Cycling across Turkey: Tough times but fantastically friendly folk
We’d been in Turkey a matter of hours when we swung into a small village to pick up supplies. Outside the shop, a group of men were sat at a plastic table chatting as they stirred sugar lumps into their tiny glasses of Turkish tea. They greeted us with smiles and, eager to know more about the strange foreign visitors on bicycles, they asked us where we were cycling to and we replied ‘Cape Town’. Whilst we went into the shop to buy drinks, they must have had a quick conference amongst themselves because, as we sat in the shade nearby, two of the chaps came straight over to us looking very concerned. “Big problem in Syria!” they warned. “Very dangerous!”
They relaxed visibly when we explained we weren’t going anywhere near Syria or indeed the far east of Turkey (where there are also problems). We continued chatting and we were compliant with their requests for selfies – something we’re getting used to now. One of our new friends then explained that they were gathered because his grandmother had died the night before. At the back of the house we could see the women congregating too, all greeting each other solemnly. Even at a time of grief, we were being welcomed to a country that, over the next few weeks, we would find to be one of the friendliest places on earth.
Turkey was our 11th country and we’d set ourselves two targets that, in retrospect, were a little too ambitious. Firstly, to get from the Bulgarian border at Malko Tarnovo to Istanbul in 3 days in time to meet my parents and, secondly, to get from Istanbul to Cappadocia in the east and onwards to the southern port of Taşucu where we were to catch the ferry to Cyprus; a route we chose to avoid Syria and where we were to meet Emily’s parents for a short break.
We took 3 days to cycle from the Bulgarian border to the centre of Istanbul. We followed the D20 road which took us over undulating countryside. The road itself is being transformed from a single carriage secondary highway to a colossal 6-lane highway. Luckily for us, the newly built road was eerily quiet and we enjoyed the whole carriageway to ourselves. Nearer Istanbul, vast road-construction projects are under way and we got caught up with (literally) hundreds of trucks thundering close by us that were delivering the materials. At one stage, we caused a lengthy tailback as the road turned into a single-lane contraflow and the trucks couldn’t pass us as we cycled at 8kph up a long hill before we found an escape route onto the newly built carriageway the other side of the barrier.
On our second day in Turkey we pulled off the highway to find a shop to satisfy our new-found addiction to Magnum ice creams. The friendly shopkeeper refused to accept payment for our late-morning snacks despite our protests and, as we rested in the shade outside his shop, he brought us bread, cheese, grapes and tomatoes for us to take with us.
It was fantastic to meet my parents in Istanbul. Although I think they were astonished and somewhat embarrassed at how we both attacked the breakfast buffet at the hotel. After weeks of enduring tasteless muesli soaked in water for breakfast, the prospect of a feasting on fresh fruit, pastries and honeycomb that oozed fresh golden sweetness was too much to resist. It was unsurprising, then, that my saddle broke the moment I picked the bike up from the shop a few days’ later.
We took time to see all the major sights but it was also an opportunity for us to do some vital admin. We got our bikes serviced and our wheels re-built with much stronger rims and spokes.
After four fantastic days in Istanbul, we said goodbye to my folks, sad that the next time I’ll see them is when we reach Cape Town in June, and caught the ferry across the Bosphorus to our second continent of the trip, Asia. Within moments, though, we realised something wasn’t quite right with our new wheels so we diverted to a bike shop and had to wait for an entire afternoon whilst they were sorted. (It turned out they hadn’t been built correctly so they weren’t sitting straight in the forks).
Now behind on our schedule, we booked into a cheap hotel, which we thought was close by. It turned out that it was 35km away and 12km away from where we were expecting it to be. En route, we joined a busy highway but the traffic was crawling along, each car was parading the Turkish flag and there was a deafening sound of horns. We had stumbled upon an impromptu protest.
We later found out that the PKK had killed 16 Turkish soldiers in the east of the country and protesters were making their feelings known by bringing the traffic to a standstill by blocking driving slowly, sounding their horns and waving flags out of the window.
We picked our way through the traffic with the deafening crescendo of car horns all around us as crowds flocked to watch from the bridges above the highway.
We eventually made our way to the hotel in the dark on a very busy road. Something that we vowed never to do again (one of our self-imposed rules is to never cycle at night) but on that occasion, we simply had no other option.
The next day, and a day later than planned, we jumped on the ferry from Pendik to Yalova. The reason for this was simple: There is a cycle path from the Asian side of Istanbul that hugs the coastline all the way to Pendik. After Pendik, the cycle path disappears and cyclists are left at the mercy of the incredibly dangerous (and boring) road eastwards. It was a far safer to catch the ferry to Yalova and continue our journey from there.
