Cows lined the main road, farmers saw to their rice paddies and goats grazed on acres of grassland. The bridge border not only marked the end of one country and start of a new one, but it created a physical line between two cultures. It was clear that we had now left the comforts of the EU.
We headed north along some of the nicest roads I’d ridden on since Slovenia. We passed over rolling green hills, farmland and more rice paddies. The landscape was surprisingly similar to that of the UK’s.
The good progress we had made since the border was stalled when another one of Joe’s spokes broke – the second in a matter of hours. With our confidence knocked, we continued on.
At the top of a large climb, we were greeted by a horizon of dark purple. Flashes of light lit up the sky, followed by rumbles of thunder. By the time we had reached the bottom of the hill, the storm was within touching distance. As it edged closer, dust filled the air, creating a wall of orange smoke.
We pushed down hard on the pedals. But, in what felt like seconds, we were being blown sideways in a dust-heavy crosswind. Large droplets of water soaked our clothes whilst electronically-charged forks made landfall.
With fields on either side, we made our way to the nearest mosque (which was directly in front of us). Sat next to the mosque was a tea house. Without a second thought, we were ushered into the tea house by the locals. We waited out the storm and enjoyed our first taste of Turkish hospitality. Over a glass of cay (tea), we communicated the only way we knew how – through images and maps. One of the men looked at me and enquired: “Kazk boy?”. I laughed and replied: “No, English”. He looked confused. Once it stopped raining, we thanked them and continued on our way.
We met our Warmshowers host, Seref, at a petrol station. Seref is an English teacher at a private school in Uzunkopru and a sourdough enthusiast. After drinking coffee and tasting his homemade bread, we were given a small tour of the town, and settled down for dinner at “the best meatball restaurant”.
It didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to the state of the Turkish economy. With inflation spiralling out of control, the Turkish Lira is decreasing in value by the day. In 2021, the Lira dropped in value by 44%, due to the President’s refusal to raise interest rates. This threw the country into an economic crisis, which has affected every aspect of normal life. For example, a 1.5 litre bottle of water was 1TL, it's now 5TL – a five times increase on an essential product. Seref spoke at length about the struggles his family, and others like his, are facing due to the crisis.
After dropping the bikes off at a hotel, Seref took us to his friend’s tea house. We drank tea until midnight and discussed the issues with Turkey, the war in Ukraine and the joys that come from teaching English. It was then, when he invited us to talk to one of his classes in the morning. We accepted the invitation and agreed to meet him at 8.45am.
It was a struggle to get out of bed. But, we managed. Seref met us at the hotel and we walked over to the school. He looked like he’d slept for 10 hours.
I had no idea what to expect – but the 16 year old students were surprisingly enthusiastic. We introduced ourselves before I explained the trip’s: what, how and why. For a full forty minutes, the questions kept coming. A student asked: “When will you reach New Zealand?''. I found the response to my answer particularly interesting. I replied: “April 2023”. The class erupted into laughter. I asked Seref why that was funny, and he explained that the Presidential election was in 2023. It was interesting to see that the mere mention of the year, about a topic completely unrelated to politics, evoked an emotional response from teenagers. It speaks volumes about the weight that the election holds.
Before we knew it, the bell went. The students took photos with us and followed us on Instagram. Afterwards, I asked Seref if he thought they enjoyed the class. He replied: “Yes definitely. You’re like Rockstars to them.” It was an incredibly rewarding experience and I was grateful for the opportunity. I could also get used to being a Rockstar.
We got Joe’s spokes fixed before cycling towards Luleburgaz. The cycle was only 45 miles, but we started close to midday. Time wasn’t on our side. Halfway in, we stopped for a drink in a village. We joined the local old boys for a cup of cay, pepsi and a bottle of water. Again, we communicated through pictures. They didn’t accept our money, but wished us well on our travels. A few more miles down the road, we stopped for Kofte in a restaurant. Here, we met Naz. Naz married an Englishman and had lived in North Yorkshire for 20 years. She moved back to Turkey during Covid, and was overwhelmed that two people were speaking English in her village.
We joined her and her cousins in the town hall for coffee and tea. She was an incredibly warm-hearted woman and smothered us like we were her own children. We spoke for half an hour before saying our goodbyes. “I’ll pray for you and will be thinking of you – stay safe”, she said as we gave her a hug and got on the bikes. It’s amazing how a short encounter can have a lasting impact. I felt like I’d known her for years.
