Leaving Istanbul by ferry is much more civilised than taking our chances on the roads again. Apart from the 7:30am sailing time that is.
Once across the sea of Marmara we arrive in the small town of Mudanya and our wheels touch down on Asian soil at last. The route up through Bursa isn’t quite the easy escape east that we’d hoped for so again we’re mixing with fast traffic and big trucks for the first 40km.
But once we’re under the motorway and past the airport it all quietens down and we find our own peaceful bit of tarmac leading us out into the hills. The road we’ve chosen isn’t the standard route for cyclists, who tend to take the faster, flatter option through Eskisehir. In fact it barely shows up on Google maps but is much more prominent on our paper map so we think it’s worth a look to get off the main highway. It turns out to be a great, scenic choice.
A hilltop quarry is an inviting campsite but I fail to spot the deep clay on the way in and push the bike right into it. 30 mins later we’ve extracted it again and got most of the mud out from under the mudguards which we now know work as effective mud collectors.
It’s good to be back in the tent and now we’re not worried about the plummeting temperatures as we’re properly equipped. Our new quilt acquisition is longer, wider and thicker than the old Thermarest model and is more snug than a bug in a rug. The difficulties with getting it are already a distant memory.
The hills get longer and steeper the next day. There are snowcapped mountains on the horizon on our right and huge cliffs on the horizon on our left so plenty to look at as we spin onwards, upwards, downwards then upwards some more. We stop for çay and pastries in Bilecik, which sits at 500m, then drop down into a valley to 250m knowing that altitude needs to be gained again, this time with interest.
We have only managed 60km by the time we arrive in Sögüt at a height of 600m but the cumulative climbing and severe gradients have left our legs telling us they’ve had enough. A wooded park provides a good spot for the tent and we’re joined by a curious boy who collects some firewood for us. It’s a bit too public for us to get a fire started so we try to explain that we’re very grateful but really just need to cook food and get into our tent, then he runs away.
Thankfully the next day starts easily as what goes up must come down. Almost straight away we drop into a magnificent steep sided canyon right down to the river at the bottom. On the way we zoom past hundreds of tangled poly tunnels. It’s as if a huge storm has ripped them all apart. The farmers don’t seem too worried though and smile and wave before getting back to the task of unraveling it all.
We think we’ve got the road to ourselves until we round a corner and see an unusual rock up ahead. It turns out to be a tortoise taking a breather during its epic hike to the other side of the valley.
Quick as a flash Kirsty is off the back of the bike and carries it to safety before any cars can crush it. Hopefully she put it on the side that it was trying to get to otherwise that will be one angry tortoise.
While enjoying çay in the village of Inhisar an English speaker is fetched who explains that we are now in an area of heavy agriculture where they grow anything and everything. It’s currently onion season. When the snow fell a couple of weeks ago the village was completely cut off and had no power for 2 to 3 days so it was very lucky we hadn’t arrived sooner. We get given a grapefruit by a passerby, presumably grown locally, before we head off again.
The valley really starts to impress through Saricakagen with amazing colours on the jagged cliffs. A geologist would describe them better but there are bands of red, green and orange made even more vivid as the sun starts to go down.
The next day we’re straight into a 15%-20% climb before the porridge has even had a chance to digest (the porridge topping of choice is now a tahini and grape molasses paste). It’s our payment for a day on the valley floor and the only way out. The effort keeps us warm though as it’s a much colder morning. We’re grateful to find a small cafe with a blazing stove in a tiny village at the top. The owner is deaf so no problem with our lack of Turkish as we all resort to basic sign language. The now very familiar stirring teaspoon action gets a resounding nod.
There are a few more 20% climbs along a ridge being grazed by various flocks of long horned sheep and then we get to enjoy cashing in our potential energy and hit 70 kph on a long descent into Nallihan.
While enjoying complimentary coffee in a mini market the owner suggests we head for a lake called Bird Paradise for the evening. It sounds like a great place to camp so we crank up the gears and get going.
From Nallihan the view changes again. This time we have a wide arid plain and a long straight road right through the middle of it. There are more coloured cliffs in blues and reds. The 1kg of bulgar wheat that we’d bought helps us pick up speed on the gentle downward gradient but needs to be eaten before the next climbing day!
Bird paradise turns out to be cycle tourist’s paradise too. The artificial lake was formed when a dam was constructed downstream and is now home to tens of thousands of migrating birds. There is a glorious backdrop of mountainous cliffs in multicoloured stripes and the marshland surrounding the lake is teeming with activity.
We’re very grateful when the park warden tells us it’s no problem to camp by the side of the lake and we get one of the best views from the tent so far. It’s also the first night for ages we haven’t been woken by the ezan before dawn, just a few howls in the distance that may or may not have been live versions of the stuffed wolf we’d seen in the visitors centre.
