Thursday, 30 September 2010

The “Wild East”

Sivas – Erzurum

Our rest day in Sivas was well chosen, as there was a thunderstorm and rain which lasted for most of the day. Unfortunately we found that the mosque and some of the seminaries we wanted to visit were closed for reconstruction, so the only one we visited was the Bürüciye Medresesi, which was built in 1271 in the Seljuk style, and most importantly had a lovely tea garden in the courtyard! We also found a very posh cafe and had our first cafe latte since Istanbul, along with a banana split made with Turkish ice cream, which is so rich and gooey that you have to eat it with knife and fork. Delicious!||

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After a fairly easy day’s cycling, we found ourselves just outside of the small town of Zara. If we had had enough water to camp, we would have gone straight past it as its outskirts looked quite ugly and industrial, but as it was we had to go into town. Hordes of school children were on their way home and greeted us with enthusiastic hello’s. We stopped and met an English speaker who recommended a hotel, and some children then walked with us to show us the way. The hotel turned out to be lovely and very cheap, so we decided to stay. The hotel manager made us cups of tea and even offered to do our ironing. He would have had a very busy afternoon if we had been cruel enough to give him our clothes, which have been squashed into our panniers for months.

We ventured out to do some shopping, and first of all stopped at a small shop to buy superglue. Promptly we were invited for tea by the owner, who spoke a bit of English and a lot of Russian (no use to us unfortunately). Wandering on, we met a very nice local businessman who spoke fluent French, English and Italian, and also invited us for tea. He owned a flour mill in Zara and also had a another business which saw him travelling anywhere between China and Belgium to buy and sell jewellery. We found out that Zara, being a town of only 12,000 people, has a university and a thriving business community, with a disproportionately high number of shops. Many people speak foreign languages, and we really would have loved to stay a couple of days to explore the town.

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As it was, we cycled on the next morning into a roaring headwind. We were climbing for most of the day to conquer our highest pass so far, at 2,190m altitude. It was hard work on rough tarmac, and we were glad to see the downhill on the other side. Freddie has a recent obsession with bears, so we decided to camp in a village rather than in the forest. Locals have also been warning us about the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist organisation fighting for independence, which is active in this area. Despite the whispered warnings and accompanying machine gun noises we are not convinced that they would really be interested in robbing camping tourists. To be sure, we asked in a small village if we could camp, and were happily pointed to a patch of grass, which was surrounded by a few houses. It later turned out that the man who gave us permission to camp was actually the village chief, and his house was next to our patch of grass, making us feel very safe.

Next to the village, just off the road, was a small river and an area with a picnic table. A couple of truckers had pulled in and were forcefully waving us over to join them. When we arrived, we saw that they had made a fire, on which they had placed a cast-iron skillet to cook a delicious chicken and vegetable stew. They spread out some newspaper on the picnic table, placed the skillet in the middle and prepared a small stack of roasted garlic, peppers, onion and bread for each of us. We tore off pieces of bread and used them to scoop up the stew. Freddie was told off by one of the truckers for being to girly, and shown how to eat like a man by piling big chunks of stew onto her bread crust.

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With dinner sorted, and having washed in the local mosque’s bathroom, we retired to the tent. The following morning was cold and misty. We started with a downhill ride to 1,500m altitude, after which we tackled our next pass, back up to 2,160m. The gradient was gentle and the scenery lovely, but as soon as we came over the pass, a thunderstorm started up. We wore our rainjackets for the first time since leaving Vienna almost 3 months earlier. There was a ferocious headwind so we had to pedal quite hard to actually get down the mountain!

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The scenery here is quite remote, and apart from the main road there are not many paved roads at all. Often, the road snakes through deep river valleys, which mountains towering left and right. There are many signposts for remote mountain villages which can only be reached via tiny, steep dirt tracks, with some villages being over 50km away. Some of the tracks involve river crossings, and the villages must be completely cut off in the winter by snow. They must be almost self sufficient, and indeed we saw some villagers preparing for the winter by drying cow pats for fuel. Unfortunately, many of the villages we see are built from traditional mud bricks, which is disastrous in an area as prone to earthquakes as Turkey, as they easily collapse.

So far, we had only been aware of Turkey being in an earthquake zone in theory, but this was soon to change. We were asleep in our hotel in Erzincan, where we took a rest day, when we woke up at 5am by our bed shaking and rattling. “Earthquake!” Freddie yelled, and we saw lights turn on in neighbouring buildings and heard doors slamming. The shaking quickly stopped, but we still decided to get out of the building to be sure. When we came downstairs, there were a few people milling around, but the staff just laughed at us and sent us straight back to bed. They must be used to earthquakes in this area, but for us it was quite a novelty, and pretty scary too. The earthquake recorded a 3.2 magnitude, so nothing major, but we did get a bit worried when we found out that Erzincan had been completely flattened by an earthquake in 1939. Over 32,000 people died and the whole town was rebuilt a little further north.

