Well rested and with a much less hair than when I arrived, I crossed the Bosphorus and began my adventure into Asia. Istanbul had been a great city for a break, but the size and busyness of it had been a shock to the system. The city’s traffic is crazy and it was a horrible place to get a bike across. The history, the mosques, markets and food had kept me entertained for a week. The only thing I didn’t like was the number of beggars – especially all the street kids. For the first time I noticed that many of them where Syrian refugees speaking Arabic.
Fortunately the road out of Istanbul was much more enjoyable than the way in. A fancy seaside promenade had been built up and a cycle path (the first one I’ve seen since Sofia) passing right next to the sea.
I stopped for a night in Gebze (another suburb at the far end of Istanbul). My Warmshowers host had just got back from Germany, having competed with his university team in the annual waterbike championship. I enlisted the help of his mini workshop and superglued my sunglasses back together, so I can continue east without squinting the whole way.
He warned me that the main road to Izmet was horrible, and he was right. I found myself cycling close to the main road’s hard-shoulder edge once again as large trucks passed by from the local industrial sites.
I took a day off in Izmet. The earliest my Uzbek visa would be ready was the 1st June, and there wasn’t that many km to Ankara. I was surprised that I found it much it harder going deliberately slowly, than the other times when I’d had to push hard to get somewhere.
My hosts in Izmet told me they’d had another cyclist called Jonathan staying with them a few months prior. He was also from London, and cycling a pretty similar route to me. They’d joined him for a section and he’d suffered a bent derailleur hanger, just like me. The parallels were bizarre…
I received a message to my blog’s facebook page from someone cycling with a band from Istanbul to Ankara. He told me that they were a protest group, and that they were going to the capital to hand in a counter petition to the government who’d banned their planned 30 year anniversary concerts. They would be arriving on Sunday – exactly when I planned on making it. The invitation to join sounded like too interesting an opportunity to miss, the only problem was that they were going the southern route to Ankara – via Eskisehir. I did some map maths and decided that if I pedalled hard south for a couple of days I could catch them.
But first, I continued east to Sakarya because I’d already arranged to Couchsurf with a bunch of students there. I’d had enough of the main roads, so took a detour up the hills through the villages. The day started well, along pleasant bumpy roads through peaceful countryside. But, once again I came unstuck by the Turkish minor roads and found myself on terrible gravel tracks. The hills became steep and at points I had to push my bike up them when my tyres couldn’t grip. Turkey seems to present me with this endless navigation problem – the main roads are far too busy, but the minor ones are often not fit for cycling.
We went out for islamakofte dinner – meatball and fried bread, and then headed to a student area where I had my first shisha session of this Turkish trip. Probably the last too, if I want my lungs to survive the mountains…
We caught the end of the football, and Fenerbahce lost – meaning that Galatasaray had won the league. I wasn’t even in Istanbul anymore but the streets still erupted – beeping cars blocking the roads with flags hanging out the window and fans chanting down the road, lit flares in hand.
Leaving Sakarya I suffered my most embarrassing navigation error of the trip so far. A few days ago I loaded a route onto my GPS taking me further east on my original Ankara route. I forgot that I’d made it, and loaded it up thinking it was my updated version heading south. It took me 20km before I realised my mistake! The wind had been behind me and I’d flown for an hour before I checked my compass when my internal bearings felt off. So, I had to cycle straight back again before I could get onto the road south, wasting a good 40km… whoops!
It was annoying, as I already had about 180km to do before my added detour. Luckily the sun was out, and although the road was busy the growing tree covered mountains inspired me. I stopped at a water point and was invited by an elderly couple for cay and watermelon in their restaurant.
In Istanbul I found my forgotten ‘point it’ book at the bottom of one of my panniers. Inside it had the one thing I’d been after for a while – a mini Europe map so that I can show people my drawn on route. That, along with my growing basic Turkish (especially my ability to say how many kilometres and how many months I’ve cycled) helps so much explaining.
In a village later on I was flagged down by a taxi driver who invited me for a drink in the tea house and bought me ice cream from the nearby vendor. One of the other old geezers came over with a newspaper to show me an article about a French cycle tourist who’d died after being hit by a car near Marmaris the other day. I’d already heard the story – I’d been told about it the day before and I didn’t like being reminded. Turkey is the first country where I don’t feel safe on the roads and I’m not keen on the idea of being flattened by an inconsiderate driver!
