Turkey

Leaving Istanbul was difficult- after almost two weeks there we’d gotten very comfortable in our friendly ‘Magic Bus’ hostel with all it’s interesting characters coming and going. There were so many winding back streets to get lost in, full of exciting music shops, art, cafés etc that I was secretly pleased we had to wait around for our Uzbek visa from the consulate there (although, of course, we still don’t have it so the waiting was just an illusion that provided us with a guilt-free long rest in this vibrant city). I don’t think I’ve ever been inside a building as breathtaking as the Haiga Sofia. If it were considered socially acceptable I would lie on my back in the middle of the floor and stare up at the ornate walls and ceiling all day long, daydreaming about Byzantine and Ottoman empires and the fall of Constantinople.

Our lazy legs were definitely not prepared for the steep hills of the Black Sea coast road that awaited us from Şile onwards, and we crawled along in the heat for two days before being easily convinced by our Warm Showers host, Ethem, to have yet another day off! We spent a memorable day exploring the secret coves and cliffs around his village, daring each other to swim in the raging stormy sea (I managed as far as sitting at the edge of the water and shrieking as the waves crashed over me) and making videos with his drone camera (a remote control helicopter with a camera attached, that sent the boys into a frenzy of excitement). It was Joe’s birthday, so we had a birthday picnic for him in a cave to sit out the storm.

Stormy Seyrek cliffs

Stormy Seyrek cliffs

imageAfter only half a day back on the road, we were stopped by the police…oh dear. We timidly pulled over trying to think what we could have possibly done wrong. I wasn’t wearing my helmet in the heat, but surely that was allowed? Our anguish was all for nothing though as their window wound down and two beaming smiles appeared, followed by two bottles of ice cold water which they handed over to us and drove off! Thanks police! Later on that afternoon we bumped into Lander, who is cycling from his home in the Basque Country in Spain all the way to Tokyo. We realised that we were heading along the same route for a few weeks, so decided to cycle together. Actually, it was beginning to look like he was a bad omen as since we met him, in the short space of a week, we had a series of unfortunate events: Joe got stung by a jellyfish and his body became covered in a plague of itchy red circles; we both fell off our bikes (don’t worry- we were each going at about 5km/ hr at the time so no lasting injuries); Joe got two punctures; our stove pump broke and as if that’s not unfortunate enough, we managed to break the porch pole for our tent as well! Definitely failing at adventure school right now.

Oh dear...

Oh dear…

Despite this freakish string of bad luck that he seems to bring, it’s been great having Lander with us. He taught us how to slip stream so we’ve been pushing ourselves trying to keep up with him and getting fit as a result. Wild camping is always more relaxing when there are more of you as well, and he has so much energy that usually by the time we’ve dragged ourselves panting to the top of the mountain as the sun is setting, he’s already assessed the area and found us a perfect camping spot (what a fatherly figure)!

Camping above the clouds

Camping above the clouds

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At Ereğli, we decided to turn inland for a while- partly for some variation and partly because thenext section of the coastline would be incredibly steep, and now that we’re racing against winter, we can’t really afford to go that slowly unfortunately. I don’t regret it though, as our inland route took us through stunning forests, valleys, quiet villages and later on in the week the landscape morphed into desert-like stretches with rocky mountains all around us. We also escaped the rainy season of the coast this way, and were treated so some of the most scorching days so far.

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Without fail, whenever we stopped in a village, within minutes we would be presented with steaming glasses of çay by the locals, who refused to accept any money. I’m even permitted to sit in their çay salons despite being female. These type of cafés are everywhere in Turkey, and are exclusively for men. We have started referring to them as the ‘busy men’s clubs’ as they are always filled with men enjoying long afternoons drinking tea, solving the world’s problems and playing board games, while the women are at home (actually working hard). We’ve been surprised at how conservative the villages actually are here- sometimes we like to play ‘spot the woman’, as very often you will only see men in the streets and shops. Although things are a lot more relaxed in the cities, we were still surprised whilst in Trabzon last night to walk into a bar (for a well earned celebratory drink) and find that half of the bar was segregated for men exclusively, and the other half mixed. (It was tempting to ask where the womens’ section was but I thought better of it).

