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Out with a bust on the Black Sea Coast

We were stuck in the mud.  In our sandals and flip flops, we were walking around the car in the middle of nowhere, Turkey, looking for sticks.  This was the fourth calamity we faced on the not-quite-a-road that we were were taking to get back down to the Coast after a nefarious waypoint brought us to a tiny village at the top of a mountain. 

As usual, we followed the sense of wanderlust and freedom that we shared as two sisters driving driving along the Black Sea.  We blocked out reason and followed the same GPS that got us lost, stuck, or provided lovely 10 hour detours so many times before. 

When we checked out of the hotel in Sinop in the morning, I glanced at a map that showed that there was a road that rounded the peninsula. As someone who hates backtracking, I asked the clerk if we could take it all the way back to the main coast highway.  The scenery as we exited Sinop was probably the best of the day: green hills falling into a calm Black Sea with wildflowers and cows dotting the bucolic land.

Beyond evaluating how to best enjoy the scenery as we left Sinop, neither of us thought to look at a map to determine the route to Amasra, our next destination.  So as we left the city, we just kept turning in the direction we thought would take us nearest to the coast.  After one coast road ended in a beautiful seaside park, we put a waypoint on the GPS near where we thought the coast highway would be.  We traveled on a road covered in wet asphalt, which we could smell forming layers on the car’s exterior and undercarriage.  Then we ended up in a small town with serpentine one-way streets and picked up a stalker van full of Turkish teenagers throwing empty beer cans out the window.  I was actually happy to make lots of odd turns in the city, if only to lose the van full of drunk teens. 

Exiting this weird town, we followed narrower and narrower dirt roads up a mountain.  Although we could clearly see the sea, we couldn’t make out a road between the one we were on and the shore.  Maybe there wasn’t even a Black Sea Highway in these parts.

After cross-checking the GPS and Google Maps, we found a road a little closer to the coast and decided to take a 2 km connector to get there.  The connector was a village road, where we had to go very slowly in order to avoid the rocks and ditches, or stop altogether to coax a donkey out of the way.


donkey: a Turkish style roadblock

We finally turned onto our chosen road, which we planned to take for 13 km and then meet up with the highway that we were already desperately craving.  At first it seemed fine, but as we advanced the road quality deteriorated.  First, we had to open a cattle gate guarded by this weird mannequin:

IMG_4756Then we had to avoid mud puddles and ditches and drive around the far outside of a creek that had collapsed the other edge of the road.  The road material went from asphalt to gravel to dirt to a nice grassy surface, with plants growing to about knee-height in the middle.  After the grass were the mud spots, which I managed to avoid for a while.  We finally reached the point, however, where we could no longer drive around the mud and wedged ourselves right in the middle of it.

At first we tried putting the car in neutral and pushing, which is a pretty foolish plan until you get stuck in the mud in the middle of nowhere. Then we tried using sticks to shovel the mud away from the stuck tire, which is about as stupid as trying to push the car.  Emily and I walked around the car the a few times and sized up our surrounding without much communicating.  Finally, she started collecting sticks and breaking them up into foot-long pieces.  I was out of ideas, so I just started gathering all the sticks I could find.  Finally, I asked her why we were breaking sticks.

Her plan was to place the sticks as traction behind all of the tires, and then back out of the mud.   As it was the only plan we had, it was genius!  After about 5 more minutes of breaking sticks, we started to arrange them behind all of the tires.  I got back behind the wheel and put the top back down so I could quickly respond to her directions.  The crack of every stick was agony.  Would our escape plan only pitch the car further into the mud? 

The sticks saved us, and I backed up another half kilometer or so until there was an almost clearing where I could execute a 20 point turn and get us the hell off of this non-road.  At this point, driving miles upon miles on wet asphalt would be heaven. 

We drove past all of the now-familiar mud puddles, took the far edge of the creek that collapsed the road, and passed the weird dummy by the gate and the donkey roadblock.  Back through the villages and onto the wet asphalt road.  This time, we happily followed the rest of the traffic, and found the actual highway that would take us all the way to Amasra.

The Lonely Plant said the road from Amasra to Sinop was like driving the Pacific Coast Highway in California.  I was so excited for a beautiful coastal road with cliffs and amazing scenery.  Instead, we found ourselves on several more dirt or gravel roads and faced hours upon hours of relentless switchbacks.  Although every once in a while there was an amazing view, for the most part the road was relentlessly curvy and graded.  Driving here required full concentration.  As the hours passed, we became less interested in seeing a scenic historic city and instead started to crave any hotel anywhere. 