I found a cute spot to pitch my tent, in a field of wild flowers next to an old bee farm behind a ruined house. Abandoned buildings are often a good place to find a camp site. I’d considered pitching inside on a couple of occasion, but every time the interior has been to creepy. Most of the land in this area is being used to farm, but normally the abandoned houses have abandoned fields, which are still owned but not in use – making them perfect to hide a tent for the night.
Incredibly, this was my first night of the trip camping solo. I hadn’t needed to camp until Serbia thanks to the extensive Couchsurfing/Warmshowers communities and after there I had company from Pia until Turkey. I was curious to see if I’d be nervous, but I was pleased to find I wasn’t. It was still warm after sunset and I could lie outside the tent star gazing. I’m still amazed how colourful the night sky can be outside a city. While I was away with the fairies I made a rookie mistake – forgetting to close my tent door and inviting the world’s creepy crawlies inside. When I realised my slip, the damage had been done and I wasted a good half an hour chasing spiders and one huge grasshopper out my tent.
As soon as I finished packing up in the morning the heavens opened. I spent three hours cycling in the rain before I’d had enough and stopped at a petrol station for shelter. I normally eat my own simple picnic (bread, spread and fruit) for lunch but today I felt I deserved a good meal so dripped my way into the restaurant. Within a second I was (of course) invited to join a guy for cay. He was a long distance truck driver from Istanbul and from what I gathered he’d driven all other Russia and Central Asia. After he left I went to pay for my kofte meal, only to be told that he’d already paid for me! Turkish people… would that ever happen in England? I don’t think so. This kind of hospitality amazes me on a daily basis here.
I arrived in Boyuzuk wet and miserable. I longed of spending a nice night in a hotel, but when I passed a shiny one on the edge of town I didn’t even bother to stop and ask the price – knowing it would be out of my budget. However, further along the high street I spotted a crummy ‘Otel’ sign where I found a room for £7.50. I haven’t asked about price in many places as I rarely pay for accommodation, but when I have I’ve been surprised how expensive it is in Turkey. This was the cheapest I’ve come across so far, and the interior matched the price – one of the grimmest places I’ve ever slept (and I’ve stayed in some scummy places). Stained walls, crumbs in the sheets, leaking toilet and loose wires hanging over bed that moved when anyone changed a cable in the room above. But I was proud that this was my first night paying for a private room to myself in over 4 months of travelling.
I left super early the next day to finally catch this music group at the bottom of the hill outside of town. They were taking a lift onwards from the last town as the rain had stopped their progress. After waiting a while I saw the first cyclist come over the top of the hill in the distance, soon followed by a group in matching red vests. I looked away for a moment to finish arranging my bags, and when I looked back the group had stopped halfway down the hill. I couldn’t see what had happened but it didn’t look too good. I cycled back up to meet them and it turned out that one of the girls had lost control and crashed on the descent. Her helmet had a huge crack right where her temple would have smacked the tarmac… Wear helmets kids!
The band turned out to be Grup Yorum, who I soon discovered are quite a big deal in Turkey – everyone knows who they are. They’re politically charged revolutionaries and clearly pretty controversial – I guess you’d have to be upsetting someone to have all your concerts banned. I was shown a clip of their 25th anniversary concert in Istanbul – huge!
They were a really nice bunch, and happy to have me tag along. We ended the day in Eskisehir and they made a stand in the centre (as they do in each town) where their supporters welcome them. I didn’t quite get the whole ideology at work, but they were clearly not spreading hate and I believe in the freedom of expression through music – and so I felt that was enough to support their cause.
I left on my own the following day. I was originally going to continue with the guy who introduced me to the group at our own pace (even when I was the only one with a loaded bike I still felt myself going painfully slow with the pack), but he decided to take a day off in Eskisehir as the weather forecast was for rain all day. I left anyway – I didn’t want to arrive in Ankara a day later than Sunday as my visa would be ready the next day and rain was forecast every day for the next week anyway.
The day was miserable as expected, and I found myself camping in the rain for the first time. Not fun! I ate dinner in my tent feeling cold and sorry for myself as the rain fell hard over my head. The thunderstorms in the night woke me up on numerous times and unfortunately my trusty Vango tent didn’t have the strength to resist the wind’s attempt to push rain through its fabrics and I woke up to a large puddle by my feet.