The infamous Turkish hospitality has definitely lived up to it’s reputation. Whenever we couldn’t find a place to camp in time for sunset (which is now so early that we’re finding ourselves asleep by half past eight each night in the tent) we have been welcomed into the homes of people in villages (and even once in a city). We spent a really memorable evening with a huge family, after getting desperate and asking if we could pitch our tent in their field. Minutes later, we found ourselves sitting around their table being presented with a feast, laughing and joking with the cheeky little boys who knew a bit of english. Half the village turned up to have a look at the strange arrival of three foreign cyclists, and when it came to pitching the tents, everybody wanted to help. I can’t say I’ve ever blown up a sleeping mat with the help of three enthusiastic children holding each corner and staring at me intently before. Another family who invited us in in a similar way entertained us after dinner (fish on the BBQ that they’d caught earlier that day) by performing the traditional dance of the Black Sea coast, which involved a combination of delicate foot steps, stomping and hand holding. I can’t say that Joe and Lander were much good at it!

Our new Turkish family

Our new Turkish family

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A musical performance in our honour

A musical performance in our honour

Unfortunately, the coastal road from Samsun eastwards is hideous. We rejoined it here as we missed the sea and had heard it was flat, which was true, and we were able to get some really long days in of 120km (a record distance for us), but psychologically it has been a draining few days with nothing very inspiring to motivate us. The road is basically the equivalent of a motorway that runs more or less directly on the coast, leaving no room for any sort of beach or forest for camping. The towns are pretty sad looking also, with huge landfill areas right on the shoreline, smelly and polluting the water. If anybody else is planning to cycle this way I would strongly recommend going inland rather than take this road, unless you need a direct and speedy route. I suppose it can’t all be a dream come true…

Turkish people will nearly always try to help if you need it (and often if you don’t). In fact, if there’s something specific you need, they won’t rest until you have found it. For example, this morning Joe went on a mission here in Trabzon to find a laundrette. (As he needed to wash basically everything he owned, he was wearing an unusual combination of swimming shorts, a thermal long sleeved top and a pair of waking boots). He found one but it was closed, so asked a couple of policemen whether they knew if there were any others. The policemen then insisted on escorting him in his silly outfit around the city centre, from one closed laundrette to he next, all the time carrying their machine guns, until they found one open half an hour later. All with curious onlookers of course.

We have now said farewell to Lander here in Trabzon as he needs to wait for visas, but have left him in the capable hands of two other cyclists who are heading in his direction. Very sad to see him go. For us it’s back onto the monster coastal highway for three more days until the Georgian border, where we can celebrate with a glass of this famous Georgian red wine everybody keeps telling us about.

Some nice scenery for you...

Some nice scenery for you…

Creepy mist sunrise

Creepy mist sunrise

Mama making tea

Mama making tea

Happy cyclists

Happy cyclists

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End of the Balkans

Before I set off I imagined that we would be living a free timespace experience that would allow us to lounge around reading books, writing blogs and thinking about stuff. No such thing. If we’re not busy cycling, we’re finding somewhere to sleep, to eat, messaging people or finding out a piece of information, visa this visa that, and sometimes even socialising. Not forgetting to actually take time to do absolutely nothing before we go off to sleep at 9 pm. When we have a few days off here and there, we usually have to spend that time planning and thinking hard about certain things. Sometimes we may even get time to socialise.

 

Ah yes the double edged sword of socialising and hospitality. We are often in need of a day off, or a buffer zone in between being whizzed around the sights of a town where we stop for a few days and cycling the next day. Indeed, being full time qualified adventurers is knackering, but rarely is this due to the actual cycling itself.

 

The last time we had some honest relaxing time off was about five weeks ago in a lovely sleepy village called Trpejca by lake Ohrid in Macedonia. This delightful village offered us three days of peace amidst the tiring Balkan culture of ubiquitous noise. Noise by day, noise by night. But not in Trpejca. We sampled a lakeside picture-perfect fish restaurant and were overwhelmed with emotion at the quality of food; it helped that it cost something like £10 for both of us to wine and dine there. The next day we decided to stay an extra night and did exactly the same the next evening.

 

We then continued and wild camped at this stunning spot in the mountains:
Wild camping, Galičica National Park, Macedonia

Wild camping, Galičica National Park, Macedonia

Finally, we had been treated to 3 nights noise-free of sleep!
Trpejca, Macedonia. Feasting on fish and perving at this view two nights in a row

Trpejca, Macedonia. Feasting on fish and perving at this view two nights in a row

Trpejca, Macedonia

Trpejca, Macedonia

Macedonian hospitality was fabulous; it’s like an extreme sport for them (not in my words). After staying and eating with our warm showers host in Prilep, we continued away from the main roads and into the mountains.  Wonderful switchbacks brought us to a riverside wild spot one evening and the next morning we shared coffee with an old local toothless peasant accompanied by passing border police, one of which delighted in showing us photos of each animal they’d hunted, killed and ate. When his smartphone swipe moved onto a photo of his pet dog; he wasn’t amused with my question “did you eat him too?”