This also explained why the town felt so modern, with a wide avenue, parks and shopping centres. Not quite the “Wild East” we had expected. Surprisingly, there were quite a few local cyclists in town, something we hadn’t seen anywhere else in Turkey. On the way out of town, we stopped at a fuel station to check our tyre pressure, and one of the guys working there told us that he has clocked up over 21,000km cycle touring around Turkey! This was the first Turkish touring cyclist we had met, and even though we did not share a language we were still able to talk about bike tyres, saddles, routes etc.

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We had a lovely, fairly flat day cycling through a narrow gorge. The highway became single lane, but there was a massive construction project underway to widen it by redirecting the river and building the highway up above it, supported by pylons. In the late afternoon, cycling through a wide valley, we passed a fuel station (even these are now few and far between), and at the last minute spotted a grassy patch behind it. We decided to check it out and see if they might let us camp there. As it happened, the owner was a very nice guy who spoke some English, and showed us a spot to camp. We set up Boris and got the cooker going for some much needed tuna pasta (nobody here worries about fires or cigarettes at fuel stations…)

Even though we like Turkish food, we find eating out quite repetitive. Döner kebab and shish kebab are normally the only options, especially for us being on a budget and not able to afford the more expensive restaurants. We haven’t seen any international restaurants since Istanbul, probably a result of Turkey not having an immigrant culture and therefore not benefiting from the diversity of foods that immigrants bring with them. The supermarkets on the other hand are great. Particularly after the uninspiring and basic markets of Eastern Europe, we are loving the shopping here, with good quality foods available everywhere. We also often find nice bakeries, and the fruit and vegetables are fresh and quite cheap.

The fuel station owner, Ulaş, had pointed out the attached restaurant before, so we felt a little guilty for cooking our own food. Sure enough we got busted. Ulaş just laughed and shook his head, before inviting us into his office for tea and rice pudding. We love a good rice pudding, so it was the perfect dessert for us. He proceeded to shower us with gifts – T-shirts, keyrings and pens, before taking us on a detailed tour around the property. We found out that his father owned the fuel station plus 30km² of forest land around it, which included a lovely river just behind the fuel station. Ulaş explained that this was the Karasu river, one of the two main tributaries that later form the Euphrates river which flows all the way to the Persian Gulf.

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The tour continued and we were also shown a small mosque which was part of the fuel station (this is very common here). In the mosque, he tried to present us with a beautiful Qur’an written in Arabic, which we firmly declined. Not only would we not be able to fit it into our panniers, but also it was much too special to give to us infidels! We ended up in Ulaş’s room watching TV for a bit, before he got ready to go back to work. Just as he left he passed us the remote control and said “You sleep here tonight, no tent!” We protested, as it was clearly the room where he usually slept, but he insisted, saying he has another room to sleep in. Boris was happy to be taken down, as there was quite a bit of wildlife around and he had in the meantime been peed on by a dog and pooped on by swarms of birds.

Guiltily we tucked ourselves in Ulaş’s bed and spent a comfortable night inside. In the morning, we had breakfast at the restaurant (the cashier later got in trouble for charging us, but we were glad we were able to pay for something!). Ulaş looked pretty sleepy, he had probably spent the night in a store room or something… After a cheerful goodbye and group photos, we were on our way.

We cycled uphill pretty much all day. Again we had a pass to conquer, this one at 2,060m, and somehow this tired us out for the rest of the day. In the afternoon we were struggling along and taking another break, when two Swiss touring cyclists pulled up. This was the first time we had met touring cyclists randomly on the road since Istanbul. They were both going to India, so we had a lot to talk about and will probably run into them again on our way. Funnily enough, out of the 10 touring cyclist we have met in Turkey, 6 were Swiss!

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We chatted for a while and then suddenly dusk was upon us and we still had over 20km to cycle into Erzurum. We hit rush hour, it was starting to rain, and we were still cycling uphill and were thoroughly knackered when we finally arrived in town just as it got dark. We stopped to look at our guidebook, and passerby gave us a city map. When we looked up from the map, we saw that we were surrounded by about 20 people, including school children, a police man and a lot of random people who just wanted to say hello. There were also three brainy looking Iranian students who offered to answer any questions we might have about Erzurum or Iran. “So, do you have any questions?”, one of them asked earnestly. We looked at each other, standing there in the dark, wet from rain, and could not think of a single question. All we could think about was to get to the hotel and sink into those soft sheets! We must have looked quite dumb when we could not come up with a single question. Needless to say we eventually made it to the hotel and had a very long, deep sleep.

