And into Turkey …
Firstly, since I am writing this at quite a physical and emotional distance from Turkey, I want to state just how much in love with Turkey I am … Turkey captivated me in so many ways and secondly to be clear that my time in Turkey was not entirely without difficulty but that my love of Turkey is there in spite of this. I hope from the photos I can convey some of that and you will be able to see and hear why it is such an amazing country, full of fascinating, beautiful places and (predominantly) warm, generous and loving individuals.
I had arranged, through Warm Showers, to stay with a bike shop in Edirne and following my fairly swift boarder crossing … where I am welcomed into the country with flags and a mosque … all sights that to my eyes are initially startling, exciting and an indicator that my cycle tour is in a true process of transition from West to East. These are sights that will become the norm over the next 2 months.
I cycle the 20 or so km into Edirne and am greeted on the outskirts of the city to sights of old hammams, old bridges over a river, a tree covered with tokens left by ‘the faithful (?!) and minarets crowding the skyline. At this stage in the late afternoon I am treated to views of the stonework bathed in beautiful light making it look warmer and more honey coloured than at other times … these initial views are not just seen but felt as well as I experience what seems like a completely different culture from that in Bulgaria and Romania before.
I am a little anxious about my clothes and whether I am dressed appropriately – in the following days I am told that Im dressed fine but that any glances are more likely to be about my unshaved legs and general lack of cosmetic interest in my appearance!! The message is that I should be taking better care of my appearance … since there are so many beautiful Turkish women western women are expected to also make an effort!!
Cycling to Trakya Bisiklete (bike shop) from Edirne I am happily looking around me wide eyed when I am spotted by Engin, who has left the shop to cycle up and ensure i find them safely!! This level of generosity and care is something i will continue to encounter throughout Turkey.
Engin has a flat opposite the shop and alongside myself there are 6 South Korean cyclists also staying. Its a wonderful place to stay and I end up staying there for 3 days rather than one night and have an amazing time visiting the mosques in Edirne and the bazaars. On one evening a group of 6 of us cycle over the boarder into Greece for dinner …
The Sulimanye Mosque is totally beautiful and I am captivated by the structures, stonework, tiles, courtyards and way that the sunlight falls on different parts of the mosques but lights it all. A full emotional and visual experience for me.
On leaving Edirne for Vize I cycle across beautiful countryside covered in sunflowers, as in Bulgaria (for oil, sunflower halva and also sunflower seed which are a popular Turkish snack) I experience the first crop of punctures … yes crop!!! I estimate that in Turkey, which had the highest frequency of any country so far, i had 40 punctures, mainly from glass on the roads but for the first set from plant spines or thorns. Oh any in case anyone is wondering … yes it was also partially due to my dodgy choice of touring tyres!! I had been using a set of Continental TownRide tyres, which are fine on smooth asphalt and have very little resistance making rolling speed good …. but which are as strong against glass or bad/broken surfaces (there will be more discussions on ‘road’ surfaces in future posts!!).
So i dont make it to the family i was going to sty with in Vize that night … partly because of the punctures but also because i stop to help a woman walk her horse and cart down a steep road towards Pinarhise … the horse cannot cope on the down hill with the cart right up against it … so she walks the horse and i try and hold the cart off the horse which is not an easy job but is better that i do it because she appears to be in her 70s and wiry enough to try to manage both but not without some difficulty. At the bottom of the hill she waves me away and i cycle on eventually stay in a garage with a man who hails me as i cycle past. He ‘tells’ me he had a french cyclist staying a while ago!!!! I am initially uncertain about staying but there are no issues so leave in the morning feeling happy to have had such a positive experience … eating food from his farm plot, learning a few words of Turkish and watching Turkish MTV on his outdoor tv in the dwindling evening light and then in the morning with breakfast!!
I get to Vize after a few hours cycling and when I stop to buy fruit am called into the local cafe for coffee and than lunch … in the end i spend the afternoon in Vize chatting to the cafe owner, who speaks fantastic English and wants me to see some of the sights of Vize, namely the mosques and fortifications, all of which are beautiful. After spending the afternoon with the family in the cafe I am asked to stay overnight and go in the morning … they are worried about me cycling alone late in the day. I heard this a lot in Turkey! So I stay overnight in the top part of the restaurant. In spite of spending time with the family, talking with the son/cafe owner about the perceptions of western women and being reassured by him that staying with them was not a problem and that I was quite safe I still had an issue with his father … nothing that I couldnt handle but none the less I left the cafe in the morning feeling more anxious about my interactions with men than I was previously. In hind sight I realised that there is only so much I can do to manage these interactions and short of avoiding men in Turkey totally I will just do the best I can to stay safe there as everywhere else.
From Vize i cycle along a very fast, hot dusty road which is laden with concrete trucks pounding up and down, drivers probably paid per load, to Sliviri … My first sight of the sea was amazing … i was so excited and this was only tempered by the need to handle Tilly carefully in the strong onshore winds ….
Woo hoo!!!! Istanbul, a place filled with magical images for me, is only a day away and I will have reached a major point in my journey … I will be able to cross from one continent to another ….
