Mountains and lakes
Istanbul is not a city designed for cyclists, and to avoid travelling out of the city on a 10 lane motorway, we decided to take a ferry instead. The ferry took us south-east across the Sea of Marmara, to a town called Yalova. From there, we headed inland. Turkey is a mountainous country, and over the next few days we had to conquer several passes to get up onto the Anatolian Plateau.||
The bikes felt very heavy and slow, probably in part due to loss of fitness during our time in Istanbul. After our first 300m climb, we dropped down into a valley with an impossibly blue lake, Iznik Gölü, which lay embedded in the surrounding mountains like a jewel. We cycled alongside the lake through miles and miles of olive groves, getting only the occasional glimpse of the lake itself. In the evening, we were thoroughly knackered and needed to find a place to camp. Not any place though, it had to have a lake view. These days, most farmers go home around 6pm to prepare for the Ifta meal, breaking the fast around 7:30pm when the sun sets. We took a small track through an olive grove and towards the lake. Freddie was happy to tuck in between the olive trees, but Guy was more ambitious and discovered a small beach. There was even a sofa nearby! There was nobody around, and it didn’t look likely that anyone would return that night. We decided to risk it and made ourselves at home on the sofa. To be less conspicuous, we were planning to sleep under the stars instead of setting up Boris, our tent. We had picked out a promising area behind the sofa, but when the sun set and it was time to lay out our sleeping bags, Guy discovered a small snake in that very spot. We had to make a last minute decision to change sleeping quarters. We thought it was less likely that there would be snakes on the actual beach, so we lay our sleeping bags down and went to sleep.
Not long after putting our heads down it was clear the night was not going to be as peaceful as first thought. First of all, the beach was on a slope, and Freddie had to keep holding on to Guy so that she would not slide down. Then, Guy felt a scurrying and something crawling around under his mat. Shooting up, he turned his flashlight on and discovered a palm-sized crab who had mistaken his sleeping mat for a stone to hide under. Despite our encouragement, the crab refused to leave until we managed to convince it to retreat by prodding it with a stick. Despite this the camp was lovely, gazing at the milky way and the village lights on the other side of the lake, seeing the moon rise and slowly make its way across the sky, and watching frogs hopping around near our sleeping bags in the moonlight. Finally the sun rose. We really needed a strong coffee, and as we sat there drinking, we suddenly saw movement in the reeds behind us. A fisherman pulled out his boat and emerged from the other side of the reeds. He looked a little surprised to see us there, but just returned our greeting and rowed away.
That morning we had a 400m climb and then dropped down into a fertile valley. It is harvest time, and so we sampled some of the local delights including tomatoes, peppers, figs, apples and grapes. Everywhere, farmers were busy bringing in the harvest, waving to us as we passed. In the late afternoon we stopped in a small village to stock up on water and buy some milk. We were quite the attraction, with children and adults all coming out to cluster around us, and about 10 people following Guy into the local shop to help him purchase a litre of milk. Water has so far not been a problem for us, as there are taps with drinking water in most villages and at mosques. All of the land around us was used for farming, and so it looked a little tricky to find a camp spot. Most farmers live in the villages, so that is it not easy to identify someone to ask for permission to camp. In the end, we pulled into an olive grove, then lowered the bikes down into the adjacent vineyard to make camp between the vines. We were really tucked in, and at the same time enjoyed beautiful views of the sunset over the valley.
We knew there was a big climb ahead, with no villages for quite a while, and so we filled up our water bottles at a local mosque, where we got chatting with a student who spoke good English. When we explained our route for the day, he said, with a grimace, “That’s really tough. I hope God will be with you.” It was quite tough, as we climbed all day, intercepted only by a few short downhills back to a lower altitude, where we started climbing all over again. We also had to cross 5km of roadworks, where the road disintegrated into a dusty mess. There are roadworks everywhere in Turkey. We don’t know why, but they often seem to build newer, bigger roads right next to perfectly fine existing roads. Also, the tarmac is not of good quality, its main problem being that it melts in the summer and has to be repaved every autumn. Generally, we have found the roads quite good to cycle on though, as there are not many potholes, which makes a change from Eastern Europe.