 

One afternoon, an energetic young couple driving past us, intreagued by our adventure invited us to stay with them in both their hometown nearby and at her family’s in Bulgaria.  Even though we would have to turn around and go back in the exact same direction for 50km through steep mountains to meet them, we decided that their promise of a bed, food and being driven around for a day out or two should not be turned down.  Ensuingly we returned the next morning and stayed at theirs for three days, visiting local areas by car and feasting on their amazing homemade produce. I even asked grandma to give me an early morning cooking lesson, which was a shock to the family who had never seen a male set of hands covered in flour before. As we left, the young couple Filip and Cveti told us that they had set a date for a long cycle trip of their own. It’s felt inspiring to be inspirational.
Cveti and Carmen, Macedonia

Cveti and Carmen, Macedonia

G-mama Filip teaching me to make bread, Macedonia

G-mama Filip teaching me to make bread, Macedonia

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Krushevo, Macedonia

It had been our plan to spend at least one night in a Macedonian monastery; it was often suggested and assumed by locals that we should sleep in them. The problem is that it’s never really a good idea at the end of a days’ cycling to climb steep mountains in the hope that a monastry might accommodate us (they are almost exclusively located off remote tracks in mountains). However, on one occasion we got stuck in a storm and had no choice but to chance it. We turned up at the doorstep drenched, which we found out is in fact international sign language for “feed me, warm me and give me a bed”. The place was beautiful and peaceful, we were well fed and accommodated in the hostel-like dorms and the whole thing cost us about £1.
Macedonian Monastery.

Macedonian Monastery.

We also met Byulent and his wife on a roadside who were on holiday from Turkey, again insisting that we should be accommodated by them when we reached their town. Indeed when we did reach the border town of Edirne weeks later, we would be shown around this delightful city.
Edirne

Edirne Mosque

When we did finally arrive into Bulgaria, (we had spent a whooping three weeks in microscopic Macedonia!) it was stunning. Mountain forests with plenty of roadside cabin huts equipped with basic cooking facilities and fresh source water made cycling this country a delight. Luckily we were treated to six days off in this wonderful retreat with Mr and Mrs Carmen.
Pamporovo, Bulgaria

Pamporovo, Bulgaria

Carmen´s parents. What was astonishing was the mode of transport Carmen's parents had elected in order to travel to us from England. Imagine our surprise when we saw them arrive in this: a ski lift of all things!

Carmen´s parents. What was astonishing was the mode of transport Carmen’s parents had elected in order to travel to us from England. Imagine our surprise when we saw them arrive in this: a ski lift of all things!

Igor and is dog Black, Bulgaria. He spotted us next to his tobacco field and saved us from a storm.  Took us into his (in a small peasant hamlet) for the night, fed us fish he´d caught and gave us beer.

Igor and his dog Black, Bulgaria. He spotted us next to his tobacco field and saved us from a storm. He took us into his house which is located in a small peasant hamlet and fed us fish he´d caught, gave us beer and let us stay the night.

So far, we can soundly report that the world that we’ve seen is much more caring and hospitable than one might possibly think. What I mean by that of course is that I didn’t expect it to be this way. It’s easy to stay at home and fear through the lenses of media, news, popular beliefs, hearsay or hype. I personally feel that Western Europe has a lot to learn- particularly in terms of hospitality – from many of the countries we’ve traversed.  It’s one thing to read that line over and over again in peoples accounts of travels, but to experience it is actually quite magical and always injects pure joy into us.

 

The week off in Bulgaria coupled with the diminished costs of living means that we have become somewhat more reliant on staying in hotels these days. the heat is too much so we lose sleep. Hotels usually cost us about £18 a night. Reacquiainting with wild camping after a long absence can be tricky. As we set up camp on our only evening in Greece for example we got heavily swamped by mosquotos – this induced panic and a level of hysteria; actually it was one of the most distressing moments of the trip.

