125km on a packet of biscuits

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Turkey  ,
Tuesday, November 7, 2006

I was running out of time, thanks to the small detour from Malko Tarnovo, and had to cover 250km in two days to keep my rendezvous in Istanbul. Since I was starting on a mountain and finishing at sea level, I figured this should be relatively easy. I was not entirely correct. In the first two hours the day I left I made 8km headway, slogging up steep switchbacks to the border. The border crossing was snowy and involved the usual delays, including having to buy a visa for Turkey which I hadn't prepared for - for some reason you have to pay in GBP or EURO not Turkish Liras. Luckily I had changed all my Bulgarian money into Euros on the Bulgarian side of the border, otherwise I should be there still.

There was a long downhill of about 10km after the border, which is at the highest point of the pass, and as I was rolling down enjoying the view I was immediately conscious of having moved into another cultural zone, more than after any other border crossing. The first and most obvious reason for this was that the ubiquitous churches in every town and village in christendom had gone, and mosques now filled that role. The second more subtle change was that the sound of Turkish pipe music could be heard echoing around the hills, I believe originating with a shepherd somewhere although I couldn't see.

There were no high peaks after the border, but there were a lot of low ones. Turkey does not, as far as I could tell, have a single kilometer of level road. And roads over the low hills often would not even wind, instead just taking you directly up and down the other side. This was one of the most draining ways to ride, not least because instead of enjoying and recharging on the downhill sections I was resenting the loss of all the ground which I knew I'd have to make again in five minutes time. At least the weather was warmer in the low country and the roads were good. Turkish drivers were also a boon- the terrain is such that they don't see many cyclists so they often beep and wave encouragement, and give you plenty of room when they pass. Also the trucks that struggle up steep hills don't mind if you grab onto the tail for a tow uphill- I've only done it twice but it's a great feeling to freewheel at 15km/hr uphill!

In my hurry to reach Saray, the precise mid-point between Malko Tarnovo and Istanbul, before sunset, I may have neglected to purchace any kind of sustenance.  Again. Since Bucharest I seem to be averaging about one proper meal every 48hours, and about 200km in the same period, all because of being in a hurry, which was never part of the plan for this trip. Mental note: check terrain before arranging future rendezvous. Anyway, halfway to Istanbul this irresponsible lack of refuelling finally caught up with me, and I stopped at a fruit shop for some supplies. Having stocked up on oranges and nuts, somehow the owner seemed to guess that I was low on energy, and along with my change handed me three chocolate bars for free.

Around 6pm on the 8th November I reached Istanbul proper, after fighting through rushhour traffic on the huge and congested road into town. I still had to find the old town where the hostels were. I asked a few randoms for directions to 'Sultanahmet' and got generally consistent replies, so pulled onto the busy road to the left. After about 200m it became clear that passersby have trouble distinguishing a bicycle from a car. The motorway I was apparently supposed to take peeled off to the left, which would have required me to cross three lanes (ish- turks are not overly concerned about lane markings) of busy motorway to get to the right road. The other option was to stick with this bit of motorway and go to Ankara. There was only one thing for it. Abort.

I hefted the bike over the crashbarrier and off-roaded it to the closest street. I had no idea how to get around the motorway issue, or even where I was and the light was failing fast. Just as I reached the side-street some wet cement that had earlier sprayed onto my chain set hard and the chain jammed, throwing me onto the road. A group of swarthy-looking men appeared from a run-down store near where I fell and gathered around. One of them brought tea. I love the Turks. They helped me up and onto the pavement and chatted while I cleaned the chain, furnishing me with better directions as well as friendly company and more tea. I went wrong a few more times following directions, as people kept trying to direct me back to the motorway. At last I asked one man:

-How do I get to Sultanahmet?
-That way (pointing to motorway)

I rode about 20m before having an idea. I got off the bike and pushed it along the pavement back to the same man.

-How do I get to Sultanahmet?
-That way (pointing to a footbridge 50m in another direction)

I remained a pedestrian for the last 3km, it was fully dark by now so there was no need to hurry and it seemed the safest way of finding my way.
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Vladimir Menkov on

Thank you for posting the travel log! I may consider going this way myself some day - at about 1/4 of your speed, though.

It was useful to find out that the BG/TR border crossing near Malko Tarnovo is open to third-country nationals, including those on a bicycle (and, presumably, on foot), and that there are no "prohibited areas" on either side of the international border.

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