Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Across the Sea of Marmara to Istanbul

From Iznik Lake we had only one small pass to cross before the Sea of Marmara. At the top we headed west off the highway and into rural/mountainous country again, heading for Termal, a hot spring complex 15-20km from the coast. There were some pricey looking retreats but the country was very much unspoilt otherwise. A hodge podge of unmarked country lanes eventually got us to Termal. We bypassed the tourist hotels with private spas and went to the most traditional public bath, with its many cupolas, abundance of marble, and separate male/female baths.

(This was a pricier resort hot swimming pool - didn't go here, though it looked great at night with the steam rising.)

In the male baths I met some local men from Yalova and managed a basic conversation in Turkish - always a thrill. (Soon I'll lose most of my Turkish.) One of them then offered to wash me! It was a public place and it seemed above board so I agreed. I got a good scrub down with no added extras - very good! So much grime and maybe a little fatigue. My host refused a scrub in return... The tent found a spot on one of the forest walking trails nearby.

The next morning it was a simple roll downhill to the small port city of Yalova where we joined large numbers of bored commuters on a Channel crossing style ferry over to Istanbul. All of a sudden Europe felt close.

Here's Julie coming off the ferry and arriving in Europe!
Yenikapı port, on the western side of the Bosphorus, and only a short walk to Sultanahmet and the Golden Horn.
Wow - Istanbul. A bustling almost-European megalopolis, in an extraordinary location between Black and Marmara Seas, saturated with competing Western and Eastern influences.

A plate of börek to celebrate. They gave us tea on the house - even here in Istanbul.

This was it, for now, after almost 11,000km and 7 months. Continuing on into Greece seemed the most natural thing to do - if it weren't for the increasing drizzle, cold weather and approaching winter (and a few other commitments!). I don't get bored of bike touring - how could you? The equilibrium which you develop over months is sustainable over years, as some of the characters you meet on the road demonstrate - but something slowly happens to your mind, and it gets harder and harder to even think of going home...

A special mention has to go to my Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres (700C x 38mm)
- not a single puncture over that whole distance. Outrageous.

(En route to the airport bus stop, where the bikes went into the boxes.)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Up to the Sea of Marmara

Just before Emirdağ I spotted a sign pointing towards a potato 'fırın' ('fyryn' in English) - meaning bakery - and Julie happily agreed to investigate down the village lane. We found a small bakery in a home where 4 or 5 women were baking big round loaves of potato bread. They were very excited and happy to see us! A cup of tea turned into an invitation to stay the night. Nobody spoke English or German but it turned out that the 25 yo son had married a German-born Turkish girl. So after lunch he turned on MSN and I chatted in German with his Turkish wife and brother-in-law. She was wearing a headscarf but spoke better German that Turkish. Later they called more relatives in Brussels. Grandpa sat next to the laptop cooing to his grandchildren, and I chatted with their 12 yo niece in my pretend Dutch.

It was a little bizarre to experience how these Turkish families use modern technology to maintain their very traditional family links.

Emirdağ is known for its high number of emigrants to France, Belgium and Germany (not the UK, though). Everybody proudly told of their relatives who live there and most of the men who approached me speaking French, Dutch or German told how they had spent a few years there.

Many said that they wanted to go to Europe for well paid work and more opportunities.
I began to suspect that their relatives over there, maybe for reasons of pride, weren't revealing just how difficult life is in western Europe when you can only do jobs requiring no education. Very few seemed to understand that a salary of € 1000-2000 a month is easily wiped out by the high cost of living.

Back at our bakery, mum and dad went downstairs to the big oven in the evening and baked fresh cheese, egg and beef pides for dinner - along with delicious 'hash hash ekmek' - slightly sweet layered bread with ground poppy seed and spices inside.

Beyond Emirdağ we crossed the main Ankara - Izmir highway and on dirt roads headed into some more secluded countryside with mystery abandoned villages and Phrygian ruins tucked away in the rolling hills.

