As I rode the 35km from the border at Bazargan to Dogubayazit a snow-covered peak appeared out of the heat haze to the north. Eventually I realised that it must be Mt. Ararat, of Old Testament fame. I couldn’t see any sign of Noah or his Ark though.
It was a perfect day for riding – good roads, blazing blue skies, spectacular scenery and surprisingly little traffic. Dogubayazit came and went without a second thought as I headed for Agri and the Tahir Pass on the way to Horasan.
It was in Horasan I came back down to earth with a thud.
After months in Central Asia and Iran I had become accustomed to paying less than US$1/L for fuel. In fact, in Iran and Turkmenistan it was only US$0.35/L. But in Turkey it was about US$2.40/L – almost 8 times the price in Iran that I had left just a few hours ago. This was going to have a big impact on the budget!
Rejoining the main highway I dawdled the last 85km to Erzurum – relishing the fact I could at least read the road signs even if I couldn’t understand them. I found a decent hotel right in the centre of Erzurum without too much trouble. The staff were very friendly but were aghast when I told them I had just spent 2-3 weeks in Iran. They would not believe that a Western tourist could travel independently on a motorcycle in Iran. I assured them that the Iranian people had been unfailingly friendly. They remained unconvinced. As I had discovered throughout my travels, it was very common for the people of one country to believe that the neighbouring country was inhabited solely by thieves, murderers and sundry ne’er-do-wells.
Nevertheless, I decided that Erzurum also seemed like a friendly place and was worth more than the planned overnight stop, so the Hotel Dilaver became my home for a couple of days as I set about exploring the city and its history.
Erzurum is one of the largest cities in Eastern Anatolia but was originally part of ancient Kingdom of Armenia. Unfortunately for the Armenians, their little kingdom stood between the two great superpowers of the ancient world – the Byzantine and the Persian Empires. Armenia didn’t stand a chance. It was divided in two between the Byzantines and Persians in 347AD and would not regain its independence for another 500 years.
Sadly, there is not much left of ancient Erzurum.
Modern-day Erzurum is a university town, full of young Turks thanks to the presence of the Ataturk University founded in 1950. Every evening the streets would come alive as hundreds of students poured out of the various campuses in search of food, entertainment and other students.
One day, while having lunch in a small café, I decided to try a local drink that seemed to be very popular with my fellow diners. It was bright purple and reminded me of pomegranate juice. Expecting a sweet juice I took a healthy swig only to find it was nothing like pomegranate juice at all. I read the fine print on the back label to discover it was salted turnip juice. It tasted like a cross between beetroot juice and vinegar. Definitely an acquired taste!
One local drink I had no trouble acquiring a taste for was Efes, the excellent Turkish beer. Even though the vast majority of the Turkish population are Muslim that doesn’t seem to stop them enjoying a beer or six. Or a bottle or two of raki – the local aniseed firewater similar to arak or ouzo. After 2-3 weeks of enforced abstinence in Iran it was great to relax with a cold beer again at the end of a hard day’s sight-seeing.
Erzurum turned out to be a pleasant little city to spend a couple days while I did a major rethink of my route. Time and money were now becoming pressing issues. The eight-fold increase in the cost of petrol had taken me by surprise. And, combined with my plan to be in Istanbul by the end of the month, it left me no alternative but to abandon my idea to take the much longer southern route through Sanliurfa, Cappadocia and along the Mediterranean Coast to Ephesus. So I decided to head directly for Istanbul. This was a major blow as the southern route was going to be a significant part of my travels in Turkey.
My mind up, I would now take the direct route across Turkey to Istanbul via Sivas and Kirikkale skirting Ankara if possible. At my pace it would still take me about 3 days to get there.
So for one last day I enjoyed the sights of Erzurum and acquired an even greater taste for Efes.