Thursday, 29 August 2013

To the Black Sea: Safranbolu and Yenice Forest

The old town in Safranbolu
The guest house we were staying in picked us up from the otogar when we arrived at 6am. The overnight bus trip had taken its toll and we hadn't really slept. Our room wasn't going to be ready before noon so we had to waste 5 hours before being able to sleep in comfortable beds. We walked down to the centre of the old town of Safranbolu, not realising nothing opens until 9am. We walked down to a fountain and passed out on the benches next to it. About 4 hours later we woke up in the blistering sun absolutely baking. We trotted down to a bakery and grabbed some bread rolls and a juice. We were still zombies when we rolled back up at our guest house. Thankfully the room was finally ready so we crashed out and snoozed until the afternoon.

When we woke up later that day we went back to the old town and explored, now that everything was open. The old town was full of really quaint cobbled streets that wrapped up and down the hilly landscape. The entire village is packed with markets and tiny Turkish cafes. Nearly all the buildings are old Ottoman wood houses, so the village actually looks like something from the Bavarian countryside.
The old town is a maze of little cobbled lane ways.
In the 17th century the main trade route between Gerede and the Black Sea coast passed through Safranbolu, bringing commerce, prominence and money to the town. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the town's wealthy inhabitants built mansions from sun-dried mud bricks, wood and stucco, while the larger population of prosperous artisans built less impressive but similarly study homes. Safranbolu's old town became a UNESCO World Heritage site because a large number of these dwellings survived, they are now protected. During the 19th century 20% of Safranbolu's inhabitants were Ottoman Greeks, but most of their descendants moved to Greece during the population exchange that took place after WW1. Their principal church was converted into the Great Mosque.

We spent 4 days in Safranbolu checking out every market stall and becoming friends with the local cafe owners. We caught a dolmus to the new city, stocked up on food, then caught two more buses out to the national park.

We spent 3 nights in Yenice forest, camping in our flimsy tent. We trekked the first 7km of the 56km route, looking for a spot to pitch our tent. We couldn't find anything sufficient but stumbled upon a woodhouse hotel. We walked up and asked the owners if they knew of any areas nearby where we could pitch. They were an old German couple, sympathetic to our condition so let us pitch on the soft grass next in their hotel's garden.
First night camping for the amateurs. We were too lucky to score this first class camping spot overlooking the mountain range, thank God for the Germans who looked after us.
View of the canyon in Yenice Forest.
They were still renovating the lower levels of the hotel so let us use one of the vacant rooms bathroom to shower everyday. They had 2 young Turkish couples staying at the hotel at the same time who spoke really good English. They wanted to trek some of the more scenic parts of the route, so the elderly man who owned the hotel drove us through the forest to the higher vantage points so we could enjoy the national park without needing to lug our hiking packs for tens of kilometres. Being driven around the national park for the next two days was awesome, as we not only had good company, but didn't need to carry our bags and re-set up our tent.

On the third day we trekked back down to the Ormani Kent picnic and camping site. Since we'd entered the national park, Ramadan had ended and the national 4 day Bayram holiday had began. When we arrived at the picnic area near the river, hundreds of Turkish families were picnicking with massive feasts of food. They saw us rock up with our packs, exhausted from the trek. Families began coming up to us offering for us to eat with them as they thought we were about to collapse in front of them. After eating until the sun went down with three different families, we quickly set up our tent and cosied in for the night.
Hiker meets resident.
Turkish cattle dog looks after the cows while they have lunch on the high plains.
The next day we washed in the river, ate some of our left over nutella and hiked back to the main road to flag down a bus. The locals on the bus were giving us pretty weird looks when we boarded with our massive packs and sunburnt cheeks. The young bus assistant kept bringing us cups of water as he thought we might pass out. When we arrived in Yenice we came across a fair bit of difficulty buying tickets for our next destinations. We could see the different bus company's time tables, but no one would sell us a ticket. No one at the station spoke English. Apparently all the seats were sold out until the 6.30pm bus, but the only way they could attempt to explain this was by drawing large X's on the timetable or pointing to the waiting room chairs and shaking their heads (implying all seats were sold out...we thought they meant we also weren't allowed to sit in the station and wait for a bus). Finally we found a guy who spoke German and he explained the situation. We didn't want to wait til the night bus, so after an hour wait, we back-tracked to Karab√ľk and took a bus from there to Amasra.