We are still about 300km from the Iranian border, but Erzurum is the last big town in Turkey that we are coming through. We are planning to spend a couple of days here, not only to eat ice cream and drink coffee, but also to buy a new outfit for Freddie (she will have to wear a head scarf and long garment to cover her bum in Iran), and to exchange some cash into Euros or US Dollars, as Iran is not connected to the international banking system and our bank cards will therefore be useless over there.

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Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Cappadocia and beyond

Göreme – Sivas

We spent a week in Cappadocia, exploring the area with Justin and Emma, and Roger and Catherine, a French Canadian cyclist couple we met at our campsite.

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We walked around the valleys oohing and aahing at the fairy chimney and manmade rock caves, and rented a car for the day to visit the underground city at Kaymakli, which was used by Christians between the 4th and 9th century. It is one of 200 underground cities in the area and has 7 storeys with many rooms, kitchens and stables where families could hide for up to 3 months at a time to escape their invaders. ||

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From our campsite, Kaya Camping, we had an awesome view of the valleys below, and every morning we watched 40-50 hot air balloons float above and next to the rock formations. In the end we succumbed and spent 120 Euros each on a hot air balloon flight. Together with Justin and Emma we were picked up at 5am and driven to the takeoff site, which changes daily depending on the wind. We watched our hot air balloon being slowly inflated, until it rose from the ground into an upright position. The basked held 16 people, with the pilot in the middle pulling on strings and firing up the propane gas burners. Suddenly we lifted up and floated above the valley, watching the sun rise over Mount Erciyes, a 3,916 metre high volcano and the highest mountain in central Anatolia.

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It was amazing to see the landscape from above, and it felt really safe as we were going so slowly. Just as impressive was the view of all the other balloons around us, dipping deep into valleys and rising up high above us. The flight took one hour, and as we landed we were so close to the rock formations that we could almost touch them. The pilot managed to land directly on the trailer of the landrover, before serving us champagne to celebrate the flight.

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It was difficult to move on from Cappadocia and to leave our new friends, who were all heading back to Istanbul. The first day’s cycling was tough as it was on busy roads and we were in the suburbs of Kayseri for about 50km, one of the biggest cities in Turkey. At one point, a traffic policeman firmly blocked our way, holding up his hands to stop us. He sternly directed us to the traffic control booth. Thinking we were in trouble, we made our way there, only to be served with tea and given a bag of bread rolls to take with us! It was getting late, and we were on a bypass route around Kayseri, without any facilities. We were low on water and needed to find a place to camp so when we eventually saw a fuel station we asked if we could camp there. This was actually a result of Roger and Catherine mentioning to us that they had camped at many fuel stations in Turkey which was sometimes a little loud but a pretty safe and free place to stay, usually with access to running water. The fuel station guys directed us to a small garden behind the building where we set up our tent.

It was a little difficult to communicate at first with our limited Turkish, but eventually the owner arrived and spoke perfect English. He invited us for tea and warned us to watch out for snakes and scorpions. He even offered for us to sleep inside, but by then we had set up the tent and were all set up to camp. We established that the fuel station business wasn’t going well (no wonder, as there is so much competition with fuel stations everywhere in Turkey), and he had converted the restaurant into a place for some road workers to sleep. They arrived later, and while some of them looked a little scary, we struck up a conversation with a friendly guy, Erol, who spoke French. Just as we were about to cook dinner, he came over with a tray of food – chicken, rice, salad and bread, as well as more tea. We did not sleep that well as it was very loud with the noise of the road and a nearby train track and the next morning we just sat down to have breakfast when Erol arrived with a basket of bread as well as tea, jam and olives.

Thankfully the road became a bit quieter and we spent a fairly uneventful day cycling and stopping at various fuel stations for free cups of tea and chats. In this part of Turkey, there are few towns and villages and they are often off the main road, so really the best options for getting shade, a bathroom and a drink are the many fuel stations. Someone donated some Turkish pizza to us for lunch and in the afternoon we pulled into yet another fuel station to fill up with water before finding a place to camp. By chance we noticed a small sign advertising a hotel as part of the fuel station, and we established that a nice double room with en suite bathroom and a balcony cost only 10 Euros! Of course we stayed and had a nice meal at the restaurant.

Since Cappadocia some of our kit has started breaking. First Freddie lost one of the clips for a pannier which means the pannier is not as stable on the bike now. It only really matters on rough roads though so it’s fine for the moment. More serious is the issue with Guy’s sleeping mat, which has started to delaminate. It’s an inflatable mattress, and it has developed a large bubble where it’s delaminating. For the moment it is just a little uncomfortable, but we will probably need to sort out a replacement before it gets worse. Then, just as we pulled into a small town called Sarkisla, Guy’s right pedal broke. It suddenly became very wonky, and we limped into the nearest fuel station to try and fix it. Immediately people came over to help, and a guy who spoke excellent English offered to take us to a mechanic. While Freddie was waiting at the fuel station with the bikes, being supplied with several cups of tea, Guy and Ilhan drove to a bike shop. At the bike shop, the mechanic replaced the ball bearings in the pedal, but he did not have the tools to do an exact job, and so the fix did not really work. Guy decided to buy another pair of pedals as backup, but when it came to pay, Ilhan absolutely insisted on paying for the mechanic’s time AND the new pedals! Guy was not able to convince him otherwise, even though we had already taken up over an hour of his time. “You are a foreigner in our town, and this is the least I can do for you – sorry I could not help more”, he said when he dropped Guy off at the fuel station.