Close to dusk, we met some grandparents baking börek in a clay oven outside. They had the family visiting from town, so the house was packed. Grandpa was the caretaker for an unused school- we camped there, under an Atatürk portrait.

Next day we discovered that this was a significant Turkish/Islamic holiday - 'Bayram' - a three day holiday in which the men of every household make ritual sacrifices of goats/lambs/cows. I thought it was meant to celebrate the end of Ramadan so I'm not sure why it started on Dec. 7.

Anyway, that morning I watched Grandpa cut the throats of two goats while Julie drank tea, looked the other way, and covered her ears when necessary.

As we continued on we saw a lot more slaughter that day. We met some teenage Turkish-Americans who had spent their lives in New Jersey and Istanbul. They had been at their grandparents in the village for 3 hours and were already bored and itching to go home, despite all the nearby caves, ruins and cliffs they could have explored.

In the evening we ran into an ambitious young engineer, Mehmet, and his wife who had come from Eskişehir to visit his parents in Yapıldak and invited us home. His parents were great but Money Mehmet milked me for English lessons all night and was only really interested in how much we earnt and how much more he could earn by learning English. He wanted to go to the UK for a three month language course. His wife was young, conservatively dressed and stayed very much in the background. We asked if she would go with him to the UK and this obviously hadn't occurred to either of them!

From here we rolled mostly downhill to Eskişehir, camping one night, with a serious frost now hitting the tent overnight. Eskişehir is a modern Turkish city with poor value overseas calls (thanks to the Turkcell monopoly) and excellent marble lined hot baths - 5 YTL ($A5) a pop. It was dark by the time we got out and we were just getting a little chilly and wondering what we should do for the night when we ran into Money Mehmet and wife trailing. He immediately invited us to his place and we agreed. But first we had to go to a modern bar packed with smokers where Mehmet and his wife kept telling us, 'We don't normally come to this kind of place.' I don't recall them answering our question, 'So what do you normally do? Why don't we just do that?'

North of Eskişehir we were surprised to find a petrol station selling gazyağı (fuel for my stove - between shellite and kerosene) after a long gazyağı drought. Up steep roads over the Sündiken Dağları range, with the first winter snows on the top at 1500m or so.

In Mihalgazi on the other side we resolved to stay in a mosque at long last and went sniffing around the first one we found. Unfortunately the old bearded fellow we met took us back to his place instead. He was friendly but had no idea what to make of us and mostly sat and looked dumbfounded.

Following morning: steaming hot hashhash ekmek straight from the oven (second sighting of this delicious feed) and lots of pomegranates to harvest on the road down the valley.

Cutting northwest across rolling hills towards İznik Lake we chanced upon
Söğüt, with an excellent pide shop opposite the bus station - and which is also known to Turks as the birthplace of Sultan Osman I, and hence the Ottoman Empire, in the 12th century. Hence it's quite a pilgrimage destination. Didn't rate a mention in a certain popular travel guide, though. Turkish flags were everywhere, on most cars even. It turned out that this was conscription day for young Turkish soldiers. Popular Turkish TV dramas often seem to pit valiant Turkish soldiers, doctors etc. against evil Kurdish terrorists. Boring and formulaic, but the Turks lap it up.

Further northwest we reached İznik Lake, surrounded by olive groves. Discovered that olives taste awfully bitter when raw.

İznik had a range of ancient Roman ruins including an amphitheatre, and decent B&B style accommodation - it's popular as an escape from Istanbul.

A little further around the coast of İznik Lake we found an olive oil factory!
I'd been guzzling olive oil since Iran and soaking all of my cooking in it so I was delighted to get an impromptu tour - after which I pulled out my oil flask and got a refill.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Camping at petrol stations

The other night we were riding across rolling empty plains until dusk - empty, except every square inch suitable for a tent was ploughed. Eventually we got to a petrol station with a lokanta (cafe). A jocular young waiter with a cheeky grin came out and called us in for tea. We had found a camp site at the side of the servo and asked, 'Is it OK if we cook dinner there on our stove?' (that's an OPEN FLAME!) He asked, ' Is it a small one?' 'Yep.' 'OK, should be no problem...'

