Stage 2 – Istanbul to Baku, Azerbaijan

Turkey Pt. 1 – 15th-22nd June

Istanbul, where East meets West in a dense, crowded, noisy, fragrant metropolis. Our days blurred in to one as we walked, ate and drank our way around this glorious city. We were given some Lira by my awesome friends at Topman as a leaving gift and decided it would be best spent exploring the rooftop bar scene of the city. The views across the city from this perspective give you an idea of the sheer vastness and historical importance of the city. It allows you to picture it as the once hectic meeting point between two continents on the old Silk Road. We could have spent a lot longer exploring Istanbul but the road ahead was calling and we soon found ourselves packing up and hitting the road. We had debated what route to take through Turkey to get to Georgia as many were on offer. We left it to the last minute and were glad we did. The night before we left, we sat in a cool bar where we sat chatting to the owner and his friend who were keen cyclists. We opened the map and they both very quickly agreed on the route they would take if they had the pleasure of cycling to Georgia. They wished us well and gave us a candle to light on the beach when camping. We asked if they wanted to come, one said he would love to, but he didn’t like the route. Turkish humour.

Leaving the city was a much worse experience than arriving. We had done less research on a route out than we had coming in and this soon showed as after a short ferry across the river, we found ourselves on a four-lane road with no hard shoulder. There were turn-offs and filter lanes every few hundred metres which made for a hectic mess of cars in the slow lane, our lane. It was pretty terrifying. Hannah’s hands went numb from gripping so hard and she was growing more and more nervous about being on the road. We pulled over on half a hard shoulder and Hannah cried. She kept thinking if anything happened to us how stupid our family would think we were for being on that road. I agreed. Our map showed no other route but we didn’t care, we just wanted to get off the road. We took a turn-off and made our way out of the city on quieter roads. We followed roads leading roughly in the direction we were heading and hoped for the best. We met up with the main road later that day and were relieved to find a hard shoulder and much less traffic. We decided it was safe to return.

We were heading inland towards the mountains and countryside of Turkey. As we slowly climbed with the lush green mountains ahead of us we familiarised ourselves with the petrol station amenities and hospitality we had read and been told so much about. A toilet stop would often escalate in to a tea drinking marathon, gifts of icey cold water and fruit, use of the staff WIFI, long chats about English football and each other’s families and if you couldn’t tear yourself away, you were invited to pitch your tent round the back with the promise of a free tea delivery service. Today’s petrol station visit count was particularly high due to the fact it was pissing it down with rain all day. It was definitely more fun drinking tea under a shelter watching the staff attempt to ride your heavy bike around the forecourt than it was to be cycling in the constant heavy rain. However this was a cycling trip not a day out at a Turkish petrol station so we soon bit the bullet and rode on in the rain. As the heavens opened and the rain started to hurt we waited it out again undercover until we could see more than 6 inches ahead of us and be able to find somewhere to sleep for the night. The lone pump attendant of our eighth petrol station of the day was either terrible at charades or was trying to tell us to ride a chicken whilst punching your own forearm. Shouting louder at us, riding the chicken with more vigour and punching his forearm with gritted teeth did not make the advice any clearer or make us feel comfortable enough to ask to pitch our tent on his grounds. We rode on in the heavy rain and pulled in to petrol station number nine. Several trucks, a large toilet block and an attached restaurant made us deem this one ‘posh’.