We had intended to stay the night in Orhangazi with a contact from Warm Showers, but we were delayed further as we had to visit another bike shop in Yalova for a few more tweaks to our wheels.
After overcoming the huge climb between Yalova and Orhangazi, we spent the day cycling into a headwind beside lake Iznik with olive groves either side of the road, eager to catch up on the miles we’d lost to two unexpected and lengthy visits to bike shops.
We headed to a reservoir we’d spotted on the map to pitch the tent. As we made our way to the bank furthest from the road, we slowed to make way for a tractor pulling a trailer laden with freshly picked grapes from the surrounding vineyards. The young farmers greeted us cheerfully and motioned that we should take some grapes from the trailer. Thanking them, I reached up and grabbed a bunch as their tractor slowly passed, only to realise when I picked it up that each of the bunches were nearly a foot long and half a foot wide! But, after a long day in the saddle, they were the sweetest, juiciest grapes I’ve ever had.
We pitched the tent on the shores of the reservoir where we met a couple of local fishermen who were also camped nearby and who took great interest in trying to help us pitch our tent and chase away the local stray dogs that repeatedly approached. After performing our own rituals of pitching, washing, cooking and eating the the call to prayer drifted in the breeze across the still water as we drifted off to sleep.
A beautiful sunrise and the sound of clinking bells woke us. Getting out of the tent we were surrounded by goats that were being herded past us. We had a friendly chat with the herder and I made friends with his huge dogs just enough for them not to take my leg off.
We had a long day in the saddle but the scenery more than made up for the strain on the legs. After a few tough climbs the views opened up to reveal a stunning vista of colourful cliffs and distant mountains that felt like we had been transported onto another planet with beautiful bands of horizontal sedimentary stripes. These were the landscapes you dream about cycling through.
With nowhere obvious to camp that evening, we cycled on to a petrol station in the town of Cayirhan and were immediately offered tea by the two gents whose job it was to fill vehicles with fuel. As we chatted, we asked them if they knew any good places that we could camp nearby and, after a little conference in Turkish between them, they very kindly invited us to pitch our tent on the grass beside the petrol station! They also offered us fresh, cool watermelon and, best of all, use of the staff shower. We slept well that night, albeit to the soundtrack of trucks pulling in to be refuelled.
Relying on petrol stations continued to be a theme for the rest of our time cycling across central Turkey. The staff were all really friendly and went out of their way to try and make us comfortable. Further east, we found lots of disused petrol stations that still had small shops. Most were run by Kurdish refugees who talked to us about their struggles. It was incredible that, despite their obvious economic hardship, they would ply us with bread, cucumbers, tomatoes and cheese. We either looked in a horrendous state, or it was their natural and cultural urge to look after visitors and travellers.
After our first night camped at a petrol station, we bid farewell to our new friends and headed north, passing giant coal mining facilities either side of the road. We turned off the main road and descended into a fertile valley, with crops of chillies and fruit being doused in water by vast irrigation systems. We past a large camp of what looked like either refugees or nomadic people working on the crops.
We followed our route, plotted in advance on our GPS, until the small road stopped abruptly. In front of us was a river and, where the bridge should have been, was a pile of rubble. As we stood scratching our heads mulling over how we would get across the torrent, a big JCB digger chugged round the corner, made its way to the water and crossed with ease and disappeared out of view on the far bank. Just as we thought we’d missed our only chance of crossing this remote river that day, the digger reemerged back round the corner, reversed back across the river, the driver jumped out and said he’d give us a lift. Without hesitation, we loaded the bikes and panniers into the digger’s ‘bucket’. Emily hitched a ride in the cab whilst I climbed in with the gear and hung on as he raised the bucket and took us across the river. Sadly, he asked me to delete the photos I took (apart from the one below) because they featured his company’s logo.
Just up the road, we were cycling up the track, sticky with mud, when three huge dogs spotted us. They leapt up and came charging at us. Only at the last second were they restrained by the chains around the neck. Barking and frothing at the chops, they were the most ferocious beasts we’d seen and, had they not been chained, I swear they would have eaten us whole!
The next challenge was a killer climb up to the Anatolian Plain. It was the steepest, longest and toughest test yet and, judging by writing scrawled on the tarmac, it must have been used for cycling races in the recent past. After the relatively flat cycling in Europe, we were finally getting used to the hills but it is still a shock to the system, especially when often you can only manage 6-8kph!
It was another very, very tough day and we just managed to find a wild camping spot behind some reeds next to the road about 5km north of Polati as the sun was setting.