I finally found a hotel that had alcohol and wifi right on the coast in Side, about an hour east of Amasra.  The best moment of the day was when we found jumbo Efes bottles in the mini-bar of our room!

sunset from our hotel dinner

sunset from our hotel dinner

I can’t say enough about Hotel Yali on the Black Sea Coast.  It’s comfortable and friendly.  And if you can’t make it all the way from Sinop to Amasra or vice versa, it’s a completely okay place to stop for the night.

On our way to Istanbul the next day, we tried to get the car washed at a filling station.  After about ten minutes with a power hose, the guy gave up.

So, moral of the story: look at map when planning your drive in Turkey.  This is a lesson that I just can’t seem to learn.  The flipside: arm yourself with endless optimism, and even when stuck in the mud on the Black Sea coast, you’ll feel confident that somehow, someway, it will all work out, as it always does. 

Driving the Black Sea Coast: Sumela, Trabzon, and Sinop


the view of the mountains in Altindere National Park

After about a week of relative isolation in the mountains, Emily and I were not prepared for the tourist invasion at the Sumela Monastery.  As we drove into the park, located south of Trabzon, we felt accosted by the crowds.  Bodies occupied every space available on the roads, and the quality of the road in the Black Sea Region had not altered in the park.  On the way up the mountain, we stopped or backed up many times at curves in order up to allow another car to pass on the narrow windy road.  Eventually a park ranger ordered us to turn off the road and park up on a gravel hill.  We would be hiking the next kilometer into the monastery.  Even though the path was crowded and we had to pass through some strong body odor clouds along the way, I enjoyed the walk into the monastery more than the monastery itself.  I think after two years of living in Turkey, I may be at the end of my interest in ruins and religious sites.  I keep visiting, through, because these sites always seem to be located in beautiful places, and now I go for the scenery.


look at the edge of the mountain, by the treeline, for the monastery clinging to the cliff

look at the edge of the mountain, by the treeline, for the monastery clinging to the cliff

Even though I’ve got the old stuff fatigue, I’ll give a quick history of the Sumela Monastery, which is known as one of the several Churches of the Virgin Mary (Meryema) in Turkey.  This one was founded in 386 AD by the Romans, and restored several times over the centuries by them, including a huge restoration and enlargement by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century.  When the Ottomans captured the Trabzon region, the sultan protected the monastery.  The monastery was funded by the Greek Orthodox church.  It was taken by the Russians with their capture of Trabzon in the early 1900s and then abandoned in 1923 after the Greek/Turkish population exchange.  Until it was abandoned, it served as a holy place for Orthodox priests and a pilgramage site for the faithful.  It’s current state is a tourist attraction.  Here are a few pictures:

After the monastery we drove back north for a night’s stay in Trabzon.  Along the way, we stopped at many local roadside shops and helped support the economy.  Emily, an amateur beekeeper, was impressed with all of the hives we had seen in the mountains, so we stopped and bought some honey.  Along with the typical wildflower variety, we got chestnut honey, a much darker and richer variety.  The guys told us to use it as medicine, a cure for whatever the ailment.  We also got a pasa table (yep, like the ones in the harem) and some Black Sea style ponchos.

In Trabzon we couldn’t get to our hotel.  The Prime Minister was speaking in the central square, and most of the roads near the center were closed.  We spent about an hour trying to circumvent the blockade, then finally gave up and found a parking lot in a shopping area.  After sampling a local bakery (Trabzon bakers are famous all over Turkey), we found a bazaar and picked up some copper wares.  I wanted to buy everything in the shop but held myself to a Turkish coffee pot and a fish pan.  That night, we walked to the water for a pontoon restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet, but were disappointed to find that they no longer had meze (just green salad) and did not serve alcohol.  So, we walked back into the city and found a pub, where we got our much deserved beer on a hot summer night.  It was definitely the right choice, as we also got a highly entertaining waiter who kept bringing us extas, including a small sample size of beer with our check.  Score!

Before we left for Sinop, we spent the morning buying silver.  Trabzon’s signature is a light-colored woven silver thread.  You can get it in huge flashy pieces, rings, bracelets, or cute little silver knots.  We stocked up on gifts for friends and a few for ourselves, of course.  Besides the shopping, we didn’t see much else of Trabzon.  However, the friendliness and excitement of the copper sellers, the silversmiths, and our wait still left us with a good feeling about the city. 

