If you’ve read many other cycle-blogs then you won’t be surprised, in fact you’re probably expecting to read gushing reports of encounters with friendly and hospitable locals, tales of psychopathic dogs and beaming descriptions of stunning landscapes. I think we’ve successfully ticked these boxes, so no more of that… except for the next few paragraphs, and probably this whole post. With the exception of the kid who smashed a bottle in the road just in front of us, the two kids who threw stones at us, the three kids who gave us the *Turkish Schlap and the truck driver who gave us the finger, Turkey is one ridiculously friendly and hospitable country. In fact, if you’re tired of reading about other people’s positive experiences then I suggest to take your attention elsewhere.
As we loaded our bikes for the first time in nearly four months, we both felt a little heavy hearted (and a little hungover) to be saying goodbye to the people who had quickly become our good friends and the place that was our home for the winter. Riding through the city, with an optimistic morning sun reflecting off the Golden Horn, the first of the Galata Bridge fishermen setting up their equipment, we were excited to get moving again. It felt like we were embarking on a new trip. We had decided to leave Istanbul the way we had arrived, taking the ferry back across the Sea of Marmara to a small town called Yalova. I would definitely recommend this to other cyclists looking to avoid the chaos of traffic when leaving Istanbul. Like clockwork, the famed Turkish hospitality began within minutes of finding our seat on the ferry. Before we knew it we were talking with a family who made it their business to give us our second breakfast and make sure we had a few extras for lunch. We were back on the road!
As well as becoming fluent, to read not to give, in offensive Turkish hand gestures we’ve also become very familiar with the ‘fancy a çay and a chat’ signal. As we ride past petrol stations (still a camping favorite), shops, cafes… anywhere groups of men are sat talking, if eye contact is maintained for longer than two seconds it usually results with a hand simulating a spoon stirring, followed by the drinking of at least fives cups of çay and a conversation about who, what and where?
For me it felt like the ride from Istanbul was the beginning of real ‘adventure’ cycle touring, although I’ve got a feeling I’ll be saying this with each new border crossing. It took us about eight days to reach Göreme, the tourist hub of Cappadocia. With it’s amazing wind carved rock formations and fantasy landscape. We spent a couple of days relaxing and site-seeing before beginning the six day ride north-east over the mountains (2200m passes… the highest since the Alpes) and up to the Black Sea Coast. The riding was physically demanding and spectacular. With the exception of having to walk our bikes through some busy motor-way tunnels, the ride across Turkey and up to the coast was all snowy mountains (still a lot of snow in April), full and fast flowing rivers and the optimistic green glow of spring. On our arrival to Turkey, during the two weeks we spent cycling to Istanbul, daylight hours were short and the weather was reliably cold and wet. Although we enjoyed the journey, we felt like we weren’t doing it quite right. Nearly every night we cycled well into the darkness and usually ended up eating cold, left-over lunch things. Having left Istanbul we made a conscious decision to try and modify our approach and make things a little more enjoyable. Wild camping next to rivers, in fields, inside car show-rooms, roadside mosques, cafe gardens… about an hour or two before the sun goes down, usually after a good eight or nine hours in the saddle, we’ve become pretty good at quickly finding a decent camp-spot. One of us puts the tent up and gets our temporary home ready for the night while the other sets the cooker up and makes dinner. Up and about at around 6.30am, equipped with recipes and tips from other cyclists, we have breakfast, now accompanied with filter coffee made in our mini-expresso maker, pack-up and get on the road. It always feels good to get going early, and it means there’s plenty of time to have a long lunch break and an afternoon snooze.