 

Choosing a spot to camp requires skill and should only be performed by qualified adventurers. We thought that the offer to put up our tent on the grounds of a mosque would be a safe option. However, being woken by the very loud call to prayer (broadcast through 4 megaphones atop the minaret) at 4am is an alarming experience. Although, on the plus side, this did put me into an alert state of wakefulness where I found my brain parked on a deeply theological level for the proceeding two hours.  I found myself contemplating and tackling such intricate questions as
‘what happens if the singer gets a sore throat?’ and
‘I wonder if they’ll ever switch over to high fidelity calls using a microphone and tannoy with a greater frequency bandwidth (and thus more pleasing to the ear) than the piercing telephone-like megaphone’

 

I would never have otherwise considered such questions.  Actually, the call to prayer, heard at the correct distance is mesmerising and beautiful. The role of a muezzin is considered an art form. The effect is spoiled on me though when you are in a big city (İstanbul) with a dozen mosques chanting in unison but at contradicting harmonies. Sometimes the dogs join in.  It sounds like a surreal brainwash call designed to infiltrate one’s dreams.  Mission: reprogramme.

 

Another danger of wild camping is your own paranoia. Also documented by other bloggers, your mind becomes an award-winning crime novelist. Innocuous scratchy noises beneath the groundsheet next to your head allude to the imagery of sinister human activity as you lay stone awake in your bag. After several hours forensically analysing the noises, you eventually become reassured by the fact that the only plausible author of such noises must be a person putting things into shopping bags. Safe in the knowledge that no one could possibly be packing shopping bags for so many hours, your racing mind does eventually drift off.
Us with Geart and Sysy and Guillaume in Macedonia

Us with Geart and Sytske and Guillaume in Macedonia

Sytske, Guillaume, Carmen, Geart. We all met in Macedonia and then again here in Istanbul

Sytske, Guillaume, Carmen, Geart. We all met in Macedonia and then again here in Istanbul. We bumped into Guillaume by pure chance in a small backstreet!

We are now leaving Istanbul where we have spent 12 days waiting for a visa (which obviously never came **see footnote**)
Istanbul is great; a backstreet paradise containing a plethora of inviting cafés. We have been staying in a poor run-down district with plenty of thefts going on, 3 roads away from the main shopping strip. But this place has character and it feels real.

 

The hostel staff are 4 young Syrian male refugees with hearts of gold; gentle and caring. Last night they had invited their Syrian female friends over to the hostel BBQ that they organised and cooked for the guests, on the rooftop. Back in Syria, one of the guys was a basketball coach and he used to teach one of the girls. Another girl was his study mate. Another girl is half Iraqi and is just about to start afresh in USA. I guess this bunch of friends decided to escape Hell and stay safe together in numbers in a foreign country. The main reason for their escape was ultimately to escape conscription, and, in probable due course, death. Their families are mostly still in Syria waiting for their sons here to earn enough to bring them over. Some of their family members are already dead. I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who openly talks about the process of acquiring a fake passport.

 

It didn’t occur to me to finish this on such a low note but I guess we have parked ourselves in this place we have called “home” and have felt very comfortable in, in the presence of good people and other lovely guests. Leaving will be sad.

 

Right, back to cycling. Oh, did I mention we’re learning russian?
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

View from our hostel

View from our hostel

Istanbul

Istanbul

Hostel in Istanbul

Hostel in Istanbul

Learning Russian

Learning Russian. Keep reading for more updates!

**Footnote**
The conversation with the visa consulate man went something like this:
Us: ” we need to collect our visa”
Him: “visa?”
Us: yes. To collect. To collect visa. We came last week and you said come today to collect visa. You said visa will be ready today
Him: collect visa ?
Us: yes
Him: passport?
Returns 2 mins later
Him: Do you have your visa application form?
Us: we gave that to you last week. Do you remember ? We came Monday and you said come back today to collect visa
Returns 1 min later
Him: your visa is in Ankara. You need to go to Ankara
Me: why? You said visa will be here today. We came to you last Monday and you said visa will be ready today. Why is our visa in Ankara?
Him: because you said you wanted to collect it in Ankara
Me: no we didn’t.
Him: yes you did. Because I wrote ‘Ankara’ on your application
Me: no we didn’t. Why would we say that? We aren’t going to Ankara. We need to leave tomorrow and we have no visa. We came last week and you said come today and visa will be ready. Do you remember us from last Monday?
Him: yes I remember you, you said Ankara because you need it quickly
Me: no we didn’t. We never said Ankara. We need the visa here and now……