One of our easiest drives of the road trip was from Trabzon to Sinop.  We were mostly along the Black Sea Highway, which is a four lane fast highway with no cops enforcing speed limits.  We didn’t have any problems until we faced our usual GPS location/actual location conflict when we were actually in Sinop and trying to find our hotel.  Thankfully we could rely on old-fashioned technology of parking and looking down the coast to see that our hotel was most likely on the other side of the peninsula.  When we finally found the hotel, we were rewarded with a great sunset from the comfort of our room:

I wish I had taken pictures of the amazing linen shop we visited in Sinop.  It’s in an old medresah (religious school) that’s been converted into a local crafts bazaar.  The owner-weaver sources linen thread (flax) from all over the Black Sea Region, and then weaves home items, clothes, and bags, and jewelry right in her shop.  I think we were both too focused on figuring out what to buy instead of tourist mode.  After shopping we made our way to the water and Emily got an introduction to a typical Turkish fish dinner.  Instead of sitting down with a menu and waiter service, you’re kind of accosted as soon as you enter.  The host shows you the meze, which you choose as you look into the refrigerated case.  Then you discuss the fish options, and then the drinks.  After all of this verbal picking and choosing is done, you finally get to sit down and relax.  I’m so used to this procedure that I didn’t even realize that it was a different system until Emily pointed it out.  I guess it is kind of weird to make a bunch of decisions in rapid-fire before you even get the comfort of a seat. 

Since we were by the sea on a sunny morning, we took advantage of the hotel’s seawater pool to soak up some sun before we hit the road again.  It was also nice to look back east along the coast, and see how far we had come.



Chilling in Camlihemsin


Hoşgeldiniz means Welcome

It was about 10 p.m. on the Friday the 13th and we had just driven straight through the tiny town of Çamlihemşin without seeing a single sign for our hotel.  We did see an Efes Shop, Turkey’s equivalent of an ABC store, and stopped there only to learn that it was closed and we would get no drinks tonight.  We had driven all the way from the other side of the Kaçkar Mountains, up to the Black Sea Coast, and then back down into the mountains.  It had been a very long day.

So instead of bravely driving around and trying to find it on our own in the darkness, we broke down rather quickly and just called the hotel for directions.  They said we should have taken the road right before the town, driven up the mountain, and then parked after we saw the big truck on the right, you know, after a few curves.  In daylight, we would have seen the sign, but now we were just looking for a big Toyota and counting curves.  

Amazingly, we found it, only to start our next task: hiking through the woods to find our lodge.  The voice on the phone said to just keep walking on the path until you find lights of the main house.  It will seem like you’re in the middle of the woods and can’t possibly be in the right place, they said, but just keep walking, and you’ll get there.


the path to our hotel, which we walked on in the pitch black

Sure enough, it felt like we weren’t in the right place.  I was tempted to call again to make sure we were walking down the right path through the woods in the middle of the night, but Emily seemed confident that we on track, so we kept walking.  We were sharing the headlight I laughingly threw in the bag as I scrambled to pack the week before without a clue that it would actually be so useful. 

After about 15 minutes, we indeed arrived at the lit up house in the middle of the woods.  After being introduced to the family running the place and a few woofers, they brought out a late dinner for us.  Although I was sort of annoyed about the difficulty of finding the place and hike in on the dark unlit path, after one bite of food I completely relaxed.  Ekodanitap, our hotel for the weekend, gets rave reviews for its food, and even with this cold, late dinner we joined the chorus.  We had some kind of soup, an amazingly delicious fresh salad and stuffed peppers.  Everything was seasoned and cooked perfectly and just what we needed. 

After dinner we went to our bungalow and crashed.  The innkeeper had upsold us from a treehouse to a bungalow, as he thought the tree wasn’t really suitable for two people (althought that’s not what the website said).  However, we were so tired that we just went for the bungalow and walked up the steep hill to crash for the night.

We had plans to go on a long hike the next day, but as it was the day after hours of exhausting driving we ended up just chilling at the lodge.  Since we had morning sun on our balcony and a view of the mountains all day, with the sounds of the river rushing by, lounging was a good choice.

our view all day

our view all day

We did manage a walk into the village to check out some of the local architecture.  Çamlihemşin is an Armenian village of a small cultural sect, the Hemşin.  Everybody is incredibly friendly and warm.  Here’s some of the local buildings:

At night, we met the the other lodgers.  Two guys from Istanbul brought one of their sons for a rafting weekend on the Tortum River, which they said was phenomenal.  A music group, Patlika, was staying there to provide entertainment after dinner.  And the WOOF Turkey manager was there with a seed expert friend to start a hike through the Kaçkars.  Because it’s the only place everybody eats side by side at the main house, it’s a pretty social area. We all got to know each other.  From the band, I even learned why Emily and I couldn’t drive through the mountains the day before.

