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Driving the wild roads of Turkey

Driving the wild roads of Turkey

Instead of flying across the vastness that is central Turkey, we decided to drive over it. And under it

By the time the flat-bottomed car ferry chugged away from the quayside, I could already feel the sun beginning to turn my skin a faint shade of pink. We had started the morning in driving rain under glowering skies, but down here, on the dusty plains, the sun was beating down and the temperature was up past 30-degrees Celsius. 

The riverine breeze was welcome, but this was no ordinary body of water. The broad, slow-flowing river we were crossing was the Euphrates, one of the great waterways of antiquity and along whose banks recorded history effectively started. These days, the Euphrates is probably better known for flowing through areas of warfare and strife, but here in the middle of Turkey all is (relatively) peaceful. Certainly it was peaceful on this warm and sunny day, with the light sparkling off the water. 

Alexander The Great crossed this same river on his way to conquer the known world, but our objective was a bit less ambitious. We were simply heading for an overnight stop on our way to the city of Urgup, where the houses are partially built into the rocky cliff faces and the famous hot air balloons fill the skies over the region of Cappadocia each morning.

We could have gotten there a lot quicker than this. After all, Istanbul is only about a four-hour flight from London, and a connecting flight to Neveshir — just a short drive from Urgup —takes only a little over an hour. That would have been too easy, though.

Instead, we started our travels in Trabzon. Clinging to the damp and verdant Black Sea coast, Trabzon is some way off the normal tourist trail in Turkey. In fact, we were told that we were the first Europeans to visit the area all year, and that was in September. If you’ve not been to Trabzon, however, Trabzon has definitely been to you—70 per cent of the tea used by Lipton is grown here, while the area also produces huge amounts of the hazelnuts which go into Nutella.

A woman and a man pick tea leaves in TurkeyTrabzon is an area of Turkey that provides exports such as tea and hazelnuts

We were in Trabzon for neither tea nor chocolate spread. We were in Trabzon for the mountains. Inland from the city the vast peaks of the Pontic mountain range pierce the bottoms of the scudding clouds. We wouldn’t be flying, but we’d be climbing a substantial fraction of airliner cruising height, and to get there we’d be taking one of the world’s most dangerous roads.

The Derebasi Turns

That’s actually how the Turkish tourist authority sells the D915 that runs from near Trabzon to the far side of the mountains, attracting motorised tourists from all over, especially the intrepid motorbike brigade. There’s one particular section, known as the Derebasi Turns—100km of twisting, switchback gravel road that winds its way up Mount Soganli. Looking at it from the bottom, it seems as if a picture postcard Swiss valley has decided to come over all rugged and adventure sports. The road clings vertiginously to the sides of the mountain, 29 hairpins and not a metre of guard rail between them, climbing 300-metres in just five kilometres of driving at one point, and peaking at 2,300-metres up. 
 

The Derebasi Turns steep roads on a mountainside in Turkey with a car onTurkey's hair-raising Derebasi Turns

You’d assume that we’d be driving some sort of monster truck up here, a massive Land Rover with knobbly tyres, winches, and vast panniers of equipment stored on the roof. Nope, we were actually driving a humble family Mazda. The new Mazda CX-60 is an SUV, right enough, but it’s a very much an urban car with its plug-in hybrid engine and low-slung chassis. You’d not think it was the right sort of car to tackling this kind of terrain.

And you’d be wrong. Perhaps it’s not just Mazda, perhaps it’s just that all modern cars are over-engineered for what they need to do but the CX-60 took to the Derebasi Turns as if born for the job. It does have four-wheel drive, which helped when finding purchase on the loose gravel, and the fact that the rear wheels are electrically driven meant that they could be more precisely controlled when grip was scarce. The only problem was that some of the turns were so tight that we couldn’t get around them with one swing of the steering wheel. We’d have to back up and take a second bite at the corner, and that meant backing up towards the edge of the road, which  makes for quite a view from the reversing camera. Maybe not one you’d really want to see, though…

"The Derebasi Turns has 29 hairpins and not a metre of guard rail between them, peaking at 2,300-metres up"

Thankfully on the far side, the road becomes a tarmac one again and sweeps back down to sea-level. Not that there’s much sea here. Instead, the landscape changes dramatically from a replica of the Swiss Alps to more like the centre of Spain, albeit on a bigger schedule. We charge across a vast landscape, a tiny dot making its way to the banks of the Euphrates. Locked up in busy corners of the British Isles, you tend to forget that there are such vastnesses out there, but they’re not so far away as you might think.

