When we last wrote, we were in Safranbolu, a lovely historical town with many wooden buildings preserved since the Ottoman empire. Amusingly, on the way into the town we found ourselves being photographed by a woman with a large fancy-looking camera. Feeling slightly awkward we smiled and carried on cycling, but she waved us over and explained that she was from the local newspaper and would we mind answering a few questions – another brush with the media! We stayed in a hostel in Safranbolu, and rather surprisingly found ourselves in a dormitory with two other Brits – surprising because we really haven’t met many other people from the UK on our travels, and Safranbolu is a small place that not many international tourists go to. Both other Brits were independent travellers, one of whom was a remarkable and sprightly elderly lady who had sailed in the Tall Ships race from Varna to Istanbul (we saw the boats when we were in Istanbul) and who was subsequently exploring Europe and Turkey overland. We also bumped into an American couple of cycle tourists, to who we introduced ourselves when we saw them cycle into town. It turned out that the woman is the head of the Adventure Cycling Association, which is the U.S. equivalent of CTC, and that they have done many cycling trips in the past, all over the world. Great to talk to. The only thing we didn’t enjoy about Safranbolu was when Christine came the closest we have been so far to being bitten, and we weren’t even cycling, just walking! A dog appeared out of nowhere from a house that we were walking past, and despite being on a chain got just close enough that it was able to gnash its teeth against Christine’s leg, leaving a bit of a bruise but thankfully nothing worse. A scary incident that underscored the need for us to carry our anti-dog equipment (a dog dazer, pepper spray and rocks) that we discussed in our last blog.
After Safranbolu we were lucky enough to find some nice valleys to cycle through, meaning we had a relatively flat and scenic route for a couple of days, better than the hills we had previously experienced on the coast. However the going was frustratingly slow because we suffered a slew of punctures – almost 10 in a couple of days. It seems the heat and humidity mean that puncture repairs don’t work as well as what we are used to, and kept failing. Also, a couple of puncture repairs done a while ago in Europe using pre-glued patches came unstuck, despite having been fine until now. We ended up taking most of a day off cycling in a small town in the middle of nowhere waiting for the puncture repairs we had done to be properly cured. Unfortunately we can’t do what we would normally do in the UK and just buy some new inner tubes, because we are unable to buy the right size with the right type of valve in Turkey. We got sufficiently fed up that we have ordered 6 new inner tubes from the UK, which we just picked up in Trabzon. However we soon got going again and had a couple of nice days cycling to get back to the coast at Samsun. The scenery during these days was fabulous and very verdant – including rice paddies, which we have always associated more with Asia rather than Turkey – and was rivalled by the friendliness of the people in the towns we passed through. Everywhere we went we had a crowd of people asking us what we were doing, looking at our bikes and our map, giving us tea etc. Great but sometimes a little tiring when we are just trying to run an errand such as buying food for dinner that night! The best example of the friendliness of Turkish people came in a village called Yagilnozu, near Vezirkopru. Earlier in the day we had been stopped by the police, unnerving but it turned out they just wanted to say hi and see if they could help us at all. 10km later the same policemen passed us again, this time they stopped and asked if we would like a cup of tea with them – well we could hardly say no to policemen could we! They took us to a cafe right next to the local primary school, with the inevitable result that quite quickly we were surrounded by about 100 children, and their teachers. The teachers joined us for tea which was great because they were an extremely friendly bunch, and the English teacher, Ali, was able to translate for us very well. They then invited us to join them for lunch in the school staffroom, great fun. They were very happy to talk candidly about their lives and what it was like to be a teacher in rural Turkey, giving us a real and unusual insight into the lives of everyday people here. Even better, when Christine mentioned that her sister Rachel is a teacher in a primary school in England, the teachers in the Turkish school expressed an interest in setting up some sort of penpal scheme between the schools. Rachel’s school is interested so hopefully something can be set up.
Another feature of the days we had cycling through the valleys was the weather, which was very changeable and punctuated by tremendous thunderstorms. Great to see but not to be caught cycling in – there were a couple of times that we had to take shelter at short notice! We also had quite a lot of rain, including on one night that we had unfortunately chosen to wild camp – we were camping at over 1200m and pretty much in the clouds, so had a rather damp night, not a lot of fun. Overall however we weren’t complaining too much as we definitely prefer cycling in the rain than strong sun. The weather improved once we hit the coast again at Samsun, and we had a great week cycling the 300km between Samsun and Trabzon. The road – known as the Black Sea Coastal Highway – is almost completely flat and in very good condition, with a wide hard shoulder that makes cycling nice and easy. We even had a tailwind the whole way, making this just about the easiest riding of the trip so far. The route hugs the coastline closely so we were also lucky enough to find a number of great beachside campsites, and we had a couple of days off relaxing on the beach. We even saw dolphins swimming in the sea at the same time as us, amazing. On one evening we ended up camping next to a fellow Scot, a guy called Wilson, who had driven all the way from Aberdeen in his very cool long-wheelbase Landrover . We were very jealous of his transport, particularly when he sailed past us on the road the next morning! We hope he has a good trip back to Scotland and many good adventures in the future.
