So there we were, our first wet morning in Turkey, our tent squeezed into someone’s small allotment on the Black Sea coast, excited to be on the final leg to Europe and comforted by the return of the minarets and the wake-up call to prayer.
Islam, the warm friend of the cycle tourer. We felt safe and at home again and assumed we would be welcomed with smiles and open arms… and that is exactly what we were greeted with – we just underestimated how much tea would accompany that hospitality!
The draw of the sea and its great bounty
We soon settled into a delightful daily routine of slow starts in the morning and flat speedy kilometres along the shore of the Black Sea. Mountains and towns to our left and little harbours to our right. It was a scene repeated hour after hour. At times I think Katherine found it a little tedious, but for me the daily rhythms of the fishing boats, the subtle yet predictable changes in the water’s colour and easy cycling allowed me to while away the hours in happy day-dreams. This south-eastern section of the Black Sea coast is like a giant north-facing garden, the road often in the looming shadow of the mountain faces, with the sunlight sparkling on the sea. Vast open deserts have often given me pangs of panic, feeling somehow restrictive and oppressive. Paradoxically, this stretch of Turkish road clinging to the water’s edge, pinned-in by impenetrable rock, induced in me a deep comfort.
We were both enamoured with the fruits of the sea that we would see being hauled in and sold fresh by the road side. Signs for balik (fish in Turkish) began to consume our radar in the hope we might get a whiff of fresh fish grilling on hot coals. One mild evening we had the fortune to stop near an outside restaurant a few kilometres from the nearest town. The friendly owner called up to the road and we pointed to an old sign with a tent on it. We hadn’t seen any campsites that were open in the winter so we were pleasantly surprised when he showed us to one end of his restaurant garden and said we could camp there for free. Once we popped up our tent, we couldn’t resist the romantic view from the restaurant and decided to have dinner there. We were told there wasn’t a menu; we could have the balik or the kofte meal. The lack of choice was liberating. I ordered a fish meal for two without consulting Kat knowing it wasn’t necessary to ask as small fishing boats chugged past the glow of the setting sun.
We had a momentary panic when the waiter came out with a tablecloth. It must have been a very long time since we had eaten somewhere with real linen tablecloths. Kat gave me a look of horror. ‘A tablecloth!’ she urgently whispered under her breath, while giving the waiter a wry smile that tried to say everything was all quite normal. ‘Don’t worry,’ I reassured, ‘let’s just enjoy the decadence and worry about our finances tomorrow…’
And enjoy we did. The table laden with fresh bread, salads and succulent fresh fish. We were also presented with a huge tea-brewing contraption that had hot coals inside with taps and spouts steaming like some kind of Jules Verne creation. It was a wonderful evening and a great camping spot. Our tablecloth fears were unfounded, the total bill was little more than a McDonald’s meal in London. And it was another memory from our journey you could never put a price on.
Inspired by the proximity of a sea positively brimming with fish, we invested in a fishing rod from a seaside toy shop. But our dreams of complete self-sufficiency on the road have not yet been realised. In honesty, not a single bite yet. However, the big one is down there and until then Kat’s lack of faith ensures there is always a tin of tuna when I come back empty handed…
Wild campers meet the boys
There may be an art to so called wild camping. I am not sure we have mastered it but for us it simply involves sticking up a tent in a place that is unlikely to bother anyone. It was while wild camping in Turkey that we discovered another group attracted to such places – young Turkish men.
Our introduction to this curious world was on a beach near the town of Surmene. We looked down from a main road where some steps led to a perfect camping beach.
It was a great spot but there was a group of teenage boys down there. After a should we/shouldn’t we conversation we decided the beach was big enough for all of us. Like most teenagers they were curious and amused by us but incredibly open and welcoming. As we set up our tent directly under what turned out to be a Turkish no-camping sign, the group of five or six lads lay out a blanket and started setting out some food. Kat smiled at me as one of the boys carefully set out plates of chopped tomatoes, another broke bread and the others set to lighting the BBQ and marinating meat. We were just waiting for the girls to arrive to this sophisticated banquet that seemed uncharacteristic of a group of sixth-formers still in their uniforms.
