Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Our first day cycling in Turkey

Posted a few days later due to lack of internet access. We have made it into Istanbul this morning – more on that later.

Wow. Our first day cycling in Turkey has been amazing. After spending 4 nights in Edirne to allow Freddie to recover from her tummy bug, we finally hit the road yesterday. Edirne is a lovely town with a very European feel and some interesting mosques, but the hotels are expensive and after a few days we had kind of exhausted its entertainment options.||

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Many cyclists take the infamous D100 into Istanbul, which is quite a major road with up to 10 lanes of traffic. It is certainly direct and probably much flatter than our route, but we are not keen on the traffic and have a few days to kill, so we are trying out a more northern route following the D020 all the way to the Bosporus and the end of Europe, and then turning south into Istanbul, reserving the option to jump on a downtown ferry if the traffic gets too mad.

Coming out of Edirne, the road quickly gets quite hilly, with constant ups and downs. We have also been battling with a maddening headwind, which slows us down considerably. Talking to some locals we found out that there is currently a heat wave in Turkey, which is resulting in the hottest summer for 60 years. Normally, temperatures are in the high 20s, but this summer they are in the high 30s (in the shade) every day. It’s quite relentless, with the roads actually melting. By lunchtime the tarmac is so soft and sticky that even our bike tyres are leaving marks in it, and it sounds like the cars are driving over water.

We haven’t had any punctures so far and were almost ready to celebrate our puncture free trip to Istanbul, when the air hissed out of Guy’s rear tyre yesterday at noon, just as we had clocked up 4,000km since London. There was no shade anywhere, so we had to stop by the side of the road to change the inner tube. Meanwhile we watched the mercury on Guy’s bike computer climb up to 47°C, the highest temperature we have recorded so far.

This is where the day turned into something really amazing, and the Turks proved to us what a great people they are. First of all, a young, smartly dressed guy in a car actually turned around and stopped near where we were fixing the puncture. He asked if we needed help, and even though we said we were fine, he got out of his air conditioned car and stood in the extreme heat with us, trying to communicate in Turkish, holding the bike while Guy was fixing the puncture, and helping us put the panniers back on.

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Di had cycled ahead to a small village where she was waiting in the shade. She had started chatting to a retired guy who spoke German, and when we arrived he bought us a watermelon from a nearby farmer. We felt a little self conscious, as it’s Ramadan and most people in the village were actually fasting. We really admire the strength of willpower of the Muslims who manage to fast in this sweltering heat, with long days of not being able to eat or, even worse, even drink a sip of water. Nevertheless, the man gave us watermelon to eat while he was fasting, and of course it would have been rude to refuse. We had a nice chat before we moved on.

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A little while later we pulled over into a small shady patch by the side of the road, on the other side of a little ditch. Just as we pulled in, a passing farmer stopped his tractor and we thought we were in trouble for intruding on his field. He came over and placed another watermelon, as well as some tomatoes and cucumbers on the ground in front of us, before getting back in his tractor, waving and driving off. Our lunch was much enhanced by his gifts, although we could not stomach any more watermelon quite yet. After a few more locals who stopped by on their motorbikes or in their tractors for a chat, another car pulled up and two smartly dressed men got out. They jumped across the ditch and gave us some plums. One of them spoke very good German, and we found out that the other guy was a journalist for a local newspaper and wanted to interview us. We then spent about half an hour chatting about our trip, with the German speaking guy translating, followed by a little photo shoot where we made fools of ourselves holding up the watermelon the farmer had given us.

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They were fun guys, and before they left, Erol, the German speaker, told us that he worked at the Shell service station in Kirklareli, the town we were planning to spend the night in. He offered to invite us for a drink and help us find a hotel. As they were leaving, the journalist started rummaging around in his car and picking up everything he could find to give to us, which included peanuts, chewing gum, a small bottle of perfume and some babywipes. He then pulled out his own bottle of aftershave and proceeded to spray some on Guy’s shirt before slapping him on the back and jumping in the car, laughing. It seems our daily showers aren’t really cutting it in this heat!

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We strapped the watermelon on Guy’s bike with the best intentions, but after another 10km or so of hills and headwind, we gave up, as it was just too heavy. We decided to give the watermelon to a group of locals sitting on a shaded table in the centre of a village. Guy just went over to them and plonked the watermelon down on the table, to much confusion. One of the guys spoke German, so Freddie went over to explain. They actually thought we wanted them to cut the watermelon for them, and when we said it was a gift for them, they laughed and invited us for some lemonade. They were lovely people, eager to help us in any way they could, be it with food or drinks, directions or route advice.

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Time was getting on, and we were running late for our date at Shell service station. We pushed on through the headwind, and arrived in Kirklareli thoroughly knackered. Erol was not at the service station, but his colleagues immediately called him and gave us some cold drinks for free. When Erol pulled up in his car, together with his brother-in-law, he told us that his boss at the service station used to own a hotel in town, and had called the hotel to negotiate a special price for us, taking two thirds off the original price.

Erol took us straight to the hotel so we could shower and sort ourselves out, and he promised to meet us again an hour later. He showed up with his brother-in-law, Tavruk, and we went for a walk through the town and the local park, which was absolutely packed with people enjoying the slightly cooler evening air (it was still 30°C at 11pm…). They took us out for drinks and tea, and we met their sons, who were also in the park. Erol worked in Germany in the late 70s and early 80s, so his German was very good and we were able to talk a lot. After buying us ice cream and refusing any offer of us paying for anything, they took us back to the hotel, and we promised to pop by the service station in the morning to say goodbye.

All of us unfortunately spent a rather sleepless night, as it was just too hot to sleep. We had the windows open, and just as we had fallen asleep, the drummers came through. Ahh yes, the drumming, one of the less enjoyable aspects of Ramadan: Every town had a designated drummer (sometimes with a support band), and his job is to walk through the town at 3am beating his drums and making sure that everyone in town wakes up in time to have breakfast before the sun comes up. Nice chap. Unfortunately it also wakes up the travellers every night, but at least we don’t have to get up and have breakfast at 3am…

We got up early and left at 7am to try and beat the heat. Erol was not at the service station, so we said goodbye to his colleagues and left. As we rode out of town, we saw a motorbike ahead of us, stopped by the side of the road. Coming closer, we saw it was Erol who had come out to say goodbye. We were humbled by all that he had done for us, making our time in Kirklareli very special.

Today we headed further East, into the same strong headwind, and we only managed 58km before we arrived in Vize at lunchtime and called it a day. After the previous sleepless night we were desperate for air conditioning. Unfortunately the man at the only hotel with air conditioning knew his market well and quoted us quite an inflated price. We managed to reduce it a little by negotiating, but we still feel we are paying over the odds due to the lack of competition in town, although it is a nice hotel.

Generally we have found Turkish hotels to be very expensive, double the price we would have paid in Romania or Bulgaria. Kebab shops are good value, but restaurants are not much cheaper than in London. Some of them don’t have a menu, and so we sometimes feel they are lumping on the “tourist tax”. Slowly we are learning how much to pay for things, but there is still a learning curve ahead of us. Just as the Turks are the most generous, kind people in their private lives, they are also looking for maximum gain when they have their business hats on, and we need to learn to play along with their long tradition of bartering.

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