On the ferry to Bursa, we ran into a Swiss student. Elli was studying at a top University in Istanbul for a semester. We spoke to her for most of the journey and had lunch together in Bursa.
Elli had mixed feelings about attending a Turkish University. She found the constant discussion around politics tiresome: “It consumes every interaction”. She mentioned that 4/5 Turkish students she spoke to want to leave Turkey and work in Europe. This is a direct result of the governments’ pursuit for control, the cancellation of freedom of speech, and the country’s crippling currency. If this is true of the wider student population, it will result in a brain drain and cause further economic turmoil in years to come.
We also spoke about the divide between West and East – a topic I’ve discussed with locals myself. Like most countries, there’s regional splits and subcultures. But, the divide in Turkey seems to be vast. When talking about the election: “the only people who will vote for him are those in the East, they’re uneducated.” – were the words echoed by many. The term “uneducated” was thrown around by every single person I spoke to in the West.
As an outsider, I found this derogatory. Without looking too much into it: the West is (generally) wealthier; views are liberal, attitudes towards religion are relaxed, and English is widely spoken. Generally speaking, those living in the West see themselves as more European. Therefore, their views, ideologies and values are more Westernised.
The East, on the other hand, is considerably more conservative. Erdogan, the President of Turkey, is from the East – his conservatism is reflected in how he governs the country.
Therefore, he represents a minority (the East), causing deeper tensions and segregation with the West.
After lunch, Dec flipped a coin. Heads, he was going to Cappadocia. Tails, he was headed south. It landed on heads.
Back on the bike, we hugged the highway’s hard shoulder. The heat – intense. The need to wipe sweat from my face – constant. It didn’t take long before I was reminded of our different riding speeds. I had to cycle a lot slower than I was used to. But, I was grateful for the company and had plenty of time on my side.
We left Bursa and climbed high into the safe haven of the countryside. To our surprise, the road was littered with wild dogs – they scattered the shoulder on both sides. Occasionally, they’d growl and stand in front of the bikes, but the pretence turned to nothing.
Eventually, we left the road for a dirt track. We walked the bikes through an open field, with an abandoned building to our right. The building was occupied by a shepherd and his flock, so we turned on stealth mode and kept our heads down. After a short walk, we found a bush with a flat, open space at its centre.
We cooked dinner and watched the stars wake up. It felt good to be back in nature.
The aim was to ride to Eskishier, a small town 60 miles east. But, like all big ideas, they never go to plan. After an intensive hill section through village roads, a group of labradors chased us onto the highway – a nice shot of adrenaline to wake us up.
Halfway through the ride a spoke broke.
I went to a bike shop in Bozuyuk, 30 miles west of Eskishier. Using Translate, I explained the issue and one of the mechanics fixed the spoke and tightened the intact ones. I felt like we were in safe hands.
I spoke to the mechanic's cousin on the phone. He lives in London, speaks English and works as a tailor for Alexander McQueen. The cousin said he’d make sure we were well looked after and had a place to stay for the night. Initially, I was over the moon, so gladly accepted a request to have our photos taken with the mechanic.
I told him that we also needed to eat. He instructed a 13-14 year old boy (who I’d assume was one of the employee’s sons) to show us where we could eat and sleep. He took us two miles back the way we’d come from, and dropped us off at a Kofte restaurant, next to the motorway. A small patch of grass lay between the restaurant and the motorway. He points at it and says: “Sleep here, OK.” We were both in disbelief, but nodded and said goodbye.
After Kofte (meatballs), we scoured Google Earth for green space. We agreed to cross the motorway and head into the hills. It was now 8pm and getting dark.
As soon as we got on the bikes, the boy returned with his friend. His friend could speak a little English and wanted to help. Like most of these encounters, their intentions were good, but they can often be a hindrance. Every suggestion we made, they disagreed with. They thought we should sleep in the McDonald’s car park. We didn’t. We climbed a ledge with a patch of levelled grass and decided to sleep there. I think the two teenagers just wanted to help, practise English and to learn about the trip. After another photoshoot, they left and we set up camp.
By camp, I mean we rolled out the sleeping mats and bags. The camp spot was within touching distance of a service station. So, for covert reasons, we left the tents in their bags (Dec caved and bought himself a tent in Istanbul – he was fed up with bugs crawling on his face).
I took advantage of the camp spot’s facilities. After a quick face wash in the service station and an Americano from the Tchibo coffee machine, I was good to go. The sleep hadn’t been as bad as expected – ⅗ stars. Marked down for noise and light pollution.
The ride was short, but we stopped at a petrol station for breakfast. Here, we were met by Oliver, another tourer. I had briefly met Oliver at the ferry terminal in Istanbul. He took a different route, but was on a similar path to us. It was nice to bump into another tourer, so we sat for a couple hours and discussed bike stuff. We cycled with Oliver for a short period before he headed off to meet his Warmshowers host.
In Eskisehir, we found a hostel for £4pn. Bargain, and within Dec’s budget. Win. Eskishier is known as the ‘Venice of Turkey’ due to its canal network and gondolas. The city is not what I expected to see in Turkey. It’s modern, westernised and full of young people. It could have been anywhere in Europe. It was nice and felt familiar.