The next day we came off the busy highway and onto a quiet country road as we had planned to cycle across Tuz Gölü; a vast salt lake just southeast of Ankara and en route to Capadoccia as I’d spotted on Google Earth that it might be possible to crossTuz Gölü on a causeway and both Google maps directions and my GPS confirmed that the crossing was valid.
The further we cycled from the main road the quieter it became and we were happy to have the countryside to ourselves once more. This was short lived however as the tarmac soon disappeared and the surface changed to a rough track. We rattled along, cursing our decision to take the scenic route.
As we approached the lake, we rounded a corner and 3 soldiers suddenly appeared from the bushes and stopped us. In Turkish, they asked where we were from, what we were doing and one demanded to see our passports. We answered the questions and I managed to dissuade them from seeing our passports by saying that they were buried deep in our panniers. In reality, our passports were in my handlebar bag but, although these fellas were in camouflage uniform, I wasn’t 100% sure who they were so I was reluctant to handover documents to them.
We soon learnt that the Turkish army were using the salt lake for firing practice. In a bewildering game of charades, they were making loud explosion noises. They then waved us on…but I wanted to be certain that we weren’t going to be in the line of fire so I too had to make explosion noises whilst pointing at us and miming death by bomb. Although I’m not Marcel Marceau, I just about managed to establish that we were going to be safe if we stuck to the track.
Later on, and just before we reached the causeway, 2 more soldiers stopped us again tried to ask for our passports. In our best sign language, we managed to let them that them know that we had already met their colleagues round the corner and so they then relaxed and insisted that we eat grapes and drink tea with them. They were pretty impressed and somewhat jealous as we explained our London to Cape Town trip to them; especially when we pointed at their small tent and said that we were camping like them too.
After photos with the soldiers, we made it to the causeway. The salt stretched as far as the horizon in each direction. Behind us, in the distance, we could see the large army trucks in position ready to fire their weapons into the salt plain. Perhaps they also had a-salt rifles too? (My niece Maura will give me 1 out of 10 for that pun!).
After 8 days of genuinely gruelling cycling from Istanbul, we reached Cappadocia: the land of the “fairy chimneys” or, as I prefer to call them (and as you can see by the photos) “phantom phalluses”.
The volcanic rockforms surround Cappadocia and, in their need for fertiliser, past generations carved niches into the rocks so they could collect perching pigeons’ poo. They also carved caves and churches into the hillsides; our hostel bedroom itself was hewn into the hillside.
Cappadocia was stunning. And the ‘done thing’ here is to see the area from above from a hot air balloon which, after a lot of debate, we decided was an opportunity we couldn’t miss. Emily has wanted to fly in a hot air balloon since she was a small girl and what better place to try it out than the best place in the world for hot air ballooning.
So, a very early alarm was set and, just before dawn, we jumped into the basket (with a few others!),
Neither of us had been up in a balloon before. I was excited! Emily was, let’s say, slightly ‘apprehensive’ about the idea and had tears in her eyes as we watched the balloon inflate and climbed into the basket – I’m not sure if they were tears of joy or just complete fear. But, as soon as the ground anchor was released and we started to float, all nerves quickly disappeared. It was simply a magical experience to gently float in the dawn air, above the beautiful rock pillars as the sun crept over the hill to bathe the whole scene in a warm golden light. What’s more, there were about 100 other balloons in the air at the same time, which only added to the spectacle. Without a breathe of breeze in the air, the whole experience was so smooth and calm that the pilot even managed to land the balloon on the trailer.
After leaving Cappadocia, we had 4 days to cycle 450km south to the southern port of Taşucu to catch our ferry. A challenge greatened by the climb over the Taurus mountains that separate central Turkey from the southern coast.
At the end of the first day we pulled into a petrol station on the busy E90 road near Yeniköy and got chatting to the three chaps that worked their. We learnt quickly that a) they were Kurdish refugees and b) they liked a drink! They were very happy for us to stay the night there though.
We pitched our tent on a tiny patch of grass by the loos (we thought it would be convenient) and the chaps joined us for a chat whilst we set up the stove and boiled our rice – only a few meters from the petrol pumps. By this time, they’d had quite a few beers…and it didn’t look as though the supply was going to dry up any time soon.
After turning in, we soon found our choice of campsite by the loos was a poor one: each group that passed our tent during the night talked loudly about our presence, keeping us awake. More importantly, our sleeping mats had deflated by the morning. Some rogue thorns had turned them into colanders.
In the morning our new (and slightly hung-over) friends cooked a huge omelette for breakfast and we were invited to join them; yet another example of the hospitality shown to us in the most unlikely of situations.
