Into Asia ….. Turkeys West Coast
The Prince’s Islands and the Sea of Marmara
Following the cycle across the Bosphorus Bridge and visit to bike shop for Tilly to receive some long over due TLC I head towards the ferry that will take me across to the island of Heybelida, one of the Princes Islands just off shore from Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara.
I had arranged to meet Josh and James (from SSG) on the island for a barbeque and camping … as usual i am running late but we manage to meet up on Heybeliada and after sorting a barbeque, food and wine we head up hill in search of a good location to watch the sunset and cook … the location we settle on turns out to be perfect as it affords us a sunset beer and then after cooking we can hear music from a birthday or wedding party coming up from a distant bar … followed by fireworks … i so love fireworks and watching them across the water and through the pines was perfect!!!
In the morning James and Josh head back to SSG and i spend time on the island, at one point chatting to a random woman about the political situation in Turkey and about her current relationship which she wants advice on!!!
Eventually I catch the evening ferry to Yalova on the opposite shore of the Sea of Marmara from Istanbul … a ferry journey which gives me the most amazing views of the asian side of Istanbul and i come to appreciate just how big a city it really is … its spectacular in so many ways.
I reach Yalova as the sun is setting and feel as if I have reached a tropical island with palms and a beautiful long boulevard, on which i find a memorial to the memory of the lives lost during the earthquake which shattered Istanbul in 1999. The memorial is very moving and i leave feeling saddened by the photos i have seen and remembering reports in the UK of the massive loss of life and of the devastation to the whole area. I cycle away from Yalova for some miles and eventually, just as it is getting really dark, find a suitably sized drainage tunnel under a road and set up my mosquito net and mat for the night.
The following day i encounter a morning of rain, one of only a handful I had had since leaving the UK, but as i cycle along the coast towards Cinarcik the rain stops and i am treated to sunshine again … in Cinarcik its so hot that when asked by one woman if i was looking for the ‘womens beach’ i jump at the chance of swimming/having a wash and follow her down a track to a little cove area where there are women and children swimming. Not long after me a group of teenage girls come down as well and before too long we are all spectators in their singing and dancing on the beach and then in the sea … it was great to see them all having such a relaxed time and to see their dance and hear their songs.
Im not too comfortable with the idea of segregation and there having to be a women’s beach however hindsight me, after the month of cycling alone in Turkey, can appreciate the opportunity I had to relax in my body without any anxiety regarding who was viewing me or how i was being viewed … and to be able to enjoy the warmth of the sun and the sea. A sea that has no tide and therefore almost no waves … very strange for someone from the southwest of england where sea = surf. There were also a lot of jellyfish to contend with and i ws super aware of my lack of experience with these strange beasts … so stayed as far away from them as possible. In spite of this being a womans beach there were a lot of women wearing a lot of clothing to swim in … i mean full body coverage often in black. The aspect of femaleness and being female in Turkey was an area I was not comfortable about and spent long periods of time considering the differences between there and England. Discussions with women, unsurprisingly, often touched on this as well, most of whom are so used to doing it that they do not seem to see it as a loss of freedom … inevitably it relates to the concepts of religious authority or secular authority and the current Turkish government has a strongly religious agenda. If you tell people how to behave and what to believe for long enough will these ideas be seen to be their own after a while?
After my swim i cycle up through hills before cresting one particular hill and seeing the coastline spread out before me … strangely it reminds me of Devon, but sunnier! I drop down into the coastal town, post some things home and chat to a group of older men who are drinking tea and playing game with numbered pieces before cycling on again and finding a picnic spot just outside Esenkoy … where I meet a lovely family running it and spend a couple of days with them. Swimming with the girls (yes they also have full coverage swimming clothes) and chatting to their parents. The views and sunsets from there were truely amazing.
When I leave I heading for Gemlik, again following the coastal roads through beautiful, hot countryside past so many olive groves for which this part of the region is famous. The views of the sea and the coast are incredible …. images i have seen on films or on billboard posters i am actually cycling through!
I cycle through Gemlik in the early evening, stopping briefly for an ice cream (there was a lot of stopping for ice cream!) and when i start looking for a camping spot on a neighbouring hill i am stopped by a family whose son is just returned from his job on a container ship for his engagement party. They go and ask at the local mosque if i can camp there but after having food with them and being suitably scrutinised i end up staying in their home … they welcome me in despite being busy with arrangements for the party the following day. The mother is still in the process of making intricate decorations for towels to go in an engagement package for her son’s fiancée. Generosity and interest was something i encountered throughout my time in Turkey. When i leave in the late morning i am weighed down with olives, fresh figs, Turkish delight and some other presents. Its overwhelming the kindness and I spend a lot of time over the next month considering this difference between our countries … would a Turkish (or any other) woman on a bicycle receive this level of care in the UK? I’m sad to say I think not.
