September 7th-12th: Istanbul to Ankara - the back roads, Turkey
As usual, frantic last minute packing, emailing and bike loading whittle the morning hours away. I've arranged to meet fellow cyclists Eric and Manu at Salthanamet's Blue Mosque, to delve quickly into the frenetic Egyptian market for dried fruit, fuel for the days ahead. Negotiating Istanbul's hazardous city highways for the last time, we board the ferry that will carry us from Europe across the Sea of Marmara to Yalova, Asia. After a week in Europe, setting foot, or rather wheels, on the Asian continent once again signals the beginning of this newly inspired loop on the Long Ride Home: Istanbul to Tel Aviv.
My riding companions are Eric, a Parisian taxi driver in his former life, and his girlfriend Manu, journeying from France to Africa. They're fully kitted out on purpose built expedition bikes, laden for the year ahead. And, as I soon find out when we pitch tent in a pear orchard close to Iznic lake, this French couple are true camping connoisseurs. Food meticulously stored in 'tupperware' boxes, a night time bike cover and water carriers that double as showers are examples of their attention to detail. Side by side, my tiny Terra Nova is dwarfed by their own condo-style tent.
The next few days pass in a haze of meandering backroads, idyllic camping spots, orchard picnics and a succession of punishing climbs leading us over a barrage of ranges. The pace is gentle, and I like the couple's easy going, laid back mentality to travelling. We stop to pick roadside figs, peaches, plums and juicy red apples that grow abundantly in the fertile valleys around; any blackberries we spot are scooped up in a 'tupperware' container. I'm astounded once again by the generous hospitality we receive from the Turkish folk working the land, as we collect a booty of bread and vegetables, our offers of payment consistently refused. As a habit, I've never been a tea drinker, but Turkey has broken my willpower. Choice is not an option, as we are offered 'shai' wherever we pass. Served in small shapely glasses, generously loaded with sugar, we sit amongst the old men who seem permanent fixtures in village cafes, caught in time.
Keeping to the back roads, traffic diminishes by the day while hills grow in retaliation. Toiling up one harsh climb, Eric and I seek revenge on the blistering descent that accompanies it. Reaching almost fifty miles an hour on my fully laden mountain bike leaves my happy face streaming with tears. Late, in the picture-perfect village of Tarakli, a multi lingual truck driver orders us Turkish coffee - a small shot of thick, dark liquid. We're not the only riders in town. Didier, spritely at 68 years, and his wife Florence, tanned and muscled beyond her years, have embarked on an athletic catholic pilgrimage from Grenoble to Jerusalem. Tentless, they rely on local hospitality, monasteries and little hotels, not adverse to bivouacking the odd night out, here and there. 68 years old, and cycling up to 120km a day...
For once a schedule must be kept to reach Syria in time for a two week Gilbert brother adventure. So I bid farewell to Eric and Manu, and 'gule gule' (bonne voyage in Turkish) for the long road ahead, pushing on towards Ankara. By now, I've left behind the fertile valleys laced with fruit, and here on the Central Anatolean plateau, the open plains are dry and empty. I ride hard and fast, climbing over softly rounded hills, tinted with hues of violet and beige, sliced with lime coloured sediments. A few kilometres up, a few kilometres down. Friendly truck drivers wave encouraging; their lorries conjure up a blustering whirlwind as they speed by. In the late afternoon light, the barren hills roll far into the distance, wrapped in a haze of pink and rose that dissolves from a clear blue sky, setting my mind roaming. Two years of travel, their meaning, and the inevitable conclusion of reaching home.
Exhausted, I arrive at an oasis of tomato plantations and collapse in my tent, wobbly legged after such a long day. Camping alone once more, I content myself with a cheese sandwich stuffed with tomatoes. It's not one of the gourmet dinners I enjoyed with Eric and Manu - ratatouille, pasta, mashed potatoes - but after nearly eight hours of riding, anything tastes good. I wave good night to the procession of tractors that trundle their way home, and curl up in the cocoon of my sleeping bag.
Rising early, it's not long before the sprawling capital of Ankara appears, somewhat incongruously amid the empty expanse of the Anatolean plateau. But my heart's not really in this city, the resting place of Attaturk, founder and all round Turkish hero. Clogged with trucks, lined with skeletal apartment blocks and modern petrol stations, the highway whisks me to its centre, far removed from the quiet backroads that proffered fruit and fresh air. I find a hotel in the Ulus, the cheap and old end of town, wash away the sweat and pollution of the day's ride, and set off into 'new' Ankara. In the sanctuary of a friendly internet cafe, I connect with the rest of the world, then return to the streets of this brash city, awash with malls, cellphones, highways and coverways. Amongst a stream of Ankorians, I enjoy the stroll back to the crumbier part of town, anonymous in this endless flow of city people, each on a mission of their own. The azans from a nearby mosque waft over the din of traffic, but no one seems to notice.
Looking in a mirror, my eyes look tired, a little blood shot, and my face seems flushed. What's more, my muscles ache and my knees are sore. Maybe I'm pushing things too much. But the other half of my mind coerces me further... just a few more kilometres, it says. It's been hard. I can sense my body changing, remolding itself to the shape of the bicycle, leaner. These last couple of days have been cycling for cycling's sake, the physical challenge rather than the journey.
And right now, I'm very much ready to sleep.