But the girls didn’t arrive. This was a group of boys having some down time after school and once the meat was cooked we were invited over and served plate after plate of wholesome food. It was a fun evening. A small bottle of vodka emerged at some point and soon hi-jinx, that can only result from a single shot of vodka when you are a teen, erupted. It was wonderfully innocent but once the semi-stumbling group headed off, I reflected on how surreal this felt in comparison to my own teen antics.
A few days later we found another beach, deserted but for a small make-shift shelter. It was getting dark and no-one was about. We set up camp, cooked and turned in for the night.
We woke with a sinking feeling. A group of men’s voices grew louder, down the path to the beach. Footsteps came closer to the tent and wandered past with a few whispers. Sounds and activities outside the tent always feel more sinister when you are inside so I was volunteered to go out and meet our visitors. The blokes looked a little terrified as I emerged but we soon started up a friendly chat. After helping them to light a small bonfire of driftwood in front of the small hut with some of our petrol used to fuel our camp-stove, the ice was broken. One of the men, who spoke good English, explained that they came down to the beach most nights and had done since they were teens. The little hut was theirs. They were now in their 30s, still single. They asked if I minded them having a beer and as we chatted together, beer in hand by the fire, I was struck by how lovely, yet lost these men were. They talked of how they dreamed of getting married, perhaps to an English girl (though none of them had been outside of Turkey). They were interested in the world Kat and I had explored. They were frustrated at the cultural restrictions they felt. ‘My mother would go mad if she saw me in a restaurant with a girl…’, a man a year younger than me explained matter of factly. They were men navigating a maze of Islamic and local traditions, educated in a secular country with western aspirations. I wondered how many groups of young men in search of love and a sense of identity were out that night finding solace in their deep childhood male friendships. Would those school boys from the other night be soul searching under the stars a decade from now? I was invited to join the boys in a ‘strong Turkish cigarette’ by the embers of the dying fire. There were laughs and smiles but the herbal haze was pungent with melancholy.
Hills full of history
The flat road, often built on land reclaimed from the sea, finally ran out. While testing our legs and our brakes, the views around each headland were immense and seeped with ancient history.
We travelled through the region of Unye, the land of the Amazons, circa 1200 BC. Mythological or not, the region did bring out some fiesty feminist debate on the bike. It is interesting that such a myth, which the excitable young boy in me wants to believe, would certainly have had roots in real societies in Anatolia. That over 3,000 years ago certain matriarchal societies had such radically different ideas on gender, that they created a myth that is still a challenge to gender roles today, is in itself exciting. I am convinced that if there is a modern feminist question, the answer is almost certainly nestled in our human history or likely, alive and well in our existing anthropology somewhere in the world.
We travelled though the land of Jason and the Argonauts and the home of Father Christmas. It was reassuring as Christmas drew closer that Saint Nicholas had once resided here. Why wouldn’t he have a break from the north-pole for a Turkish retreat? I imagine that olives and feta on the banks of the Black Sea are the perfect antidote after all those mince pies.
Hooch didn’t like the steep ups and downs of the coast. We had a couple of punctures that were due to heavy braking. So we headed inland, where for now, there would only be ups… It was hard work and the nights were colder, but we were rewarded by wonderful vistas and friendly locals.
Heading inland to get away from the coastal hills and to get to Istanbul we stumbled by chance on the town of Safronbolu. It turned out to be a famously authentic Ottoman town, beautifully preserved and gave a feel for what much of Turkey would have felt like before the fall of the Ottoman Empire when houses were built from wood. We had a couple of days off to explore and regain our strength.
When I first tried to convince Kat that this trip was a good idea, I had used the hook of riding the ‘endless summer’. The endless off-season would probably have been more realistic. Safronbolu was certainly in its downtime but it suited us – cheap accommodation, quiet streets and no pressure to buy from tourist shops. It made me laugh to see a man at our empty hotel lovelessly knocking out novelty wooden toy guns and spoons with the towns name burnt into them with a soldering iron, gearing up for a summer of flogging cheap tat.