Overnight we thought the trucks coming and going might keep us awake - but no, instead it was a little plastic disposable tea cup which blew over to us and somehow got stuck in an eddy, rolling backwards and forwards for hours on the concrete just near the tent - 'rrr...rrr...rrr...rrr' But at just above zero who wants to get up for that?

The next morning at sunrise I was cooking borghul porridge when the first car rolled up. As it drove off I heard a huge snap/crack - and looked up to see the car driving off with the LPG nozzle and hose attached! White LPG was pouring out of the bowser - 25 metres from my stove... As I stood up and applauded the boys in the car got out and laughed. I think it was the servo attendant's fault - he's the one with the cute uniform that smokes all day, next to the pumps, too.

Just near Emirdağ now. Meeting more and more Turks with famıly in Germany/France/Belgium - more later.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Turkish dogs

Today I went past 10,000 km - just on sunset, with nothing around. Quite a thrill. I picked a pretend finish line and sprinted to it. Julie's done over 5000 km too - pretty impressive for a first bike tour! I've been telling locals 'besh ai' - five months - on the road but it's been more like 6 and a half. Time has become somehow fluid.

Otherwise, the biggest thrills on the bike over the last few days have come courtesy of huge, vicious, Turkish attack-guard dogs. These are mostly tied up around highways and big towns but worryingly are on the loose around many villages. Riding in China I always had a stick to whack them with, but over there dogs were smaller and more of a pest.

Here as we approach villages we can hear the barking start from a few hundred metres away. Then we see these big white things loping across paddocks to intercept us.
A couple will be waiting ahead on the roadside, panting.

I always preferred to ride away from them if possible, kick out maybe, or hit with a stick. The pannier bags protect you a fair bit - dogs try to bite them.

The other day Julie got nipped on the ankle by a yapper. No real injury but a nasty shock. The next morning (0 degrees) a dog nicked off with one of my gloves. I yelled and chased it - so it ran away, wanting to play. Eventually I got clever and got down on my knees and called it over. It dropped the glove and came panting over for pats.

But over the past few days they have become more frightening. The first bad incident was being attacked by a guard dog on the highway - with regular big trucks. Julie stopped and put her bike between herself and the dog while I threw half bricks at it, scaring it but also enraging it even more. She walked slowly along until we'd left its territory.

Today a huge beast with metal spike collar attacked me and I tried to ride away from it. It caught me and bit and pulled at my bags - pretty terrifying. Eventually it turned for Julie, who I had abandoned behind to her fate. I yelled abuse at the owners who had come out while she went back to her bike fort strategy, which kept her safe.

The faster you ride away, the more furious you get, so I think I'll have to use the Julie method too. It goes against instinct but they seem to calm down and get a bit unsure of themselves if you just stop.

Off across the plains. Cold.

In Aksaray we restocked with a big tour of the local fruit n veg market which had almost everything we needed - unfortunately these bazaars only seem to be open one or two days a week, but this time we got lucky. Getting out of town was very complicated, mostly because we asked a young Turk who was desparate to help us but spoke next to no English. It was already dark (5pm) and the plan was to camp a bit out of town after finding the BP servo on our route which we were told had a hot shower! After a bit of mucking around our friend guided and ran next to us as far as his car and indicated that he wanted to escort us out of town. He said he wanted to go with us to the next town, 40km away. We tried to say 'Don't bother' but it was too hard. As he got in a Turkish schoolboy called me over and pointed excitedly to something between apartment blocks ın the evening sky. All İ could see was a new crescent moon. Then İ realised ıt was a 'Turkish' moon, just like the one on their flag! İnteresting thing to get excited about! We rode about 5km out onto a freeway with our friend paying close attention. At red lights we had a few chats and İ told him we were planning to camp 10km or so out. He said he was a policeman and that it would be very cold. We said, 'Yes, we know.' Eventually, 5km out while Julie was scouting for a shower at the first servo, he decided to ring his wife. Then the breakthrough! 'Come home to my place.' No problems with your wife? 'No, no, no.' Only the second time in three weeks we'd been invited in for the night - a bit surprising given the freezing weather. His flat turned out to be huge, his wife lovely and we were given full guest treatment - best of all, including washing machine use. Luckily they were both leaving for work by 8am the next morning so we knew we'd get away on time.