Eskisehir was lovely, so we decided to spend the day there. I ticked off the admin list in the morning – and enjoyed being stationary.
Dinner was spent discussing the world of finance and Turkey’s economy with a German guy from the hostel. He chooses to go on holiday without his girlfriend, so he can party in hostels. Don’t know how he gets away with it.
The aim was to leave at 9.30am. As we packed up, a man walked into the hostel and bellowed: “Is that an English accent I hear”. I turn around to see an 80 year young chap, wearing a ‘British Paratroopers' cap, bounce towards us. Peter splits his time between Manchester and Eskishier. He’s travelled most of his life, and fell in love with the city after staying in the hostel.
We spoke to him for two hours. He spoke about travel before technology, when physical maps were the only way to navigate, and when life was less complicated. It was like listening to an audiobook about a long gone era, a land that no longer exists. I hung onto every word he said. I could have listened to him all day.
Two miles in and I heard an earth shuddering metallic twang. It was the nightmarish sound of a broken spoke. A fifth broken spoke. I couldn’t believe it. Most cyclists go through life without even knowing what a spoke is – and I’ve had five breaks in a matter of months. I whizzed back to town and saw the local mechanic. There was a crack in the rim, and it had gotten worse.
“This”, the mechanic points to the rim, “This is problem”.
He agreed to replace the rim and spoke. This took three hours. But, they only charged £10 for the work and they fitted an entirely new set of spokes. Ridiculous.
We set off at 4pm. 30 miles in, Dec got a puncture. The 60 mile target had gone out of the window. We rolled to a petrol station, and by the time it was fixed, the light had faded. A thunderstorm was on the horizon – we ran to the nearest field, found two conifers, and set up camp. Safely tucked away in our tents, rain made landfall, lightning lit the sky and the clouds began their Zeus-like ritual.
On the highway, I was back to my old ways (it didn’t take long). I told Dec I’d meet him at a town for lunch.
I kept a steady pace. And, it felt good. I enjoy cycling fast. I love racing the pacemaker on Garmin and competing against myself. Yes, the trip should be about the journey, not the destination (as has been mentioned a few times). But, part of the journey for me, is in the pure joy of cycling. If that means rushing through farmland on a highway, then so be it.
We’d got into a good routine of choosing something random from the menu. It turned out well each time. Today was particularly special. I don’t know what it was, but it tasted sublime.
My Turkish sim card was causing me grief. After lunch, Dec got a head start on the route, whilst I made use of the Turk Telecom shop in town. I was told not to use the new sim for an hour, so I temporarily pocketed it. The race was on. I’d given myself 10 miles to catch Dec. The road was relatively flat with good downhill sections. It was smooth and nice to ride on. The scenery was mostly fields; the landscape dotted with a few hamlets.
I could see a faint outline of Dec in the distance. I looked at the Garmin and saw I was nine miles in. I pushed hard on the pedals and dropped into the lower handlebars. I was within touching distance of wearing the yellow jersey in the Tour de France. Beads of sweat rolled down the side of my forehead, but I was too focused to wipe them away. As the feet ticked by, I got closer to my target. I knew I’d catch him in time, but the race element made it a lot more interesting.
As the Garmin hit 10 miles, I rolled past Dec, punched the air and yelled: “YES, COME ON!”. In doing so, I scared Dec into a small bike wobble. He had no idea I was behind him. I then spent half a mile with my head on the handlebar laughing to myself. There’s nothing funnier than making someone jump.
We ate dinner in Polatli, a town on the outskirts of Ankara. As it got dark we cycled out of Polatli, along a small road surrounded by farmland. It was dark by the time we found a camp spot – a ditch, between the road and a field.
We woke to rain, which halted progress.
The route took us along empty roads and through rolling hills. The weather was wet and cold, with a permanent headwind. Everything about the ride was reminiscent of the Peak District.
We headed for Haymana. It turned out the town, which sits at the top of a hill, is one of the best natural hot springs in Turkey. It took 2hr 30 minutes to cover the short 20 miles. The wind was bad and the hills even worse. I had also run out of water and food, which made the cycle painful (a rookie mistake). I ran into a shop and downed a Fanta, one litre of water, a chocolate bar and an ice cream.
The sim card I bought the day before didn’t work, so I went to a Turk Cell shop (Turk Telecom’s direct competitor), and explained what had happened. Turk Telecom hadn’t turned the sim on, so it was never going to work. The guy in the store was shocked. He gave me a new one for free. His mum, who worked in the clothes shop opposite, bought me an ice cream, and demanded I take a cap from her shop to protect my face from the sun. Not a truer example of Turkish hospitality. All done in the name of Allah.
1hr 45 later and Dec arrived, as exhausted as I was. We had lunch until the rain passed and then went to a Turkish bath. It was Dec’s first time at a Turkish bath and in a sauna. After 30 minutes, I left and got changed. A short time later, a man came up to me and yelled: “Your friend, your friend. He gone crazy.” I found Dec passed out in the changing rooms. He’d spent too long in the sauna, so I gave him a bottle of water and left him too. He couldn’t remember walking from the sauna to the changing rooms.
