Sorry for the rather naff title for this post but I’m afraid I couldn’t resist! As you might have guessed, we have made it to Istanbul in Turkey, and so are officially at the end of leg one of the trip. Leg two will take us all the way through Iran and Central Asia to Kashgar in Tibet/China, so it feels like the adventure really starts here.
It is some time since we last wrote, to be honest we don’t have much of an excuse for that other than the fact that we had a rather lovely time in Bulgaria and got rather relaxed! After Pleven we headed through the countryside to Veliko Tarnovo. An interesting ride as the weather was rather thundery and we had several moments where we seriously considered taking shelter under a tree to avoid being the highest object around. But in general we were able to see the storms coming and to watch them from a distance, really quite spectacular. Veliko Tarnovo is a lovely little town that clings to the side of a gorge in central Bulgaria. Rather touristy, but not too much, and for a good reason; the setting is wonderful and the town itself has been well maintained, with lots of pretty little cobbled streets and old buildings. Plus there is a plethora of rooftop bars and restaurants which is really rather civilized, particularly after a couple of nights of wild camping. We had another day off here, during which we walked to a village called Arbanasi about 4km away. Almost all uphill, but the views were spectacular from the top, and we had a lovely long lunch admiring the view. Walking downhill afterwards felt really rather slow though! I should take this opportunity to recommend the hostel we stayed in in Veliko; it is called the Nomad’s Hostel and is a great hostel, complete with a nice balcony with a good view. The staff are very friendly and welcoming, and gave us a great send-off when we left.
We were planning on reaching our second destination – Sozopol on the Black Sea coast – in two days, but this wasn’t quite to be. We had cycled about 50km through some rather hilly countryside, and through a thunderstorm complete with torrential rain (although the rain was actually rather welcome as it had been rather hot before), when just as we were tackling a rather steep hill Christine’s bike made a rather alarming crunching noise and came to a complete stop. Closer inspection revealed that the chain had come off at the back and had got caught in the wheel, snapping 5 spokes in the process. We can only assume that the limit screws had come loose over time, as their function is to stop this happening. Thankfully we realized almost immediately what had happened, as if Christine had carried on riding the bike the back wheel would almost certainly have been ruined. Unfortunately, although we carry spare spokes to cover spokes snapping, we had made the decision before we left not to carry the necessary equipment to remove the rear cassette as it is rather heavy and we didn’t expect to need it (a cassette removal tool and chain whip, which is what you need to to replace spokes on the derailleur side of the wheel), and so were unable to fix the bike ourselves. So we walked 2 km to a main road (we are glad the accident didn’t happen earlier when we were 10km or more from the main road as the road we were on was literally deserted) and stuck out our thumbs. Now when I say main road, this is Bulgaria, and that equates to a vehicle every 5 minutes or so. The first 3 didn’t stop and we were getting concerned that we might be there for some time, but then a small van stopped and, courtesy of the mini-phrasebook that we had compiled for every country (which includes the phrases ‘we are having trouble cycling, can we have a lift to the next town please’, and ‘our bicycles are broken, is there a bicycle repair shop nearby?’), we were able to communicate the problem to them. The only thing was their vehicle was too small for us and our bikes, so they kindly flagged down the next psasing vehicle, and between the two vehicles we and our bikes were transported to a garage 15km away. We weren’t convinced that the garage would be able to help us, seeing as it was a car garage not a bike shop, and were preparing to be told that we would have to take a train or a bus back to Veliko Tarnovo or even further. However, the mechanics were clearly very practical guys and had no trouble disassembling the wheel and improvising a method of removing the rear cassette so the spokes could be replaced. The whole process took over an hour but at the end they wouldn’t take any payment for their work which was very kind of them. All in all, although it set us back a day, we were very glad to have had the experience; it really is this sort of thing that cycle touring is all about.