Two minutes later, a man sitting outside an ice cream shop waved us down. We couldn’t refuse ice cream, so we got off the bikes. He spoke little English, but screamed to an empty street: “THE ENGLISH ARE HERE! COME SPEAK ENGLISH WITH THEM.” This aroused little interest.
It was now late in the afternoon when we eventually left the town. Both of us were blown away by the hospitality we’d experienced in the little time we’d been in the country.
We arrived in Luleburgaz at 6pm. We had arranged to stay at the Bike Academy, which is a locally funded project to encourage children to cycle. They also host bike tourers for free in their hostel. The hostel was fully booked, but they put us up in a hotel. Before going to the hotel, we spoke with a few other tourers about their trips and routes. I loved it.
In our hotel room, Joe says: “Ed, mate, you were properly in your element there”.
“I found my people, Joe”, I replied.
“Do you want to go back and chat to them”?
We were hungry and needed to plan the route for the next couple days, so I replied: “Nah, let’s find a nice restaurant with aircon and WiFi”.
We woke up late, but had enough time for a Turkish breakfast. We expected a day of elevation, so did as we always do, and put off leaving until the hottest time of day. As we veered onto the main road, I heard someone call our names. I turned around and saw Adrin, a tourer I had spoken to at the hostel. He was drinking cay with a British guy called Dec. We settled in for the afternoon – and spoke about everything from navigation tools to kit lists, life before travel to routes we had planned for our journeys’ ahead.
Dec is a 21 year guy from Southampton – he was backpacking around eastern Europe before he became sick of living hostel to hostel. In Austria, a bike tourer suggested he travel by bike. Off the back of this, Dec ordered a bike from eBay for €100, bought a rear rack and cable tied his backpack to it. His budget is £5 per day and he plans to cycle until the money runs out. At the time, he didn’t have a tent, so slept in bushes.
In my opinion, this is the most authentic way to bike tour; it’s how the old guys used to do it. Cycling as a means to travel. And not getting caught up in the kit list or bicycle specs. It's literally tying a bag to a second-hand bike and pedalling.
Dec asked if he could cycle with us to Istanbul, a two day’s ride. We were happy to have company, so he ran back to the hostel and packed his bags. Joe turned to me and said: “You do realise, he will be a lot slower – you’re going to have to reduce the pace.” I hadn’t thought about this. Turns out Joe was right. But, it was OK. I had to learn to travel slower, ‘to not think about the destination, but the journey’– as I’d been told by many-a-wise traveller.
We followed the main road for 45 miles with an average speed of 10mph – this took some getting used to, but my legs appreciated the rest. As we neared the campsite, a big thunderstorm was brewing. We sped to the beach and set up camp quickly. Dec doesn’t usually pay to stay in campsites, so the price was a bit of a shock. We found shelter in the campsites’ restaurant and sat there for the remainder of the night; drinking beer and getting to know Dec.
15 miles in and we had reached the suburbs of Istanbul – a five lane road with a small hard shoulder. It was chaos. I learnt quickly that aggression, coupled with confidence, is a guaranteed way to meander Turkish traffic. A simple hand raise and cars will (usually) stop.
I've cycled in London for years, so I felt at home with traffic. The same can't be said for Dec. After a hill climb, he'd often catch us up and tell us how dangerous the road was. He was right, it was dangerous. And, I loved it.
With one hand raised and the other gripped to the handlebar, I weaved from lane one to three. I had a close encounter with a truck, a mere brush of my t-shirt. I then heard the sound of a tyre burn onto tarmac. I looked up and saw a bus, in lane five, emergency brake. It missed the car in front by a couple of inches. An adrenaline fuelled noise propelled out of my mouth, one that couldn't be heard over the ongoing traffic. This was followed by an uncontrolled grin: ‘Well, this is going to be fun’, I thought.
One last hill climb and we had Istanbul at our feet. As we descended, it hit me. We had made it to Istanbul. The last stop of the European leg. It was the first time I realised the enormity of what I was doing. ‘I’m cycling to the other side of the world – and I’ve just ridden across Europe!’, I said to myself.
With each pedal rotation, we got closer to our end goal: the Blue Mosque. We continued to meander our way through traffic until we reached the outer ring of the city centre. With a right turn, we followed a quieter coastal route towards Old Town. This coastal road was eight miles long. If this were London, we were in Zone 4. This difference is, Zone 4 is the sticks. Here, we were close to the city centre. Still, I can’t get my head around the size of Istanbul.
