planned two nights turn into three, one of which is spent entirely within the ground’s confines.
When we do manage to drag ourselves away from the pool, Cappadocia is worth the effort. The scenery in the surrounding valleys is incomparable: semi-arid plateaus littered with thousands of colourful pillars and ripples of rock, formed by millions of years of erosion. Amongst these surreal canyons and clusters of natural towers, people have built their houses into the soft rock for millennia.
Entire cities, churches and cathedrals exist underground or hewn into the rock-faces. One could spend weeks here, exploring caves, grottoes and wonderful natural formations – but perhaps we’ve seen enough things recently – a day and a half is sufficient for us and the pool is calling…
Camping in style
We spend three wonderful and relaxing days here, including two memorable and drunken nights with Laurent and Thibault, two charming and like-minded French overlanders who very kindly cook us our first celebratory engagement supper and of course, being civilized and French, produce a superb bottle of champagne to accompany it…
In return, we muster up fine scrambled eggs and coffee for breakfast – much to their delight and envy. For whilst they may carry champagne, we carry a coffee percolator and a twin-hob stove…
After three days, reluctantly, we press on again, now making all haste for Istanbul.
We bypass the modern metropolis of Ankara (only the third country we’ve visited where we’ve deliberately missed the capital) and spend a night en-route on the Black Sea coast, 600 miles west of where we left it at Hopa. It looks just the same – lush mountains dropping precipitously into a clear blue sea.
Finally, officially, Europe
Driving into Istanbul, we’re swiftly reminded about European congestion, and sit in a traffic jam for an hour and a half in the outskirts.
Finally, with a feeling of achievement and excitement (as well as sadness) we cross the Bosphorus and finally return to mainland Europe – 11 ½ months after we left it, crossing the Ural River in Kazakhstan last July.
Any sentimental thoughts are swiftly put on hold, though, dealing with navigational and traffic issues in Istanbul’s old city. Beautiful it may be but it’s a bitch to navigate thanks to it’s plethora of one-way systems and car-free tramlines.
Eventually we loose our patience and opt for the tramlines; Nina then manages to sweet-talk a security guard into removing some bollards from a pedestrianised road; shortly afterwards we’re parked outside the Four Seasons Hotel, where we can leave the car for free whilst we stay in an equally well located but considerably cheaper lodging across the street.
The summer holidays may have started, but Istanbul makes Cappadocia look like a veritable backwater. Istanbul’s collection of vast, bulbous mosques and piercing minarets are extraordinary sights but simultaneously an absolute scrum of inappropriately dressed, sunburnt, camera-wielding humanity. Virtually every dwelling in the charismatic old town is a boutique hotel or restaurant. There’s little to fault, but it’s a shock to our unacclimatised senses.
After two frenetic and expensive days, we drive north, along 250km of pristine, near empty motorway, to the Bulgarian border. We don’t get our passports stamped and Nina doesn’t even have to get out of the car! It must be Europe. All being well, 10 days and we’ll be home…