The days cycle follows a similar pattern … hot cycling, dusty roads, olive groves, coastal towns and as the sun lowers in the sky I meet up with a couple of local cyclists who tell me that everyone camps on the beach in the local town, Zeytinbagi, so we all cycle there drink some tea and chat before they continue on their way home and I meet a friend for the evening, a lovely wire haired Pointer, who spots me as a soft touch, brings me a plastic bottle and we spend a good long time me throwing the bottle into the sea and her diving in and fetching it back … she reminds me of two of the best dogs in the world … Cally and Polly. Its the utter dedication to the game!
So i camp on the beach after viewing the most amazing sunset … am woken in the night several times by people revving motorbikes nearby but as they cause no issue to me i sleep again pretty quickly and awake to an amazing beach sunrise … and yes i am spend some of my time thinking about and feeling gratitude for my life and ability to do this journey and see these amazing things!! After breakfast I aim for Bergama.
Inland to Bergama
So aiming for Bergama .. this part of the journey needs to be completed on fast roads. The size of Turkey necessitates that I cycle at least some of the points between places on main roads rather than country road just so i can get around in a decent time! Turkey is an enormous place!
The day starts well and I make good time getting onto the main inland road and sadly away from the coast ….. however …. whilst busy looking at my odometer and checking distance done and the time I don’t see a lorry tyre in the middle of the hard shoulder until i am almost upon it … and consequently hit it at full speed, making the decision to roll to the side rather than risk going over the handle bars.
I jump up promptly and drag Tilly away from the road, of course we had fallen car side of the tyre rather than field side, and sit on the crash barrier to assess the damage. Tilly is pretty fine, few scrapes on her left brake lever and the panniers are a bit more scuffed. Me, scraped knee and the most amazing looking bruising starting to flare up already. The bruises developed over the course of the day, followed one of my veins and lasted for far too long!! Anyway (daughter of) physician, heal thy self!! So I clean up with alcohol, ouch and stand up, to be approached by a man who has just walked 1km up from a lay by, in broken flip flops, to see if I am ok and if I want a lift to … well anywhere. He is heading to Ayvalik, a bit further than I was planning but on the coast and I could cycle down to Bergama from there … quick consideration and I decide to continue on Tilly and go through Mustafakemalpasa, Balikesir and Soma before Bergama. So I wave him off and continue through Turkey on these large roads, stopping regularly at petrol stations for water and sometimes a place to camp.
In Balikesir I stopped at a cycle shop to get Tilly checked after our tumble, I had adjusted a couple of bits and wanted to know I had not made a mess of things. There i was told again how dangerous it was to be cycling alone and that i should be careful … before being told that a friend of the shop was coming down to show me where I could stay that evening. It appears that telling people I am camping raises no possibility of going and doing that because I am escorted to a flat in the town, very definitely a bachelor pad or second flat (!!!) … I am a little unnerved and consider whether I should make my apologies and leave, I don’t really want to spend the night alone with a man I have just met .. he speaks no English, I speak no Turkish … when he hands me the flat keys gestures to the bathroom, shows me the hot water set up, how to lock the door, indicates I need to take the key back to the cycle shop and leaves his flat to me!! I say again would this happen in England?? There is a level of trust and generosity that I have never experienced before and if anyone is reading this and feels they would like to ‘get involved’, join Warm Showers and offer a bed, floor space, garden space to cycle tourers and experience some of this yourselves!!
Over the following days I am back on smaller roads, cycling through beautiful hillsides and camping in pine woodlands. On one night i hear people out shooting and a dog racing around, beating, with a large bell around its neck. I am pleased i have developed a great ability to sleep regardless of any possible concerns because until they become actual issues I don’t need to worry!! I will deal with them as needed!!! The dog and the guns never became an issue, happily!!
From Soma to Bergama it is open and flat and I was able to see irrigation channels, tomatoes set out to ripen in the sun and on reaching Bergama to see really beautiful old houses and archaeological remains and ruins of temples … I had finally reached the historical part of Turkey I had been excited about seeing. After Bergama, and ice cream chatting to a restaurant owner, I cycle south, in the direction of Selcuk and Ephesus.
I’m back on the hard shoulder of a main road but am relatively ok with this, just looking forward to seeing Selcuk in the coming days. As i cycle along the road a small motorbike with 2 young men passes me and a little further pulls onto the hard shoulder, one of the guys puts his shirt on and for some reason i feel the need to put some speed in an power past saying hello when they call out but keeping moving. I hear the bike coming up behind me and am vindicated for my caution and totally furious when they come past close enough for the passenger to grab my arse.
I’m scared by the proximity of the motorbike to Tilly and generally outraged so shout a lot of curses at them both and power on to burn off some of my anger and frustration that young men feel this is acceptable behaviour.
