The Gates of the Middle East: Eastern Turkey

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Eastern Turkey. Vast and untamed. People warn of wild dogs and roaming terrorists. My biggest problem, I’m happy to say, has been a plethora of punctures! Having made it from England to Eastern Turkey with only a single puncture, I’ve had four punctures in the last five days!

The long ribbon of asphalt that I’ve followed for most of the breadth of this enormous country has left me in the frontier town of Dogubayazit, the last town in Turkey, at the foot of Mount Ararat, the country’s highest peak at 5176 metres. The mountain, which was, according to biblical accounts, where Noah grounded his Ark as the floods receded, looms high over the arid landscape. It is capped with snow, and wispy white clouds emanate from its peak. I can see where it got its biblical connections.

The sun sets early in the mountains. I watched the sharp silhouette of the distant chain of jagged mountaintops slowly recede into the darkness. The call to prayer echoed across the arid landscape, wild dogs howling along to the sound from the dark distance, and I’m glad I find myself once more in the comfort of a hotel. This is becoming an expensive habit!

When the sun rises over the mountains tomorrow morning, I will ride the final few miles to the Iranian border. I hope to leave my westernised preconceptions at customs, and head into this culturally distant and often mistrusted land with a open mind and a friendly smile. Finally, I enter the Middle East.

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Mad Dogs and an Englishman: Northern Turkey

Turkish roads – and I’m speaking specifically of the roads heading eastwards out of Istanbul here – were certainly not, I think it is safe to say, designed with the travelling cyclist in mind. So it was not long after crossing the Bosphorus aboard a small commuter ferry, that I found myself on a busy motorway, and was later told to turn around by a particularly unhelpful traffic policeman at a toll-booth. My futile efforts to take a quieter road set me onto another motorway, heading the wrong direction!

When I finally reached the Black Sea coast to the north-east of the city, I found myself too busy pushing my bike up the incredibly steep hills, the sweat trickling down my nose, to feel much relief. I followed the coast for a few days through beautiful – and surprisingly green – landscapes, the Black Sea lapping ferociously against the beaches to my left, but it was very hard work. My road soon took me in-land, and I began to follow the D100, a road which runs the width of this huge country, all the way to the Iranian border in the far east. For days now I have been following this road. The landscape became much more arid. Wide sandy valleys are bordered with increasingly tall distant mountains. Occasionally the road takes an unexpected dip through a narrow river valley, where the mountains seem to close in and tower above me and my bicycle. Trees appear and everything is much greener, but then it opens out again, returning to morose aridity.

The only interruption on the long, lonely road I ride are the petrol stations. Some are modern and clean. Others are old and crumbling into the dust. Some are busy, and at others I seem to be the only customer they’ve had all week. But they often possess interesting similarities. Petrol stations in Turkey are, it seems, the reserve of old men, and truckers. I will often roll off the road to be met by a short, stocky man, probably in his early 60s, waving his arms frantically, who wants me to come and drink çay – tea. He will sit me down at a small table and all the chairs will be different. Around the table there will usually be about four other men, of a similar age to the first man. There will be a tall, thin man with a moustache, who will stay quiet. One will be snappily dressed and smile but say little. One, usually a little older and maybe a bit fatter than the rest, will do most of the talking. Sometimes there will be a younger lad, about my age, who will sit close to me but not say anything.

The çay is served in a small glass, without milk. I will be offered a box of sugar cubes, but I refuse. The men will then ask me where I’m from, where I’m going, and, increasingly, whether I’m married. No? Why not? Being 23 doesn’t seem like a reasonable excuse to them, it would seem.

I buy water (I stopped risking tap water shortly after Istanbul, after I had a couple of incidents I’d rather not experience again), wave and say goodbye. They often speak not a word of English, and my Turkish is still too poor to be useful, but we generally manage to communicate well enough. I roll back onto the road, ride 15 miles or so, and then stop at another petrol station, and the game begins again.

Eating on the road can be cheap and of good quality, if you stop at the right places. The most valuable advice I’ve been given in Turkey is to go where the truckers go. The places don’t always look as sleek and shiny as the tour-bus stops, but the food is often cheaper and of far superior quality. The truckers know the roads well, and there’s a reason they go where they go.

Campsites are now a thing of the past. Oh, how I long for a friendly Yorkshire campsite, with short, green grass and soft ground, with warm showers and proper toilets that you can sit down on!