Another great thing about this week was that we met up with Ollie and Tom in Samsun, and cycled together all the way to Trabzon. We get along great as a group and it was really nice to have some like-minded company. These guys started in Norwich a couple of days before us and are going the same way as us as far as India, where they will head south to Sri Lanka (where their journey will end) while we continue to South East Asia. Our overall itineraries are very similar and so we intend to cycle together some more, paticularly through some of the more ‘interesting’ areas that we will be visiting such as Iran and Central Asia. It was Tom’s birthday yesterday, so we celebrated with some cake, some raki and several kebabs, before heading out for some beers. This was the first time since Istanbul that we have been out for drinks – it really isn’t part of the culture here and so pubs are few and far between – and it turned out to be an interesting experience because every pub we went to had a dedicated area for men, and then a separate area open to both men and women. Apparently men have lots of important things to talk about and so need their own special area away from female chatter! Indeed, it must be said that men do seem to have a bit of an easy life here. Wherever we go, whatever the time of day, we always see lots of men sitting around drinking tea, smoking, chatting, playing chess etc. Cafes and restaurants are also generally mostly filled with men. Women are generally seen in far fewer numbers, scurrying around doing the shopping, looking after children etc. We almost never see them relaxing in public in the same way that men do. Certainly an interesting cultural difference. Christine is certainly glad to be travelling with guys, and to be wearing a wedding ring because as much as we hate to say it, it makes her presence far more acceptable and means she can go most places without feeling uncomfortable. We can imagine that travelling as a single female would be lonely and challenging in this part of the world. Clearly the male/female role divide is going to get much more pronounced as we head into countries such as Iran and Pakistan, and will certainly be an interesting experience for us.
Although the last week has on the whole been great, we did have one unpleasant experience which brought us back down to earth with a bump, reminding us of our vulnerability. We had decided to stop for the night in a town called Tirebolu, which had a small campsite by the beach. It was far from great, with limited and quite frankly filthy facilities, rubbish-strewn pitches and limited privacy. However we had heard from other travellers that there was no camping anywhere for a long time after Tirebolu, so we decided to put up with it and pitched up. We all felt uneasy as there were lots of people about and there just seemed to be a bad atmosphere, and so we made a point of locking everything up securely and making sure all of our things were in our tents before we went to sleep. Boy are we glad we did because at 3am Pete was woken by a man sticking his head into the porch of our tent, no doubt a precursor to making off with whatever bags he could get his hands on. Pete let out an almightly yell, waking Christine, and shouted at the man to go away. Almost amusingly, rather than running off, the would-be burglar seemed to think that he could persuade us that really he wasn’t trying to burgle us, he just wanted to be our friend. ‘No problem, no problem, where are you from?’ he kept bleating at us, while trying to shake Pete’s hand through the mozzie net that separated us. ‘Yes problem’, we replied, ‘now b***** off!’. We think (but weren’t sure) that the guy in question was the same guy that runs the campsite, so needless to say the next morning we moved on swiftly into the safety of a hotel. This experience is another reason that we are glad to have ended up cycling with Tom and Ollie, as there is definitely safety in numbers (although it must be said they weren’t much use on this occasion as they slept through the whole event!)
Today we visited the Sumela monastery, an impressive building hugging the side of the mountains near Trabzon, which dates from the third century BC – remarkable. However the spectacular setting meant lots of steep steps and slopes were required to get there and down, severely exacerbating some pain that Christine has been occasionally experiencing in her thigh muscles. The pain is similar to that experienced while she was training for the marathon last year, and results from over-development of the thigh muscles, which can become tight and very painful as a consequence. Definitely a reminder to take it easy and to keep up the regular stretches and massages that we try to do, especially as from here on in it is going to get very hilly as we head up into the mountains towards the Iranian border. Because of her sore legs, Christine decided to visit a hammam (Turkish bath) in the afternoon, where basically you have a sauna, a good scrub, and a massage. It was quite an experience which certainly had the desired effect of making her legs feel better. However it was slightly embarrassing while she was being scrubbed (the women that work there scrub and massage you) because quite frankly you get a bit sweaty and dirty cycle touring, and even daily showers are insufficient to get properly clean – the women scrubbing her thought it was hilarious how much dirt came off! They also found her rather spectacular tanlines to be of great amusement, well we can’t blame them really. They also couldn’t believe that she was almost 30, primarily because they worked out that she was married, and didn’t have any children (and therefore no stretch marks etc). This is an unusual situation to be in in Turkey – we have had lots of people ask us, as politely as they can do, why we don’t have children yet. Apparently one’s reproductive intentions is perfectly acceptable small talk here, even among complete strangers!
Christine was actually not the first of us to experience a hammam – Pete, Tom and Ollie paid a visit to the hamman in Tirebolu when we were there (it wasn’t open to women on that day). The boys were unsure what to expect, particularly because the masseur spoke good English and seemed highly amused to have some guys on their first visit to a hammam. Ollie was brave enough to go first, and the others looked on with a mixture of horror and hysterics while he was scrubbed, slapped, lathered, pummelled and finally drenched in ice-cold water. In comparison Christine feels she got off lightly, as at least there was no ice-cold water involved!
We have been in Turkey for over a month now and are really starting to feel quite at home in this country. No doubt this will make the cultural shock of Iran even stronger when we get there in a couple of weeks. It will be interesting to see how we get on!