We took an overnight bus from Izmir to Neveshir and when we awoke autumn had arrived! This was both nice and a bit of a shock, we are used to travelling so slowly that everything happens gradually around us and we were unprepared for such a quick change! The views and scenery were really beautiful as all the trees had turned a multitude of colours from red to burnt orange to gold, it really was amazing and the air smelt of autumn, a kind of mix of burnt wood and dead leaves – which reminded us both of home and made me think about Guy Fawkes night which is a time of year I love in England and it is approaching quickly. The drop in temperature was a bit of a shock because it was less than a week ago that we were swimming in the sea with André’s mum and sister and now we were pulling on our merino wool base layers and hats!
The ride from the bus station at Neveshir to Goreme National Park (also called Cappadocia was a fairly short one but we both found it hard work due to lack of sleep over the last few days. It didn’t take long before we started spotting some of the cave houses and eventually we made it over a hill and saw Cappadocia spread out before us and it really is spectacular. The landscape was formed when two volcanoes erupted and the lava covered everything creating a soft type of rock called ‘tufa’. This rock over time was eroded by the elements and what are left are the strange rock formations that are now visible in the national park. It is a hard place to describe in words but I will try and if I fail you can take a look at the photos! There are lots of misshapen rock towers and pinnacles that are full of lumps, bumps and holes. Some of these pinnacles are called Fairy Chimneys and these ones are conical shaped with a ‘cap’ of harder rock on top of the pinnacle, they can be as tall as 40ft. There are also large numbers of caves that are used for dwellings, restaurants and hotels among other things and some have been there for over 1000 years! In my opinion it is the colours that really make the place feel so surreal and beautiful, the rocky landscape is an array of different shades, from pinks and oranges to dark greens and greys – it is incredible. We cycled down into the valley and then it was a steep and tiring climb back out the other side to find a camp spot on top of the cliffs. However, the view from our tent made it worth it.
The next morning we woke up before sunrise and when I stuck my head out of the tent the sky was starting to fill with hot air balloons! The balloons were being inflated in the valley below us and also on the cliff side beside us – they were everywhere! You could hear the sound from the burners and as the sun rose the valley became a warm pink colour. There were perhaps 40 balloons in the sky at once and it is an uplifting and awesome sight, like nothing I have seen before. We sat on the side of the cliff eating breakfast and drinking tea while watching the balloons peacefully drift over the national park – what a way to start the day! We spent the morning cycling through the park and it is a great ride with spectacular views. However, there is a slight downer on the day when as I was freewheeling down a big hill and going pretty fast my brand new Tubus front pannier rack snapped in two and went spinning into my spokes and then flew off of the bike along with my pannier! Luckily I remained in control of the bike and stayed upright but seeing my expensive new rack in pieces was pretty upsetting. (I would like to mention that both Tubus and Bisiklet Gezgini – the shop I bought the rack from in Istanbul offered fantastic customer service and sent me a new rack to Trabzon.) André did a great job of fixing my rack using materials found on the side of the road and we cycled off with the rack holding up. By the afternoon we have cycled out of the National Park and have left the caves and fairy chimneys far behind. Our destination for the day was Ozkonack underground city, which is one of the smaller and less touristy of the underground cities. There are a number of these underground cities near Cappadocia due to the soft rock making it easy to construct them. They were built in the Byzantine era as a place to hide when invading armies approached. The cities are pretty claustrophobic as they have very low ceilings and very narrow corridors connecting each of the different chambers. There are wine cellars, kitchens, schools and lots of other areas to make life underground easier. They also had rolling stone doors and little communication tunnels that were used to pour hot oil down to protect themselves from the invaders! When we emerged from underground it was almost dark already, the sun sets at 4.45pm, which makes the day very short for us. We had tea at the café across the road and the owner very kindly agreed to let us camp in the courtyard of his café, and with electricity, a toilet and even the internet it was a great spot for us.
We spent a number of days cycling in Central Turkey, which was enjoyable, but not particularly special, we passed through lots of agricultural towns and villages and got to see sugar beets and cotton growing which was pretty interesting. However, this period of time was really made special by the kindness of the local people we met along the way. We were offered copious amounts of tea constantly especially by petrol station guys, we were looked after by policemen (they told André off for cycling ahead and leaving me flagging behind!), put up in a hotel for free and taken into warm family homes on cold nights. One particularly kind and lovely family invited us to stay at their home in Bogazilyan after we wandered into their photography shop asking if we could use their internet. We were fed huge amounts of delicious homemade food, given lots of tea and coffee and even shown how to make çig kofte. This dish is kind of similar to a spicy vegetarian meatball, it is made from bulgur, onions, garlic, tomato paste, mint leaves and other spices depending on the area of Turkey you are in and it is traditionally served in a lettuce leaf with lemon juice squeezed over the top – it is delicious! It was a really fun evening and a great insight into family life in Turkey.
