Whenever I went “on holiday” from cycling to work in London (usually coinciding with the November rugby internationals or the January freeze) it was always difficult to get back into the rhythm. Not because the cycling is tough, but it is mentally draining; negotiating the thick, angry traffic is something you need to practice daily or you lose your nerve. Well this is exactly what happened to us when we left Istanbul; we had lost our nerve. The traffic seemed denser, closer, and more aggressive than we remembered and after an hour of negotiating the Bosphorus coastline we had just about had enough. It was a relief when we finally reached Beykoz and it was time to head inland towards our day’s goal of “getting out of Istanbul”; it was also at this point that we decided to take a quieter “back road” to escape the madness. This was unquestionably a mistake, what ensued was 1.5 hours of torturous climbing, so much so that we had to push the bikes for at least half of that time. It should be noted that pushing a touring bike up vertical inclines is not like pushing your lightweight mountain bike or fancy road bike, it is backbreaking work. At this point it genuinely felt as if Asia was sticking the proverbial finger to us and saying “you’ve had it far too easy in Europe, if you want to get to NZ you’re going to have to get past me”. Katie and I were both broken, but at least the sun was shining…
Aside from the torturous climb and perceived busy roads in Istanbul, there was nothing remarkable about the first two days cycling, what was remarkable though was the genuine hospitality that we started to come across. Every single cycle touring blog that we have read (and there have been quite a few) has made reference to the fact that Turkish people are without question incredibly kind and hospitable, and it was wonderful to start seeing this in earnest. The first night out of Istanbul we turned up to a place where people store their tractors, farm equipment, trucks, etc… and asked the proprietor if it would be possible to camp. Not only was it possible, it was possible to stay indoors in our very own portacabin, and if this was not good enough we were fed until we wanted to burst with plates of fresh barbecued mackerel, salad, and bread. In the morning, the guard, who had been patrolling all night, fixed us a typical Turkish breakfast, and five çay (yes, that’s right, five cups of tea). We thought this was incredible however the second evening out of Istanbul was to be even more ridiculous for hospitality!
Rounding a corner down a steep hill, just out of the town of Teke we were greeted not only with an increase in torrential rain, but also the unmistakable sound of a raucous Sunday session in full swing. Buoyed by the hospitality of the previous evening and encouraged by the fact that the road was turning into a river we decided to negotiate a rickety wooden bridge leading to a band rotunda style terrace where the noise was emanating from. In our very best Turkish we managed to secure a camping spot out of the rain on another terrace that is used as a restaurant in the summer months and were asked to join the family gathering ASAP. What followed was a truly memorable evening, and just highlighted again that cycle touring is a wonderful way of meeting people from all walks of life…
Three men were generating the raucous noise that we heard, one on a banjo, one on a clarinet (he randomly stroked his clarinet whilst he was playing it, akin to one stroking a cat), and the other on a giant booming drum. Along with the three men there were six other men enjoying the Raki and beer, two ladies (one enjoying the beer and the other trying to control her husband) and a young child (around 6 months). We were welcomed into the circle and were soon being fed Efes and hot food straight from a wood fired BBQ, it was brilliant. The evening came alive with music, dance (we were taught, or at least shown how to execute some Turkish moves on the dance floor), and lessons in the finer points to consuming Raki (having experienced Raki on a previous trip to Turkey I just watched the finer points from the corner). The next morning as we were packing up our tent we were beckoned inside the house to be presented with yet another full Turkish breakfast which under no circumstances were we allowed to contribute any money towards and were not allowed to leave until the obligatory three çay’s had been consumed and we were again bursting at the seams. With the days shortening and the hospitality of local hosts starting in the early afternoon and extending well into the morning we felt our decision to cut down our daily kms was a wise one.
For one reason or another Warmshowers is a service that we have not made the best use of so far, which seems ridiculous given that every time we have used it the experience has been incredible. Spending three days with Ethem in Seyrek was no different. We had contacted Ethem about a week before we were to leave Istanbul and it was his directions that safely guided us out of Istanbul (he had not proposed the side route that we had taken, that was our own fault). Ethem showed us a fantastic time around Seyrek, so much so that instead of staying for the two nights we had initially planned we ended up staying three, and could easily have stayed longer. We spent the days exploring the various coves along the coast, picking up (and roasting) chestnuts, discussing the finer points of making a decent coffee whilst cycle touring, building huge fires and eating a gastronomic array of excellent Turkish cuisine (thanks Ethem).
From constantly reviewing the weather forecast we knew that the day we were leaving Seyrek was due to be horrendous, and unfortunately the weather man was spot on. The rain throughout the night had flooded a “short-cut” that we were planning on taking, so it was the long way round for us. Thankfully Ethem braved the weather with us for the first 20-odd kms so we did not get lost. This outing from Ethem also enabled him (much to our unbridled joy) to put his coffee making to the test one last time; hot, strong coffee on a day like this was precisely what we needed to venture out from under the bus shelter we had stopped at and continue on.
Even though the weather was largely awful, the people we met and the kindness that we were shown by complete strangers was staggering. Of the four nights that it took to cycle from Seyrek to Safranbolu we spent three with locals who took us in and asked for nothing, having literally just met us! There was the night in the school grounds, where the principal welcomed us in with open arms, fed us çay and then gave us the keys to the school (so we could use the bathrooms in the middle of the night) before he went home. There was the night when we stopped in the mountains at a çay salon to ask for help; a man put his çay down, took us back to his house, made us a bed on the floor of his lounge and then returned to the çay salon for the rest of the evening. He clearly thought nothing of leaving two strangers in his house… and then there was the night at the petrol station… what a night that was.
On the penultimate push towards Safranbolu (and a hotel for my birthday) we were fortunate enough to cycle through some absolutely breath-taking scenery (in fact we both think the scenery here in Turkey is the best so far, even more so than the Alps), but more importantly we were able to meet some of the nicest people the world surely knows. With the day drawing in and no apparent camping location presenting itself we saw our saviour in the form of a petrol attendant named Rambo (yes, that is the hero’s name, or at least that is what he is referred to), beckoning us in for çay. We entered the çay room to be buffeted by a heat pump, pumping out 30 degrees heat and warming us right to our bones. The room was filled with men and young lads supping çay and having what appeared to be a great chinwag. We joined in as best we could and given our obvious lack of Turkish this was some sort of achievement, helped enormously by Bulut and Google Translate.
The conversation eventually got around to where we were going to sleep, and the entire room was most affronted when we said we could set our tent up on a concrete square outside. A lot of head shaking and pointing at the floor (right next to the source of 30 degree heat) ensued and to our overwhelming joy it was decided we would have the floor for the evening. We were beyond happy and celebrated with another çay, expertly poured by Rambo.
If plying us with çay and providing a wonderfully warm and safe place to sleep was not enough we were soon being fed; first it was a round of sweets and treats, and second, enough food to stave of the hunger of two ravenous cycle tourists. When all of this was finished and the night was drawing in we were told that dinner was waiting for us at Cihangir’s family house. Dinner?!?! We had just finished enough food to feed a small army, but it was insisted we should go. Even though we struggled to move, the decision to take up the offer was without a doubt the correct one. We met more wonderful people, were introduced to more Turkish customs, and had a very stimulating game of charades explaining our journey to the extended family that had turned up to see the crazy ingilizce bisikletçiler.
If there are few things that we can guarantee when we meet Turkish people for the first time it is that we will experience an overwhelming level of sincerity, hospitality, and generosity; and they all think we are mad. We are loving our time here, and when you reach places like Safranbolu the wet weather is quickly forgotten.