A lake on the high plains reached after a long trek through the pine forest.
Three bus rides later we arrived into the seaside city. We had been given the name of a hotel to stay at by the German couple we'd camped with, but there were no town maps, the tourist information centre was closed and no one we asked knew it. We read the lonely planet page on Amasra and found out the majority of accommodation was homestead pensions. Instead of both of us walking around with our massive packs and inquiring into random pensions before finding one we liked, we decided to leave me with all the bags whilst Ellen found us somewhere to stay. She was gone for over an hour, so I began scouting out people walking past who might be able to help. It was only old Turkish women and young kids on bikes passing me so I thought I was going to be out of luck, until a group of four western travellers passed me. I saw that they were also carrying tents so asked if they knew a place to stay. They did not. But they turned out to be Russian uni students who had so far hitch-hiked from Moscow, through Georgia and Armenia. They told me they were just going to walk around the headlands until they found a nice spot to set up their tents. I asked if they minded me and Ellen joining them. They were super excited to have some other people join their crew, so two of them dumped their bags and went to scout out a nice camping spot whilst the other two chatted to me. About half an hour later the boys came back stating they'd found a sweet spot. About 10 minutes after that, Ellen returned excited about finding a really nice pension. She saw the four Russian kids standing with me and looked confused. I told her we were going to camp with them so we didn't need the room she'd found. She was quite upset as she'd been through a massive google-translate ordeal just to find this place, haggle a good price, and they'd already given her a key. I went back to the pension with her to help explain to the owners we no longer needed the room.

The spot the boys had found was freakin gorgeous. It was on the top of this small peninsula that comes off the coast from Amasra. By the time we got up to the spot, the sun was just starting to set behind the horizon over the Black Sea. Fifteen minutes later the mosques began projecting the final days prayer. The mountains behind the back of Amasra echoed the resonating prayer back out towards us on the peninsula. It was pretty amazing.
The view from the peak where we camped looked over the whole town of Amasra.
We set up our tents, grabbed some kebabs, then began swapping travel stories. The trip these kids were trying to complete was pretty incredible. Not only were they attempting to hitch-hike for 2 months from Moscow, through Georgia, Armenia, Turkey along the black sea coast, into Greece, back to Turkey, along the Mediterranean coast, up the Iranian border, then back into Georgia to cross back into Russia...but they were attempting to achieve this with a budget of $300 each! So far they had been treated to free meals and accommodation by the people who had picked them up and driven them to their desired destinations. The hospitality of Georgia and Armenia sounded absolutely first class.

By now we considered ourselves expert campers.
After chatting for a couple hours we cooked up some tea, shared the rest of our safran-coconut flavoured Turkish delight and settled in for the night. It was extremely wet on the Black Sea and we realised our tent was definitely NOT waterproof. We got up and attached our rain coats to the outside in an attempt to stem the flow of water inside. It worked remarkably well. The next morning the Russians woke up just after sunrise, packed up and headed to the highway to find a lift to Istanbul. Although it was incredibly gorgeous watching the sun slowly traverse the skyline over the sea, we were starting to feel the fatigue of travelling. Ellen looked over at me and proposed a ridiculous idea: travel the entire length of the country back to the Mediterranean.

We had been discussing the idea of heading back to Olimpos either just before or just after going to Bulgaria. It is an absolute haven for relaxing in a hammock and indulging in incredible food. We couldn't completely appreciate the last-pace of Olimpos the first time round as we were still full of beans, eager to explore this incredible country. Now, we were exhausted and wet. I contemplated this proposal for a moment. There were still a couple of cities we could fit in along the Black Sea, but it would drag us another 600km East, which would add another night bus trip. We were going to have to head back to Istanbul before heading to Bulgaria anyway, so we decided the ridiculously long trip back to Olimpos would be worth it. So we packed up our bags and headed off for 2 weeks of extreme relaxation to recharge the batteries.

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