Traumatic Time in Turkey

Trip Start Jun 20, 2010
Trip End Nov 20, 2010

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Flag of Turkey  , Tekirdag,
Sunday, November 28, 2010

Turkey gets the prize for biggest border crossing
In previous posts I have complained about the general lack of border crossings in Europe and therefore the lack of passport stamps. Well Turkey is much more interesting, the border crossing is obviously one of the main crossing points for people heading to Asia from Europe. The border crossing looked more like an airport terminal, it was huge (you can get an idea by the size of the welcome to Turkey sign). Everyone visiting Turkey needs to get a visa. Luckily this is no more than a sticker which you have to pay 15 Euro to get some (very fed up looking) old guy chain smoking in a little cabin to stick into your passport. The queue of lorries on the Turkish side of the border was crazy I don't know exactly but it must have been at least 5 km long!! As was becoming the case more often as winter closed in the weather was pretty appalling with heavy persistent rain. I decided to call it a day once I reached Edirne, the first town across the border from Bulgaria. I set about looking for a cheap hotel. The first thing that struck me about Turkey was how bloody expensive everything is. Coming from Bulgaria it came as a bit of a shock when I asked around about hotels and found out that most were about 25 Euro! I managed to find one for 15 Euro however after handing over my passport I soon found out why. To be fair I should have realised, based on the hint of Faulty towers, that it could be an interesting place. It was an old building which was all a bit scruffy, reception was a small desk in the corner of a small lobby behind which stood an small rotund old chap who must have been well over 65. He was very enthusiastic however didn’t speak a word of English apart from "Passport?!?". Anyway after putting my bike in a very disorganised looking back room he showed me to my room. Well, it was the worst room I have seen, there was no heating, 6 really bad beds with only a blanket on them (think of the kind of beds you see in emergency shelters), a tiny sink in the corner which didn’t look like it was plumbed in and that was it, there wasn’t even a plug socket so I could charge my GPS and iPod. It was far worse than any hostel I have stayed in. I was cold and wet and all I wanted was to have a warm shower, relax in front of the TV and use the internet to Skype home and check my e-mails. I sat there for a moment pondering what to do and decided “this is not good enough”. It is very unusual for me to be fussy about standards but on this occasion I was not going to give in. I did however have one problem, how do I explain to the non English speaking Turkish Basil Faulty who ran the place, that they were all very nice people but this was not what I was looking for and I wanted my passport (and more importantly, my bike) back so i could go somewhere else.

I started off by trying a game of charades, I pointed at myself and then at the door and finally at my passport. However it quickly moved to me drawing on a piece of paper but to no avail (even though the French speaking student who was sitting in the lobby seemed to understand me perfectly). Once again I was soon being handed a mobile phone and was met with the voice of Basil’s wife who spoke very very basic English but not enough to completely understand what I was saying. In the end I was getting a tad pissed off (although they were trying their best to be nice) so I started to get my bags together and signal that I was going. They eventually realised what I wanted and looked a bit surprised, i didn't like their hotel (I felt a bit bad as they were nice guys and trying their best to help out, they had just caught me on a bad day). I finally managed to get away but had to do a couple of laps round the back streets so I could move to the other hotel (which was only about 50m away) without Basil (who was outside having a smoke) seeing me (I didn’t want to upset him any more).  Eventually all was well and I used my bargaining skills to knock 10 Euro off the price of a 35 Euro double room with internet and satellite TV, in a much posher hotel with a receptionist who actually looked like he knew what was going on and even spoke a bit of English.

There are few things that I noticed straight away about Turkey, firstly as mentioned it has become rather expensive in the last few years, partly because of the introduction of the Euro in other countries but also because they have devalued the currency by knocking some zero’s off. They have also put the tax up on Alcohol much to my disappointment so the price of beer is similar if not more than back home! The next thing which I noticed (although you can get most of it in neighbouring countries) is how good the food is in Turkey. There are all sorts of interesting things to try and most of them are delicious, a proper shish kebab was probably my favourite (nothing like the crappy kebabs that most of you will have tried on a night out) if you get the chance to try a proper one I heartily recommend it. The first night I ended up eating a salad wrap which had a kind of spicy vegetarian paste in it, it was quite hot but very delicious and went perfectly with the Effes beer, by far the most popular brand in Turkey. The next thing which struck me about Turkey is how amazing friendly the people are. Everyone is always smiling and willing to help (even Basil was like this) and it feels really safe, I never felt in the slightest bit threatened even walking round at night.