Perhaps a bit boring and technical for most people reading this post, but here’s a bit of info about, and a solution to, the problems we’d been having with our MSR Whisperlite cooker. For most of the trip we’d been experiencing problems with the cooker spluttering out and generally not functioning as smoothly as expected. Istanbul has loads of decent outdoors stores, and would have been a very easy place for us to buy a replacement cooker during our four months there… which we didn’t do. About five days into our journey to Göreme the cooker decided to stop working… completely. As far as I could tell, and I really tinkered about with the thing, I’m pretty sure the problem was that the plastic thread inside the pump that forms the fuel control valve got damaged. I think we’ve probably been over turning the fuel valve (beyond the specified 1.5 turns) over the last few years and thus caused the thread to become damaged beyond repair. Luckily we found a very efficient online MSR supplier in turkey www.alpinist.com.tr who sent us a new pump within two days. Since researching this problem I’ve found quite a few other people experiencing the same problem. Maybe it would be more durable as a metal component rather than plastic?
Truck drivers. This collection of pictures was hanging on the wall at a road-side tea house we camped at.
It might surprise you to know that I’m writing this post in the sixth floor apartment of our very kind CouchSurfing host in Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia, a whole country away from our bikes. About a week ago, as a result of a chat with a Serbian cyclist we met, we decided to toss a spanner into our not so planned adventure machine. We decided that we would make an attempt to apply for tourist visas for Iran. Before we began our trip, whilst excitedly reading through the accounts of other people’s overland adventures it became pretty clear that the preferred route from Europe to Asia is to include a visit, under the Caspian Sea, through Iran, before heading back up into the Stans and into China. I have to say that it was mainly due to my pessimistic and apprehensive attitude towards British folk traveling in Iran that we decided to head for the more northerly route through Georgia and Azerbaijan, taking the ferry across the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan, before joining the aforementioned route in Uzbekistan. Arriving in Trabzon, with plans to stay just two nights, enough time to pay a visit to the Sumela Monastery, we found out that this Turkish seaside town has a widespread reputation for being the place to apply for the coveted Iran tourist visa. It’s a complex and time consuming procedure, with no guarantee of success. Before we knew it we found ourselves waiting outside the consulate, drinking çay kindly offered by the security guards, chatting with a Swedish guy, another Brit and an Aussie chap. Optimistic that we weren’t the only Brits, pessimistic that the security guy said “problem” when we told him we were British. For citizens of some countries like Australia, Canada, Britain etc… to obtain a visa for Iran you first need to acquire an authorization code through an online agent. The cost and success rate of these codes varies wildly from £30 – £200, with a reassuring no-win yes-fee policy. We applied for the ‘express visa’ through www.iranianvisa.com, and are hoping to hear from them in the next couple of days. As happy as we are that everyone else who went into the Iranian consulate with us successfully got their thirty day tourist visas, we want one too!
… and so, rather than hang around Trabzon for an indefinite period of time (even though it’s a relaxed and nice enough city to spend a few days) we decided to leave our bikes with our very friendly CouchSurfing host and take a mini-break to Georgia. Our brief time in Georgia included listening to and watching a Georgian Choir singing at a packed and atmospheric service at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi (thanks Sarah and David!) followed by a trip to the thermal baths. We’ve paid for quite intimate rub-downs and massages before… but this was something a little different. We left the bath house feeling squeaky clean and very relaxed, but also covered in bruises and haunted with a light feeling of remorse and possibly even an inkling that we may have been ever so slightly abused.
It’s both exciting and frustrating to not know the direction we’ll be heading next. The only real downside is that we’ve already paid for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan visas whilst we were in Istanbul… both with specific entry and exit dates. Time is ticking away! We’ll keep you posted. In the meantime I’ll leave you with Azerbaijan’s entry to the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest Sabina Babayeva with ‘When The Music Dies’. By the way…. we’ve had an amazing time in Turkey!
*I’m not sure exactly what this means. Dan, Deniz, Flurin, Paige or Uğur if you’re reading this then please correct me if I’m wrong. It involves slapping your right fist against your left wrist, with your thumb poking through your index and forefingers, in an aggressive ‘f*ck you’ style. It translates as something like ‘I give you one’. Very friendly.