Final days to Istanbul
Shortly after leaving Vize, we saw our first touring cyclists since we left the Danube. They were two young Swiss guys who were cycling about 50km apart from each other as they had had a barney in Istanbul and decided to split up. They were on their way to Romania, so we were able to give them some route advice.
Mid morning, we pulled into a small village to have a short break. Outside of the villages there was not much shade to rest in, so we found a quiet, shaded corner in the village to drink something cold and have some snacks. We made sure we were a bit tucked away, as we felt guilty eating and drinking in front of people during Ramadan. However, after a few minutes a small crowd had gathered around us, and one of the ladies who lived next door invited Freddie into her little garden to pick some tomatoes and peppers for us. The local English speaker was found, a young man who had just finished university, and he showed us around the village and its market before we said goodbye and cycled on.
For lunch, we really wanted a quiet spot so that we could eat without having a guilt trip while everyone else was fighting the heat of the day without eating or drinking. We found what we thought was the perfect spot, a shaded area under a tree in a field. As soon as we had pulled the bikes in, we heard a dog barking and some cow bells tingling, and sure enough a cowherd came through the trees and made his way towards us. We shook hands and he offered us a cigarette (which we declined), before leaving again. Once we had sat down to have our lunch, he came back with another cowherd. They sat down with us in the shade. We offered them some food, but of course they were fasting and could not accept. Feeling guilty as hell we ate lunch in front of them, but they didn’t seem to mind at all. We could only communicate with the few Turkish words we had learned so far, and the Point It book didn’t help us out either as the cowherds’ eye sight was not very good. They were very friendly chaps, and even though they looked very poor, they still offered us anything they had, which in this case was a cigarette and some freshly picked hazelnuts.
Shortly afterwards, we were cycling up a hill. Guy was in front, as he came to the crest of the hill, head down and concentrating on the climb ahead of him, he could see two feet coming into focus. In front was a swinging bag, squeezed in at the bottom was that unmistakeable oval shape, yep, another dreaded water melon. But not just any watermelon, an 8kg beast. The giver turned out to be a lovely university professor from Istanbul who had seen us struggling in the heat and decided to give us a melon and some bread.
Sportingly Guy strapped it on the back of his bike through gritted teeth and was thoroughly knackered a few km further on, when he had to stop by the side of the road to have a quick break. A nearby honey seller spotted us and offered for us to have a nap on some rugs and pillows that he had laid out under a tree, but we had to decline as time was getting on. We felt the conversation between him and his friends probably involved the words “tourists” and “not so bright”.
We knew that there would not be any bigger towns now until Istanbul, and therefore we would have to wild camp. Normally we don’t mind too much, but in the current heat wave, camping without access to water is not the most enjoyable experience. As it was getting late, we pulled up in a village to see if there were any opportunities to camp. We had a tea in the local tea house and got chatting to a guy who spoke English. We asked about camping and were told that we could camp anywhere in the forest area around the village, or maybe on the local basketball court. The village seemed to have water with special properties, as there was a huge queue of flashy cars waiting to fill up big water bottles at the village tap. Apparently people come from Istanbul to get water in the village, as it is good for the stomach. We elected to buy some water as we did not want to queue, and just as we were leaving, the English speaking guy asked us what our plan was and offered for us to camp in his garden. We were not shy to accept and followed him through the village to his house.
Erzoy was an aircraft technician for Turkish Airlines, and had a nice house on the edge of the village with a beautiful lawn to camp on. We set up camp, and soon enough a table and some chairs came out, with a plate of watermelon. Local town folk appeared at the gate to get a glimpse of the funny looking cyclists. Apparently it was the first time an Australian had graced the village, so they now think all Aussies look like Guy. Sorry about that.
Just as we got ready to cook dinner, we were presented with a plate of stuffed peppers and roasted tomatoes. Then the neighbour donated some baklava and more watermelon to us. After dinner, we noticed our host firing up a large samovar in the garden, which was blowing lots of smoke and had flames coming out of it. It was quite a spectacle! We were invited for tea, and soon the neighbours joined, along with more friends and family until there were about a dozen of us. We had a fun evening and went to bed around midnight.