I left the bath with two new legs. They felt fresh, which made the last 20 miles a breeze. After a brief encounter with wild dogs, we found a soft patch of grass next to the road to camp. We cooked dinner and fell asleep quickly after.
We rode along the highway until Lake Tuz, the biggest salt lake in Turkey. It’s famous for its pink colour. We took the obligatory ‘walking on pink water’ shot and continued on with our day.
Fed up with the rain, we opted for a hotel, some 50 miles from where we started.
We left at midday after a big Turkish breakfast. I took advantage of the flat terrain and raced to Aksaray, breaking every PB of the trip. The endorphins afterwards – unforgettable.
We were now off the tourist trail. In fact, since Eskershier, the amount of English spoken and Westernisation (if that’s a word), decreased by the mile. The number of looks we got also increased. To be fair, I was wearing a backwards cap and Dec has long blonde locks. Aksaray is a small city with cobbled streets, a plaza, a few bazaars and a multitude of mosques. It was nice to spend time in a place which felt… local.
To skip the storm, we reluctantly took a rest day in Aksaray.
We visited Zinciriye Madrasa, which we thought was a historical site, initially. It was, in fact, a school. We spoke to the teachers, joined a traditional Turkish flute class and watched students create water based drawings in an art lesson. It was a nice way to further learn about traditional Turkish culture – and was not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
It was hot. The day started with a steep, sweaty climb out of the city. This was followed by miles upon miles of dry farmland. The landscape was monotonous and repetitive.
I cycled past the ‘Welcome to Cappadocia’ sign, so I half expected the landscape to change. It didn’t. The further I cycled, the more the scenery stayed the same. I rode through Neveshir, a city eight miles from Goreme (the centre of the National Park), but still, nothing. I was eager to see what all the fuss was about and started to get impatient.
It wasn’t until I reached Uchisar, when the valley floor opened and Cappadocia’s world famous landscape lay at my feet. From above, the Goreme National Park was an identical replica to its online persona. The valley is littered with unusual and beautiful rock formations.
I descended a steep, cobbled street until I reached the centre of Goreme. Having spent so long in Turkey, it was a shock to see huge swarms of tourists. American, British and German accents pierced my eardrums as I cycled through the centre of town. The familiarity was comforting, to a certain extent, but, equally, I found it irritating. The prices were also beyond inflated; dinner in Goreme was £10, minimum – no average person from Turkey could afford that. It was like two opposing worlds had met in the middle of Turkey.
In a bid to find the perfect spot to camp, we climbed a cobbled switchback and trekked through dirt tracks. We camped at the top of a ledge with an incredible view over Goreme and the Rose Valley. It was by far the nicest wild camp of the trip.
With the alarm set for 5am, I hit the pillow hard and fast.
I woke to the sound of aerated flames. I hadn’t put the outer layer of the tent on, so when I peeled open my eyes, I was able to place the polluted noise with a visual.
Like a kid on Christmas Day, I immediately got out of bed, threw clothes on and left the tent. I stood up and looked out across Cappadocia. The sun’s rays lit up the valley and warmed my face. A rich orange filter covered the landscape. In awe of the sunrise, I focused on the multi-coloured spheres that dotted the skyline. It was breathtaking.
I thought the hot air balloons would be an Instagram fad, all hype. But, I was mistaken. It was incredible. I don’t know what it is about hot air balloons, but seeing them in the backdrop of Cappadocia was beautiful. The spectacle lasted almost two hours – and was well worth the alarm and cycle from Istanbul.
I had tried to wake Dec a few times, but it was like waking the dead. Unresponsive. A balloon came within a few metres of camp. Dec woke to forty eyes staring at him from a basket. Still, this was not enough. He rolled over and went back to sleep. Later, he shared his annoyance at how loud the hot air balloons were…
After breakfast, I met up with Mckenley, another bike tourer. We’d been chatting on Instagram since the start of the trip. Initially, he was a few weeks ahead of me, so helped plan my route through the Balkans and shared advice on other sections of the route. I managed to catch him and another tourer, Dani, in Cappadocia. We spent the afternoon in Goreme before heading back to the hills for a campsite dinner. It was great to finally meet in person after months of social media chatter.
After cycling for 12 days with Dec, I've learnt a thing or two about living cheaply, and, have come away with a few good stories. But, all good things must come to an end, and it was time to part ways. Dec was headed to the east and I was going north with two mates.
I caught the bus (with bike in toe) to Kayseri – I was meeting Sam, a mate from London, in Kayseri the following day.
I craved a home cooked meal and time alone. I booked a night in a cheap apartment with a kitchen and spent the day there wearing nothing, but boxers. If that’s not the definition of freedom, I don't know what is. I did laundry, cooked spaghetti bolognese and watched Netflix all afternoon (big shout out to the previous guest, who left their account logged in to the TV).
It’s surprising the lack of down time had when bike touring. Days off are either sightseeing or admin. Sitting in front of the TV is not on the curriculum.
It was bliss.