Driving Turkey’s Notorious Stone Road

There is no room for error as I motor up the tight switchbacks of Turkey’s Derebasi Bends, the tires rolling inches from the edge of the unpaved track carved into the mountainside.

I started my drive, behind the wheel of Mazda’s new CX-60 plug-in hybrid, in Trabzon, an ancient Turkish trading port on the Black Sea famous for its tea. Ahead of me lay 1,100 kilometres of exhilarating driving over two 10-hour days, including 200 kilometres of challenging unpaved roads, considered among the most dangerous in the world. My last waypoint will be Cappadocia in central Anatolia, via the ancient settlement of Elâziğ on the Euphrates River.

From Trabzon, heading south, my route slowly rises along the 106-kilometre section of Turkey’s state road D915 and into the Pontic Mountains. The most challenging section of the D915 is known as the Derebaşi Bends, climbing the side of Mount Soganli to a pass 2,330 metres above sea level. The route winds through remote areas with sometimes empty roads, where towns and villages remain untouched by tourism.

Built by Russian soldiers in 1916 after their capture of Trabzon, this is still a working road, mostly unpaved and narrow. There is no signage, but there are 29 hairpin bends, plenty of precipitous drops, and no guardrails. The road starts off tarred, then a dusty, unpaved section weaves through tiny cliff-edge villages, where farmers tend their animals and work sloping fields amid spectacular valley views.

It takes about half an hour to drive the Bends, keeping my speed down to the recommended 25 km/h, so that I can brake safely and minimize the chances of hitting a rock and getting a puncture. Accelerating or stopping too quickly increases the risk of skidding on the gravel and going over the edge.

My choice of car makes me feel a bit better about the diverse terrain. Mazda’s first plug-in full-hybrid powertrain, the CX-60, represents everything in the century-old company’s DNA. But a few brand-new features make driving the hair-raising switchbacks easier. A 360-degree camera extends my field of view at low speeds, an automatic system maintains steady speeds down steep slopes to prevent slipping on rough road surfaces, and radar on the rear bumper monitors my blind spots for unexpected traffic.

I reach the top of the pass without mishap and look back, exhilarated, at the narrow track I’ve driven up and the huge drops I’ve avoided. From a distance the route looks menacing, but once on the track, the Bends’ dangerous reputation far exceeds the reality.

The next stage over smooth tarmac roads extends towards Bayburt and the town of Elâziğ, where I stay at the Windy Hill Hotel and Spa before tackling the Stone Road the following day.

By dawn, I am back at the wheel, heading towards the town of Kemaliye. Local drivers seem to pay no attention to the speed-limit signs dotted along the roadside, but luckily the traffic is light.

I stop to photograph a young shepherd carrying a gun over his shoulder, his flock protected by intimidating dogs with homemade spiked collars sporting 6-inch nails to protect them from wolf attacks.

I manoeuvre around slow-moving tractors, stray cows, flocks of sheep, scraggly chickens, roadkill, pedestrians, and potholes, all part of a typical day’s drive in this part of Turkey.

Kemaliye Taş Yolu, the Stone Road, runs between the alpine towns of Kemaliye and Divriği, and it’s regarded as one of the most challenging roads in the world. This spectacular drive runs for seven kilometres above the jade Euphrates, following the river’s twisting contours and passing through 38 hand-chiselled tunnels, some just 2 metres wide in parts. The route was originally built for pedestrians by villagers who tunnelled all the way through the mountain to connect their two settlements. It took a gruelling 132 years to complete and was only finished in 2002.

The road feels solid, and is never too close to the edge to feel completely uncomfortable—unless you fear heights. If so, this drive might not be your cup of Turkish tea.

The Stone Road has more traffic than the D915 but is wider most of the way, though still narrow in parts. Potential dangers include bad drivers, landslides, falling rocks, sections of the road crumbling into the Euphrates, poor weather, and the car breaking down in a tunnel.

In the first few short tunnels, my headlights are the only light. Some of the longer tunnels have vast window-like holes that provide illumination, ventilation, and stunning views of the Euphrates. I encounter a few oncoming motorbikes and cars, and we politely edge by each other. At one point, I am overtaken by a large dog that appears out of nowhere. Clearly, I am driving too slowly for the mountain-fit canine.

After the Stone Road, a sense of remoteness builds as I drive for the last six hours on good roads through a sprawling agricultural landscape of field upon field. Lollipop-shaped stubby trees line the route, and the limp remnants of sunflowers struggle to stay upright in the fertile soil.

During the last hour of my journey, a black cloud appears overhead. The temperature drops, and a driving hailstorm begins, threatening to smash the car’s windshield. I have just pulled into a gas station to shelter when a small tornado hits, sending objects flying across the forecourt. The garage owner holds onto a drinks machine to stop it from taking off and smashing into passing cars. Yet no sooner has the storm arrived than it disappears, and I am on my way again.

The route finishes in the cave town of Ürgüp in Cappadocia, within the province of Nevşehir, and I spend the night at Yunak Evleri Cave Hotel. The hotel rooms are ancient caves, modernized with electricity, bathrooms, and comfortable beds. It’s a spectacular location for dining outdoors—and for sleeping in a pitch-dark room like a Bronze Age troglodyte.

The lure of this trip is venturing where few people dare to go, with barely a handful of other road users. The Mazda comes out of the demanding drive unscathed.

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Post Date:

July 14, 2023