19 June, 2010

Hitching out of Erzurum

The first morning in Erzurum, i awoke feeling dizzy; when i closed my eyes the sensation was like riding a gyroscope. The third night was punctuated by rushes to the bathroom. I wanted to climb one of the peaks towering around town, but between the utter unavailability of map and trail info, and the daily rain, and thinking it wise to recover a bit, i was content to sit in teahouses. Approachability and freedom, the manifold blessings of traveling alone, come with a curse: you are solely responsible for your own motivation.

A great set of Couchsurfing hosts helped make the days comfortable. Mustafa and his flatmates run a revolving door for travelers; this city is still a crossroads long after the silk trade died. This morning while i lay sluggish, a French couple made a pit stop on their way to the peaks and shortly after a Croatian arrived, hoping to secure here visa for Iran at the embassy in town. The sense of community was grand, and the mountains beckoned, but each day i failed to climb them my sense of frustration, stagnation and failure grew larger. I had to get out of Erzurum.

So i do what any person in their right mind would not. Without reservation, bottled water, or a poncho - with only the name of a town and a pansiyon to go on - i set off for Yusufeli. Following Mustafa's suggestion, and with the cardboard sign he graciously gave me, thumbing it.

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The mountains here are magnificent. At the edges of a vast flatness north of Erzurum, they are at first smooth and green, and the road climbs gently through. Beginning with Tortum, it's more turtuous. Gardens are tucked against the road, between rows of poplars, making one wonder how they get any sun. The road begins a long descent; the peaks here are sharper, brown, sparsely hued with clump-forming grasses and flowers. Snowpacks recede into the distance as the walls on either side grow narrower, the river swifter. From one town nestled into the ravine, a single minaret peeks up from among the poplars. This is not what one expects Turkiye to look like.

Geologically speaking, the place looks like it's been through a blender. Streaks of limestone appear. The mountains become more jagged and striated, like a giant, dull agate in cross section. Above a hazel-blue lake the road winds precipitously; across the lake the mountains loom nearly vertical, as if sheared off, exposing marbled, swirling strata. Then the striations become vertical. By the time i reach Yusufeli the peaks are a jagged jumble fit only for wild goats, and the road is a single lane.

Hitching in northeast Turkiye turns out to be quite feasible. Three rides suffice to bridge the distance: a tow truck, a trash truck, and an off-duty police officer - who comically informed me near the ride's end that in Turkiye there is in fact a fine for failing to wear one's seatbelt.