The next day we continued on, taking two days to reach the coast. The weather was very hot – over 30c – so we were really looking forward to a splash in the sea. The riding was quite hard going, although the map implied the route should be pretty flat, it was in fact undulating the entire way, which gets quite tiring in the heat. A highlight of the ride was when we stopped for a drink in a village called Dimcevo about 30km from Sozopol. We sat down in a cafe, and when it was realized that we were British, someone ran off to get someone else that lives in the village; we assumed that it was just someone that spoke English, but in fact it was another British person who happened to be living in the village! We had a nice chat, and had our first offer of free accommodation which was very kind but we decided to decline as we were very keen to get to the sea, seeing as it was so hot. So we carried on, hoping to find a campsite by the beach. This wasn’t to be, however. Bulgarian’s clearly are’t really into camping (to give you an idea, in France there are over 2500 registered campsites, Bulgaria isn’t that much smaller, but has less than 50 campsites), and the three campsites we found were closed until June 1st. Quite annoying as it took quite a bit of time and cycling to estabish this. In the end we gave up and went into Sozopol to find a hostel that we had been recommended by the owners of the hostel in Veliko Tarnovo. And I have to say we were very glad we ended up doing this and not campng. The managers of Yo-Ho hostel in Sozopol – Stefan and Toni – knew from the people in Veliko that we might be coming by, and really went out their way to make us feel welcome. In particular, because the hostel was very quiet, they kindly gave us the best private room – complete with balcony with amazing view and a nice kitchenette – for the price of a dorm. We were only planning on staying for a night or two but ended up staying for four! We didn’t do an awful lot while we were in Sozopol but it was great to have a few days properly relaxing. On one of the days, Stefan kindly invited us along on a trip with some of his friends. The purpose of the trip was to investigate places along the coast for day trips from the hostel later on in the summer when it is busier. We visited a couple of wildlife reserves, then spent the afternoon at a bay that we had to ourselves because it is quite hard to get to – a 20 minute walk from the road – the sort of place we would never have found by ourselves. A fire was lit to cook some food for lunch while we went for a walk around the bay and took a dip in the sea. The dip didn’t last long though as the water was rather chilly, and more to the point, Pete spotted a snake slithering off a rock into the water just as we got in! Needless to say we got out the water quite quickly!
The other highlight of Sozopol was our rather random brush with the Bulgarian media. Following the events with Christine’s bike described above, where we were really rather touched by the kindness of the people involved, Pete had the idea of sending an email to a Bulgarian news agency telling them about our trip and how much we were enjoying being in Bulgaria. We didn’t really expect anything to come of it, but several newspapers picked up on it and ran a story on us (including a photo culled from our website; see here for one of the stories: http://www.vesti.bg/?tid=40&oid=2977651). The articles included a link to our website, with the consequence that overnight the number of hits on our website went from around 7000 to over 14,000! Even better, a Bulgarian TV channel (TV+) got in touch asking for an interview! We gave them the number of the hostel we were staying in in Sozopol, and they came down the next morning with a film crew. They asked us some questions about our trip, our experiences in Bulgaria etc, and got some footage of us cycling around. All very random. The footage was apparently broadcast the next evening, but unfortunately we didn’t actually get to see it, so not sure if we made idiots of ourselves or not! All in all a memorable and amusing experience.
After Sozopol we cycled down the coast and then over the hills to Malko Tarnovo, where we wild camped before crossing the border into Turkey the next morning. The formalities were quite straight-forward at the border, and it was immediately apparent that we were in a different country by the quality of the roads. Bulgarian roads vary from reasonable to really quite atrocious, with pot holes big enough to swallow cars never mind destroying bikes if you are not careful. The road to the Turkish border is no exception, however the minute you cross the road widens into a 3-lane brand new highway with a huge hard shoulder, great for cycling. Slightly bizarrely though is the fact that there was virtually no traffic on the road – in the 40km to the first town, we passed at most 20 vehicles (in either direction) – making us wonder why they had invested so much money in such a wonderful road. We weren’t complaining though as we hit our top speed so far – 65.5km/h! Another feature of Turkey that became clear straight away was the friendliness of the people. We lost count quickly of the number of people beeping and waving, even leaning out their windows (while driving!) shouting ‘welcome’, and pulling up alongside to say hello and offer us a lift (which for the record we politely declined!). Really great. We also had our first experience of the Muslim hospitality that we have been told to expect. We were planning on wild camping, but had some trouble finding a spot because the land was quite agricultural. We found an area that looked ok by the side of a field and were about to set up camp when a car pulled up with a local farmer. Great, we thought, he is going to say we can’t camp here. We were right in some respects, he didn’t think we should camp there, but only because he thought we should stay as guests in his house instead. This took some time to convey as he didn’t speak a word of English, and we no Turkish; pictionary skills were required! I must admit that we were rather sceptical at first, assuming that payment would be demanded, so we made sure to ask ‘how much’, but he made it clear that no money was expected, so we happily packed up and followed him home. Not wanting to impose any more, we went out for dinner (proper Turkish kebab!), but when we returned they invited us in to the living room for coffee and baklava and biscuits, well it would have been rude to refuse wouldn’t it?! Slightly awkward because of the language barrier, but we showed them the pictures of our families and of London that we have with us, which we think they appreciated, and they showed us pictures of their children, and they taught us some words of Turkish. All in all a thoroughly enjoyable evening, certainly an experience that will stay with us. The next morning the guy even got in his car and led us out the village to make sure we went the right way – very kind.