We asked/mimed to a lady if we could pitch our tent on a patch of grass next to the toilets. She spoke in Turkish, turned around and walked off. Ok we thought. That was definitely a no. Then a friendly looking 20-something thickset man in a tight t-shirt appeared and we smiled and repeated our request. We guessed this was the son of the lady we had just encountered. Okan looked our drenched bodies up and down with an air of disgust and then nodded and pointed to a patch of grass next to the restaurant. We thanked him greatly and then like a dog sniffing out a pee spot we circled the area of grass looking for the least bumpy patch. The son quickly returned and ushered us past an outside seating area where a family, his family, sat drinking tea; and in to the restaurant. Clearly under instructions from his mother he showed us to a corner where we were told we could sleep for the night. We were so incredibly grateful. Pitching your tent in the rain is no fun, nor is rolling up a drenched tent for it to stink on its next use. Before we could take our bags off the bikes we were guided to the family table where a very welcomed river of tea flowed. Five hours, twelve cups and a Turkish feast later we were well acquainted with the family and friends of the restaurant. We met the mother, the father, the sisters, the uncles, the cousins, and the regular truck drivers who frequent the restaurant on their routes from Istanbul to Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran and beyond. Through use of ‘google translate’ we spent hours answering each other’s questions about home life, family life, love life and trucking life. It’s incredible the depth of conversation you can have with the use of google translate, however when the uncle told us he was having a hard time going out with a tractor trailer we knew not to trust it entirely.

At seven in the morning we gave up on sleep and decided to hit the road. The Turks complete disregard for sleeping through the night preferring instead to take on all of the noisy activities you would normally associate with daytime, meant we had a bout two hours sleep between us. As we packed up and thanked our hosts for the incredible hospitality, the laughs, the tea and the food which we again offensively offered to pay for, we were told we were in fact not leaving and must sit down and enjoy a Turkish banquet breakfast. The mother of the family told us it was unwise to cycle on an empty stomach and as there was a very steep climb to tackle on our route that morning, we must consume half their kitchen before being allowed to leave. We weren’t complaining, Turkish food is incredible! Many hours later we stood, rubbed our bellies and gave hugs of great thanks to our hosts. The family took us in as if we were their own. They gave us a roof, fed us dinner and breakfast, spent time talking and joking with us and we were genuinely sad to be leaving our new Turkish family. We returned waves as we rode off feeling much heavier and in marginally better weather than when we arrived.

Only an hour or so into our days ride the Turkish hospitality returned. A young chap parked by the side of the road was standing next to his car waving us down. He told us he had passed us some kilometres back and pulled over in a safe place to invite us back to his house for lunch. The rear window of the car sunk open and the smiling nodding faces of the mother and father of the young man reinforced the invitation. We didn’t want to offend the family, but we had only just got into the rhythm of riding and we had a long day’s ride ahead. Plus, our bellies were still aching from our previous hosts feeding. We had been told by other cyclists that if you accept every invitation for food or tea in Turkey it will take you forever to cycle through it. We politely declined. As we rode on we began feeling guilty for declining the offer. We agreed not to turn down any more offers and absorb ourselves in the culture as much as possible. We were going to be in Turkey a long time.

The theme of the day as we rode with tired eyes and trying to keep one another motivated was hills and showers. The views were beautiful but we were just not enthused. We decided to call it a day and asked a local where it was possible to camp. He very enthusiastically told us of a beautiful spot 15kms away. A kilometre away from his recommendation we decided we were too tired to cook and still quite full from the breakfast banquet so would just pick up some snacks for the tent. We crossed the road and turned in to a petrol station on the other side of the road. As we pulled in we heard a loud thud behind us. A lorry had gone into the back of a van. It was only an hour before that we were discussing whether a lorry drivers’ licence was issued only once they could prove they could drive a 4-million tonne truck with a phone in one hand and a fag in the other. Everyone seemed to be ok so after a few selfies with the pump attendants we stocked up on snacks for the night. As we were leaving a police officer walked over from the scene of the accident. Hannah’s stomach sunk as she knew what was coming. The lorry driver was blaming us for the accident. He was claiming we had not indicated when turning off the road and that we cut across him. We both knew we had indicated and were sure we were across the road long before the accident. I was confident that by pleading our innocence and telling the truth we would be told we could continue on. Hannah on the other hand had visions of being locked up in a Turkish prison sharing a dark cell with a 7-foot hairy Turkish giant named Mustafa. Her fears quickly changed to excitement at the thought and rapidly pleaded guilty to the police officer. As more police officers approached us we continued to explain what had happened through google translate. At no point did the officers make us feel intimidated and they assured us everything would be ok. They then told us it was best if they dealt with us back at the police station. At this point I must confess my stomach sank a little too. The police station was one step closer to Mustafa. As we followed behind our police escort on our bikes, we reassured each other of our innocence and that we just needed to tell the truth.

