Cappadocia to Syria – end of July 2004

Leaving Cappadocia:
As we headed out of Urgup and Cappadocia, the scenery changed – no more tufa cones, no more fairy chimneys, and no more fretted ravines. The mountains remained, though. We biked the new road to Kayseri, and as we reached the city, we noticed that the avenues were wide and well paved, that the big apartment buildings were new. The city is modern and active, but a strong conservatism endures. We met a 20-something man who complained that the city has no bars, no clubs, no place to take his girlfriend. There is nowhere to go because any common activity between men and women is seen as anti-Muslim.

We stayed with Munra for one night, and then continued eastwards. The road out of Kayseri was steep – very steep. Just outside of the city, a tractor gave us a lift for the worst 7 km. When night fell, I was completely exhausted. As luck would have it, a man who owned a restaurant-hotel offered to give us a room for two days. He owned transport and oil companies and had traveled to 162 countries, mostly on business. He joined us for all meals and conversation was more than interesting.

The landscape between Kayseri and Pinarbasi was one of mountains that disappeared into the horizon and golden wheat fields that sprang up out of the sand and stretched into infinity.

Hitchhiking from Pinarbasi to the Syrian Border:
While in Turkey, we had added Syria to our list of countries to visit. The only problem was time. It cut short our time in Turkey, so that we had only five weeks remaining to bike through Syria and eastern Turkey before our visa expired at the Iranian border. We solved this problem by hitchhiking. We rode four hours and 250 km. from Pinarbasi to Gaziantep with Lokman the Turk and Mustafa the handsome Kurd from the east.

We passed through some serious mountains. The rocky landscape was bare, with just a hint of dry vegetation pushing through the earth. A cluster of trees followed the course of a small stream that wound its way along the valley floor. Then, the narrow mountain passes spread out, the valley floor widened, and the earth, which had been practically nude of vegetation, sprang back to life with large yellow wheat fields. The Anatolian plateau is like a big plain enclosed on all sides by mountains, and we were riding through the highest part. It was littered with gray rocks, and its peaks were craggy.

As we continued southward, the altitude descended, and gradually the skimpy covering of grass and dry shrubs turned into real trees. Pine trees, then wheat, then large fields of sunflowers grew out of the sandy earth. There were more or less trees as the altitude shifted, and a disagreeable climb in temperature as we moved south.

Towards the city of Kahramanmaras (Maras), the mountains closed in and got steeper again. Just before the city, as the valley flattened out, a patchwork of potato and pepper fields zigzagged across the hillsides. We stopped in the city for tea with Mustafa’s friend, then tried the specialty of Maras, famous throughout Turkey: ice cream so heavy that you need a knife and fork to cut it! It comes in enormous blocks on a plate and sticks together when you try to cut it apart – a little like soft French cheese or perhaps caramel. It is disgusting. They bought it for us as a treat, so I felt like I had to finish it, but it was very difficult. The Turks love their ice cream, and they eat boatloads of it, but it is the one thing in Turkey I can’t stomach.

After our ice cream experience, we finished the last 100 km. to Gaziantep (Antep), the eastern city known for its pistachio nuts and baklava. Mountains reappeared, and then spread way out, allowing room for fertile fields of potatoes, peppers, and wheat. We were below the level of the pine trees here.

At Mustafa’s:
It wasn’t even a question – Mustafa just assumed that we would spend the night at his house with his family. So we drove there through the narrow streets of Antep, which were teeming with young children. Little wonder, when you consider that the city is mainly Kurdish, and Kurds are known to have large families. The average is around 12 or 13 children. Many men in the east have more than one wife, though this practice is illegal. But they get around it by marrying only one woman officially, and keeping the other woman as a “wife” unofficially. If ever there is a problem, the second wife has no paper to prove her “marriage,” no recourse to legal action. In families that have more than one wife or mother, the number of children is even greater. Mustafa himself comes from a family of 19 children. He currently has only six children, but he is young and his even younger wife is only 27 years old.

We ate dinner on the rooftop of Mustafa’s apartment – eggplant, yogurt, soup, watermelon, and rice pudding. Mustafa’s girls Zahara and Layla were 13 and 8 and spent the evening playing with my hair before they fell asleep in my arms. Mustafa has a friendly, open face and obviously has great pride in his family. His wife Fatma was large and round, like most married Turkish women, and would take me in her arms from time to time to give me a great big hug.

We watched “Rocky” in Turkish, and then slept on the rooftop, outside of the oppressive heat of the apartment, where there was a cool breeze – the two of us in one corner, and the family on top of each other in the other corner.

Mustafa drove us around the city the following morning. The old part of the city had narrow streets lined with small shops and doner-kebab restaurants and was swarming with people, especially children. Pick-up trucks and motorcycles with sidecars overflowing with people moved through its streets. Like in all of Turkey, a majority of the vehicles had the word “Masallah” or “Allah Korusun” (God Protect Me) on their windshields. They were imprudent drivers, and counted on Allah to save them from mishaps on the road.

Other areas of the town seemed as if they belonged to a different city. Antep is the economic center of the southeast, and in addition to its narrow streets, has wide avenues bordered by large hotels and modern buildings, well-tended lawns and fountains, and an impressive homage to Ataturk.

Mustafa dropped us off outside the city, and we passed huge villas and pistachio trees on the road to Kilis, the border town. Quite often, truckers waved us down to share a melon alongside the road with them. The fruit is unbeatable in Turkey.

Stephane had major problems with his bike before nightfall and we couldn’t go any farther that night. We slept in an old warehouse inside the city, but made the mistake of not putting the tent up; the mosquitoes feasted.