06.09.2015 40 °C
Thessaloniki - salsa dancing on the seafront! What an awsome city. Waving goodbye to this and my friend Laure I set off for the Turkish border. My last few days in Greece were slow and arduous - a headwind hindered progress as I dropped the gears, dropped my head and ploughed through. Eventually a huge red flag could be seen, blowing proudly in the distance. Must be the border. There was a strong military presence from both sides, as soldiers with rifles lined the mile or so long bridge between the two countries. My visa bought and clearing customs, the immensity of Turkey opened up. The small rolling hills of Greece gave way to vast planes either side of me, and the dusty road ahead climbed up onto a plateau. Following this would have taken me to Istanbul, but with a population of over 17 million, I couldn't bring myself to crawling through it's endless suburbs, so I veered south for the alternative crossing at Eceabat. The prevailing north easterlies delivered me to the port in just over a day. I boarded the boat, headed for Asia! The channel was alive with traffic, with just about every size and type of boat vying for a pass. Rolling off my second ferry and a great satisfaction to cross a continent. I celebrated with a dripping slice of Baklava - this is one of Turkey's signature indulgences, and it beats Toblerone. Coming in many varieties, it's basically a sort of puff pastry, drenched in honey with a sort of nut based paste.....and it's ruddy fantastic! If you happen across some, try it.
The next few days was spent following the coast, freewheeling down dusty farm tracks, with the smell of the pine trees scenting the breeze. The land was carpeted with fruit and veg. Old a young where out in the midday sun picking tomatoes, and the occasional smell of apricots would send me sniffing like a dog. Surrounding hills were topped with villages, where the silhouettes of mosques would reign above.
Through the many Turkish villages I've enjoyed cycling through, there has always been one guaranteed feature - a quiet village square, bordered by old men drinking 'Chai'. They drink their tea black, usually with two sugar cubes, and unlike our buckets in comparison, in very small glasses. In the midday day heat it's surprisingly refreshing - soothing a dried throat with a bitter kick to end with. Everytime I somehow explain to them that we drink tea with milk, they laugh, followed with a gestures of disgust! - A topic or a point always becomes funny when you can predict the reaction!
Seeing me roll in, probably thinking 'who on earth and why'? They always ask me over, pulling up a chair for me and shouting an order at the top of their voice' 'CHAAAAIII'. The usual questions are asked - where am I from? Where do I go? Am I alone? Am I married? - the idea of cycling around the world solo after getting married! What is my job? After a little confusion I manage to communicate an answer, usually conveyed by some gesture. This followed by a few moments of quiet, until the next question. Sometimes it can be a little exhausting, especially after a tiring climb in the heat of the day, when all you want to do is deflate by yourself.
Choosing to take a more observational point, this time I set myself up on the side of a courtyard, surrounded by 3 tea houses. My ambling mind looking for amusement, like pieces on a board game, watching the old men to and fro from tea house to tea house provided plenty. When finished with his Chai one old man, equipped with his pipe, would get up and slowly cross the way to the 2nd tea house, greeting his newly arrived friend. Settling down with a fresh Chai, this would seem to upset the younger chap nearby, who would stand up and cross the road to the 3rd tea house, where he'd be greeted by the small crowd. Meanwhile everyone in the 1st tea house is watching this, mumbling between themselves. Then an short man with a beard would come buzzing in on his 125 to everyone's elation - he's obviously the popular one. As quickly as they'd disappear they appear, walking, on tractors or off donkeys..............
It's great to being inconspicuous.
Since arriving in Turkey I seem to have evened the playing field with my second nemesis (after thunderstorms), Dogs. They are even bigger here. The plains that comprise much of Turkey are roamed by flocks of sheep and their shepherds. Dogs are bred and employed to protect these flocks from the wolves, so they are big, very protective an can be identified by, if not the one chasing you up a hill, a collar of barbed wire - not even a joke! They are bad ass. It seems that best thing to do is to ignore your survivalist instinct by slamming on the brakes, dismounting on the opposite side of the bike and confront it by mimicking it's behavior - barking, maintaining eye contact etc.....everything but getting down on all fours. I also have a large stick which when raised adds further conviction. This stops them in their tracks, and they thankfully give up and turn around.
The southerly leg finished I turn east, now against the NE wind which I was so enjoying. One more day of coastal riding and, with the exception of the past day and a few in Croatia, it's a fond farewell to the sea. It's always busy, overcrowded, predictable, expensive, littered and generally unfriendly. It sucks basically. Now it's the Turkish mountains! I'm heading for Turkey's capital. At a much more modest size of 3 to 4 million, Ankara lies near the middle of Turkey, and as the crow flies would take me over some big passes. So I spend the next few days going up and down and up and down. I think most of us agree that one of the most annoying things about cycling is that the painful bit takes the longest and the fun bit the shortest. Well this was certainly that! But it's always worth it. There's so much more variety in the ride; the effort and the rest, the hot and the cold, the constantly changing scenery, the satisfaction of summiting a climb. The only downside is that the roads are often wide and busy. As Turkey is so mountainous the few avenues through carry most of the traffic. Occasionally a small winding road provides a peaceful escape, taking me through some sleepy villages, the only sound being the faint hum of a tractor, or the cackling of a pack of chickens.