The band’s name was Patika.  I have a habit of asking the meaning of names in Turkey, since there’s almost always a meaning and maybe even a story behind it.  Patika was no exception.  It’s a hiking road through the mountains.  The band is based on the Black Sea coast and sings classic Turkish songs as well as those of the Laz (Black Sea) and Hemşin people.  They played all night while all of the guests kept themselves lubricated with raki.  

U-Turn in the Kaçkars


As we left Erzurum, we planned to drive through Kaçkar National Park, from its southwest to the northeast side. We found a neat eco-hotel on the other side and had made a reservation, which in our minds locked us on this path. According to google maps, the trip should have taken five hours or so. We would admire the view, drink spring water, and take lots of great pictures, all while covering distance in good time on our road trip.

The road north from Erzurum quickly changed from a highway to a windy two-lane mountain road, but as we were in Eastern Turkey and had grown quite used to its variety of roads, we barely noticed the difference. We had the beautiful alpine-like Tortum Lake on our right side for a long spot, and then drove along its feeder river for most of the day.

We stopped to check out the Tortum Falls along the way.


We knew we had to drive northeast, and since we were headed in a basically northerly direction, we generally just chose to turn left at every fork in the road. Occasionally we stopped while a road was being repaved, or a bulldozer very methodically moved dirt around on a pass. At this point the road was not so much paved as flattened dirt, with lots of rocks and potholes. In a word, it was punishing.



To get through without busting the car up, we had to watch the road very carefully and swerve to avoid boulders and puddles while keeping the car from falling off of the road’s edge. A few oncoming cars provided some breaks as inevitably one of us had to back up to let the other car pass. We made something like 15-20 kilometers per hour for a few hours. Each of us drove sections while the other admired the view and tried to snap pictures. Occasionally we caught glimpses of the snow covered peaks as we went around a bend.



At some point the TomTom, our navigation system, told us to turn around. We had printed the route on google maps, and I had the directions spooled up on my iPhone, so we felt certain that there was a way through the mountains to the other side. As we passed villages, we smiled and waved at the folks milling around, as if to say, “We’re headed into the mountains on a great adventure.”

We had lunch along the creek, across the road near an old concrete bridge.  The river was so loud that it was difficult to hear much of anything, and we got so lost in the scenery that we weren’t sure if any cars had passed while we were lounging.


Finally, we reached then entrance to the national park and felt that we had basically made it. Of course the road in the national park would go all the way through to the other side. We stopped to check out the map post at the entrance, but since it just detailed various hikes that you could take, we found it thoroughly confusing. We also talked to a beekeeper at the entrance, who said it would take at least 5 hours to get to Camlihemşin, our destination. He advised that we turn around and take the northerly coastal route.  I checked my google maps on my phone again, but the route and directions had disappeared, and I no longer had cellular service.  Since we were already on this journey, we decided to just keep going.



Kaçkar National Park is difficult to get to, and inside it we only saw signs of local life: villages comprised of a dozen or so clustered houses and an occasional store. However, it is absolutely stunning, which is probably directly connected to the few visitors it receives. Imagine beautiful green pastures and valleys with snowy peaks and a rapidly moving river right down the middle. If you’re brave enough for the road, or smart and just take a bus/minibus combination to get there, it’s definitely worth a visit.


Of course, our visit involved peering out at the vistas combined with a constant nagging concern that we weren’t going to get “there.” As we ascended into the mountains, the road narrowed and the intense beauty of the place increased. At each village we passed, we noticed heads slowly turning to watch us pass, but again, we just smiled and waved. “Nothing to see here, folks, just a couple of girls driving up into the mountains.”


At the highest village, we passed a few houses, pensions, and then a small village-style cul-de-sac with houses divided by tiny narrow alleys ended the road. Although we looked up each one, there was no way a car could fit through any of them, not even a Mini Cooper. We had reached the end of the road, with no option but to turn back.  We were a bit let down at this point, and didn’t even bother to take pictures.

On the way back down the same terrible road we passed the same sites, the same bulldozers pushing dirt around on the pass.   We were conflicted the feelings of the defeat of not making it, the thrill of an adventure, even if our stubborness and stupidity caused it, and the joy of being in the midst of such beauty. Sure, we weren’t going to get to our destination for another 5 or 6 hours, and we had to drive all the way up to the coast and then all the way back into the mountains, but no matter. We went to the Kaçkars and didn’t get stuck or break the car. Yay!



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