We replaced the broken pedal and left, intending to go to a supermarket before cycling on. However, we got a little lost on the way, and just as we pondered how to find the supermarket, a woman called us over in English. She explained the way to the supermarket and invited us to stop by for a tea on the way back. Kaya lived in Denmark but had come back home on holidays. We made it to the supermarket and got chatting to a group of teenagers who invited us for a cola. In Turkey, our dealings have mainly been with men, and we had not really interacted with a mixed gender group of young people, so we were curious and followed them into what seemed to be a sort of club house. They were all of different ages, some in school uniform, and some university students. We never worked out exactly what the place was, but one thing was for sure – they were all very passionate Atatürk fans. The rooms were lined with images and statues of Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey who had introduced many far-sighted reforms early in the 20th century. One of the students spoke a little bit of English and for the rest we tried to communicate with our language guide. We came away with presents of a picture of Atatürk and a little brooch of Atatürk’s head that was pinned onto Guy’s T-shirt.

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On our way out of town we stopped by at Kaya’s house for tea. The house was beautiful – it was completely covered in tiny white and blue mosaic tiles. It had several balconies and a large garden. The whole family was there, as well as some neighbours so we were about 15 people in the living room. Kaya has lived in Denmark for a long time and has quite modern views, and she said that for the next year, her parents would still be telling everyone the story of how they had two cyclists over for tea. Weighed down with a bag full of apples from the garden, we finally pulled out of town 5 hours after we had arrived.

Kaya, as well as one of the students, had offered to put us up for the night, but we felt we should do a little more cycling, so we ended up free camping in a field some 20km down the road. It was a good spot, and even though it was in a wide open area, there was nobody around. After the flat plains of Central Anatolia, the landscape started becoming more mountainous and interesting again. At night, the moon was very bright and we were woken up by some rustling in the tent. Looking up, we saw a shadow crawling up on the tent and then sliding down again. We had no idea what it was, but finally turned on the torch and saw a mouse scurrying around our panniers. There was nothing we could do about it, and our food was safely tucked away, so we just went back to sleep. In the morning we saw the mouse (or one of its relatives) poking its head out of a hole next to where we were having breakfast. We tried to feed it some cheese, but being a field mouse it totally ignored it and munched on some wholesome grass instead.

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Yesterday afternoon we arrived in Sivas, a town of 300,000 with a modern feel. It has a nice park, some interesting mosques, seminaries, and a modern high street. In our guide book the hotel prices had looked horrendously expensive so we were glad to find a little Pansyon that would give us a double room for 20 Euros. After we had moved in we realised that it is actually a student residence for young men. Sometimes we find ourselves in strange places, but it is often worthwhile just to get a glimpse of other people’s lives which we would not get if we travelled by bus and stayed in nice hotels all the time. We will have a rest day here before we cycle East towards Erzincan and Erzurum in the North East of Turkey.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Central Anatolia – Veni, Vidi, Vici

Beypazari – Göreme

Any town light on museums but heavy on gastronomic delights is always a star find for us as it means guilt free culinary feasting without the pressure of having to visit many museums. This is what was presented to us in Beypazari. Yes, the Ottoman style homes are kind of nice (how excited can you get over a timber home, especially considering Guy’s new found allergy to the treated timber ceilings) but once you’ve seen one, you pretty much get the gist of it. We discovered the most enjoyable soup to pass our lips for some time, Anatolian Soup, which contained stuffed vine leaves with chilli, blended then combined with a lentil soup stock.||

By far the best part of the town was the old streets crammed with all sorts of stores from blacksmiths to tea merchants all working their traditional trade. It was great to see a town preserving some of the Turkish traditions and supporting it through sustainable tourism. Most of the shop owners seemed proud of what they were doing. We were the only foreign tourists, most others were domestic tourists from Ankara.

On the Anatolian Plateau, the accommodation options are few and far between. However, with frequent access to fresh water and remote terrain, wild camping has been a great option. One of our favourite wild camps of the trip to date was on a ridge pitched on a remote stretch between villages. The surrounding scenery was very vast and empty, and at night we woke to a flurry of owls circling above us.