A car driving on cliffs on the banks of the Euphrates in TurkeyDriving the cliffs on the banks of the Euphrates

The Stone Road

Having crossed the Euphrates once, the next day we had to do so again, but this time there would be no ferry involved. Instead, we crossed a narrow bridge and drove into a tunnel, one that looks as if it might have inside it a door to someone’s house.

What the tunnel actually houses is a road, and it’s a road that took a very long time to build. This is the Stone Road, and it runs from the Kemaliye out to the broader plain of Anatolia and the wider world. Way back in 1870, the locals demanded that such a road be built, to render their homes and their businesses less remote from the rest of Turkey. At first, those local people took it upon themselves to dig, pick, and shovel rock out from under the Munzur mountains to create a quicker way in and out. Support from the Turkish government was sporadic, though. Or perhaps I should say Turkish governments, because the Stone Road took quite some time to complete.

"Entire empires rose and fell in the time it took to complete the Stone Road, which cuts its way under the Munzur mountains and above the edge of the Euphrates"

In fact, it was not fully open for use until… 2002. Entire empires rose and fell in the time it took to complete the 8.7km of the Stone Road. The road—covered in a dusty grey limestone and peppered with tyre-threatening rocks—cuts its way under the mountains and above the edge of the Euphrates, which is now narrower than it was when we crossed by ferry, and far, far below us. The canyon the Stone Road traverses is said to be the second biggest in the world, after Arizona’s Grand Canyon, but then there are others who make that same claim so take it with something of a dash of salt. 

The tunnels of the Stone Road were dug under the Munzur mountains

The tunnels break through the faces of the mountain in places, to run for a few metres in fresh air and daylight before plunging back into the darkness again. On one of these occasional emergences, we stop for a moment. The silence is almost total. As our ears accustom, we can hear the faint gurgling of the river, many metres below us, but that’s it. Everything else is utterly quiet. Given the topography, it looks and feels as if you have wandered onto the set of a Star Wars film in those few silent seconds before George Lucas calls ‘action!’ It is, unquestionably, one of the most beautiful places to which I’ve ever been. If you were on a ‘plane, you’d probably not even glance out of the window as you flew over it, but down here at ground level (technically lower than that in places…) it is as dramatic and stunning a slice of the planet as you’ll ever find. 

What added to that drama was the fact that, for extended stretches, we could drive on pure electric power. Turkey is short of places to stop and charge up an electric car, but our Mazda CX-60 steed was a plug-in hybrid, so coasting down those steep roads to the valley floor was enough to put some charge into the battery. Driving through the tunnels of the Stone Road, with the petrol engine switched off, and the only noise the crunching of our tyres on the chalk-white floor, was both eerie and addictive. It also proved that you really can get into and out of a stunningly remote part of the world in a manner that’s at least slightly more environmentally efficient. 

"It is as dramatic and stunning a slice of the planet as you’ll ever find"

It didn’t hurt that, once we’d left the tunnels and were back on rough-and-ready tarmac, the CX-60’s cabin was soothing and comfortable, verging on luxurious. Adventure doesn’t have to mean wearing a hair-shirt, metaphorically speaking…

Urgup

The landscape changes again as we leave the Stone Road and head up towards Urgup. As we come out of the mountain range, the land opens dramatically up into a VistaVision shot straight out of the John Ford directors’ playbook. It all looks incredibly like the distant west of the USA, at least until you spot that the locals are mostly driving decrepit old Renaults and Tofas-built Fiats, rather than vast pickup trucks. We spy whirling dust devils—mini tornadoes of dirt—at the side of the road, and park for a time at what seems like the loneliest bus stop that could ever be, in the middle of a small hamlet with endless emptiness stretching out on ever side.

The Bronze Age caves of Urgup, TurkeyUrgup is built on and around Bronze Age caves

By the time we reach Urgup and its remarkable buildings, constructed atop and within Bronze Age caves, the appearance of other European and American tourists comes as a shock. We’d become so used to being so far off the normal holiday trail that we’d forgotten what crowds and noise were. Perhaps it was better that way. Perhaps it’s just better to forget the connecting flight, and to just get out there and explore a country up close. It may take longer, and the going may be tougher, but it’s worth it. Adventure awaits, even when you’re driving a perfectly ordinary family car.

Check Lastminute.com to plan your trip to Turkey today.

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