…go out in the Turkish midday sun, let alone cycle in it – most people are far more sensible, and for a good reason, it gets HOT out here! Since we last wrote we spent several days in Istanbul, both soaking up the sights and sorting out some paperwork. After a couple of trips to the Iranian and Uzbekistan embassies, we are now the proud recipients of visas for both countries, which is a relief as it would have majorly screwed up our plans had either one been refused. An interesting point about the Iranian visa was that we applied at the same time as two other cycle tourists doing a similar route to us (Tom and Ollie), and filled in our forms identically, including the same entry and exit dates. However we were both issued with a 30 day visa, whereas Tom and Ollie only received 21 day visas, meaning they will have to extend them when they get there. The only explanation we can think of is that a married couple is viewed slightly more generously than two young men. Not quite sure what to make of that!
We also had time to catch up with our friends (Sarah H, Sarah C and Helen) who flew out to Istanbul to see us. It was great to see them and to spend a few days being ‘proper’ tourists, going to see sights such as the Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace – all very impressive. One of the highlights of our time with them was the Formula 1 Grand Prix, which just happened to be being held in Istanbul that weekend. We were able to get tickets easily, and spent a fun, but extremely hot day out at Istanbul park watching the race. None of us are really into motorsports but it is quite something to see cars going so fast right in front of you – we were able to get to within 50 metres of the track. That evening we had a mini-pre-birthday celebration for Christine, as she will be turning 30 at the start of July, when we expect to be in Iran – we don’t expect to have much of a party there! Another bonus of having friends come out to see us was that they very kindly bought out some supplies for us, including the latest Sunday Times, a jar of coffee, and more importantly things like spare tyres, oil, etc etc. We have been surprised at how hard it is to get spares for our bikes already – even in a decent bike shop in Istanbul it was impossible to get certain Shimano parts or the Schwalbe tyres that we were after, unless we were prepared to wait for 2 weeks or more for them to be delivered. So it was very useful having parts bought out from the UK.
We were sad to leave Istanbul and our friends behind, but also excited to be back on the road after such a long break. However getting out of Istanbul was to prove one of the greatest challenges yet. We were planning on taking a ferry north up the Bosphorus, and cycling east from there. But the day we were leaving was a national holiday in Turkey and the ferry was running a reduced timetable, with no sailing until the evening. Rather stupidly we decided that rather than waiting for the ferry we would just get a ferry across the Bosphorus to the Asian side, and try our luck from there. A bad move which resulted in us cycling on motorways for more than 10km, as there was quite literally no other road that we could take. Not much fun, particularly when it came to crossing slip roads. Never again! But in the end we made it out and onto quiet roads and quite quickly we were in lovely countryside. We made it most of the way to the Black Sea coast on the first day but decided to camp inland at a nice spot we found. It was so hot Pete decided to sleep outside of the tent, not such a good idea unless you want to be eaten by mosquitoes it turns out! The next day turned out to be probably the most challenging day of the trip so far. The weather was unbelievably hot – 35c and extremely high humidity – and the hills were savage – some of them so steep we could barely walk up them with our bikes, let alone cycle up them. In the end we only managed 45km, well below our normal average of 100-120km. To be fair we probably could have managed a bit further, but it started to thunder so we decided to stop and camp.
The thunder thankfully cleared the air somewhat, and the next day was grey and rainy – we were delighted! It certainly made the going much easier, and we cracked out 130km without too much difficulty. We ended up in a town called Kocaali, where we stopped to buy provisions for the night. Ended up talking to a local guy who spoke good English and was insistent on helping us in any way possible, including giving us a bag of fruit and a bag of hazelnuts and a nice little nutcracking tool! He even found us free internet (on his friend’s computer), offered his mobile phone for us to call home (we said no) and asked if there were any electronics that we wanted to have for free from his friend’s shop (again we said no)! Normally we would be very suspicious of such offers but in Turkey everybody does genuinely seem keen to help, and without any ulterior motive – they just don’t get many Western tourists round here, particularly not on bikes, so are uniformly fascinated by us. By the time we had talked to this guy, had the requisite cups of tea, done our shopping etc, it was getting on so we headed down to the beach where we were hoping to camp. We weren’t sure if there was a good spot so Pete went off on a scouting mission. He seemed to have found somewhere promising so Christine followed him, but after stopping to adjust something on her bike briefly, lost sight of where he had gone. We then spent a frantic 30 minutes trying to find each other – turned out Pete had turned back because the spot he had been heading for turned out not to be suitable, and somehow passed Christine without either of us seeing the other. Eventually we found each other which was good because Christine had both mobile phones so goodness knows how we would have found each other had we got properly lost. Needless to say in future we will be keeping our phones on our respective bikes!
After the whole debacle, coming at the end of a long day, we were exhausted so decided to splash out on a hotel instead of camp. It proved to be a proper Fawlty Towers experience, with a toilet that wouldn’t flush, a tepid trickle for a shower, a TV that wouldn’t work and some lovely decrepid interior decor. It was so bad it actually made us laugh. However it was cheap and it had a comfortable bed so that was good enough for us! A further memorable event from that evening was that when we arrived there was a nasty dog chained up outside the hotel barking away – great, we were thinking, that’s going to keep us awake during the night. However it turned out the owner was just visiting the hotel, and soon left with the dog in tow. And when I say in tow, I mean literally – the lead was attached to the car so the dog had to run alongside the car to avoid being strangled! Now despite our new-found loathing for dogs (having been chased by lots of them already, in Istanbul we stocked up with anti-dog weaponry including a dog dazer ultrasonic-sound emitter, pepper spray, and we also carry stones to throw at the buggers. Thankfully the dog dazer has been effective so far, but we know it won’t always work) we both agreed this really was not a good way to treat a dog!
After Kocaali we had a short but extremely hilly day to Akcakoca, a nice seaside town where we camped for a couple of days. Again Turkish hospitality did not fail us and the campsite owners decided we were obviously in need of some company after we had finished our dinner, so came and joined us with some dessert and some raki. One of them could speak some English which was very helpful as our Turkish still largely consists of sign-language! The next evening they went one step further and invited some friends and us round for a BBQ of fish caught from the sea that afternoon. We provided the raki – a good deal for us seeing as there was more lovely fresh fish than we could eat, along with nice salad and fresh bread. A better meal than our staple of pasta with sausage and tomata sauce that we normally have when camping! After Akcakoca we headed inland to avoid the fierce hills on the coast, and had a lovely day pedalling through the countryside. We crossed a 700m pass towards the end of the day, so finished the day’s riding with a nice downhill to a lovely wild camping spot with a great view of the surrounding hills and valleys. As the sun was setting we sat with a glass of wine listening to the evening call to prayer echoing around the valleys – eerily beautiful. We then had a nice day’s cycling to Safranbolu, a UNESCO world heritage listed historic town preserved from the Ottoman empire. From here we continue east and back towards the Black Sea coast. We will be covering more distance in Turkey than any other country, and have a long way to go yet, but so far, so good.