Stage 1 Complete! Turkey 12th – 14th June

We were now days away from completing the first stage of our adventure, London to Istanbul. We had not spent more than a week in a country so far and knew that Turkey would take us at least three weeks to cross. We were excited to spend a longer amount of time somewhere, to get a deeper feel for a country, learn some more of a language other than hello, please and thank you, and eat loads of Turkish food. At the border a German campervan pulled up next to us and gave us some ice-cold energy drinks. Much appreciated in the soaring heat in the queue. Entering Turkey felt like a huge milestone. We were heading out of Europe and Turkey was keen to show us this. As we quickly arrived in a city called Edirne, we saw about twenty mosques in the first five hundred metres, men sat outside café’s drinking tea watching the world go by, women, a lot less of them on the streets, wore covered to varying extents. The smell of burning charcoal and cooking meat hit our noses and the call to prayer hit our ears. There was a huge contrast from where we had just come and was well, all very Turkish. Having a large Turkish community near our home in London, we had an idea of what to expect, culturally. But what we saw around us far surpassed our expectations. We looked at each other, smiling. We were going to enjoy Turkey very much.

As we cycled through the city the blistering sun was quickly masked by weighty black clouds. As it chucked it down as we cycled on we were grateful for the cool air and cooler rain on our skin. Hannah told me at times like this when nature helps you out when you need it most, that she thinks her Mum is up there looking down on her and helping her out. As the rain got drastically heavier and was quickly followed by thunder and lightning, she looked at me and told me she knew that her sister was the favourite.

Turkey welcomed us with open arms. As we rode along the dual carriageway that would take us to Istanbul a couple of days later, we were stopped by a car and asked if we needed anything. As we thanked the driver and passenger we were asked if we wanted some chai. We didn’t know it at the time but this would be a huge theme running through our journey across Turkey. Now let’s talk tea. We knew Turkey loved tea, but this was something else. It was more than having a cuppa a few times a day as we do at home, and the English love tea, no, this is more than a ‘aw I’d could murder a cuppa’, this is more than an addiction, more than an obsession. It is a culturally embedded obsession that seems to hold as much power and weight as Islam. In fact I daren’t ask someone to choose between their faith or their tea here. I don’t think it would be an easy choice. Everyone drank tea. Everyone wanted you to drink tea. Offers of tea came as often as hellos. And even when a hello was too much to muster, the silent mimed action of holding a cup in one hand and stirring it with the other was aimed at us from across the streets, from car windows and from groups of men as we passed café’s. If we were to stop and accept every offer of tea we were kindly given, we would never leave. We’d be Turkish. We would enjoy twenty cups a day and then don the stripes required to offer others tea. We would be tea-drinking prisoners in a tea prison in tea-town. We would drown in a sea of tea as our hosts would pump tea in our faces through fire hoses. Ok slight exaggeration, but you get the jist. And this is certainly not a pessimistic slant on the tea front. It was by no means a burden.

We rode on looking for a pastry shop and were quickly accompanied by a local in her car asking if she could help. Being a teacher in the local school she spoke basic English and we were promptly riding behind her en-route to her favourite pastry shop. After experimenting with some new Turkish treats she asked if she could help more. It was getting on and we asked if she knew of a budget hotel in town. At this point her husband and young daughter had joined us and a series of phone calls were made to friends, relatives, the local hotel and even the teacher accommodation at the local school. It was all incredibly kind and welcoming and we ended up taking their hotel recommendation. It was a bit over our budget but we did the very English thing of accepting as our hosts had found us a room. We were very grateful for their help and thanked them. After freshening up we went out to devour as much of the town as we could. The food was unsurprisingly incredible. We sat in the restaurant rubbing our stomachs discussing the instant warmth, welcoming and genuine care we had received on day one of our time in Turkey. Little did we know, we would experience this hospitality daily and it would be the primary reason for making Turkey our favourite country so far.

We had asked not to have breakfast included in our room rate as we wanted to leave early and get food on the road somewhere. The hotel employee given the job of sleeping on the lobby sofa all night was working hard snoring as we attempted to tip toe around him and hit the road. Hannah’s elephant feet quickly woke him out of his deep sleep and probable tea-filled dreamland. He was having none of our quick departure. After telling us to stay he disappeared on to the street and was quickly back with tea, bread and olives. What a lovely man. I offered to pay him but it turns out that this insult is on par with verbal abuse to ones mother in Turkey. We stopped a few kilometres down the road for Turkish coffee and were ushered to sit at the table of a chain smoking important looking grey bearded gentleman. We conversed in English with the aid of another less important looking but equally heavy smoking man at an adjoining table. He ordered another coffee and a juice to our table and gave us a wink. Upon leaving we were met with angry faces and groans from around the coffee bar as we attempted to pay. It took some time to get used to the very normal levels of generosity in Turkey and it became apparent the best way to deal with it is to accept the generosity, learn from it, adopt the same selfless and altruistic characteristics and share this beautiful way of living. Shortly after, I sent a text message to my Turkish friend Volkan back in London. I told him I used to think he was a very special person, but actually, I had now discovered he was just Turkish.

The road to Istanbul was undulating and was nothing to write home about (literally. We stopped for lunch in a town called Corlu which turned out to be another bustling place with what seemed to be the entire population on the streets. This was a common theme in Turkey. Everyone seemed to be outside. Whether drinking tea outside cafes, sitting on benches or standing in circles conversing, outside social space was always maximised. We ate Cig Kofte, a mix of walnuts, bulgur wheat and spices rolled up in a flatbread with lettuce. They became a big part of our diet in Turkey.