The next morning, we were in a tricky situation. Our host had not mentioned anything about a bathroom, but we knew there was one in the local mosque, which was about 500m away. Considering Guy´s rather immediate morning bowel rumbles this felt as close as Mecca. As soon as we got up, we jumped on the bikes and powered it towards the mosque. Some of the villagers were already up and looked at us in disbelief as we raced through the quiet streets. Chickens dashed for the road side as we came round the final bend. Almost jumping off before he had come to a stop Guy headed straight for the throne, hoping he would not be bailed up by the local Imam. We’ve never run to a building of religious significance so quickly, we are sure the village folk think all Australians are the most devout Muslims.
We left early to cycle towards the Bosporus. We were unsure how busy the traffic would be, but for the most part it was absolutely fine. There was just one area where they were building a motorway in parallel to the road we were on, which meant that dozens of trucks thundered past us to access the roadworks. It was not very pleasant, but the truck drivers gave us enough space and we kept our cool. An invitation for tea by a shopkeeper also helped keep us going.
For most of the day, we cycled in a densely forested area with rolling hills, which felt like it would never end. It certainly didn’t feel as if we were on the doorstep of the fifth largest city in the world, with its 13 million inhabitants. As we struggled up a hill in the afternoon heat, we were saying how we sometimes wished that somebody would stop and offer us an ice cream or a cold drink. A few minutes later, we saw a guy waving to us from the other side of the road with some ice cold water. We pulled over and he poured us some water into a little plastic cup. We had no words in common, but this simple act of kindness certainly lifted our spirits.
A little later we turned a corner, and suddenly the Bosporus stretched out in front of us. It was magical. We were quite high up in the hills and could see the ships passing through the Bosporus on their way from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, Asia on the other shore, and the suburb of Sarayer directly below us. Overcome with joy, we stopped right there for a drink, at a little outdoor cafe with an amazing view over the Bosporus. We also commented on a little grass area to the side of the cafe, saying how perfect it would be for camping.
Soon, the cafe owner came over for a chat. He spoke very good German, had lived in Germany for a long time and loved everything about it. We asked him about hotels in the area, but he said there was only one, which was a luxury hotel way out of our budget. “But,” he said to Freddie, “why don’t you just sleep here? You could stay on that grass patch over there. You are German, so you are like my neighbour. Please be my guests.” Bingo! Again, we were quick to accept his offer and soon pitched our tents, stopping frequently to admire the views. Murat also invited us to eat with him and his family for the Ifta meal, which is eaten soon after sunset to break the fast. He even let us use his private shower. We then chatted with him, his brother and his wife until late at night, looking out over the twinkling lights of Istanbul.
Our plan was to get up before sunrise and cycle the last 30km into central Istanbul before the rush hour. We were expecting a pretty horrific ride with a lot of traffic. We were up and left as it was still dark, and there was no traffic at all, just a few stray dogs barking at us. Cycling on a small road right next to the Bosporus, we watched the sunrise and the local fishermen who were already up.
We cycled through the prosperous northern suburbs of Istanbul, past many tempting sidewalk cafes and along an inviting seaside promenade. By 7am the traffic started getting a little busier, but drivers were respectful and we really enjoyed the beautiful ride into the city. When we arrived at the Galata Bridge, it was time to celebrate. We got a fisherman to take a picture of us, and bought some pastries. We then spent about 3 hours just sitting in a cafe and soaking up the atmosphere, before we crossed the bridge and found our hotel.
Our plan is to stay here for 12 days, before we continue cycling East. We have a few groups of friends visiting, as well as Freddie’s dad, so we have a sociable time ahead. Di is flying back home to the UK next week. We have cycled together since Budapest and have gotten along really well. It will be weird when she is gone and her little tent is not pitched up next to ours anymore.