A quick, steep climb up cobbled streets and we reached the Blue Mosque. The most famous mosque in Turkey and Istanbul’s global landmark. It was a little underwhelming. For one, the Blue Mosque was under construction, so it was (mostly) hidden. For two, the square was heaving with tourists. For three, it was 8pm and I was wrecked. After a couple pictures with the bikes, we were about to leave when a man from Birmingham approached us. He told us that at 8.30pm the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia (situated opposite) do the call to prayer in sync – it’s the only time of day when that happens. So, we stayed and listened to this religious devotion with open ears. It didn’t disappoint.
The first point of call was the Old Bazaar. I was after a new t-shirt to cycle in, and Joe needed a souvenir. With Dec, we trept around an endless number of streets until we stumbled upon a store selling football t-shirts. We had seen Trabzonspor flags all over the city, so without doing any research, we assumed, as you would, that they were a local team. The store only had two Trabzonspor t-shirts and they were in our respective sizes. It was fait.
Admin done for the day, we made the short walk to the Blue Mosque. Again, it was underwhelming. The mosque was under construction, so there was nothing to see inside. We left and crossed the plaza to Hagia Sophia. Dec decided not to join as he had pepper spray on him (it’s illegal in Turkey), and he didn’t want the security guards to take it. Perplexed, myself and Joe entered the mosque and, reluctantly, bought a robe to cover our knees.
Built during the Roman Empire, the Hagia Sophia was originally a cathedral – paintings and mosaics of prominent christian figures decorate the walls and ceiling. Their faces now hidden behind large drapes – seen as a controversial move by the Turkish government. After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire, the cathedral was turned into a mosque – it stayed a mosque until 1935 when it was restored and kept as a museum. Only in recent years has it been turned back into a mosque.
Huge golden chandeliers hang from the dome-shaped ceiling, creating an overwhelming sense of grandeur. The architecture boasts a fusion of Ancient Rome and Ottoman influences, which highlight the building’s rich and contested history.
Without warning, the call to prayer started. Usually visitors aren’t allowed to be present when the prayer happens, but no one told us to leave. We sat behind a pillar and spectated. We watched as hundreds of men filled the floor. In sync, they followed the Imran’s commands and prayed together. The prayer involved bowing to the floor and repeating the Imran’s words. It was special to witness.
Back at the hostel, we changed into our Trabzonspor t-shirts and headed out to watch the Champions League Final. We soon realised that Trabzonspor is a football team in Trabzon, a town located on the Black Sea near the Georgian border. In Turkey, the team that wins the Super Lug has their flag hung across every major town and city in Turkey (imagine if that happened in the UK, there’d be riots). Trabzonspor were the league winners. After a few pints, the t-shirts got interest from locals. They were confused as to why we were wearing them (Istanbul has three of the best teams in Turkey). When we said we were English, jaws dropped.
Coincidently, two friends from London, Tamer and Lucy, were in town. They joined the party and we were out until 4am.
Istanbul was hot. Over 30C. I woke to a banging headache and an unusual craving to lie on grass. On the cycle into the city, I hadn’t seen any green space. I panicked. “ I need to lie on grass in the shade. It’s too hot. Istanbul has no grass. This city is dry.” were the statements I made from our oven of a hostel room. It’s true, the centre of Istanbul lacks any green space.
After a struggle to digest a Big Mac, we found a minute patch of grass in Taxism Square. We laid under a small tree for most of the afternoon, until the guilt of wasting a day got too much. With guilt in toe, we walked the short distance to an Irish Pub and watched the F1. Shortly afterwards, we met Tamer and Lucy for dinner. They were equally as hungover, but we still managed a bottle of Raki over a fish tapas.
We left Dec in the hostel and moved into an Airbnb with aircon – money well spent. We de-robed our bikes and caught a ferry to the Anatolian (Asian) side of Istanbul. We cycled along the coast to Moda, a trendy part of town, and ate a hefty Turkish breakfast.
Belly’s full, we boarded a boat to the Prince Islands. We chose Buyukada, the largest of the Prince catalogue. Residents move around the island by bicycle or golf buggy – perfect for a quick cycle tour. We followed a steep incline to an abandoned orphanage, before tackling the climb to Aya Yorgi Kilisesi, the highest point on the island.