Though road works can be tedious riding, the workers are always super friendly and quick to run over and chat. Some even invited us to share their lunch, waving bread and cucumbers at us. We had to decline, as we had a long day ahead, but we did gratefully accept a farmer’s donation of 8 tomatoes, which he squeezed into our handlebar bags until no more would fit in. That night we camped at 850m altitude in a pine forest above a town called Göynük. The forest reminded us of the Black Forest, as it was quite dark and dense. There were two mosques in the town, and for the last call to prayer, they delivered the most beautiful call-and-response singing we had ever heard. We slept well until 3am, when we woke up with a start when we heard a loud bang. Most towns have drummers to wake people up in time to have breakfast before sunrise during Ramadan. However, in this town they decided to employ the services of a canon. Very effective!
We got up before sunrise to complete our first pass at 1,130m before it got too hot. We had dropped back down to about 700m, and now we had the next pass ahead at 1,270m. Some clouds came over, and the climb was quite enjoyable. The gradients here are not nearly as steep as they were in the Black Forest, where we nearly collapsed whilst climbing up the Schwarzwaldhochstraße. For some reason on this lesser gradient we felt it was really hard going though, like cycling on a sandy beach. We couldn’t believe the thicker tyres would be that much slower. Just over the top of the pass, Guy had the brilliant idea to use a pressure gauge at a fuel station to check our tyre pressure, and lo and behold, it was much too low! Though the tyres had felt as firm as the previous tyres, it was difficult to judge the exact pressure without a pressure gauge. The increase in performance was immense, we flew up the next few hills, occasional checking that we still had our panniers on as the bikes felt so light! Shame we did not do this before all the climbing, but maybe the hard work improved our fitness somewhat. On the positive side, our stop at the fuel station resulted in us being invited for cups of tea and coke by the manager of the attached restaurant.
We were now enjoying a 40km stretch of lovely downhill cycling. We had a little break when we found a foresty picnic area with a tap. We were enjoying our stint of wild camping, apart from the fact that it’s difficult to have a shower and wash our clothes. Sometimes we had a quick wash at a mosque or in a fuel station. As there was nobody around in the picnic area, we seized the opportunity to have a proper scrub and do a spot of washing.
The landscape widened and there were big valleys and arid mountains in fairytale formations around us, sometimes intercepted by a river or lake. We discovered a camping spot in a dried out river bed amidst some fields that had already been harvested. It seemed that there was nobody around, though we did see a farmhouse in the distance. In the morning we packed up, and just as we were ready to leave we heard the unmistakable sound of sheep bells coming ever closer. Standing in the river bed awaiting to greet the stranger with a big hearty “Merhaba” we were soon staring eye to eye with a rather large Anatolian sheepdog. The beast appeared above us, peering down at us trying to work out if he should go into attack or retreat mode. Luckily he chose the later, probably put off by the chewy cycling vests. A herd of sheep came running past, and then the shepherd spotted us. It must have been quite a sight for him, seeing two cyclists with fully loaded bikes standing in the river bed, looking like fools. After a few second glances he just waved and walked on. We got the bikes out of the river bed and started cycling. The sheep were just down the road, and when the shepherd saw us approaching, he caught a lamb and brought it over for us to pat. This is a great attribute of the people here – they are so relaxed, nothing is really a problem. They even take it in their stride when they find some odd looking cyclists camping in their local river bed.
We had big smiles on our faces all day as we cycled through some of the most stunning landscape so far. This is what we had dreamed about when we planned this trip. Wide open plateaus with deep river canyons and stark rocky landscapes. The gradients were perfect for cycling, steady uphill’s with long flowing downhills. It also helped that the climate here is very different to that by the coast. Two days before, we had still cycled in 43°C heat. Now, suddenly, we actually felt cold in the morning and cycled with long-sleeved tops for the first time since Germany.
We are now in Beypezari, a town which seems to be a daytrip destination for people from Ankara. It has some restored Ottoman houses and a crafts market to offer, which we explored today. The owner of our hotel is a little obsessed in cleanliness, and every time we enter the hotel, we have to put our feet into a machine that pops a blue bag around each foot so that our shoes don’t soil the carpets. We have to wear these bags around the hotel and then discard them when we go out, as they are now considered “dirty” and we have to use new bags when we return from our outing. Putting on our “smurf feet” this morning to go to the breakfast room, we discovered that we are the only guests in the hotel. Nevertheless, they had gone to the effort of serving up nine (!) different types of regional cheeses at the breakfast buffet. They must be seriously proud of their cheeses.
Today we were planning to visit the local hamam for a massage and a scrub, but unfortunately this morning we found out that the LCD screen on one of our laptops is broken, which renders the laptop unusable, and so we are spending our time trying to figure out how to get it repaired… Luckily we have a second laptop as backup!