Folly in the Mountains

Readers of last week’s installment will recall that Kemal at the Malatya tourist office said that it was just not possible for a cyclist to go up to Mount Nemrut, and that it was pure folly to think of going over the top and down the other side. I’m glad to report that he was wrong, mostly, about the impossible ascent. It was terrifically hard, though; I’ll have more to say about that in a moment.

Dinner with English teachers
Before we arrived in Malatya, my Aussie cycling friends Greg and Dorothy had made contact with an American English teacher who met us with some of her local friends, helped us find a hotel in the middle of a torrential rain (about the foul first rooming house we saw, Fatma said “I think this is not a good place.” It was kind of an understatement, and I appreciated her saying what we all thought), and took us to dinner across the street. The gang of English teachers, young women from around the country who had been sent there by a placement agency, toured us around the city’s restaurants (many) and bars (one), and they took us to English Night at their primary school, where students performed sketches and musical bits. The women all hated the city: provincial, they said; nothing to do; boring; dusty. But I really liked Malatya, especially the apricot market.
When you buy Turkish apricots anywhere in the world, they come from Malatya. The city has devoted a special bazaar to apricots, and when we were drawn into one shop by his offer of chai and a seat in the shade, the owner made a point of emphasizing that the dried fruit has the benefit of being a natural Viagra. He mentioned it eight or nine times. Maybe it’s my graying hair. 
Cycling folly
We cycled out of town after waiting out some terrible weather, heading up to Mount Nemrut with Kemal’s warning echoing in the wind. There’s no easy way up to the top of the 2000 meter mountain, but we’d picked a particularly hard way, climbing for two days through villages almost as high as the summit, and then descending into a deep valley, only to do it again a few times before the top. The road was mostly torn to pieces by an endless construction project.
Naturally, because this is Turkey, we stopped for chai and food with villagers and shepherds along the way, and every truck driver honked and waved and yelled encouragement.We stopped to rest at the top of one pass and were mobbed by a group of school kids who’d traveled two hours to Malatya to see a movie. The principal ran over, shook our hands, and took pictures. Kids swarmed us with hellohowareyou! and whatisyourname! Sweaty celebrities.
Still folly, but at least
the sun is shining
Finally, chased by rain and hail, and with lightning in the next valley, we made it to the top and enjoyed a happy rest at the Gunes Motel, a rocky redoubt in a green valley just below the official summit. Lonely Huseyin and his pal Murat looked after us with a warm meal and a fire, and, of course, chai. We were pretty shattered by the ride, and slept soon after dinner. 
Mad King’s Folly 
Mount Nemrut is capped by a 50-meter tall burial mound of rocks (technically, a “tumulus,” which sounds kind of dirty) left over from the construction of enormous monuments to King Nemrut and the gods, more than 2000 years ago. It wasn’t even discovered until the late 19th century. Historians have a pretty good understanding of who the egomaniacal King Nemrut was, but I’ve been made so dizzy by the parade of Assyrians, Hittites, Turks, Ottomans, Hatti, and Arabs, that it’s not really clear any more. Here’s what’s clear: the place is amazing. We were alone at the top for about half an hour before the inevitable parade of Germans came through, diminishing the scene not one bit. 
We coasted down from the mountain, on a winding gravel road that made our ascent look like a four-lane highway, through a deep rocky canyon with shepherds and goatherds and cowherds and only one car in 15km. They stopped and shook our hands, took some cellphone photos. An absurdly steep climb into another village led to a long conversation over chai with ex-tour-guide Fatih about the history of his village and the decline of its tourist trade, with the building of a new and improved road to the summit. (Note–we never found that road.) (Also note: I screwed up reading the map and led us up the hill to Fatih’s village. It was not on the way to anything or anywhere. Total mistake.)
Middle East Analyst / Shepherd
Two nights later, we camped in a forest above the Euphrates river valley, which is very 9th-grade history, minus the quizzes and bathroom passes. A shepherd (yes, there are a lot of shepherds this week) came by and talked to me and Greg for a few hours. Mostly, it was a one-sided lecture about American interventionist politics and the follies of the Bush government’s involvement in Iraq. But he had some strong words about Obama’s middle east doctrine, too. Anyway, that’s what it sounded like he was talking about. There’s a good chance he was just describing his neighbors and their damn dogs who won’t shut up at night.
Two more days of hard cycling through the sunny Euphrates valley and its vast irrigated farms, and we arrived in Sanliurfa, home of holy carp. More about that next time. Also next time, a full report on my continuing efforts in High Five Cycling. Tomorrow, Greg and Dorothy return to Istanbul, and I’ll continue riding east towards Mardin and–here’s the best part–Batman. 
Yes, Batman.

English Night! Note the American costume with cowboy hat.
Local cookie and tea providers
Fatih tells us about the neighborhood
Follicles covered by sculptural folly
Graves of cyclists who didn’t make it to the top


4 thoughts on “Folly in the Mountains

  1. Hi Ben. This is Seher writing:) from Malatya, Fatma's friend. I want to celebrate you that you had managed to climb Mt Nemrut. I like the site. Thanks for sharing it. Take care. Hope to see you again.

  2. This is actually Michelle (you know my technical skills and I'm sure can understand my inability to sign into my own account to post a comment…)I celebrate you too – and I miss you! Glad you're having such an incredible trip. Thanks for blogging. Can't wait to hear more about it. Safe travels!

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