The route was steep, the steepest I’d experienced on the trip. It was also cobbled. A few metres from the start of the climb, one-by-one, novices got off their saddles and pushed their bikes. We confidently cycled past, feet firmly pushed on the pedals. 20 minutes into the climb, Joe floated the idea of walking. There was no way in hell I was getting off the bike. I’d just cycled a continent, I wasn’t going to be defeated by a cobbled hill with no weight on the bike. I vocalised this, so we both persevered. With sweat drenched t-shirts, we made it to the top (without taking a foot off the pedal). The view focused in on the Anatolian side of Istanbul; a sprawling metropolis of high-rise buildings that stood shoulder to shoulder.
By the time we reached the mainland, the sun had started to set. We got back on the bikes and raced to the Camlica tower, a TV station with panoramic views of the entire city. After we watched the sun melt into the horizon, we coincidently timed our departure with the 8.30pm call to prayer.
As we stepped out of the tower, 4,000 mosques let out their echoed chorus of Islamic song. We stood and listened at the highest point in Istanbul.
The day we’d all been waiting for – the walking tour.
We met at the fountain between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The tour stayed within a few hundred metres of these two landmarks, but it was still incredibly informative about Turkey and Istanbul.
Throughout the tour, our guide was conscious of police presence. In Turkey, if anyone speaks out against the government or the President, they will be arrested. The guide was explaining this to the group, when they paused. A man was filming. The guide briefly stopped the tour, until the man had put his phone away and deleted the video. If the video was uploaded online and seen by the police or government official, the guide would have been arrested.
The guide was matter-of-fact and to the point. Turkey is currently a secular state – a democratically run country with religious neutrality – but the government wants to change this. The government is slowly introducing legislation with similar traits to Islamic law. Hence why, interest rates haven’t been increased – any type of interest is forbidden in Islam.
The tour took us to the Hagia Sophia (our second visit). We sat on the floor in the middle of the mosque, surrounded by hundreds of other tourists. The Hagia Sophia was built so those praying did so in the direction of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is in a similar direction to Mecca, so the need to change direction of prayer, when it transitioned from cathedral to mosque, was only by a couple of feet. The tour guide was explaining this, when Joe turned to me and whispered: “Why do Christians need to pray towards Jersey?”.
I looked at him, confused. “Mate, it’s Jerusalem!”, I replied, before erupting into a silent belly laugh. For the next 10 minutes, I sat on the floor of the Hagia Sophia with a creased face trying to hold it together. “Jersey!”, “JERSEY?!” I'd repeat before falling back into laughter.
The tour had given us a discount for a Hamam – a traditional Turkish bath. Straight after the tour we headed to one in the centre of Old Town. With little knowledge on what to expect, we naively paid the entrance fee, which included a body scrub and a free face mask.
We were ushered upstairs and shown to our changing room. A man gave us a thin towel and small cotton bag each and left us in the room. We both felt completely overwhelmed and out of our depth. We looked at the towels and then at each other: “What do we do now?”, Joe said with a slight quiver in his voice.
I opened the door, which led onto a landing, and asked the man who gave us the garments: “Excuse me, what do we do?”. He made a gesture, which suggested we undress and wrap the towels around our waist.
I shut the door and repeated the motion to Joe. Joe replied: “Why have we only been given one changing room?” “How do you wrap the towel around the waist?” “What do you do with the pouch, is it for our phones?”. We were lost.
Once again, I opened the door. The man replied with the same undressing gesture.
“Err, OK. But, how do you wrap them?”, I questioned.
He replied with the same motion as before, but with a more obvious wrapping of the waist movement.
“Right. I think it’s just a wrap around the waist like a normal towel,” I explained to Joe. We erupted into nervous laughter.
Empty cotton bag in-hand, we left the changing room, wearing nothing but a towel. As we walked along the landing, we saw a group of Brits on the other side of the room – you could smell the awkwardness from a mile off. At least, we weren’t alone.
The door opened to the Turkish bath and we were greeted by a wall of 40C steam and three overweight men. “Go, shower!” one demanded, as he pointed to the showers. Without wanting to hesitate, I practically ran there.
After a quick wash and two toilet visits (to flush away the nerves), we went back to the entranceway and had a face mask applied. We had to wait 10 minutes for the face mask to do what face masks do – we laughed through its entirety.
After another shower, we entered the sauna chamber. In traditional Turkish baths, the chamber has a raised marble slab at its centre. The slab is to lie down on and rest; this helps heat the body temperature, and make the blood flow around the body better. It’s prescribed as a treatment for many health problems, including muscle fatigue. In theory, it was perfect for my overworked chicken sticks.
