Cycling the Silk Road in Eastern Turkey

I was sad to leave Cappadocia

It was a little tourist haven, with good (vegetarian) food, coffee and plenty of English speakers. Plus of course, I didn’t have to spend any time on a bicycle. It was nice to be back in the backpacking/ tourist world, if only for a short time. It was time to start cycling the Silk Road in Eastern Turkey. We were on a tight schedule to get to Erzurum to sort out our Iranian visas, which meant a lot of kilometers in a very hot climate (35-40 degrees) and over several very high mountain passes, with no rest days.

Looking back now, the cycle to Erzurum was pretty uneventful.

We woke up at 5am each morning, cycled until midday, rested for a few hours under some shade, then continued cycling from 5pm until about 8pm, or until we found a nice, decent gas station, with a garden out the back to set up camp. We did this for 9 days straight. Over 750km cycled, including 4 mountain passes. The most eventful thing that happened was sleeping in a mosque in a small village called Surhan. All the village locals invited us for dinner, and after dinner we slept in the study room of the mosque.

By the time we got to Erzurum we were pretty knackered and very much over cycling. We had planned to stay in Erzurum a few days with a couchsurfer, Saadet. I am very glad we did. It was one of the best couchsurfing experiences I’ve had. We rested, got to eat some yummy home-cooked, Turkish food and recover. One thing I love about couchsurfing – seeing how locals live and learning about the culture. I learnt so much from Saadet! She was very open to talking about religion and politics, which can sometimes be ‘touchy’ subjects.

I was even sadder to leave Erzurum than Cappadocia – but Iran was calling, and we still had another 350km before reaching the Iranian border. It was time to continue cycling the Silk Road in Eastern Turkey.

cycling the silk road in eastern Turkey
Cycling the silk road in Turkey

Cycling in Kurdistan

Leaving Erzurum and entering the Kurdish part of Turkey was almost like entering a new country. The roads got worse, the villages seemed poorer and the kids were little shits. Overall, there was just a negative vibe in the air. I noticed a lot of younger people staring at us with disapproving eyes. Some even gave us the finger or yelled out, “fuck you”, while others started chanting “money, money, money” before, after or whilst throwing rocks at us. Obviously, not all Kurdish people were dicks, there were still some really nice, friendly people in Kurdistan. Strangely, I found that usually the older the person, the friendlier they were.

The second day cycling in the Kurdish region was probably one of the worst cycle days to date. The route from Horasan to Eleskirt, unknown to us, had the highest mountain pass (2200m) of the trip so far. If we were cycling this in daylight on an autumn day, then maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad, however we started the ascent in the late evening. This was my fault, as I didn’t feel comfortable wild camping in the valley (which was our original plan), and I underestimated the steepness of the mountain. So we made the ascent at the end of an already, very long cycle day, in the pitch black of night, with crappy torches that weren’t working and on a shit road, with a narrow hard shoulder.

I got a bad vibe in the area and could hear whispers coming from the valley.

It was clear that there were people hanging around in the valley, even though there were no towns nearby. We eventually made it to the top of the pass, surprised to find the mountain pass sign, and even more surprised to be approached by a Turkish truck driver whom had parked at the top of the pass. He had been waiting for us to arrive at the top. He clearly was not happy, and started yelling out “Problem. Problem.” followed by some Turkish words I didn’t understand. Luckily, Michael speaks some Turkish, so we managed to make some sense of it all.

He told us, that the area between Erzurum and Dogubayazit was extremely dangerous. The PKK extremist Kurdish, terrorist group operated in the area. He then went on to tell us that he had once been held up at gunpoint in the area. Basically, he scared the shit out of us. After what seemed like a very long 10 minutes, he said he would follow us down the mountain pass, in his truck, to a military checkpoint, about 3km away, where he said we could camp. It was the shittest downhill cycle ever. I couldn’t even make out a meter in front of me. That on top of it being a extremely shitty road, full of pot holes and gravel. We didn’t expect these types of challenges while cycling the Silk Road in Eastern Turkey.

Cycling the silk road in Eastern Turkey

Eventually we made it to the military base.

Words were exchanged between our truck driver the military soldiers. We were then escorted into the base, where we had tea and chocolates. The military told us that the area was not that bad anymore. That only the traffic is a dangerous. This was followed by being told we could camp at a gas station another 3 km down the hill. Our truck driver escort had already left by this stage, so we had to make the final descent by ourselves. Unfortunately the road didn’t improve. I have never been so happy to see a gas station. The owners were lovely, they gave us tea and let us set up camp. They seemed like genuinely nice (Kurdish) people.

