In the world of strict plans and fixed agendas, detours are just distractions. But on the Cycling Silk expedition, detours often prove the destination – and not just because we frequently get lost. So when KuzeyDoğa, an award-winning Turkish NGO, invited us to explore their biodiversity conservation projects in the borderlands of eastern Turkey – wooing us with wild animals, wide open spaces, and a visit to a Turkish bath – we knew it would be worth diverting from our intended route for a visit. After all, we hadn’t showered in a week.
So we steered south, away from the Black Sea, and began climbing onto the Kars Plateau, swapping heavy rain for heavier snow along the way. The roads grew so slick with ice we had to work twice as hard to go half as fast. Sometimes we couldn’t bike at all. Climbing a pass during a blizzard, the snow not so much falling as firing, flakes sharp and aimed as arrows, the police stopped us and made us cross the pass in a truck (driven by Osman and Mustafa, of course.) At least the heated cab offered respite from the snot-crackling, lung-stiffening cold. Surviving on the bike in such conditions required cartwheel breaks to centrifugally force blood back into extremities. While I exulted in this suddenly polar world, cryophile that I am, Mel may never join me on another winter adventure again, even if she someday thaws out from this one.
Whether because of the cold or despite it, we fell in love with Kars. The Plateau is a territory of enchantment: foxes loping across plains wide as thought, owls patient as stone on signposts, mountains giving cold shoulders to the world. A place more sky than earth, no wonder it set us soaring. We had good company up there: slow-reeling vultures, skinhead buzzards, fang-billed falcons, and many other birds populate Kars skies. Since we visited in the cold heart of winter, though, most vagrants of the air were off sunning themselves at the equator. Birds of prey migrate by skipping like stones from thermal to thermal, rising on one column of hot air and gliding down to the next forming, back and forth to Africa, Europe, and India, stopping in the South Caucasus along the way. If only bikes could be physically powered by the same principle.
While territory is an instinctive concept for birds, the political divides we map onto their habitats are meaningless to them. There’s no explaining borders to the birds; they fly far above our fences. But even so, fences define boundaries, however arbitrary, that can fragment the habitats where birds stop to breed and feed during migration. This is especially true of the borderlands where KuzeyDoğa works, including the Aralık-Karasu marshes skirting the base of Mount Ararat, on the border of Turkey and Iran, with Armenia and Azerbaijan nearby.