At the boundry of Europe and Asia and the first overtly Islamic country I have visited, Turkey always represented an important threshold on my trip. However its customs and social norms remained something something of a mystery to me. Would I spark a diplomatic incident by eating with the wrong hand? Would delicate religious sensibilities be upset if I removed my shirt on hot hill climbs? The Syrian border loomed large in my imagination too, fed by a steady stream of news stories about radicalised Westerners travelling via Turkey to join terrorist groups across the border. After feeling relatively at home in Europe, I was expecting to feel unusually conspicuous in Turkey, both as a pasty-skinned Northerner and as a cyclist.
On arriving by boat from Greece I found passport control and waited for the two or three people in front of me to make their way through. Other new arrivals did not seem to view things in the same way – smartly dressed business people and tourists alike behaved as if customs was about to close in 20 seconds and barged up to the desk. After being queue jumped four or five times I used my bike to push a way through the scrum, eventually having to thrust my passport into the hand of the customs officer as people continued to reach past me and do the same! So that’s how it’s going to be, is it?!
My impressions of Turkey softened as I wandered round the attractive port of Cesme to track down some replacement sunglasses, having just discovered that I’d left my expensive photochromic specs at Elina’s. Shop and cafe owners and locals were friendly and helpful, and between Cesme and Izmir I feasted on piles of pide (a sort of Turkish garlic bready pizza), pilaf and baclava for what turned out to be unrepeatably low prices. I had arranged to stay with Altan, a new Warmshowers host who had contacted Taneli after spotting his route map on Instagram and speculating that we would come to Izmir next. Taneli’s good PR was my good fortune, as Altan and his flatmate Kaya were remarkably generous hosts who gave me a much needed crash course in Turkish life and practices; quite literally, in his eagerness to cycle to our rendezvous Altan had wiped out in some roadworks, arriving with a few cuts and bruises and a puncture, but apparently unflustered. I spent a couple of days updating the website, sorting out a Turkish SIM card and acquiring various bits and pieces of kit for the warmer weather, swapping my Goretex trainers for sandals and picking up a mossie net. Planning their first bicycle adventure in South America later this year, the guys took a forensic interest in the contents of my panniers and bike set up!
After a couple of very companionable days chilling in Izmir, Altan guided me out of the city and supplying many recommendations for places to see on my route across Turkey. Alone on the road for the first time in seven weeks, having been teamed up with Taneli since late February, it felt good to be on the move again. From Altan and Kaya’s relief map of Turkey, I had plotted the path of least resistance across this large and mountainous country to visit the Unesco WH sites of Pamukkale and Cappadocia, so my first few days on the road were along the fairly busy main roads linking Izmir (Turkey’s third largest city) with Denizli. I am always on slightly higher alert on my first few nights wildcamping in a new country, until I settle in and get the measure of the place. Finding a camping spot proved a little tricky that first night, as the broad river valley between Aydin and Denizli was carpeted wall to wall with poly-tunnels for strawberries and other produce, while in the few olive groves I found the ground was a furrowed mess of sodden earth from recent ploughing. Darkness descended and I still hadn’t seen a likely looking spot. Poking around amongst some olive trees with my torch, suddenly the orchard was flooded with light as a motorcycle came bumping along through the trees, revving its engine. Busted! My heart sank, but I took a deep breath and with a wave and a smile as winning as I could muster I approached the two men, trying to mime that I just wanted to find a place to camp and sleep for one night. We could not communicate but it was clear that they did not want me to be there, as the rider insistently pointed back to the main road, gesturing that I should go away. Whatever. It was a horrible ploughed up orchard anyway. After wandering along a drainage dyke through cropland for a couple of miles, and unbelievably winning a stand off with a farm dog (it was very meek), I eventually found a secluded spot amongst some abandoned huts and made camp for the night, exhaustedly cooking my supper around 10pm.
