I wake, as I have done most mornings in Turkey, to the eerie wail of the call to prayer echoing around the valley in the darkness. The initial call from a nearby mosque is soon joined by other, fainter voices carried on a gentle breeze from minarets in numerous tiny settlements hidden from view at the end of bumpy dirt tracks. After five minutes, all is silent again. I snuggle down into the warmth and cosiness of my sleeping bag; willing myself to drift back to sleep until the more reasonable hour of 6.30am.
As I wait for sleep to return, I think back to the previous day. We had awoken to find the fly of our tent coated inside with a layer of ice and outside with a heavy frost, our tent poles frozen solid together. In the first hour of cycling, we had to stop numerous times to “windmill” our arms and stamp our feet in order to maintain feeling in our extremities. When the sun’s rays finally flooded over the top of the mountains and down into our valley, they brought a delicious warmth that we embraced eagerly.
In Hanönü, we stopped at the first lokantasi we could find that was open. The young couple that ran the place pulled up chairs for us close to the wood-burning stove and plied us with steaming bowls of çorba (soup) and endless cups of çay.
When we emerged back into the outside world, we found the day was as perfect for cycling as any we have encountered so far. And what’s more; we had the perfect road to cycle – wide with a huge hard shoulder, undulating, great views and little traffic. We had a decision to make however, did we stick with the “perfect” road which from the map looked like it carried on along the valley and joined bigger roads as it neared the coast (probably also getting busier and less perfect as it went), or did we go with the shorter, wigglier line on the map which headed directly over the mountains and down the other side to the sea? We debated the merits (mostly based on our assumptions rather than actual knowledge) of both routes as we cycled until about 2pm when we arrived in Durağan. There was a fork in the road. We had to decide. Impulsively, we turned left – for the mountains.
As we still had a couple of hours cycling before darkness fell, we set out upon our chosen path. From our map, it seemed there was a decent sized town 13 kilometres away where we decided we could pick up supplies for the next day and find somewhere to pitch our tent. We cycled along the edge of a huge basin surrounded by jagged mountains and wondered where on earth our route was possibly going to take us. 10 kilometres later, we could be found crouching by the roadside over our pot of apple jam (a gift from a family a few days previous), tearing hunks of bread from the loaf, dunking them in the jam and devouring them hungrily. It was here that Necdet and his son Kivanç found us. They stopped their car and with some sign language asked us if we wanted food or çay. We explained we needed to press on but they persisted and we soon agreed to cycle back the way we had come for 1 kilometre. They took us to Necdet’s parents’ house, fed and watered us; let Steven play at chopping wood, taught us how to make çay, and found us a great spot to spend the night in an old school building.
Necdet and family also informed us that it was another 13 kilometres to the next town (the map was wrong!) and that we had 40 kilometres of uphill to look forward to before 30 kilometres of freewheeling down to the sea. This is what I am thinking about as I lay in my sleeping bag. “How steep? How long will it take? Will we make it all the way in a day?”
My musings are disturbed as Steven awakes and, as lying in our sleeping bags isn’t going to get us over this mountain, we quickly get up and pack up our gear; a familiar routine now after 3 months on the road. We warm our bellies with coffee, fried eggs (kindly donated by Necdet) and the last of our bread before setting off.
It’s not long into our morning when we spot this sign:
And we are really thankful we were rescued the previous evening before we got to this point and either a) had a meltdown or b) tried to cycle up, got tired and hungry and had a bigger meltdown.
It’s all about keeping the head down and the wheels turning slowly and steadily, but most importantly stopping regularly to appreciate the panorama that is expanding into view with each turn of the wheels.
When we arrive at (what we thought would be) the “decent sized town”, we find a small village with no shops, no petrol stations and a few inhabitants who stare open-mouthed but silently at us when we give them a cheery “merhaba” in greeting. This is a bit of a problem as we had banked on this being a source of food and water and we are now attempting the biggest ascent of our trip so far with just a few mandarins (again donated by Necdet) and one bottle of water to sustain us.
Another 10 kilometres pass by. We are beginning to worry about the lack of water situation when we find a mountain spring by the side of the road. It is clear and icy cold and, once sterilised, tastes absolutely delicious. It is at this point that I remember that we are carrying jars of honey and Nutella in our panniers. We dig in and gulp down large spoonfuls. It might not be very nutritious, or satisfy our hunger but it does give us the energy needed to power our laden bikes all the way to the top of the mountain.
The last 10 kilometres of the road prior to reaching the summit are on a plateau of arid land that falls away into precipitous valleys dotted with tiny hamlets clinging to the steep slopes. There is no one up here save the odd passing car, flock of sheep with attendant shepherd and a lady praying, prostrate on a grassy knoll. It is wild and beautiful. As far as we can see in every direction huge masses of mountains rise up to meet the sky.
Finally we reach the sign for the summit: 1440m. It feels like it should be a lot higher than it actually is. We are a little disappointed, until we start the downhill. 30 kilometres all the way to the sea! The road is devoid of all traffic so we are free to go as fast as we dare, and it is exhilarating.
As we descend, we pass through tree filled valleys that are awash with autumnal colours and lush green pastures that feature heavily in the rainy Black Sea coastal region. We are overjoyed when we finally pass through a village with a shop. It only sells sweets, chocolate and crisps but by this stage we care less about nutrition, more about calories and are grateful for anything we can eat that has some substance to it. Further down, we spot a lone dog on the side of the road. We eye it up (as we do with all dogs), quickly trying to predict its character. Will it ignore us, just bark or chase us like its life depends on it? It looks up at us guiltily from the polystyrene box it has been routing around in; hamsi (anchovies) are hanging from its mouth. This dog is not chasing us anywhere.
We finally roll into Alaçam; a town on the shores of the Black Sea, an easy ride to Samsun in store for us the following day. We both agree that although this was the toughest ride of our journey so far, it has definitely been one of our favourites.
I could not write about this section without also mentioning some of the fantastic people we have stayed with along the way.
We had our first couchsurfing experience with university lecturer Behiç in Kastamonu. And a great experience it was too. Behiç took time out of his busy life to show us around his town and made us wish we could stay longer.
We spent three nights with Nanouk and Sinan in Samsun. There we were totally spoilt by Nanouk’s cooking, learnt a new board game (Settlers of Catan), watched Turkish movies and got a fascinating insight into life in Turkey from a Dutch perspective.
In Ordu, we stayed with Ayşe and Serdal. Again, we were fed so much delicious food. We were entertained with traditional Turkish and Black Sea music played by Serdal on his bağlama and sung so beautifully by Ayşe and her sister Fatma.
Meeting new people who so generously welcome us into their homes without knowing us really is an incredible experience.