A very scary night indeed
My second night in Turkey ended up with me having one of my most scary experiences ever. At the time however I didn't realise this was going to be the case. It was a day like any other, the riding had been pretty easy due to the gently rolling terrain. It was neither hot nor cold and I was keen to push on and get to Istanbul, which I had been heading towards for nearly 5 months. As it started to get dark I found a nice spot to wild camp, only a few 100 meters from the road, next to some fields and surrounded by a few bushes. I set about putting up my tent looking forward to getting some food and a well deserved rest. My tent is a typical backpacking tent which is very sturdy but requires the inner (non waterproof) part to be put up first and the waterproof outer attached afterwards. I was just in the middle of putting up the inner ( the only point in the tent erection process vulnerable to rain) when there was a massive thud on the material, quickly followed by another. Before I even had time to react the few heavy rain drops had been joined by their comrades and torrential rain ensued. I rushed around in a crazy panic trying to throw the waterproof outer over the poles as best as possible to avoid any more water getting in (but it was quite hard due to the torrent of water which was pouring off the outer onto my feet). I eventually managed to get the outer on and peg everything out but further inspection revealed standing water over most of the floor of the tent confirming I had been less than successful. I mopped up with a towel as best as I could and set about putting my sleeping mat out so I had somewhere dry I could use to unpack the rest of my gear.

Soon the reason for the heavy shower became apparent and I was aware of a massive thunder and lightning storms in the distance. I got my food out and set about cooking.....yes, you guessed it, Pasta for my dinner. There was no more rain whilst I cooked and it wasn't until I was sitting in my tent and nearly finished my food that things really started to hot up. The torrential rain started again, as though someone had suddenly turned on a tap. The claps of thunder began to get louder with the accompanying lightening flashes lighting up my tent like a Chinese lantern. It was beginning to get a bit interesting, to make matters worse there was not just one storm and I figured out that I was actually surrounded by massive thunder storms in all directions. There are a number of problems with being in a tent in such weather. The most obvious is that as mentioned the thin fabric isn't very good at stopping the lightning flashes, which light up everything as bright as day and cast crazy shadows from the surrounding bushes across walls. The second problem is that torrential rain landing on a tent goes from being the soothing sleep inducing sound (like rain on a tent usually is) to unbearably loud noise, to give you an idea I have been in my tent in similar rain with my iPod pretty much on full volume and I still can't block the noise out, it’s THAT loud. The third and probably most important thing about being in a tent is that you are surrounded by metal poles which are basically purpose built lightening conductors.

I listened and counted the time between the lightning flashes and thunder and slowly but surely over the next half an hour they got closer and closer together. It was becoming a bit of a hairy situation even for me, used to camping in the woods on my own in the pitch dark. By this point the lightening was completely illuminating my tent for a good couple of seconds each time. The thunder had become so loud that I could feel the ground shake as the rumbles slowly bellowed their way through the clouds. I was beginning to get a tad worried and lay face down on my sleeping mat making sure I wasn't touching anything. It continued to increase in intensity for a few more minutes until the noise of thunder became deafening. Soon enough the lightning and thunder were perfectly coordinated. As I lay there it was strange but I just knew what was about to happen even before it did. Suddenly everything turned white with an amazingly intense lightning flash. It sounded like someone had cracked a whip next to my ear, this was followed by a sound similar to a welding torch only 100 times as loud. A split second afterwards the sky above me erupted into the most almighty of bellows shaking the ground for at least 10 seconds. As the sound subsided I lay there shaking I was (and I’m not ashamed to say it) completely terrified. It was one of, if not the most scary thing that has ever happened to me. At this point I didn't know exactly where the lightening had struck, I knew only one thing, I was way too close for comfort. The most annoying thing about this type of situation is that is continues for as long as the storm lasts, so the terror is far too stung out for comfort. This particular storm was moving slowly and I must have lay there for at least another half an hour before I was certain it had completely passed over. I was still shaking and in fact remained shaking for at least an hour afterwards.

