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!