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The following night we again camped high on the ridge, but this time we realised the downside of ridge camping – wind. Initially it was acceptable, a mere windy night, but then it really picked up, the wind changed direction which meant the thunderstorm brewing on the distant hills was now coming our way. We spent the remainder of the night counting seconds between lightning flashes and claps of thunder, waiting for the moment to pack up camp and head down to the relatively safety of the valley below. Things calmed in the early hours of the morning and Boris stood strong throughout.

As we headed further into Central Anatolia we found ourselves hovering around 700m altitude, well entrenched on the Anatolian plain giving us a respite from the hill climbing for a few days. Central Anatolia is home to Ankara, the second largest city in Turkey, as well as copious amounts of historical events. Here, King Midas turned everything he touched into gold and Caesar uttered the his famous victorious chant, “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered).

On the road to Polatli we had just stopped outside of a small town when we heard joyous singing and the clutter of hoarse hooves coming around the bend. A man in traditional Turkish clothing on a horse and cart appeared. Dangling from the roof of the cart, there were all sorts of odds and ends from fly squats to pots and pans. Seeing us, he swiftly pulled over to the side of the road and presented us with a bag of cookies. Guy attempted to give him some money for the goods, however this kicked off a rather excited sermon which was delivered with endless enthusiasm and a truly religious gaze (one eye permanently fixed on the heavens). We could only make out the words “Muhammed” and “Allah”. The sermon finished with a kissing embrace and another point to the heavens before he clamoured back on his hoarse and picked up his singing from where he left off.

The following day we had a long stretch along a dried-out salt lake. Conjuring up all sorts of romantic notions of white, open salt lakes like the ones in Bolivia we were truly excited about the prospect of the great Tuz Gölu salt lake. Unfortunately we found 100km of low lying scrub land, desolate dusty towns that make you feel utterly depressed and most importantly not a sniff of salt, annoying as our salt canister has been empty for days. With no wild camping options presenting themselves we pulled into the local mosque to enquire about hotel options. To our dismay our day had just turned into a 120km day as we were informed that the next viable option was 30km away.

To keep our mind active and stop falling asleep and ending up head first in a ditch we played games like I Spy, which soon ended after “road”, “sky”, “shrub”. Guy’s game of “see-how-long-you-can-cycle-with-your-eyes-closed” was quickly dismissed as a tad foolish.

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Finally arriving in Eskil after a last push in a ferocious head wind we staggered into town. Desperate for accommodation, we stopped at a busy market to quiz the locals about an Otel. (Intitally we thought there was a serial “H” thief operating in Turkey until we discovered that’s the way they spell it). Our questions sparked quite an animated discussion amongst the group. There seemed to be division in the group. Never a good sign. One man came forth and suggested the next town, a mere 30km away. Ahh no thanks. Finally seeing that we were pretty desperate a chap presented a piece of paper with a scrawl of a supposed hotel name and mumbled a vague direction. Gratefully we accepted it and went in search of this much debated establishment. A few directions later we ended up at a rather inconspicuous looking building, more detainee camp in style than hotel. Nonetheless Guy trudged up the dank stairwell, through empty corridor after empty corridor to then suddenly be confronted by a hive of activity, like the nerve cell of a war cabinet. Before he could say “Otel” a military man appeared to escort Guy to a man who rented out rooms to government officials on the next floor up. A room was granted and we soon made ourselves at home, much to the amusement of the workers.

The following day we cycled to Aksaray via the caravanserei of Sultanhani and enjoyed the buzz within the town as everyone prepared for the Seker Bayrami festival marking the end of Ramadan. We have been looking forward to end of Ramadan as it means no more early morning wake up calls and we can finally eat with locals during the day without feeling guilty.

The 3 days festival that starts at the end of Ramadan meant there were a lot of people on the roads. Within one day the courteous well mannered Turks had turned into ranting lunatics. We had cars overtaking us on the wrong side, people yelling and throwing sweets at us (it’s the sweet festival - normally we wouldn’t mind this but these were the hard boiled variety and really hurt!).

We put it down to the exhilaration of the end of Ramadan, the prospect of several days off and a student town with young drivers on the road. Luckily it was a short day’s ride to the Ilhara valley where we were planning to spend a few days. Great timing as we could give the roads some time to calm.

En route to the Ilhara Valley we stopped off at a fuel station for a quick snack. Within a few seconds the only attendee arrived and motioned us into the “lounge” for some chai. Whilst he went through the art of making chai we settled on his sofa and gazed out to the heat of the day. Once we had exhausted our Turkish-English vocabulary, sampled his delicious sesame Turkish delight (which we loved so much we had to help ourselves when he dashed out to fuel a car, sorry Mr Fuel Station man) drank the chai kettle dry and we jumped back on the bikes.

