I’ve covered around 2000km in Turkey, along both the Aegean and Black Sea Coasts. It’s been an incredible month of endless sweet cays, fascinating historical sites, new friends, and enough Turkish hospitality to cherish for a lifetime. Between pushing on the pedals I struck the balance between quant fishing villages and the enthralling metropolis of Istanbul, symbolically at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. It’s truly with a heavy heart I will be leaving such a beautiful country to cross into Georgia tomorrow, where I will reach higher inland altitudes to explore the Caucasus.
The Aegean Coast
When I reached the shores of Turkey at the beginning of the New Year, the cultural differences where at once profound; from my cheeky camping place hidden beside the knights’ fortress in Bodrum, I nearly jumped out of my skin when the mornings call to prayer began. Lesson one for Turkey: don’t pitch the tent underneath a mosques minaret!
I decided to push the miles to Istanbul so I could give my tender knee ligament a test. The physio had ordered me to rest the knee, but with Istanbul being the last place to pause before expensive visas, I decided to ride hard and check that the ligament will manage the winter haul along the Black Sea to Iran. Thankfully this somewhat idiotic reasoning paid off, and the ligament stretches each morning and afternoon have now become part of my daily routine.
In just one week I think I managed to see the remains of three of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Despite sporadic rain, the sun kept shining when visiting the famous ancient sights of Ephesus and Pergamum, as well as the Gallipoli Peninsula.
The sun did not last however, and for the first time my tent froze overnight, with temperatures plummeting to below -5 degrees. As well as shivering for much of the evening, when I woke I had to smash the ice off the tent before rolling it up with my bitterly cold fingers. I quickly discovered that cycle touring in winter is a completely different ball game!
While friends and family were struggling with the successive heatwaves of NSW, I was battling through my first snow blizzard to Bandirma. Within minutes I was caked in inches of snow, and my chain struggled to rattle through the gears. Once the snow attached to my beard began to melt, I found myself soaked on the roadside with no choice but to ride on in the treacherous conditions. Cycling into Istanbul in such conditions would have been suicide, so I jumped on the ferry to cross the Marmara to the vibrant city.
I arrived to a winter wonderland in Istanbul, with snow covering the domes and minarets of the mosques, and the street dogs and carpet sellers dancing and twirling around street corners to keep warm. It was a magical experience to arrive at such a magnificent city late in the evening during a lull in the snowfall, and to have the Aya Sofia and Blue Mosque lit up by the moonlight. Needless to say I spent much of my time visiting a plethora of historical sites and tasting an array of culinary delights, fattening myself up for the challenging roads of the Black Sea Coast.
I ended up spending fifteen days at Istanbul Hostel, where I experienced the ebb and flow of passing backpackers and had a wonderful time with many new friends. The staff were also fantastic… Paco thanks again for the extra sleeping bag; it’s made my nights in the tent luxurious in these cooler temperatures! I also received my sponsored gear from GoOutdoors at this time, and the new shoes, thermals, balaclava and ski goggles have already proved an invaluable addition to my gear.
My friend Erdem was able to fly from Australia and visit me in Istanbul, where he happened to bring along Tim Tams… it was heaven to sit in a Turkish carpet shop drinking cay and munching on a pack of chocolate Tim Tams. No doubt the most sumptuous chocolate biscuit in the world, and I look forward to filling my panniers with them when I ride through the vast terrain of Australia. Together we also went wholesale shopping for his Australian shop Sultan’s Treasure. It was fascinating to get an insider’s view of the trade, selecting merchandise to be shipped across oceans to Australian consumers.
When it became time to leave Istanbul, for the first time since the day of departure last March I woke with genuine butterflies in my stomach. It was my second time visiting Istanbul, and as well as leaving my favourite city in the world it was hard to depart from some great friends.
The Black Sea Coast
A diet based on cay, kebabs, rice puddings, kunefe, balaclava and Turkish delight for two weeks made me lose any fitness gains I had made on The Aegean Coast, so I limited the mileage each day and slowly built up momentum on the bike. Sadly the soup sachets and instant noodles cannot compete with the gastronomic delights of Istanbul, and my stomach grumbled bitterly as I returned to the more typically bland diet of bread and pasta.
As well as sporadic punctures all along the Black Sea Coast, my tent pole also snapped. When I stopped at a small hardware shop in a village I quickly had three Turkish children help me mend the tent pole connection. It was a real joy to enlist their help to hunt down parts, and together all four of us did a bodgie job that has kept (most of) the rain outside of the tent!
The terrain soon turned to a cyclist’s vision of hell. For an entire week my ‘pedal speed’ was rarely above 8km/h, with constant hills that gave no reward besides a fast descent. Once it began raining and temperatures dropped to between 3-4 degrees, it usually meant a sweaty climb followed by a fast descent which usually had me shivering from cold before the next sweaty uphill battle. The rugged coastline sometimes had me riding about five kilometres along ridges to gain a kilometre towards the east. To say it was demoralising is a massive understatement, especially given the eight days straight of rain! The incessant drizzle also made the descents incredibly dangerous, and at times I felt the sensation of Wilson sliding out underneath me.
In the face of such harsh terrain I thankfully perfected the art of ‘cay hopping’ from village to village. The supply of Turkish tea – always served with a smile and friendly greeting – kept me positive throughout the more demanding sections of the Black Sea. The Turkish people were incredibly hospitable, and in one week I slept in a petrol station office, in a disused cinema, and in a friendly home. Every time I arrived to a village in the evening I searched for a café with a fireplace to dry my gear, and within moments would have locals befriend me for an evening. I also had an afternoon riding with a cycling group from Eregli, who later opened their bike shop late in the evening and took me to dinner. Further east a couple weeks later I also had members of Ordu’s cycling group ride with me to Giresun, and also had me try the most delicious kebab imaginable!
I have met some wonderful cycle tourers on the road, and it has been nice to share tales and exchange information about the route ahead. Incredibly, one French girl left home at the age of sixteen and has now been cycling for over three years, busking with music in the streets to fund the journey. It was inspiring to meet other adventurers, and with our route options somewhat limited with various political turmoils in the region, I look forward to joining up with cyclers through Iran and The Silk Road to China.
A few days ago I had a much needed day off in the fishing village of Bolaman, and was lucky enough to meet some local lads who took me out on The Black Sea to fish with nets. In NSW it is illegal to fish in this way, so it was a special experience to help the locals’ drop the 1.5km of fishing net overnight and get out on a boat into the sea.
The odometer now sits on 17, 062 kilometres, with the higher altitudes of the Caucasus soon to push me onwards into Persia…