After another 50kms riding and another Turkish feast, we settled on a pretty strip of beach in a relaxed town to spend the night. Wild camping is legal in Turkey, or less technically but more importantly, nobody cares. We laid out our sleeping bags on the sand and watched had the sun drop, the moon climb and stars brighten. We were only asleep an hour or so before two local night fisherman appeared and pitched up next to us. A wave and a nod confirmed our chosen sleeping spot acceptable and we fell back asleep. A car arrived shortly after and drove directly on to the beach to pull in a small fishing boat with a single occupant. As the wheels spun in the sand it was clear the car was not leaving anytime soon. A pick-up truck arrived an hour later and attempted to pull the car out of its self-made sand den but failed. Half an hour later and now in the small hours of the night a tractor noisily took charge of the situation and pulled the car free. Drama over we soon slipped back to sleep only to be woken again by another torch wielding beach night walker. 30 minutes later and a car full of teens blaring Turkish hip-hop became our bed buddies until sunrise. I gave up on more sleep and sat on the beach watching wild dogs playing in the sand. It was a comical night. We didn’t at any time feel unsafe, it was however an introduction to the 24-hour Turkish day, sleep seems to happen somewhere between 2 and 5 in the afternoon as far as we could figure out.

On a couple of hours sleep coffee was clearly the word of the day as we had a big days ride in to Istanbul ahead. After having our coffees and freshly made lemonade paid for us again  we met a busy three lane road leading to the busy city and its 20 million inhabitants. There was a hard shoulder for most of it and we felt fairly safe. We had researched the route in to Istanbul for some time as we had heard many stories of how horrible it was. We made it within 20kms of the city centre when the first puncture of the whole trip appeared. We pulled in to a police-guarded driveway safe away from the busy road to fix it. A policewoman came out and told us to come through the barrier as it was safer. She had three friends sitting metres away chatting at a table. After the excitement of watching me fix the puncture had deflated (pun intended), they invited us to the table for coffee. We politely declined as we were shattered and just wanted to get to Istanbul and a comfy room for a few days. We told them this and they didn’t care. We told them we were meeting the host of our room and had to keep moving. They didn’t care. I said we had agreed to meet our host at an agreed time, to which he replied, ‘but you are here now’. It was a fair point. The future can wait. Now is more important. Coffee was delivered to the table as was a huge bowl of torte baby apples. The friends turned out to be off duty police officers relaxing on the grounds of what was the former presidents summer residence and now museum. Talks of Istanbul, London, our jobs and our concerning lack of children pursued. As did a tour of the former president’s home, 312 group photos and the promise of being welcomed in to their friends and families homes along our route. One of the police officers even called the mayor of a city we were going to be riding through to ask his permission for us to camp on a historical site overlooking the sea that was closed to the public. It was the longest puncture stop in cycling history but it was a wonderful experience. We made a note not to bother attempting to turn down tea and coffee stops, you won’t win.

The puncture returned a few kilometres down the road and our spare inner tubes had got holes in them after rubbing on something in the bag. I attempted to patch up the tube but the patches were not sticking in the heat and the puncture returned again. We were only 9kms away from our accommodation and we had to find a bike shop. We loaded up my bike with the majority of our stuff and hoped Hannah’s bike would make it. We stopped to fuel up on food in the way (priorities) and as we devoured at least a kilo of borek (a tasty baked filled pastry dish) the tire deflated in front of us. It was no use, I would have to walk it to a bike shop. Nobody knew where a bike shop was and the internet on our phones was now not working as we had left the EU. Our knights in shining armour were two 14-year-old boys on bikes. They pulled over at seeing the puncture and in their best school-learned English told us they would take me to a bike shop. We walked with our bikes through narrow walkways, over bridges and threw markets to get to the bike shop. I was doing my best to remember the route so I could return and find Hannah. Little did I know that she was being well looked after by the locals, particularly the men. She commented that it is the men here that make the most effort to help you, it is the men that feel comfortable to approach you, invite you and help you. Maybe it is because we are exposed to more men, it is certainly noticeable that it is mainly men on the streets socialising and in the cafes drinking tea and coffee. At the bike shop one of the boys told the shoe employee to fix the puncture for me. What a kid, to go out of his way to walk me to a bike shop and sort it for me. Bike fixed I went to pay only for the shop employee to point to the kid and shrug. This kid was incredible, he had paid for the puncture to be repaired. As much as I insisted to pay him he made it clear this was not the done thing and that he was offended. He cycled back with me to Hannah as they knew I had lost my way. He then went in to the shop where Hannah was waiting and bought us a big bottle of cold water. This boy was very special. What a kind heart. The 14 year old version of myself could probably muster an ‘oh dear’ at the sight of a tourist with a puncture at the side of the road. I hugged him and told him he was a remarkable boy to which he replied, ‘no, just normal, welcome to Turkey’. We exchanged numbers and have messaged each other since. I think Arif is a remarkable boy, even if he doesn’t.

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Edging closer we found ourselves within a kilometre of our accommodation but amongst a maze of narrow, steep and even stepped ‘roads’ leading to our ever more deserved shower and bed. We asked locals for guidance as our map was now useless and we soon had bodies pushing our bikes up steep hills with the gift of cherries from an elderly gentleman at the top. We arrived at our accommodation at 7pm, shattered and filthy. It had been an eventful day. We had made it to the end of the first stage of our adventure, London to Istanbul. We had experienced so much in the past 6 weeks, so many changing landscapes, languages had changed weekly, so many individual encounters, differing foods, and now differing cultures and religions. And so many, many more miles to go…

Watch our 1-minute video ‘Cycling London to Istanbul’ here…

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