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An interesting part of cycle touring is the focus of the travel is the actual travel and not so much the destination. It’s unlike any travelling we have done in the past. As a result we spend a large part of our day interacting with the “road people”, those who etch a living out of life on the road. Road workers, truck drivers and petrol station attendees have all become firm acquaintances and feel almost like family to us now. The bond seems ever stronger the more remote the terrain. One time a big truck even stopped in front of us just so that the driver could hand us a gift of a pear.

We spent a few nights in the Ilhara Valley, famous for the Byzantine monks who obviously had too much time on their hands as they have spent much of their time carving churches into the towering cliffs above the valley, some with frescoes and rather elegant facades.

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There are some informal campsites attached to the restaurants in the canyon, and we made ourselves at home, being the only campers. In the evenings, we lit an open fire for the first time on this trip (!), watched the stars and listened to some truly awesome live music from a celebration in the village above, the sounds reverberating through the canyon.

When we finally dragged ourselves away, we pushed on to Cappadocia where we will spend about a week exploring the fairy chimneys and underground cities. A day after arriving at our campsite in Göreme, Justin and Emma from Rolling Tales pulled in too. We had met them briefly back in London before they cycled here through Southern Europe, and are really enjoying catching up on stories and exploring Cappadocia together.

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Wednesday, 8 September 2010

5,000 km photo

We took this photo just after we had passed the 5,000 km mark, cycling through a dried-out salk lake, Tuz Gölü. We stopped to visit the caravanserai at Sultanhani, which was built in the 13th century as a resting place on the old silk road into Persia. This caravanserai is the largest in Turkey, and apparently one of the best examples of Seljuk architecture. We were the only visitors, so we snuck the bikes in with us.

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Friday, 3 September 2010

Mountains and lakes

Istanbul is not a city designed for cyclists, and to avoid travelling out of the city on a 10 lane motorway, we decided to take a ferry instead. The ferry took us south-east across the Sea of Marmara, to a town called Yalova. From there, we headed inland. Turkey is a mountainous country, and over the next few days we had to conquer several passes to get up onto the Anatolian Plateau.||

The bikes felt very heavy and slow, probably in part due to loss of fitness during our time in Istanbul. After our first 300m climb, we dropped down into a valley with an impossibly blue lake, Iznik Gölü, which lay embedded in the surrounding mountains like a jewel. We cycled alongside the lake through miles and miles of olive groves, getting only the occasional glimpse of the lake itself. In the evening, we were thoroughly knackered and needed to find a place to camp. Not any place though, it had to have a lake view. These days, most farmers go home around 6pm to prepare for the Ifta meal, breaking the fast around 7:30pm when the sun sets. We took a small track through an olive grove and towards the lake. Freddie was happy to tuck in between the olive trees, but Guy was more ambitious and discovered a small beach. There was even a sofa nearby! There was nobody around, and it didn’t look likely that anyone would return that night. We decided to risk it and made ourselves at home on the sofa. To be less conspicuous, we were planning to sleep under the stars instead of setting up Boris, our tent. We had picked out a promising area behind the sofa, but when the sun set and it was time to lay out our sleeping bags, Guy discovered a small snake in that very spot. We had to make a last minute decision to change sleeping quarters. We thought it was less likely that there would be snakes on the actual beach, so we lay our sleeping bags down and went to sleep.

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Not long after putting our heads down it was clear the night was not going to be as peaceful as first thought. First of all, the beach was on a slope, and Freddie had to keep holding on to Guy so that she would not slide down. Then, Guy felt a scurrying and something crawling around under his mat. Shooting up, he turned his flashlight on and discovered a palm-sized crab who had mistaken his sleeping mat for a stone to hide under. Despite our encouragement, the crab refused to leave until we managed to convince it to retreat by prodding it with a stick. Despite this the camp was lovely, gazing at the milky way and the village lights on the other side of the lake, seeing the moon rise and slowly make its way across the sky, and watching frogs hopping around near our sleeping bags in the moonlight. Finally the sun rose. We really needed a strong coffee, and as we sat there drinking, we suddenly saw movement in the reeds behind us. A fisherman pulled out his boat and emerged from the other side of the reeds. He looked a little surprised to see us there, but just returned our greeting and rowed away.

That morning we had a 400m climb and then dropped down into a fertile valley. It is harvest time, and so we sampled some of the local delights including tomatoes, peppers, figs, apples and grapes. Everywhere, farmers were busy bringing in the harvest, waving to us as we passed. In the late afternoon we stopped in a small village to stock up on water and buy some milk. We were quite the attraction, with children and adults all coming out to cluster around us, and about 10 people following Guy into the local shop to help him purchase a litre of milk. Water has so far not been a problem for us, as there are taps with drinking water in most villages and at mosques. All of the land around us was used for farming, and so it looked a little tricky to find a camp spot. Most farmers live in the villages, so that is it not easy to identify someone to ask for permission to camp. In the end, we pulled into an olive grove, then lowered the bikes down into the adjacent vineyard to make camp between the vines. We were really tucked in, and at the same time enjoyed beautiful views of the sunset over the valley.