As I tried to get used to the heat, I lay face-up on the slab and closed my eyes. A few minutes had passed, before:
“WHAT IS YOUR NAME?”, a loud booming voice echoed around the chamber.
I opened my eyes and found a man standing over me.
“E…um…Ed. My name is Ed.” I replied, trying to disguise my terror at what was happening. “And yours?”
“AHMEEED!”, he bellowed, with an incredibly accurate Gandalf the Grey impression.
“Nice to meet you, Ahmed”, I lied.
I sat up immediately and pulled my legs round so they hung off the slab. Ahmed started to pour 40C+ water over my head – four to five buckets worth of the stuff. I peered over at Joe, who was on the other side of the room, to make sure I wasn’t alone in this violation. I wasn’t. He was receiving the same treatment.
“LIE DOOOWN”, Ahmed echoed.
Before he’d finished saying the word ‘down’, I was back in my original position on the slab. He picked up the cotton bag, which was next to me, and placed it over his hand. The cotton bag was a body scrub, not a phone case...
For the next ten to fifteen minutes, Ahmed scrubbed all the dead skin off my body. The cotton bag was black by the end. The scrub finished with a bubble wash, a painful massage and more buckets of water.
After one last shower, I went back to the entranceway. Here, I was told to take off my wet towel and put a dry one on. I was standing in front of everyone who was at the entrance. I looked at the man (it wasn’t Ahmed, a different guy) and said: “What, right now?”
“CHANGE!”, he screamed.
“CHANGE, NOW”, he repeated.
I hesitated again.
The man was now holding a dry towel open.
With no obvious escape route, I dropped the wet towel, bearing all for the world to see, and wrapped the dry one around my waist. At this very moment, I experienced peak spotlight syndrome.
Back in the changing room, we relived the experience. I can’t say I’d recommend it, but once I got over the ordeal, I left the Hamam feeling more relaxed and clean.
We decided to do something different, so paid to see the Dervish Dancers – a traditional Turkish dance, which is marketed as a spiritual performance. I’d never choose to watch a dance in London, so I don’t know why I thought I’d enjoy one in Istanbul. It was only an hour long, but I was asleep within ten minutes. I woke up five minutes before the end and hadn’t missed much, apparently.
It was Joe’s last day in Istanbul, and of the trip. I woke with a cold and felt quite run down. We decided to tick off Topkapi Palace before going back to Old Bazaar – Joe needed to buy memorabilia of the trip.
After we’d packed and I’d booked myself into a hotel for the next three nights – I felt rough and couldn’t face a hostel – we had a beer at a rooftop bar, which overlooked Galata Tower. We then met Tamer and Lucy for the last supper by the river. We got carried away and ended up out in Taxism until 3am. Tamer is a bad influence.
I woke up feeling more rough than the previous day – probably the beer. I helped Joe take his bike to the taxi and waved him off. As I walked back to the apartment, I felt a bit lost – probably the hangover.
Joe was only supposed to be on the trip for two weeks, but ended up staying on the saddle for five. In total, we’d spent six weeks travelling together – well over half of the entire trip. We started cycling with Joe very much as a passenger – he’d respectfully take a back seat on the route, how long we’d stay in each place, and the accommodation we’d stay in. Joe was conscious that we had to stick to the timeline and budget I set, which was great. However, this changed when he decided to extend to Istanbul. From then onwards we worked as a team, and, in some ways, it became his trip too.
Cycling as a two is very different to doing it alone. As George said (the owner of a campsite on Thassos island), it’s knowing someone has your back and you have theirs. For example, a wild dog incident – there’s two people to fend them off. Or if there’s a headwind, you can turn to someone and moan or laugh about it. If a spoke breaks, there’s another person to discuss a plan on how to fix it. I pondered this as I packed my bags, and cycled to the hotel.
I got into the hotel room early and collapsed. I slept all afternoon, only leaving the hotel to get food and water. I used this time to plan the next stage of the trip and to get up to date on admin.
Days 59 - 60
The next two days, I continued to stay in bed. It was the first time I had stopped for more than a couple days since I left the UK. This was my body’s way of telling me to rest.
In a bid to skip the traffic and Istanbul’s motorway madness, I decided to get the ferry from Istanbul to Bursa. Dec messaged to say he was leaving Istanbul the same day I was. He wasn’t sure whether to take the route to Cappadocia or to head south. Either way, he decided to take the ferry to Bursa.