The landscape and roads continued in much the same way for the next few days, but the camping did become much easier, as I drew closer to the dazzling white limestone outcrop of Pamukkale, stopping frequently at roadside stalls for great punnets of succulent strawberries. I spent a morning wandering over the bizarre, organic looking travertine terraces and paddling in the warm springs there, before checking out the Roman remains of the city of Hierapolis above. With relief I found that the touristy feel of the place was outweighed by the genuinely fascinating landscape and impressive remnants of ancient civilisation. At least I was there early enough in the day and in the season to avoid the worst excesses of the coach tours that throng to the site.
Heading east from Pamukkale I climbed up onto the central Anatolian plateau with ease, the roads in Turkey being generally excellent: smooth surfaced and usually with a shoulder wider than either lane. Finding vegetarian fodder in the cay (chai) stops and cafes was often tricky though. I had an enormous stroke of good fortune when, dizzy with hunger after a fast 60km morning, I fell into a restaurant near the town of Cay. As I scoffed what apparently meagre meat-free offerings were available, Mevlüt, the owner of the cafe, joined me, asking questions via Google translate on his phone, while ever more staff and customers gravitated to the table. At Mevlüt’s command, an array of dishes (surpisingly all vegetarian) was laid out for me and non-stop glasses of cay continued to appear, before Mevlüt decided he’d like a ride around the car park on my heavily laden bike. As I was plied with bottles of water to take with me I tried to settle up for the feast, but via Google translate came the reply, ‘no debt’!
After handshakes and well wishes all round I headed with renewed optimism into the conservative heartland of Turkey around the city of Konya. As things turned out I was glad to get through Konya, its hinterland dominated by endless fields of sugar beet and towering adverts for the enormous agri-business landowners Torku and its subsidiary Konya Seker. My particular impressions of the area are probably best forgotten. A half butchered bull rotting several meters from its decapitated head in a field beside the road. A hard-to-come-by secluded riverside campsite seriously marred by noxious odours, the river contaminated by industrial effluent from the nearby sugar factories probably.
I was relieved to make it to Sultanhani, where I sought out local cobbler and all round good guy Ferit Ozel, who I had heard will let you camp in his leafy garden if you ask nicely. He was not hard to locate – as I cycled into the town first one then another local on a bike approached me saying, ‘Do you seek Ferit? Follow me…’ After enjoying the cool respite of Ferrit’s peaceful shop and the unexpected luxury of camping on a lawn, I pushed hard to reach Cappadocia. That day turned into one of the epic rides of my trip to date, not so much because of the distance or terrain – around 140km over the hilliest ‘plateau’ I’ve ever seen – but more likely from the cumulative effect of the big mileages I’d been riding recently, combined with the now cloudless sunny skies. As the sun beat down incessantly the tar melted in the coarse aggregate of the asphalt so that the surface of the road seemed to suck at my tyres. Grinding it out in low gear up yet another long draggy climb towards Nevsehir, my wheels popped the tarry blisters like bubble wrap, but it felt more like riding over fly paper with the increased effort required.
As the heat of the day receded I rounded a bend in the hills above Goreme and suddenly there in evening light stretched out before me the otherworldly valleys of Cappadocia, a Martian landscape of fluted dune-like rocks aglow in soft pinks, rich reds and ghostly whites, while hot air balloons floated about in the gloaming. Ferit had recommended staying with his friend Ahmet at Panorama Camping above Goreme, a handy suggestion as I was in no state to shop around. I engaged in my first successful bit of haggling with Ahmet to agree a mutually satisfactory price for four nights. Calling by for a chat every day, Ahmet had the unnerving habit of hailing me from across the campsite, ‘Hey! Sexy Boy!!’ I should probably point out that he was an outrageous flirt with everyone, men and women, young and old alike. In especially high spirits one evening he pressed his face against the window of my neighbours’ campervan, a very genteel retired Swiss couple; rapping on the sides he proclaimed as he swaggered away into the sunset how he ‘love these people, friendly people… and rich!’.
Next morning I set about exploring the canyons filled with towering, wind-sculpted rock spires, ‘fairy chimneys’ as they are called, many of them hollowed out into (now abandoned) dwellings and early Christian churches. Again, the coach parties were easily avoided, as they congregated in the ticketed Goreme open air museum, whereas hiking and poking about in the canyons I mostly had the place to myself, occasionally walking along with other solo travellers and for an hour or so with a local who decided he wanted to guide us through some hidden passageways in the fairy chimneys (and did not even hint that he was hoping to earn a fee for his company).