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We knew there was a big climb ahead, with no villages for quite a while, and so we filled up our water bottles at a local mosque, where we got chatting with a student who spoke good English. When we explained our route for the day, he said, with a grimace, “That’s really tough. I hope God will be with you.” It was quite tough, as we climbed all day, intercepted only by a few short downhills back to a lower altitude, where we started climbing all over again. We also had to cross 5km of roadworks, where the road disintegrated into a dusty mess. There are roadworks everywhere in Turkey. We don’t know why, but they often seem to build newer, bigger roads right next to perfectly fine existing roads. Also, the tarmac is not of good quality, its main problem being that it melts in the summer and has to be repaved every autumn. Generally, we have found the roads quite good to cycle on though, as there are not many potholes, which makes a change from Eastern Europe.

Though road works can be tedious riding, the workers are always super friendly and quick to run over and chat. Some even invited us to share their lunch, waving bread and cucumbers at us. We had to decline, as we had a long day ahead, but we did gratefully accept a farmer’s donation of 8 tomatoes, which he squeezed into our handlebar bags until no more would fit in. That night we camped at 850m altitude in a pine forest above a town called Göynük. The forest reminded us of the Black Forest, as it was quite dark and dense. There were two mosques in the town, and for the last call to prayer, they delivered the most beautiful call-and-response singing we had ever heard. We slept well until 3am, when we woke up with a start when we heard a loud bang. Most towns have drummers to wake people up in time to have breakfast before sunrise during Ramadan. However, in this town they decided to employ the services of a canon. Very effective!

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We got up before sunrise to complete our first pass at 1,130m before it got too hot. We had dropped back down to about 700m, and now we had the next pass ahead at 1,270m. Some clouds came over, and the climb was quite enjoyable. The gradients here are not nearly as steep as they were in the Black Forest, where we nearly collapsed whilst climbing up the Schwarzwaldhochstraße. For some reason on this lesser gradient we felt it was really hard going though, like cycling on a sandy beach. We couldn’t believe the thicker tyres would be that much slower. Just over the top of the pass, Guy had the brilliant idea to use a pressure gauge at a fuel station to check our tyre pressure, and lo and behold, it was much too low! Though the tyres had felt as firm as the previous tyres, it was difficult to judge the exact pressure without a pressure gauge. The increase in performance was immense, we flew up the next few hills, occasional checking that we still had our panniers on as the bikes felt so light! Shame we did not do this before all the climbing, but maybe the hard work improved our fitness somewhat. On the positive side, our stop at the fuel station resulted in us being invited for cups of tea and coke by the manager of the attached restaurant.

We were now enjoying a 40km stretch of lovely downhill cycling. We had a little break when we found a foresty picnic area with a tap. We were enjoying our stint of wild camping, apart from the fact that it’s difficult to have a shower and wash our clothes. Sometimes we had a quick wash at a mosque or in a fuel station. As there was nobody around in the picnic area, we seized the opportunity to have a proper scrub and do a spot of washing.

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The landscape widened and there were big valleys and arid mountains in fairytale formations around us, sometimes intercepted by a river or lake. We discovered a camping spot in a dried out river bed amidst some fields that had already been harvested. It seemed that there was nobody around, though we did see a farmhouse in the distance. In the morning we packed up, and just as we were ready to leave we heard the unmistakable sound of sheep bells coming ever closer. Standing in the river bed awaiting to greet the stranger with a big hearty “Merhaba” we were soon staring eye to eye with a rather large Anatolian sheepdog. The beast appeared above us, peering down at us trying to work out if he should go into attack or retreat mode. Luckily he chose the later, probably put off by the chewy cycling vests. A herd of sheep came running past, and then the shepherd spotted us. It must have been quite a sight for him, seeing two cyclists with fully loaded bikes standing in the river bed, looking like fools. After a few second glances he just waved and walked on. We got the bikes out of the river bed and started cycling. The sheep were just down the road, and when the shepherd saw us approaching, he caught a lamb and brought it over for us to pat. This is a great attribute of the people here - they are so relaxed, nothing is really a problem. They even take it in their stride when they find some odd looking cyclists camping in their local river bed.

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We had big smiles on our faces all day as we cycled through some of the most stunning landscape so far. This is what we had dreamed about when we planned this trip. Wide open plateaus with deep river canyons and stark rocky landscapes. The gradients were perfect for cycling, steady uphill's with long flowing downhills. It also helped that the climate here is very different to that by the coast. Two days before, we had still cycled in 43°C heat. Now, suddenly, we actually felt cold in the morning and cycled with long-sleeved tops for the first time since Germany.

