After a week in Istanbul, we got up early Saturday morning and biked through Sultanamhet to the ferry terminal. We boarded a boat bound for Yalova, and an hour and a half later we were in Asia. Once we got our bearings, we rode south towards Lake Iznik on a main road with a wide shoulder. After biking over a small pass (our first climbing of the trip!), things started to change. We stopped in a park in a small town just before turning east to follow the shore of the lake, and I noticed that most of the women had their heads covered; in my jersey and bike shorts, I felt quite exposed. Nobody seemed to mind, though, and a man appeared out of nowhere with 2 cups of tea; he motioned that it was on him, and promptly disappeared. After consulting the maps and gratefully downing our tea, we continued on our way. We were still on a main road, but instead of the gas stations that lined our earlier route, we saw olive groves and orchards, and in between them women wearing baggy pants and headscarves tilled the soil with hoes. Every once in awhile a couple would pass us on their tractor, going between their homes and fields. This sort of landscape wasn’t too surprising, but it came as a bit of a shock after Istanbul, a slick, modern city that suddenly felt like another country entirely. One family gave us a handful of cherries and a fruit called erik – it looks and tastes a bit like unripe plums, but we haven’t confirmed what it actually is.
We found a wonderful campsite just past the lake in one of these groves, away from the main road and looking rather untended. We woke up to a light drizzle, but it cleared up as we finished what we now think is the only flat road in Turkey and started to climb. This was the first real test: we are out of shape, we’re using new setups (breaking a cardinal rule of bike touring), and we are carrying way too much stuff. Nonetheless, we gained about 4,000 feet and wanted to go further, but when we stopped to try to buy food for dinner, we couldn’t find a market; instead we were convinced to eat, and then camp, at a roadside restaurant run by a man called Tarzan Ali. Part of what sealed the deal was the English-speaking man who suddenly emerged: Mehmet, Tarzan’s brother, who had just gotten back from visiting his son in Palo Alto. He was excited to meet people from the Bay Area, and he called up his son who had a short conversation with David. Suddenly the world was feeling a lot smaller. In the middle of dinner (which they refused to let us pay for), the call to prayer rang out and Mehmet excused himself to go to the mosque. His sister Fatima stayed at the table with us, and we had a relatively substantive conversation in Turkish (and charades), thanks to our phrasebook.
Our plans to leave early to make up for the short day before were foiled when we woke to heavy rain. We slept in until it slowed down, had another cup of tea from Tarzan, and continued up the road. This was a rough day; we had trouble finding food at one point, and it seemed as if the old men at the entrance to one village were shooing us away. It turned out that they were just telling us there was no market there, but their lack of smiles – and our inability to communicate – made us feel a bit off. We eventually found a little market down the road, run by a friendly old man and his adorable grandchildren. The kids got their bikes out to show us and they also let us use their wifi, which was helpful for setting up places to stay in Ankara. Part of the reason we hadn’t ridden far the first couple of days was because we had to take long breaks to do general housekeeping – setting up hosts, looking into visas, attending to business back home.
We got extremely muddy that night, as it had just rained and the only place we could find to camp required a trek down a mucky side road. The next day, however, was awesome. We started with a long, gradual descent through the town of Nallihan, then climbed over a small pass. When we descended the other side, the landscape changed completely.
Gone were the damp green mountains, replaced by red and white sedimentary rock folded over itself every which way. In between these rocky outcrops were bright green wheat fields. Later in the ride we saw sprinklers, but initially it appeared to be rain-fed. We knew there was a reservoir on the route, so we were excited when we saw water and large transmission lines stretching in several directions. We never actually saw the dam, though. Instead, we came upon a wetland teeming with birds – the dam has created an artificial wetland that is now a protected ‘bird paradise.’ There was a walking trail and educational exhibits, including spotting scopes and placards explaining bird anatomy. It was lovely – despite our knee-jerk reaction to dams and what they do to habitat – and we wished we could have camped there.
It was too early to stop, though, and we continued on and soon passed through a construction zone – neither the first nor the last. Turkey is building like crazy, both in the cities and the countryside. We turned a corner and saw smokestacks in the distance, and suddenly it became clear where the transmission lines were coming from. A coal-fired power plant was on the side of the road, with operations barely concealed behind a chain-link fence stretching on for a kilometer or two. It was fascinating to see coal transported along conveyer belts, dropping through chutes, and ultimately making its way to the plant. At the entrance David was told not to take photos, but the rest of the operation was clearly visible from the road. After several more hours of climbing, we passed through the town of Beypazar and found a place to camp for the night. It was there that we discovered that we were missing a tent pole, left behind by accident at the muddy campsite the night before. Fortunately David was able to rig something with a tripod and it didn’t rain, so we were fine. However, the next morning the stove stopped working. It had been hissing and not very hot the night before, and it gave up the ghost that morning. I think the fuel line is clogged and hope to sort it out in Ankara. It’s psychologically tough to have equipment problems this early in the trip, but they are fixable.
Our final day was equally long, but not as eventful – instead of wetlands and power plants, we had lots of climbing and then 20km or so getting into Ankara. We followed a brand new 4-lane highway with a wide shoulder and surprisingly few cars, but they were moving quickly. Eventually we were able to turn off and wind through almost equally unpleasant city streets to the house of our Warm Showers host, Deniz. We met his 3 cats, looked at a map to learn where the camping and bike stores are, had a shower and dinner, and collapsed.
From Istanbul to Ankara was 430 km (270 miles) with 5,000 m (17,000 feet) of climbing. Not a crazy ride, but doing it in five days on heavy bikes, with basically no training, was a challenge. We have learned a thing or two about pacing ourselves and look forward to getting rid of some extra weight. We also have a lot of errands in Ankara – getting visas for the Central Asian countries, fixing the stove and tent, finding hosts along the route ahead, writing blog posts, and editing photos and video. It was a good introduction to Turkey. Riding from modern and touristy Istanbul through the countryside was like stepping back in time. People have been helpful and friendly, and our (extremely limited) Turkish is improving, but communication is a major challenge, especially in such a different culture. We are getting used to the call to prayer 5 times a day, but we are still adjusting to the range of conservativeness – particularly in how women dress – and I’m still figuring out what I feel most comfortable wearing when in small towns. We’re breaking for a week in Ankara to get our visas and meet with people working in the environmental sector, and then we’ll ride towards Cappadocia and the southeast. We’re looking forward to seeing more of Turkey!