I’m not sure whether the area really had PKK activity or not, but I am certain the truck driver believed we were in danger. It definitely put us on edge for the next few cycle days.

Dodging flying hubcaps

It wasn’t until we reached Agri the following day that we experienced, the infamous, ‘rock-throwing’ children (just what you want while cycling in the summer heat). So not only did we have shepherd’s dogs to worry about, we now had ‘rock-throwing’ children, aged as young as 3 years to about 15 years. The worse incident was about 10km outside of Agri. A child decided to launch a hubcap at us from the back of a moving truck. It narrowly missed our heads. By this stage I was over Kurdistan, and looking very forward to getting to Iran, where I heard the people were lovely.

Ramadan Byram

For the past 4 weeks we had been cycling the Silk Road in Eastern Turkey during Ramadan, an Islamic religious event, where muslims fast during the day. Obviously it made it a little awkward to get food or drink, or to eat and drink in public during the day. The day we arrived in Dogubayazit was the first day of Ramadan Byram, a festive holiday following the end of Ramadan. It seemed a bit like Halloween, only kids roam the streets during the day and night, looking for lollies and sweets.

As it turned out, it was possibly the worse day of the year to cycle into a city in Kurdistan. I have never in my life thought I would have to escape mobs of kids, screaming “money, money, money,” throwing the occasional rock, or attempting to slap one of us across the face. It was not a fun experience! We quickly found a cheap hotel (Hotel Isfahan), where the staff were extremely fr

iendly, and no kids were allowed. We then got stuck in Dogubayazit for the next 4 days, as we needed to withdraw dollars and euros from the bank for Iran (as you can’t use ATM’s in Iran), and the banks were closed for holidays. I could think of better places to be trapped.


A run for the border

After 4 days, we finally got money and were able to make our way to the border, only 35km away. We thought by this stage we would be in the clear of the rock throwing kids. Until, I by chance read about teenagers attempting to attack cyclists crossing from Dogubayzit to the Iranian border. Not with just rocks, but with chains. The fun times keep coming. We thought it would be safest to head off early in the morning, before anyone would be awake, to avoid bumping into these teenagers. In hindsight this was stupid and it would have been safer to wait until midday when all the roads get busier.

The biggest concern for us was that we were carrying so much money. All the money to last us in Iran. I’m not sure whether the locals in this area would know that or not – I hope they don’t. We were lucky, and didn’t have any problems. Though, it could have been a different story. As we were cycling through one town, at about 7am, there was no traffic on the road, at all. I have actually never seen the roads so quiet. I spotted some teenager shepherds just off the road; as they spotted us, they got up and walked on to the road.

There were 3 of them, and they all walked with long metal polls.

There was something about them that was very suspicious. One boy walked to the other side of the road. This meant we would have to cycle through the middle of them. I started cycling further out into the road, as there was no chance I was going to let that happen. Other than that, there was nothing that we could do except cycle fast, don’t stop, and hope they don’t try anything. We cycled around them, they eyed us, and hesitated. We said “hello”, continued cycling, and luckily nothing happened. I was relieved to finally reach the border. Crossing the border into Iran was no problem, and within 30 minutes we were through passport control and customs, and safely in Iran. I could not have been happier!!

Overall we did enjoy cycling the Silk Road in Eastern Turkey, unfortunately there were just a few incidents that made it a little difficult.

Note for cyclists headed the same route while cycling the Silk Road in Eastern Turkey:

*** There is a town about 10-15km from the border called Asagi Tavia, if you are planning on cycling through this town please take care. Though the teenagers didn’t try it with us, they did act very strange, and were holding big metal polls. I’m sure it’s not long before they actually try something on with cyclists, particularly if you are by yourself. I’ve also heard other reports of cyclists getting attacked in this area. ***

Cycling the silk road in Eastern Turkey
Arriving at the Iranian border

Cycling the Silk Road in Eastern Turkey stats:

Money found on the road: Michael – 108 lira ($53) vs. Me – nothing

Kilometers cycled in Turkey: 2300km

Total km: 4400km

Time spent in Turkey: 6 weeks

Total days: 104 days

Punctures: Michael – we’ve lost count, but at least 23 vs. Me – 2

Accommodation: x4 nights Couchsurfing, x1 night mosque, x4 nights hotel, x1 pension/ guesthouse, wild camping (mostly at gas stations)

Compare these stats to our cross Canada Cycle trip!

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