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We are now in Beypezari, a town which seems to be a daytrip destination for people from Ankara. It has some restored Ottoman houses and a crafts market to offer, which we explored today. The owner of our hotel is a little obsessed in cleanliness, and every time we enter the hotel, we have to put our feet into a machine that pops a blue bag around each foot so that our shoes don’t soil the carpets. We have to wear these bags around the hotel and then discard them when we go out, as they are now considered “dirty” and we have to use new bags when we return from our outing. Putting on our “smurf feet” this morning to go to the breakfast room, we discovered that we are the only guests in the hotel. Nevertheless, they had gone to the effort of serving up nine (!) different types of regional cheeses at the breakfast buffet. They must be seriously proud of their cheeses.

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Today we were planning to visit the local hamam for a massage and a scrub, but unfortunately this morning we found out that the LCD screen on one of our laptops is broken, which renders the laptop unusable, and so we are spending our time trying to figure out how to get it repaired… Luckily we have a second laptop as backup!

Istanbul

We spent a full 12 days in Istanbul, our longest break by far on our trip to date. We had quite a few visitors: First, Janna and Marco came out from London, then Freddie’s dad popped over for a short visit from Germany, and finally Gerry came over from London as well to spend a few days with us. It was really fantastic to catch up with friends and family again, it gave us a real mental break. We also enjoyed our last few days with Di before she went home to the UK, having finished her London – Istanbul cycle trip.||

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Most of our time in Istanbul was spent doing sightseeing, enjoying cups of tea and rice pudding on rooftop bars, and taking joyrides on the local ferries. We visited the Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and explored the modern side of Istanbul around Taksim Square. We also enjoyed shopping in the area around the Grand Bazaar. There are shops and even whole streets specialising in very particular items. It sometimes takes a little longer to find everything, but it is so colourful and such a buzz just to browse around.

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In the beginning, we found it quite difficult to adjust to being “just a tourist”. Without our bikes, we also lost part of our identity. Suddenly the warm hospitality we were so used to dried up, we were being hassled by touts and charged exorbitant amounts for basic commodities such as fruit. Every time we arrived at or left our hotel, there was a cluster of touts trying to convince us to visit their restaurants. Unfortunately the prices in these restaurants were double than the prices just down the road, and in fact they were often more expensive than what we would have paid for similar food or drinks London. A tiny Turkish coffee for €3.50? A plate of mezze for €11? These prices were beyond our budget. We aim to survive on €35 per day for the two of us together. It’s a fairly generous budget for a cycle tour, but Istanbul really pushed us to the limits, with our accommodation alone eating up €50 per day. We think we would have enjoyed the city more if we had a larger budget, but as it was, we became good at hunting out the cheaper eateries and €1 kebabs!

The Turks enjoy a good picnic, and we noticed that many Istanbullus congregated in the park near the Hippodrome, between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, to break their fast in the evening. One night, we also got picnic supplies and sat with the locals, waiting for the sun to dip below the horizon and the Imam of the Blue Mosque to announce the end of the day’s fast. Other families around us gave us stuffed vine leaves and shared their cake with us, while a little boy kept trying to throw an apple which somehow landed on Guy’s head time and time again, much to the amusement of the fellow picnickers. We also had a lovely picnic with Gerry on Princes Island in the Sea of Marmara, where we took our bikes for a ride in the pine forests and discovered the perfect picnic spot, complete with hammock and seaviews.

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While in Istanbul, we also spent some time getting the bikes ready for the next part of our adventure. After around 10,000km of use, our brake pads finally needed to be replaced (we use Swissstop Blue brake pads with our ceramic coated rims), and Freddie’s dad also hand delivered some brand new Schwalbe Marathon XR tyres to us, to replace our thinner Continental Panaracer Pasela Tourguard tyres that we had used in Europe. The new tyres are wider and have more grip, and in hindsight it would have served us well to use them from Bratislava already, as the roads in Eastern Europe were sometimes quite bad.

Most of our kit is holding up really well, but we had a couple of items that needed to be replaced: Our First Need XL water filter cartridge broke after only using it twice, luckily the company sent us a free replacement – hopefully this one will last longer. One of Guy’s Icebreaker T-Shirts developed small holes in it and eventually ripped, as the fabric was somehow faulty, and we got a free replacement for this as well.

Big thanks to Janna and Marco who had kindly allowed us to get bits and bobs sent to their address in London and lugged it all to Istanbul. This also included an Australian and a German flag to decorate our bicycles, which were sponsored by Helmut in Germany, who we had met on the Danube route in Austria, along with Rolf, Christa and Eveline.

By the end of our stay in Istanbul we were raring to get back on the bikes and out of the city, ready to explore more of the real, unspoilt Turkey that you can only find in the villages and countryside.