Our intention was to keep north of the Taurus mountains and cycle along the D350 as far as Karaman before heading over the mountain pass at Mut. It was to be a slightly longer route but the traffic was likely to be a lot quieter. When we got to the junction, however, we could see that our chosen road towards form the E90 to Ereğli had recently been upgraded to a motorway. In practise, the road looked like any other large highway we’d been cycling on in Turkey, but the higher status meant that bikes weren’t allowed.
I unfurled the map on the crash barrier at the side of the road and found another route. This time, a secondary highway that headed directly south in parallel to the E90 motorway and crossed the Taurus mountains at Akçatekir. This would mean crossing the Taurus mountains earlier, by then cycling South West along the coast to Taşucu.
We set off and, within 200m, mounds of rubble across the road meant that our diversion route was closed due to resurfacing. Nevertheless, we hauled our bikes over the mounds and set off, with a whole closed carriageway to ourselves, ducking off the road only where the contractors were laying the fresh tar.
It was a very, very tough climb. At points the gradients reached nearly 20% and all we could do was grit our teeth and hold on tight. But we made it to top and found a wild camping spot in the pine trees just north of Çamalan Bucağı. A cheeky fox came to visit us as we cooked and re-visited to take a sniff round the tent just after we’d got into bed, exhausted, 9pm.
After breakfasting at a nearby look-out spot above a beautiful steep-sided mountain valley, the morning’s descent more than made up for yesterdays killer uphill. However, my disc brake pads paid the price, wearing out to the extent that I had minimal brakes for the 25km long descent. It wasn’t the first time that I’ve descended with minimal braking power, however. Thankfully this time didn’t mirror the last occasion, which, when I was 16, resulted in a broken clavicle and a trip to hospital.
We cycled along the horrifically busy road west from Tarsus and got my brake pads replaced at a shop in Mersin. It was now late afternoon so we asked the shop owner if he knew anywhere we could camp. He explained vaguely that there were some woods near the beach behind an Audi garage 15km away and we should head there. We set off.
We found the Audi garage and sat at a fast food place opposite as we waited for the sun to go down before we took our bikes round the back of the building. Just as we were getting to the woods, a guy came running after us shouting “stop”. We both thought we were in trouble. He introduced himself as Doğan and said we should follow him and we were to “stay at his workplace”.
We soon found out that Doğan was a Sales Executive in the Audi Showroom. We parked our bikes in the service area and had tea with him in his office. Just as we thought we were going to roll our sleeping mats out amongst the gleaming cars on display, he took us upstairs to the staff quarters where there was a shower and, best of all, a bathroom with a hot shower.
Doğan is a keen cyclist and, we learned later, was friends with the guy in the Mersin bike shop that had replaced my brakes. He was planning to cycle 200km the next day, starting at 3pm, so he left us to it and we took over a salesman’s desk to do some admin before heading up to the staff bedroom.
It was yet another example of overwhelming hospitality in the most unlikely of places. We could not have been more grateful forDoğan’s genuine help and hospitality that night – especially when he explained that the woods in which we’d planned to camp were the local hangout for drunks (a rare thing in Turkey!).
In the morning, we had breakfast on another salesman’s desk and chatted to the lonely security guard, whose job it was to sit at the reception desk watching YouTube.
The next day, we’d arranged to meet Doğan for lunch at his cousin’s hotel 40km down the coast. We arrived at noon. By this time Doğan and his friend had already cycled 120km up into the mountains and back, had a shower, swim and were relaxing by the pool when we arrived. We had fun chatting to them over lunch: something that was noted by one beady-eyed family member who’d been watching our GPS tracker as he sent a message asking if we’d checked into a nice hotel. If only we had, because later that night, we made it to our destination, Tasucu and pitched our tent behind some sand dunes by the sea. Idyllic in theory. In practise, not so great because the dunes were used by the fishermen as a toilet and the sand flies feasted on us as we had our last meal in Turkey. The next day we were set to take the ferry to Cyprus where we were meeting Emily’s parents and our friend Tamara for a few days R&R (well after cycling over the island’s mountains.
Cycling through Turkey was gruelling. We set ourselves punchy targets before and after Istanbul not quite realising how hilly it was going to be, nor how slowly we cycle up hills carrying so much weight. Throw in the searing heat and it made for very, very tough cycling which left us with only enough time and energy to find a place to sleep, wash and eat each evening before getting up at dawn to repeat the whole process.
But, no matter how tough the cycling was, the genuine friendliness and hospitality of everyone we met – not to mention the beautiful countryside – made Turkey one of the highlights of the trip so far.
Emily has also shared her views on cycling across Turkey on Total Women’s Cycling.
If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog post, please donate to World Bicycle Relief. Every penny goes to the great work the charity does in Africa – not to fund our expedition in any way.