It was very cold at night but after an old lady showed us how to light our wood burner by poking matches in the top, we were lovely and toasty.
Weirdos on the road
Despite what many of our friends and family may think, we are not the only people travelling slowly around the world. We do bump into the occasional cycle tourer going in the opposite direction – although we are yet to overtake one! We have also met a few of an interesting breed that are walking across continents. Perhaps the most unusual chap was this Japanese guy we pulled over to chat to near a petrol station a few hundred kilometres from Istanbul.
Walking from China to Morocco, 65 year old Mr Takashita, shuffling along in flip-flops, asked us for help. He needed to fix the wheel on his cart. We couldn’t help him as his wheels were a different size from ours. We were a bit bemused that he hadn’t sought help earlier as his cart included, alongside cuddly toys and other knick-knacks, three other broken wheels. Once we reached the petrol station with him he asked the attendant to call the police to help him with his limping cart. The attendant refused and suggested he hooked his cart up to the back of our bike, assuming we were travelling together. I protested that we had only just met this lovely, heroic man, yet an individual obviously at the far end of the eccentricity scale. Then I saw this picture and realised the attendant’s assumption was perhaps a reasonable one…
We suggested to Mr Takashita that he try and hitchhike to the next town to find a wheel. We left with a wave and shouted a much needed, ‘Good luck Mr Takashita!’, Kat muttering, ‘That’ll be you one day – I know it.’
The Tandem Turners tent – Guests Welcome!
With light fading on the outskirts of the city of Kastamonu, it was like any other night as we looked for a place to put our tent. Through a tunnel under the main road we found a field that had been harvested, a great place to camp for the night… As we unpacked the bike, a tractor passed near the end of the field. I switched off my head torch. We had been spotted and the field workers walked towards our silhouettes suspiciously. I put my torch back on and wandered over smiling. ‘Hello, we are English!’ We find this explains most of our unusual behaviour. They didn’t speak English but understood our intentions were innocent. They were concerned that a car may career off the road above on to our tent so they helped us move to the other end of the field. Smiling and waving they left us to camp for the night.
Just as we were settled and about to make our evening meal, the tent lit up, car headlights turned into the field. An engine drew closer at speed. We cut our lights and wondered why anyone would be driving a car across a field after dark. As it pulled up outside the tent, I volunteered to meet the mobsters/drug dealers/kidnappers etc. But of course this is Turkey. We were greeted by one of the farmers and his two young daughters who had brought us tea and food. Welcome to our humble home!
We were a little unsure what we would talk about but a happy hour was spent comparing our head torches with our host, eating bread and cheese and enjoying each others company. No matter how impractical our big red tent may seem, it is great for dinner parties.
After the family bundled out of our home, as well as a pile of normal food, we were presented with a large carrier bag of freshly picked walnuts.
We slept well, with full tums.
In the morning we had another guest. A sorry looking pigeon with missing feathers. We think it was hiding from a large animal that Kat spotted in the trees during her morning ablutions. Our research has narrowed Kat’s description of the beautiful creature down to a gray wolf or a jackal. We gently chucked the pigeon under a shed door when we left but we think the odds are with the big wild dog (we are just glad it didn’t have a taste for humans).
This must have been the most popular field in Turkey as we were greeted in the morning by the local mayor. He confirmed his credentials not with a badge or shiny chain around his neck but a pistol mounted on his hip. Despite speaking no English, we gathered through the use of his Google translate that he was very interested in our trip and welcomed us to his city. He talked about putting us in the local press but we spent an embarrassing time trying to use Google translate to give a quote, which came up with such translations as ‘We think Turkish people are all beetles’. The comedy factor was lost due to the knowledge the frustrated mayor was ‘packing’…
We are often approached by members of the press that we never hear from again and wonder what stories, courtesy of Google translate and dodgy sign language we have had printed in our wake.
Other Random Turkey Pictures
One last thing
‘What about all the older men who are lucky enough to have wives?’ I hear you say. From what we could tell they spend most of their time in chai houses, drinking tea, where women are not allowed – so go figure.