40 km straight down a flat road towards Konya we reached Sultanhani, where there was a 12th century caravanserai, supposedly one of the biggest in Turkey. Inside some guy tracked us down and wanted money, and when I refused ('where's the sign saying you have to pay? Who are you anyway?' he started screaming at me and hitting his book of tickets. We soon left. A few km down the road we stopped at a servo for water. The truck stop restaurant was run by a charming French Turk. After chatting for a few minutes he invited us to try a little local speciality ('as a service to you'). We'd just eaten but thought we'd accept the kind offer. He overdid the service a bit, gave us more than we'd asked for, and unfortunately then tried to shamelessly overcharge us. İ felt very naive. After talking with him for at least half an hour İ just hadn't seen it coming at all. It doesn't have to be free, but do you really need to rip me off?

Then off the main road and north west across increasingly barren plains to Cihanbeyli, which is on the main Ankara-Konya road.
Camped en route on a freezing misty evening - sheet ice flaking off the tent in the morning, and bike lock frozen solid for the first time (had to warm it to get it open).

Also went through Gölyazı where we met some very friendly Kurdish carpenters. They told us Kurds live all over Turkey and that they were doing all right.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Down onto the Anatolian plains

From Ürgüp (favourite town in these parts) we did a loop through Zelve, Göreme, Uçhisar and then headed down through the Ihlara Valley, and then descended to Aksaray. The main feature of the landscape was all the caves and even underground cities burrowed by fellow troglodytes into spectacular finger like outcrops of soft volcanic rock. Of these the oldest Byzantine Christian ones were the most touristy ones, in 'World Heritage' areas. Unfortunately despite exorbitant (and excessively strictly policed!) entrance fees they weren't well protected, with almost all of the frescos well and truly wrecked (even post restoration?). No information in English, either. Didn't feel much like Europe to me. The best part was just exploring isolated caves by ourselves, away from popular areas. Vegetation wise nothing of real note. Lots of tiny marmots (??) which squeak (very high pitched) just as we ride past. Have found their burrows but not seen them yet. Or maybe I'm going mad?
Still not many meaningful encounters with locals... the friendliest men are still the ones who've worked in Germany...
Most embarrassing is when the freezing souvenir sellers (still busloads of Japanese turning up) find out we're Australian and go, 'Ozzie Ozzie Ozzie...' Cringe.

4 quality cave nights (tent in cave), each with its own special feature:
- a wild dog running past panting loudly just as dinner was almost ready (it kept going)
- an excellent balcony where I got stuck in the cold unable to move for 15 minutes when a Turkish (?) couple drove down to what they thought was an isolated spot, got out and started 'making out' on the grass 5 metres directly below - luckily it got too cold for them too and they retreated to the car where they continued for another hour with the engine running (climate vandals)!
- special visit by group of drunken mystery Turks (they were poking around in the cave below ours)
-a mystery ventilation (or other) shaft 25 metres deep which we found just behind our tent - in the dark behind a ledge which I sat on briefly

Eating lots of delicious olives, olive oil, fetta cheese, good white bread, bulghur/borghul, helva (plain/with choccy/with pistachios), baklava, honey.
New taste sensation - üzüm pekmeze (grape molasses) - goes well with fine bulghur for a morning porridge!

Weather cooling down a bit - it's been SNOWING here. We have now entered 'breakfast and dinner in sleeping bags' season (known to others as 'winter').

Two weeks or so left for the remaining 700km to Istanbul...