The sergeant at the police station told us to relax and make ourselves comfortable. He informed us he had telephoned a translator to come in and take our statements and offered us tea and cigarettes. Turkish hospitality is also available in police stations. An hour passed with no sign of a translator. As we were beginning to question whether we would be here all night, the sergeant came over to tell us we were free to go. What I thought was him playing asteroids on his Atari was actually him reviewing the CCTV footage from the junction of the accident. We thanked him for his hospitality, tea and repeated offers of cigarettes and rocketed out of the police station powered by huge sighs of relief. We thought it best not to return to the recommended camp spot as it was metres from the accident and an angry lorry driver might be lurking. We instead checked-in to the only hotel in town which was an expensive establishment but with free buffet breakfast. Every cloud. I fell asleep thinking of how lucky we were that there was CCTV footage of the incident. Hannah fell asleep thinking of Mustafa.

After the irresistible ritual of gorging on six plates of buffet breakfast and stashing as many boiled eggs and bananas in to our pockets as we could, we rode on through lush green landscapes in perfect weather to the UNESCO world heritage town of Safranbolu. We found a car park that doubled as a campsite and pitched our tent surrounded by fruit trees. We walked into the heart of what was once an important stop on the trade route between Europe and Asia and were disappointed with what we found. The streets were lined by beautiful 17th century Ottoman architecture taken over by tacky souvenir and ice cream sellers. The tour buses that filled the surrounding streets and the cars and mopeds that zoomed by added to a very inauthentic and underwhelming experience. We made our way back to our tent to cook up an authentic and overwhelming Turkish dinner.

As the temperatures rose to the early thirties and the metres we climbed each day rose to over 2000 our thoughts were drifting away from the beautiful lush dense interior of Turkey towards its coastline of breezy beaches and fresh seafood. We rode through gorgeous landscapes neither of us had anticipated but the heat and climbs combined were taking their toll. Energy levels were low. I hit the wall and had to devour an entire packet of biscuits before even considering tackling another climb. Hannah is convinced she will get me to love porridge before the end of the trip but at the moment it has to have cocoa powder, bananas and dried fruit added to it to for me to show even mild pleasure at its consumption. Today we both wished we had eaten more as we delved into our emergency food stocks. The combination of sweat and sun cream dripping down our faces was not helping. To distract attention from the burning in my legs I devised a new game of trying to catch the sweat dripping from my nose on my trainers as they slowly rotated uphill. But what goes up must come down and as any cyclist knows the reward of climbing is tearing down the other side with the wind cooling off your sweaty body.

We rode along a beautiful river and I submerged myself wearing all my cycle gear whilst Hannah delicately flicked a few beads of water on her face. We contemplated calling it a day and camping by the river, but we had no food on us and the beach was calling. As we cycled on, we passed dozens of people taking selfies on a small section of road. The section of road was as far as we could see identical to the stretches of road preceding and following it but this one was somehow selfie special. Spirits were much higher later in the day as despite my cursing every climb around every bend in the road. we caught glimpse of the coast. We spotted a sign for a beach campsite in a town called Amasra and rode over one final ridiculously steep climb to check it out. We were disappointed to find that it was party central. We were shattered, it was getting late and we didn’t want to cycle any further. We pitched up our tent looking out at sea and sat staring at the waves as a very hard day’s ride ended and night fell. From a neighbouring tent appeared a confident Turkish man in lairy long surf shorts nodding out of time to some shocking Euro pop. After I rolled my eyes, he strolled over to deliver us some biscuits. Reminder to self; be more Turkish when I get home.

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