In lieu of such luxuries, I usually camp just off the road, usually out of sight of the passing traffic where possible. Last night I pitched my tent near a river. I’m not really afraid of it any more, having done so so regularly over the last couple of months. But last night, while I was sleeping peacefully in my tent, I was rudely awoken by barking and snarling outside my tent. I didn’t dare to poke my nose out of the tent, lest it be bitten off, but I guessed there were three dogs besieging me. I lay quiet and tried to return to sleep, hoping to bore them into submission, but this is easier said than done, what with the deafening racket, and the constant fear that they would somehow burst into my tent and eat me. So I took out my torch and waved it around frantically. It seemed to do the trick – I heard them start, the barking stopped, and they evidently moved on down the valley to eat another hapless, unsuspecting cyclist. I have since armed myself with a yard-long stick, and am planning to make a catapult tomorrow, with a small bag of crab-apples as ammunition. In the immortal words of Macauley Culkin, ‘when those [dogs] come back, I’ll be ready!’

I should probably also add that, in order to really give those dastardly dogs the slip, I’m staying in a hotel this evening. That should show them who’s boss!

The End of the Beginning: Istanbul

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning
– Winston Churchill

The first thing I realised on this trip was that it was impossible to think about it in its entirety. To climb on to my bicycle and say “right, let’s go to India” would be verging on madness! I remember from school how my teachers used to suggest we approach coursework. “How”, they would ask, “do you eat an elephant?” In tiny chucks. And that is exactly how I have been approaching this trip. Each day belongs to a week, each week to a country, and each country to a continent. But I never really looked beyond Istanbul. Somehow this was always a huge marker; the crossing between Europe and Asia. A step into the unknown. It marks, rather approximately, the one-third distance of my trip. I just need to do the same distance again, twice, then I’ll be in India. This may not be the end, or even the beginning of the end, but it may just be the end of the beginning.

Istanbul is a terrific city. I used the word because I’m not too sure what other word I can justifiably apply. The city is a hive of activity. I’ve yet to find a quiet street. The ferries cross the Bosphorus between Europe and Asia in a non-stop back and forth. The call for prayer echoes eeriely at nightfall and daybreak, and glittering minarets pierce the cloudless blue sky. I’ve never been anywhere quite like it.

I’ve had a great week off the bike, joined by my wonderful girlfriend Maya. I now cross the Bosphorus and head into Asia alone. I can’t quite decide if it’s fear, or last night’s questionable sausages that are causing the strange sensation in the pit of my stomach.

Where East Meets West: Greece, Western Turkey, and Istanbul

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All of my articles seem to begin and end with a frantic dash through heavy traffic, either in or out of a large city, and this one is no different. Laura and I left the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, in a state of directionless confusion, getting quite lost, and we somehow ended up on a motorway heading eastwards. I thought we were in for some trouble when we passed a parked police car in the hard-shoulder, but a grin and a friendly wave seemed to satisfy him, and we passed without a problem.

Roads disappeared into pot-holed tracks, and reappeared, became busy, and went quiet again. The sun continued to beat down with interminable heat, and days passed. We crossed into Greece briefly (for a matter of 25 miles or so), before finally entering Turkey near the city of Edirne.

I’ve always shuddered to think that I may one day become the kind of British tourist who travels far from home, only to expect all the luxuries of home: English food, television, beer, and of course English-speaking people. But when I saw the ‘London Cafe & Pub’ in the heart of Edirne, just down the road from the great mosque, a thought flashed through my mind: maybe, just maybe, they would serve a proper English fry-up! Bacon, sausage and egg! Even black pudding, baked beans and fried mushrooms! With Yorkshire Tea, perhaps! Maybe it would even be followed up with a small tray of McVitie’s chocolate digestives! Of course, it was a fool’s hope. So I made do with an omelette.

A raging headwind, coupled with poorly surfaced roads, made the next few days tougher than they should have been. We were joined by two German cyclists, who had ridden from Berlin, Mattias and Ralph, and finally rolled down the final hill into Istanbul. The blue water of the Bosphorus glistened at the end of the final street, and we sat by the water for a while, soaking up the fresh sea air and considering our achievement. I had reached the edge of Europe! Asia loomed on the far bank of the Bosphorus. I had just cycled across Europe!

Istanbul, the city where East meets West. For as long as I can remember, I have been intrigued by the place, and now here I am! And I had just arrived here by bicycle!