The warmth and generosity of the guys working in petrol stations coupled with the fact they have bathrooms and often internet meant that petrol stations soon became our home away from home and we spent many nights sleeping there! One of our favourite petrol station stops was with Arif, a Turkish guy that had lived in Holland for thirty years and spoke Dutch meaning he and André could communicate fairly well. His station was warm and cozy with a wood-burning stove and he let us stay in the little prayer room which had a rug covered floor and a little heater – which we were grateful for, as it was cold and wet outside. Arif was great company and he even very kindly took us out for dinner at a local restaurant.
The next morning it was still raining and Arif made us a huge cooked breakfast and packed us bags of food to take with us on our trip. We forgot to take the bag of baked potatoes but Arif was not letting this slide and he drove after us to hand them to us on the road, he then turned the car around and drove the wrong way down the highway into oncoming traffic back to his petrol station! That is dedication to hospitality!
We had a couple of particularly grim days cycling whilst making our way to the coast. It rained non-stop for two or three days straight! The beautiful Turkish countryside and autumnal colours helped us to stay positive along with the constant offers of tea and delicious food from the people we met. We persevered though and were quite proud of ourselves for the progress we made! At the end of one bad rainy day we were tired and it was getting cold and dark and there was not a petrol station to be seen! We decided to try and camp for the night and spotted a tree-lined field that looked like it might offer a little bit of shelter and hide us from view of the road so we traipsed into it. André thought that the field was not too muddy and that we should camp at the far end of it, I disagreed before I acquiesced and we set off across the field. Sadly I was right and the field was very muddy and before long the bikes, the panniers, everything were covered in thick red mud. We stood in the middle of the muddy field in the rain shouting at each other for a while before turning back to the road. I didn’t get far before the mud clogged up my wheels so badly that they wouldn’t even turn! I had to remove everything from the bike and start lugging it back to the road. André had made it closer to the road but not quite on to it, so therefore also had to remove all his panniers! Part out of being gentlemanly and part as an apology I think he returned to carry my bike to the road so I didn’t have to. We agreed to make up, laugh about the situation and find somewhere to sleep quickly! We cycled off into the dark, cold, wet and now covered in mud! The fun of cycle touring! After ten minutes or so we came across a small town nestled into the hillside, it looked kind of eerie with the mosque protruding from the mist and illuminated by the half-light. We made our way towards it in desperation that we would find someone to save us! To our dismay the town seemed deserted with not a person to be seen anywhere and all the lights off in the houses (maybe they had word we were coming!). Eventually we spotted a man locking up his workshop and we accosted him and asked if he knew somewhere we could sleep for the night, we must have looked so pathetic that he agreed and told us to follow him! He took us to his family home that he shared with his wife, son and parents and we were ushered inside to warm up by the stove. Quickly we were fed, watered, warm and dry and making interesting conversation with this Turkish family using the mediums of mime and google translate as per usual! Later in the evening the grandmother became very animated and excited about an idea she had of taking us to the local Hamam! About an hour later we all piled into a neighbour’s car and were driven 10kms down the road to the local Hamam. It was not a beautiful bath like the one we had visited in Istanbul but it had a naturally heated pool, which was wonderful! The baths were separated by gender as is the norm in Turkey and the ladies one was empty apart from our host’s wife, mother and myself so I really got to see the two of them relax and let their hair down – literally! As soon as the men were gone and the headscarves were off, the wife in particular was like a different person. She was larking about, splashing me, bombing into the pool – it was so nice to experience and completely different to seeing her as a dutiful housewife and mother. We are both about the same age but our lives couldn’t be more different, including our appearances, my cycling attire contrasted significantly with her conservative Muslim outfit, however, these differences dissolved away when we were both in swimwear and splashing about in the pool. André and I discussed later how we had both reflected on how quickly your circumstances change when on a bike tour, one minute we were cold and wet facing a very muddy night in the tent and the next minute we are relaxing in a thermal bath! After soaking in the pool, having a scrub down and a lather up we headed back to the family home to be told it was time for dinner number two (Pippen and Merry would have been so happy) this time we were eating of çig kofte! The next morning we set off in the rain again, it seemed that most of the village had come to say goodbye! Many of them expressed that they thought we were crazy to be cycling at all but especially when it was cold and raining, and I was starting to agree with them!