We then continued in the direction of Istanbul. We had an idea that we wouldn’t get all the way in on our bikes, seeing as Istanbul is legendary for being a huge (over 17 million people live here) and sprawling city, with horrendous traffic on fast, big roads. We were right, but it was even worse than we expected. We got as far as a town called Corlu, which is still 100km away from Istanbul, but already it was clear that it was going to be one big conurbation all the way, and the roads were becoming practically suicidal to ride on. So we did the sensible thing and got on a bus to the centre of Istanbul – some may call it cheating but I hope most people will appreciate we didn’t have much of a choice! Istanbul’s otogar (bus station) is still 13km out of town, and clearly motorway was the only option to get in to the town centre, so we checked out the metro system for the last part – quite interesting taking our fully-loaded bikes on escalators but other than that it was no problem. We still had 4km from the nearest metro station to our hostel, not very far but it took us over an hour courtesy of atrocious traffic (and I mean atroicious; makes London at rush hour seem like a quiet country village!) and difficult navigation; old Istanbul is all narrow, hilly, windy, cobbled streets. Not only that, but our GPS, which we were using to navigate through the centre, did its best to take us off the main roads, but with the unfortunate consequence that it directed us right through the Grand Bazaar! As anyone who has been to Istanbul will know, this is one of the biggest covered markets in Europe, with over 4000 stalls on narrow alleyways and inevitably with hordes of people. By the time we realized what was happening the lanes were too narrow for us to turn around, and we ended up having to get security to escort us through! Amusing in hindsight! So we were very glad to reach our hostel, where we headed up to the roof terrace to enjoy a well-deserved beer overlooking the Bosphorus towards Asia. Quite a smug feeling knowing we had cycled all the way to the tip of Europe!
Istanbul is wonderful, absolutely worth a visit. The architecture is not only stunning but totally different to what we are used to in the West, with amazing mosques all over the place. There is also a very vibrant feel about the city too, and it is great just wandering around taking in the atmosphere, having the odd cup of chay (tea) and the occasional (well, ok not so occasional!) kebab. What is also great for us is that we are here at the same time as other cycle tourists that we know either from the UK (Dean, who fell off his bike in Bratislava and broke his arm, but who has impressively recovered quickly and got back on his bike within 3 weeks, and absolutely caned it through Serbia and Bulgaria to catch up with us!), or who we met along the way (Ollie and Tom). We are all staying very close to each other so have been spending time exchanging stories about our trip so far, as well as sorting out practicalities for the next part of the trip. So far this has included visiting the Iranian embassy to apply for our visas – we all had our applications approved so are now waiting for the paperwork to be completed – a frustratingly slow process, and one which set us back over $150 each, seems like daylight robbery but obviously it is an unavoidable cost. They have also retained our passports while they are doing this, very annoying as we are also aiming to get our Uzbek visas in Istanbul, but can’t even submit our applications until we have our passports back from the Iranian embassy. Because of these practicalities we will be spending almost 2 weeks in Istanbul (hopefully no longer, but that depends on the Uzbek visa…). However that is not a disaster as Istanbul is a nice place to spend time, and we are in a nice hostel which helps. Plus we have some friends coming out tomorrow for a few days, which we are really looking forward to. Even better we realized the other day that the grand prix is being held in Istanbul this weekend, and we have been able to get tickets to go. None of us are really into motor sport but it should be a great experience and a fun day out, can’t wait.
Anyway this post is quite long enough so I will leave it there. From here we follow the Black Sea coast for a couple of weeks before heading inland down to the Iranian border. The hills are going to get bigger and the temperatures are going to increase as we head East, so we are a little nervous about how we are going to cope. So watch this space to find out!