After another 30 minutes cycling I spot a someone on the hard shoulder in the distance … must be a cycle tourer I think, looks like back panniers and I can see a small flag attached to the back … so engage more speed and cycle to catch up, ringing my bell and calling out ‘Merhaba’!!! Eventually I catch up with Erol, who is listening to music and not ignoring me, introduce myself and persuade him to let me cycle with him, at least for a while!!!
It turns out that Erol speaks fantastic English and is on a 10 day tour from his home in Istanbul to Bodrum and is planning on visiting Selcuk as well!! And so after chatting for a while and getting some food we camp in a very dodgy place not far from Aliaga, cycle into Aliaga in the morning and then catch the train from there to Torbali before cycling into Selcuk the following evening. Cycling with Erol is really great, he works with boats and we have many conversations about (boaters will get this!!) paint, fuel and other boaty stuff … Erol’s view is that ‘the best boat is a friends boat’!!! I totally get this … all the fun none of the stress … but still love my boat!!
On reaching Selcuk, after many stops for water and then the best Ayran I have ever tasted, we find a camp site put up the tents and go out for food … much as I have enjoyed the times travelling on my own it was really lovely to have company…even better that it was great company!!! Erol has many funny stories from working in boat yards some of which still make me laugh out loud when I think of them!!! The man with a stone in his shoe being one my favourite and one I will have to tell another time!!
Selçuk and Pamukkale
Selcuk is your standard tourist town attached to the amazing Ephesus. This doesn’t mean that Selcuk is without beautiful old buildings .. the old camii near our campsite (whose stone had retained so much of the heat of the day it was still radiating it when we went out to eat in the late evening), the derelict hammams and the castle which all indicate the towns closeness to Ephesus, one of the major hubs of the Greek (10th Century BC) and Roman (129 Century BC) world.
In Ephesus it was incredible to see the iconic Library of Celsus, the amphitheatre and the city streets laid out. Walking round in the sun and heat with Erol and ‘about a million’ other tourists was one of my highlights in Turkey. I got a real sense of history there and was happy to see the model reconstructions showing Ephesus as a major sea port and cultural centre of its time.
After a great couple of days soaking up the history and culture with Erol we parted company and he continued his tour south to Antalya and I went east in search of my next historical site, Pamukkale.
After an initial uphill and descent most of the route to Pamukkale is following alongside the really beautiful Aydin mountain ranges and as a consequence is fairly flat. It means its quite fast paced cycling which felt great after a few days without Tilly. In the evening I leave it late to find a camping spot and so at a petrol station ask about hostels etc. I am immediately commandeered by Onur, the manager from the shop next door who is interested in Tilly and he takes me off on the back of his moped to find a ‘good, safe’ place to stay. The hotel he takes me to is ok … no dodgy women according to Onur. So I move in there for the night and Onur takes me on a night tour of the city on his moped … however he keeps telling me my ‘husband’ will be having an affair whilst I am away and I should ditch UK life and stay with him!! Navigating male female interaction is always quite tricky in Turkey but Onur is a good guy and drops me back at the hotel after tea and I promise to drop into the shop in the morning and say goodbye, which I duly do.
The rest of the cycle to Pamukkale is uneventful and flat, with roadside fruit and veg sellers punctuating the sameness of the road. So in the late afternoon, as I get closer, I get an amazing view of the white terraces on the hillside in stark contrast to the rest of its surroundings … there is good reason for it to be called ‘cotton castle’ (pamukkale) … its so white and clean looking. I find a camp site near by, set up the tent for the weekend and walk up to see the hillside and some of the site in the fading light. It really is an impressive site, much bigger than Ephesus but as i would have to pay full price for the hour or so before it shuts, i decide to return the following day and enjoy the walk back down the hill to the camp site … stopping briefly to listen to music drifting across the hillside … a perfect moment of calm, ecstatic joy and connection … a treasured memory.
Pamukkale the following day is incredibly busy on the iconic white terraces and in the swimming pools but almost empty in the city of Hieropolis’ necropolis, amphitheatre and other archaeological areas … perfect for me to do my Lara Croft impression and feel part of this amazing city.
An amazing place and wonderful day is briefly marred by one of the gardeners ‘subtly’ flashing at me, so I was unsure if it was an accident until he made sure he was decently covered once I had gone past … I’m laughing now but was so angry that he though he could get away with this that I chased after him shouting (in English!!) and telling his colleagues nearby what an utter shit he was!!! Well I felt better after venting my anger and frustration!!!
From Pamukkale/Hieropolis I head for the lakes of Turkey and Konya, where I look forward to seeing the tomb of Mevlana (Rumi), a favourite Sufi mystic, writer and originator of a type of dance meditation … just my thing!