Once I could hear that the thunder was well in the distance I headed outside to see if I could figure out what had happened. At first I had thought that maybe the lightening had struck my tent. It was obvious it hadn't as my tent still remained intact, realistically it probably would have been blown it to bits and if not it would have almost certainly melted. What it had struck was an electricity pylon which was about 20 meters away, the cables virtually passed above my tent. I looked around and realised that in this slightly rolling landscape I had unwittingly managed to pitch my tent just on the top of a small hillock, next to a pylon which was the highest thing for at least a couple of km’s. I had been seriously lucky the electricity pylon was there, if it was not there is no doubt my mental tent poles would have been the next best thing. It also made me realise how incredibly scary it would be to be stuck my lightening if it was this scary to be 20 meters away from a lightning strike. By this time I had calmed down a bit and for a few minutes I enjoyed watching the lightning in the distance lighting up the whole horizon, there were no street lights or houses to spoil the effect and it was amazing to see how each strike could light up mile upon mile of farmland.

The fun didn't last long and soon I could hear another storm heading in from the north. As before it took about 45 minutes until it was overhead. It was not a nice experience especially after what had happened and I was almost certain the same thing would happen again as I lay there eyes closed with my body pressed again my air mattress. Somehow this storm passed without striking the pylon however the storms (which had started at about 6 O'clock that evening) continued until 2 O'clock in the morning, needless to say I didn't get much sleep that night. The next morning it was hard to believe as I looked around that this place had been so terrifying the night before. I had a small wander after breakfast to check out the pylon to see if there was any damage left from the strike. It was a truly terrifying experience, I don't know if I can express what a terrifying experience is like as I imagine that not everyone reading this will have experienced true terror before. To give you an idea, I was still jumpy when staying in a hotel about a month later in a thunder storm and even now the sound of thunder sends shivers down my spine and makes the hairs on my arms stand on end. I dread to think what it will be like the next time I’m out in a tent in thunder. The next night I made sure (even though it was beautiful clear) I was well hidden under some trees, just in case. I will definitely take more care when pitching my tent in the future if there is even the slightest hint of a storm brewing. 

Dancing in the streets
As the weather was good and I was now getting close to Istanbul I was keen to keep pushing on and avoided unnecessary stoppages (these often seem to happen when you are tired, your brain seems to find never ending reasons why you should stop for a minute and rest). For this reason I had been riding for a good few hours straight and was getting a bit tired. I was pedalling though a town looking for a shop to get some lunch when I heard the intriguing sound of drumming coming from afar. I decided that it sounded too interesting to miss so turned round and followed my ears. I was soon confronted with about 15 guys all with linked shoulders, some in traditional dress dancing in the street to musicians playing drums and (I don’t know what their proper name is) wooden snake charmer flutes. The music was really upbeat and lively traditional music and was really refreshing after enduring all the local (crappy pop) music in the Balkans.

I stood and watched for a while, when a guy who was sitting on a bench nearby came over and did the universal sign language for drinking which in Turkey means only one thing, “would you like some cay (tea)”. I was pretty knackered so kindly accepted. Space was made on their tea drinking bench for me and between them they were able to speak enough English to explain that this dancing was not a common event at all. The town had a large military base in its suburbs and this particular ceremony was what happens when one of the soldiers is about to get married (think of it as a Turkish army bachelors party). Even though not that many people drink alcohol in Turkey due to their religion, a fair amount of drinking had obviously taken place on this occasion (some of the guys were even dancing away beer bottles in hand). The dancing was really interesting, there was a leader who was an older chap dressed in traditional dress and holding a big Turkish flag. Gradually the dancing became more and more energetic, their feet were going at a crazy pace. After a while a couple of dance offs happened between some of the guys one of whom was presumably the groom. They did solo dances as everyone else clapped, trying all the time to outdo each other with their moves (some of which vaguely resembled break dancing). Lots of other passersby had stopped to soak in the atmosphere and enjoy the music which had such lively drumming you couldn’t help but move your feet.

Soon I got to find out some more about my drinking companions. It turned out the guy that had offered me cay was the owner of the taxi firm outside which we were currently sitting, the others were some of his drivers. He was really interested in what I was doing and they were all good fun so we had a bit of a laugh as well. One thing that amused me was his taxi, it was a yellow Dacia however he had customised it by sticking alloys on, painting a Turkish flag on the bonnet and then sticking a Ferrari badge on the front. He was very proud of this and insistent that I took a picture of him with his pride and joy. He also was pretty keen to have a picture with me outside his taxi station. The whole time the dancing was build up and up, after about 20 minutes they were on the move and headed onto the main street. I thanked the guys for the cay and good company and headed off. By the time I got to the main road the bachelor party was busy dancing its way down right down the middle, holding up all the lorries and cars trying to pass. Refreshingly no one cared and were waiting patiently watching the young soldiers show of their finest moves. It was a lovely break to punctuate a hard day of riding, once again I was lucky and just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
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