But never escaping.....................
People of the UK, take a moment to consider how immensely lucky you are that you don't have to endure the pain of pestilent mosquitoes. Almost every night since I've left, just after sunset they seem to descend, or ascend from god knows where, filling the air with their droning hums. Forcing me to scoff down my pasta and ruining any possibility of star gazing I curse the little blighters. All preparations made for this moment (everything packed, bed laid, tent unzipped just enough to accommodate a flying human), I literally dive into the tent (nearly taking it down with me), zip up the hatches and observe them buzz and bounce on the outside of the mesh, just able to make out their blood sucking probes. Despite this military precision there's always a wretched few that have somehow infiltrated my inner sanctum, mocking me by buzzing in my ear. ARRRRGGGHHHH! So I get out the torch and spend the next 5 minutes spot lighting the inside, like some anti-air gun placement. Once I've found the little bastard I wait for it to settle. Have you ever tried to squat a mosquito against the flimsy inner lining of a tent? It's more like giving it a firm pat on the back, then it just buzzes off into obscurity. No. The technique is to prime your index finger for a quick flick, sneak up behind it once it's settled................... and BAM!! If there's a spec of blood then 10 points! Half an hour of this and the tent is finally cleansed - now I need the toilet...........
After two or three days of cycling through the mountains I descend back down to the plains and the heat. The remainder of the leg to Ankara is more or less flat, with a few undulations here and there. Spending the afternoon relaxing in....., I push out to find somewhere to camp. This is always the best time to cycle. The sun provides a warm glow and the temperature is just right. I'm cycling up a shallow valley, following a river up stream - the deep green vegetation contrasting sharply to the surrounding desert brown, starting a few hundred meters away. I came into a small village. Some boys where having a kick about, and despite my exhaustion I summoned the energy to have a game with them. Being a fit cyclist doesn't necessarily make a fit footballer! The sun disappeared over dinner, and afterwards I was climbing in the dark, enjoying looking at the stars above. I guessed a good spot in the middle of the field. Neglecting my tent I slept out in my sleeping bag. After some time passed I awoke to two men approaching me, one flashing a torch. Still half asleep I managed to say hello in Turkish, introduced myself and seeing their uniform, offered over my passport. He glanced through it, and friendly but firmly asked me to pack up my things. I did so, and walked myself and the bike over to the vehicle. They told me to get in the back of the car. With no explanation as to what was going on I felt reluctant, but clearly didn't have a choice. With my bike shoved in the back they jump in the front and we drove off, the driver removing a machine gun that was under my feet. 'WTF is going on' I thought to myself. It was dark, remote, I didn't know who they where and they were both armed.
My mind began to run with possible scenario's. I managed to calm my thoughts with the idea that this or that would be very unlikely, and maybe they just want to give me bed : ). Passing through some gates we enter a large complex. We spend the next two hours in a small room, and my fears allayed, courtesy of Google Translate, it transpires that they are the Gardamine, and they took me in because of the wild pigs and wolves. Relieved, my small cell like room starts to look like a bad hostel room with a bed, and I fall asleep with hopes of a good breakfast in my mind. In the morning I'm invited to enjoy a breakfast of omelet, bread and olives with the senior officers! Score. I'm then taken on a tour, via a self propelling vehicle known as a car, of local historical sights. The officer then drops me off on the main road, where I resume my journey towards the capital.
The hospitality in Turkey has been like none I've experienced. Kindness and generosity is everywhere. I've been bought countless Chais, been handed whole bags of fruit and veg, with the owner refusing to take any money. I've been invited into peoples homes for meals, offered beds for the night, even spending an evening in a workers camp. Slowly grinding up a busy hill I approached a vegetable stall. The owner waved me in and pointed to the couch. Before long I was tucking into a spread of cheese, olives, bread and tomatoes, washed down with never ending offerings of Chai. Asking him where he gets his vegetables from he pointed to the field behind him.................. simple and totally logical.
I've finally arrived in Ankara, for the main reason of sorting out visas for onward travel. On the first day of this trip, an hour or so off the ferry I met two English cyclists returning from a 3 year round the world trip! In my then nervous state I felt a little envious. They met many cyclists on there way, but none who where going all the way round. Uncanny. It was like they were passing on the baton! Anyway, asking them what was their favorite country they both said Iran, and this is a fondness shared by others I've met who have had the privilege. So fingers crossed I can do the same. Last time I checked it was a no go as British citizens need a tour guide with them. My hopes are pinned on the recent opening of the British embassy in Tehran, though I remain doubtful. If not then plan B is Azerbaijan, across the Caspian Sea, into Uzbekistan, then Turkmenistan and then not sure. Though this could bee expensive and time consuming. Letters of invitation, itineraries an pre booked accommodation are required by some, which simply isn't feasible for me. So plan C is Russia then Kazakhstan. I'll be buzzing around like a blue arsed fly between embassy's over the next few days.
Thanks for reading everyone. Pass it on and Fred get it in your magazine!
Btw I discovered a cool song on my Ipod. It's called 'Wine Wine Wine' by Jimmy Binkley. Check it out.
Tara if your reading I know you'll like it.
Bella, thanks for the Grange Hill theme tune.
Mike, enjoying my 80's Saxon.