After so much wet and chilly weather it wasn’t too surprising that we had both started to feel sick and were now sniffling and coughing whilst cycling! So when we cycled into Niksar to meet our Warm Showers host Fatih we were excited by the prospect of resting and recuperating in his friend’s mountain chalet! The ride to Niksar was a really beautiful one with mountains on either side of us and for the first time in days the sun even made an appearance. When we arrived into the town we were immediately approached by a friendly guy who spoke fluent German, he chatted to us for a while and then took us to a nearby restaurant and paid for our lunch! I have never in my life had my meal paid for by a complete stranger upon arriving into a town – yet in Turkey this seems to be a completely normal thing to do. It has got us both thinking about how we treat people we meet and how perhaps could do things differently after the bike trip. Random acts of kindness, there needs to be more of them! After lunch we met up with Fatih, he is a young, enthusiastic and generous guy who had no clue how sick we were feeling when he cheerfully told us that the chalet was at the summit of the enormous 1100ft high mountain that loomed over the town. My spirits plummeted as I stared up to the top and contemplated the climb ahead of us. It was only 15kms, but it was a hellishly steep climb with no let up. It took us several hours before we arrived at the chalet, cold, exhausted, feeling very sick and close to tears (me but maybe André too I am not sure!). In the end it was worth it though as the chalet was an attractive, traditional log cabin and was really warm and cozy inside. The owner and builder of the cabin was an 87-year-old Turkish guy named Faruk. He was a cycle tourer in the ‘60s and he cycled around Europe and Turkey on a fixed gear bike! Which is incredible! I find it hard enough to cycle up the hills with all my many gears and can’t imagine doing it on a bike with only one! His tent also weighed 10kgs and had no bottom to it; he is a hard-core cyclist and makes us look somewhat pampered with all our fancy technical gear! After dinner Faruk showed us some slides of his bike trip, which were really interesting, however, we didn’t last long before we slipped into a much-needed sleep. The next few days are spent resting and recuperating, Fatih is a good cook and whips up some delicious meals for us while we are at the cabin. One interesting thing we tried was small whole fish fried it was quite similar to whitebait apart from these fish are a specialty of the Black Sea, they were very tasty but not really André’s cup of tea. The views of the surrounding mountains and Niksar far below are spectacular and we very much enjoy being in the mountains; the air feels crisp and clean and it is a good place to recover from being sick. We also got a chance to spend some time with Faruk, he is a very kind and generous man who seems to have lead an interesting and fulfilling life, and still even at 87 he is an avid environmentalist.
After a few days of rest the weather improved along with our health and we decide it was time to move on. In order to make it North to the Black Sea coast; we had some more climbing to do before we would be over the mountains and then it would be all downhill to the coast – hooray! The ride after leaving the cabin was one of the nicest in a long time, the sky was blue and surrounding us were snow-capped mountains in almost every direction. Once we made it over the peaks we spent the rest of the afternoon descending down the mountainside, it was stunning. On our rides we have now become pretty good at dealing with the dogs we encounter, stopping the bikes and throwing stones at them seems to work pretty well. Most of the stray dogs are actually not too aggressive but they are pretty big. It is interesting, as Turkey seems to have one main type of dog breed that you see everywhere, whereas in other countries the stray dogs have been a complete mix. This dog is fairly large, fair coloured and has a black nose, it is called a Kangal and it is their national dog.
When we finally reached the coast we were met with a view of the majestic mountains dropping straight into the Black Sea – it was beautiful. However, what was not so nice was the highway we would be on until we reached Georgia. We almost immediately missed the smaller mountain roads, but were grateful that the road would be flat for a few days. The highway had a large hard shoulder so it didn’t feel unsafe; it was just loud with all the traffic and kind of boring. The only bit I really disliked were the many tunnels we had to pass through; the hard shoulder would disappear, it would be quite dark and you could hear the trucks behind rumbling towards you, which felt unnerving as I felt quite vulnerable. However, with our lights and high-vis panniers we were always very visible.