The next couple of days aren’t quite as picturesque but the climbing is much more gradual. We’re on our way up onto a plateau that a lot of central Turkey sits on at around 900-1000m above sea level.
Stopping at the off-puttingly named ‘Kiler’ supermarket in Beypazari we’re loading up the rack bag with a few meals worth of food when the manager comes out and offers us çay. We’re then led to the canteen and asked if we’d like to join the rest of the staff for lunch. Now Kirsty and I were loyal customers of our local Aldi back in Bristol but I can’t remember the manager even saying hello so there are clearly customer relation lessons to be learnt from the Turks. I expect the Aldi staff don’t get fed quite as well either.
Near the end of the day we get a stiff climb from 700m to over 1100m through Ayas that brings us out onto a dual carrirageway with a high barrier preventing us from getting off the road. Just as we think that we’ll be trapped until Ankara, a layby appears with a gap in the barrier and an adjacent wood. We hop off the road, get the tent up, the stove on and a fire lit for our highest camp site yet. Getting close to the fire and sipping ouzo before diving under the quilt helps us shrug off the fact that its -4c. Did I mention how much better life is with our new quilt?
Ankara may be the capital but its only a third of the size of Istanbul. Still big enough for us to be reluctant to take on the roads into the centre so we wheel the bike onto a metro train in Sincan to make the final 20km more pleasurable. 50p well spent.
Although we probably didn’t give it much of a chance, few people had much to recommend of their capital so we plan on a brief visit. It seems to be a fairly bland, very busy, business city built in a bowl surrounded by steep hills.
Our task is to visit a good bike shop,Erdoganlar, and pick up a few bits and pieces, stay overnight to celebrate our 200th day on the road then get out the next morning.
I’m sure regular readers are tired of hearing about our wheels so I’ll spare you the details but in short we need yet another new front tyre. The shop also happens to be a Vaude dealer so we pick up some spare buckles to replace the one broken in Istanbul. For some reason Vaude changed the design of the buckle between us buying the rear panniers and getting the front ones and the new design, although looking better, is not nearly as sturdy so it’s handy to have some more in reserve.
We spend the night in a room in a hotel that doubles as a sweat lodge, get woken up by a faulty electronic door latch that refuses to stop beeping and then have to decamp to another room at 2am when it can’t be fixed. Who says sleeping in a tent is less civilised?
With a yawn, and after filling up at the breakfast buffet that includes chips and soup, we climb up to a chilly, windblown summit overlooking the whole of Ankara.
The wind blows from the north and places two icy hands on our shoulders to speed us south. Finally that pesky wind is on our side and begins making up for all those days when it was the other way round and it felt like riding through treacle.
Picking the truck stop with the largest number of vehicles outside on the basis it must be the best we head inside for a refuel. It’s packed with leather jacketed men, there’s a constant supply of çay moving round the room on trays and hazy smoke drifts out from the open fire, loaded with kebab skewers, in the corner. We meet a couple of drivers who know a thing or two about long distance journeys and they invite us to sit with them. There aren’t many railways in Turkey and it’s a big country so there are thousands of trucks moving container loads of goods on every road. Every few minutes we’ve had a friendly, and often musical, toot as they come thundering past, always giving us plenty of space. We seem to be kindred spirits.
One of our lunch mates is heading for Iraq and offers to smuggle us over the border but that’s an adventure for another day so we politely decline.
Back on the road we sit tall to get maximum purchase from the helpful northerly breeze and arrive at the shores of Tuz Gölü in time to watch the sun go down and with just enough light to find a spot for the tent.
Tuz Gölü is the second largest salt lake in the world and in the summer dries out to form a vast, blindingly white crust. But at this time of year there is a shallow covering of water, only 2m at its deepest point. With the right conditions it takes on a mirror like appearance with some spectacular photo opportunities.
When we crawl out of the tent in the morning that’s exactly what we see. Despite being barely above freezing I roll up my trousers and wade out while Kirsty snaps away. Losing the odd toe to frostbite seems worth it for the results. A few minutes later the wind picks up again and the mirror effect is gone.
There’s nothing like a bit of cycling to warm you up again so that’s exactly what we do. ‘Tost’ and çay for second breakfast then we round a corner to see mount Hasan rising up from horizon to a height of 3268m. And it stays there for the rest of the day, getting bigger and closer until we arrive in Aksaray near its base.
It’s been a great few days with plenty of pleasant surprises and Turkey has really been showing off its wonderful scenery and huge generosity. The town of Aksaray has a few more surprises in store as our fortunes change significantly but that’s a story for another post.