Following a night camping in Siliviri I attempt to cycle the D100 into Istanbul. I had read that it was a bit of a nightmare of a road since it had been widened in the past year or so and had very little hard shoulder for cyclists to utilize but wanted to do it!! Well I found it to be every bit as bad as I had been advised … aside from the amazing views of Istanbul inching closer each time I crested a hill! It is by no means a flat route… Istanbul is built on 7 hills and the D100 is built on the precursors to these hills. The cycle might not have been too bad but the constant onshore side wind was horrific and constantly threatened to push me into traffic or just plain push me over. Turkey is a surprisingly windy place … perhaps as a result of the sea, mountains and heat … someone will Im sure advise of the topographical reasons for the wind but this days biking was replicated throughout different places in Turkey and my ability to handle a fully loaded Tilly had developed in response.
Following 2 more punctures and a need to stop for water at most of the petrol stations on the route (my water was hot enough for tea within about 30 minutes in the bottle on the frame) and I am still about 15km away from my allotted meeting point with Bego, friend of my mate Sam , who was flying out for a long weekend in a few days time. At a petrol station I stop and am given a phone with which to contact Bego and advise him of my late arrival … Stay there he says … Im coming to get you!!! and so I do!!! Im sat at the petrol station being given cay and food when he arrives!! We pile Tilly and my bags into the car, wave goodbye to the guys at the petrol station and head for his home … its so exciting to see Istanbul in the fading light, knowing I have a few weeks to explore the amazing city. One of my previous employers, Mehmet, lived in Istanbul for many years before relocating permanently to the UK and he had told me a lot about the city, which has made me even more excited to see it.
Im also really excited that Sam is going to be in Istanbul with me …! So when she arrives a day after me I am ecstatic and she, Bego and I spend time in Istanbul on boats on the Bosphorus, visiting the Blue Mosque, the Aya Sophia, visiting the beach, going out tequila fuelled dancing and hanging out having plenty of cay and generally loving Istanbul.
After a long weekend Sam returned to the UK and I moved into the Sopha So Good hostel where i would help out in return for accommodation whilst sorting out my Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan visas.
In fact i enjoyed my time in SSG so much that I ended up spending more time doing that than sorting out my visas and consequently had longer in Istanbul than I had planned .. planning still being used in the loosest sense of the word!
Istanbul is an incredible place … the architecture is so beautiful I could have easily spent more than the 4 weeks I had there. One of my favourite places to go was a bar called Symbol not far from SSG, which has a roof terrace and I often went up there alone and sat and watched the sun setting over the city.
During my stay the tension between the authorities/government and the people was very much in evidence. A march/demonstration which initially was given ‘permission’ was advised permission was withdrawn and police in riot gear and water canon trucks took up strategic positions on Isticlal Street in the Taksim area … there was also conflict in a different area of the city where a woman had been killed by the military/police for allegedly being part of the PKK. My knowledge of the history of this is too sketchy to be able to give any useful information but the concept of being without the right to demonstrate or have free speech is thankfully alien to me and for a week the area around Taksim Square had an uncomfortably visible police presence.
Whilst in Istanbul I walked, cycled, used the Funicular, the Metro, the overland trains, the bus service, the dolmush, a car, more than one ferry and a taxi (and Sam used the airport!) … I dont think there is anywhere else i have used this many different types of transport!! Cycling from Bego’s home to the hostel had been a great experience … Istanbul drivers are actually very good … very fast! but very good … and thankfully Istanbul is more a city of cats rather than dogs and so I was not feeling I had to keep a weather eye open for a snarling dog charging at any moment! The amount of cats in Istanbul is quite staggering…
Of all the mosques (Camii) I visited the New Mosque in Eminonu was my favourite … seeing the blue tiles in a shady, palm covered courtyard was a wonderful balm for an over heated Rae.
Visits to the grand bazaar and spice markets where inevitably sensory over load!!! The sounds of people shouting their wares, demanding attention, the smells of spices, street food cooking and areas of bright lit shops followed by dim lit cafes. My idea of sensory heaven … visual, auditory, tactile, a whole viseral experience.
Sopha So Good Hostel
SSG is run by a very cool Kiwi guy, Nathan. Whilst there I met a large number of guests and staff from different countries and had really great time with them all. There were a couple of young British guys who were also volunteering, Josh and James, from Exeter Uni … Lovely guys with expected ability of the young to go out drinking and still be able to hold a coherent sentence the following day! Ah … I kind of remember those days!! Great memories of being there with Mustafa, Abbie, Manar, Lorenzo, Jess, Ryan and the very gorgeous Dilara.
…. was done in a major panic!!!
I had set my Azerbaijan visa application going and would hopefully receive the email confirmation when back on the road.
I received my Uzbekistan visa on the wednesday and then, almost immediately after, received a message that the Transcontinental Race organisers had been granted permission to cross the 1st Bosphorus Brige, on cycles, en mass on the saturday!!! I had been following the TC Race the previous week and been staggered that Josh Ibbett had won the race in 9 days, 23 hours, 54 minutes – Flanders to Istanbul solo and unsupported!!! Puts my 3 1/2 months to shame!! So I round up the work at SSG and early on saturday morning am back on the road … heading for Asia!!!