Cycling on the highway was not very eventful, we listened to some Japanese language lessons and we covered many kilometres a day easily. Always the highlight of our days would be the people we met along the way. We stayed with some lovely families who saved us from camping by the highway and we also stayed with some equally lovely warmshowers hosts. Erdu in Ordu with his house full of birds and a lovely girl in Besikduzu who taught us how to play the game ‘okay’ in a local tea house. (Okay is a game using numbered tiles in four different colours and you have to try and group all your tiles into either matching numbers or consecutive numbers in the same colour. It is a very fun game and very popular in Turkey with men in tea cafes – they play it at a much faster speed than we did though!) We were also treated to lunch in a delicious beachside restaurant owned by Ali, another warmshowers contact. The restaurant was very relaxed and reminded me of the type of place you would find in North Devon in England. Ali is a lovely, friendly guy that works far too hard.
Our last major stop in Turkey before we crossed the border was in the city of Trabzon. We planned to visit a few embassies and try and sort out some visa stuff, however, this did not go to plan as there is no Uzbekistan embassy in Trabzon and we decided not to bother with pleading with the Iranians as we felt it was not going to get us anywhere! The place we stayed at in Trabzon was beyond exhausting to get to. Not only was it up the steepest of steep hills, which we had to push our bikes up most of the way, it was also dark and the drivers were pretty crazy- especially the Dolmus minibus taxi drivers. Our home for the next few nights was the gym in a private student university accommodation block on top of a hill overlooking the city. Sedat who owns the place is a keen motorbike tourer and loves travelling and is very kind and generous to other travellers. We enjoyed a hot dinner and a hot shower and were very happy to be staying there. During our stay at the university digs we were befriended by a large number of curious students! Three of these students in particular decided to take us under their wing and escort us to the famous Sumela Monastery, which is located about 40kms away from the city in the Pontic Mountains. We travelled there in a Dolmus minibus which was quite the experience being on the other side of van versus pedestrians/cyclists! It was still pretty terrifying but the drive through the mountains was stunning as usual but this time we got to enjoy it from the relative comfort of a minibus, which is a rare treat indeed. The monastery was built between AD 386 and the 13th century and is both built into and carved in the cliff side high up in the mountains. It is overlooked by snow-capped peaks and has views down into the river in the valley below. It is a truly peaceful place to be. The most interesting part of the monastery for me was the painted frescoes inside and out of the Rock Church. Sadly they had been vandalised quite a bit but they were still really lovely with lots of vivid colours. They date back to the 18th century and tell the story of Christ and the Virgin Mary. We felt really lucky to get a chance to explore this spiritual place. On the way back to the accommodation we were taken out student style and went for some cheap, greasy food followed by a few games of table football, André quickly reverted back to his student self and got incredibly into the game and very competitive! The students were very sweet and seemed keen to do their own bike trip in the future which we vigorously encouraged.
Unfortunately whilst in Trabzon we discovered that we have had a number of our things stolen! I had been suspecting it might have happened for a while but needed time to go through all my panniers and check that I hadn’t just misplaced things. Sadly even more items than I initially thought were missing. In total twelve things were taken from both of us, they were mostly small things that were easy not to miss at first but a few of them were pretty important like scarves, long johns, waterproof hat and socks. This is the first bad thing to happen on this trip at the hands of other people and it is especially sad as we befriended the people that stole from us and spent a number of days in their company. We felt disappointed and betrayed but decided to try and focus on all the other nice and generous people we had met and not to get down about a couple of bad apples.
Our final couple of days in Turkey were spent knuckling down and peddling to Georgia, we were both feeling bored of the highway in Turkey and ready for a change. On our second to last night a car pulled over onto the hard shoulder next to us and out jumped a student studying to be a ship captain offering to share his home with us for the night. We had a very nice evening with the captain and his girlfriend, they cooked us dinner and then took us out to play more ‘okay’ at a modern, trendy tea café which was very different and more expensive than the traditional, smoke-filled ones occupied solely by men (this one was smoked filled too, just for the record). It was a really nice way to end our stay in Turkey and experience one last night of the wonderful Turkish hospitality that has dominated our time here
Turkey has been incredibly kind to us and as excited as we are about moving on to the next part of our adventure, we are sad to leave this country and know that we will miss it, especially the tea, the beautiful landscape and the warmth of the Turkish people. Turkey, we love you. You will be missed.
Up next… an unexpected turn – Georgia!
For more photos of our time in Turkey click : HERE