The next day was another wet one, but I still managed 100km inbetween the worst thunderstorms. Dusk was arriving and I still hadn’t found a suitable place to camp. Just as I started getting stressed I came across a petrol station and asked if I could pitch my tent in their garden. I’d been told on many occasions that petrol stations are some of the best places for camping in Turkey – sometimes they have lovely shaded picnic areas, free toilets (sometimes even a shower) and you’re guaranteed at least a glass of cay.
The owners of the station where a Kurdish bunch who were incredibly welcoming. They offered me to put my tent in their sheltered eating area away from the impending rain and invited me to join them for dinner. We spent a funny evening together. All the Kurds I’ve ever met are incredibly patriotic but this lot took it to another level. They suggested that the area of Kurdistan was twice the size I’ve usually heard it described and explained with passion how it should be independent. They compared Erdogan to Hitler and kept telling that the Turkish government were fascists. In between saying how good socialism was they kept mentioning Margaret Thatcher with a huge thumbs up which I thought was amusing. Eventually we all got tired of the struggling language barrier and when I agreed with them that ‘politics = bad. music, sex and football = good’ that was a highlight of their evening. Clearly there is some mutual language in the world…
On the 31st it was my birthday. I’d imagined spending it somewhere romantic by the Black Sea but here I was, camped in a petrol station hiding from the rain, about to cycle along a motorway into the one city in Turkey that I didn’t want to to visit – Ankara. The day was largely unexciting. At one point a couple of huge dogs came running up onto the hard-shoulder towards me, nearly causing me to veer straight into a large lorry. They wouldn’t let me pass, so I stopped my bike and we exchanged the usual barking/shouting ‘alpha male’-off that has become all too familiar to me. I found a couple of stones close to me which I threw at them and eventually drove them off down the hill. A couple of months ago dogs that big and aggressive would have scared the shit out of me but now I know how to deal with them and they’re just a nuisance that pisses me off. I’d raced into Ankara hoping to catch Grup Yorum’s big arrival, but it seemed they were now arriving a day later due to the rain (babies!). I bought some beers to celebrate my birthday with but by 10pm they’d sent me so close to sleep that I accepted defeat and went to bed. All in all not the most exciting entry into my 23rd year!
In a stroke of good luck, my host lived 2 blocks of flats away from the Uzbek embassy so after a 30 second walk I was there for opening. That was the end of my luck – in an impressively unhelpful manner I was told that there had been a ‘big mistake’ from Istanbul and that I couldn’t collect my visa. In broken English the answering explanation was that it couldn’t be done on a Danish passport without a Letter of Invitation from a tourist body. Great. When I waved my UK passport at him in desperation I was told that he could process it on that one, but that I’d have to come back on the 8th to collect. I accepted defeat, gave in my paperwork and left feeling more annoyed than I remembered feeling in a long time. The Istanbul embassy had really fucked me over – I’d wasted 10 days cycling in the rain along miserable motorways for nothing, and I was still about 500km from the where I wanted to be cycling.
I hatched a new plan: cycle up to Samsun at the coast in 5 days and then get the bus back to the capital for Monday. I couldn’t be bothered to sit around waiting. I caught a dolmus bus into town and found Grup Yorum. I was pleased to see my friends again and I think they were happy (and a little surprised) to see me again. The demonstration was wonderful – I’d been warned that there would be riot police around and protesters causing trouble, but the event was nothing of the sort. There was music, dancing and passionate speeches that I didn’t get a word of. I found the rally both touching and inspiring, even with my lack of understanding. After the event I was invited to join the group for lunch and then I said my goodbyes.
I walked to the city’s old town and soon found myself in another world completely juxtaposing the capitals new and artificial aesthetic. The winding streets were illogical and I got completely lost in them. The area was clearly a lot poorer – there were no smart clothes on show here and the buildings all looked like they were on the verge of collapsing, but the area was a colourful shambles that I loved.
Eventually I found my way up to the castle and was rewarded with one of the most breath-taking city views I’ve ever seen. The sun set was setting, and around the city large mountains made the skyscrapers seem tiny. Everyone (both Turks and tourists) had told me that Ankara was an awful city that should be avoided entirely. My expectations were so low that I couldn’t possible have been disappointed – but in fact I really enjoyed my afternoon exploring.
I got home and did some planning – I had five big days ahead of me if I wanted to reach the coast on Saturday and rain was forecast for everyday. So I hit the sack, hoping that the next time I’m in Ankara I’ll leave with this stupid visa in hand…