My touristic urges sated, it was time to swing the bike northwards and make for the Black Sea coast at Samsun. During the four days ride up to the coast I made my first foray into the Couchsurfing network and was fortunate to get a last minute offer from Dursun Demir, who kindly hosted me for four nights. It would have only been two, but I managed to break the lens of my Sony Alpha 550 camera when my undersized Gorilla-pod tripod capsized off Dursun’s kitchen table during the customary self-timer farewell photo! With Dursun’s resourceful assistance it took only a couple of days to find a Sony service centre (who couldn’t fix it as I’d already bodged an attempted repair myself, d’oh!) and then track down an identical new lens from a specialist camera shop hidden away in Samsun’s labyrinth of alleys. It was an expensive accident, but a valuable lesson learned, as I had already started to become rather blasé about what is a fairly fragile piece of kit. Fortunately I was still in a city big enough to find a like-for-like replacement, so avoided a gap in my photographic journey – had this happened further east I would probably not have been so lucky. And of course I wouldn’t have got to spend as much time with Dursun, which was a genuine pleasure.
Pedalling along the coast on the afternoon after I left Samsun I was looking around for a place to stop for a late lunch when I spotted at the roadside a couple of loaded touring bikes – the first I had seen in Turkey. Their owners were Volkan, who had set off from Istanbul a few weeks earlier hoping to ride to Mongolia, and Ozkan, his Warmshowers host from the previous night in Samsun, who was accompanying Volkan for a weekend ride up the coast to experience his first ever night in a tent! Chatting over lunch, I decided to join them for a while and enjoyed a great sociable evening camping next to the beach, complete with campfire and evening and morning swims. Next morning Ozkan headed home while Volkan and I trundled on towards Ordu via the verdant Persembe peninsula, where we were intercepted by local cycling club, Ordu Bisiklet Safari, out for their Sunday ride. As we coasted along with the friendly bunch, first one member invited us to join them in his family’s restaurant in Ordu, then another asked us if we’d like to stay the night at her flat in town. Volkan had clearly learned quicker than I to take your luck where you find it, and we wasted no time in agreeing to these kind offers despite knowing little about the people who extended them. It was absolutely the right decision, as Erim, the cafe owner, and Firdevs, our host, were great fun to hang out with and supremely generous to boot.
It was also a privilege to ride with Volkan for another day or so, as his perspective as a native Turk was highly illuminating for me in understanding many of the otherwise confusing or ambiguous incidents, with military police here, or general election campaign slogans there. Perhaps even more valuable was the chance to witness Volkan’s relaxed attitude to wild camping in his home country, making little if any attempt to avoid detection he simply engaged any passers-by in conversation, often blagging some produce or eggs off them into the bargain! Although… I later found out from my erstwhile cycling buddy Taneli that this approach did not serve him quite so well when he inadvertently camped after dark in an army training ground near the Georgian border. A ‘several change of underwear’ night, no doubt, but at least now he has a great story to tell for his troubles!!
The day after Volkan and I parted company to resume riding at our own preferred speeds, I bumped into Gary, another round the world cyclist (www.gearsweneveruse.com), at a roadside cay stop. Heading in the same direction, we rode together for a couple of days through one tunnel after another across the border into Georgia, the genial company a welcome tonic to the otherwise monotonous roads. Four weeks after I entered Turkey at Izmir, I left at Sarpi, channeling Macca at the top of my lungs, singing ‘Back in the USSR’!
Turkey had totally confounded my expectations. Far from feeling a pervasive threat of militant fundamentalism I felt utterly welcomed, Turkish hospitality being unstintingly generous and offered from the heart. On inumerable occasions people pulled over when they saw me taking a rest or a snack by the roadside to offer me food, water, a place to stay in the next village (sadly, usually too early in the day for me to stop, with the exception of Ordu) or a lift on their tractor! So thank you, Turkey, for a month of beautiful memories – stunning natural wonders for sure, but mostly of happy times with new friends.