Pre Christmas Turkey

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

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Entering Asia
During my time in Istanbul I had come up with a plan as to how I was going to get home. Originally I was going to try and achieve this without using a plane. However it had become apparent that as I wanted to be back for Christmas there was no way I was going to be able to ride back in time. Instead I decided on the following route. I would try and get a ferry from Turkey to Athens and then cycle around 200km to Patras from where I could catch another ferry to Ancona in Italy. Then I would attempt to cycle the 400 odd kilometres to Milan via San Marino (another little country to add to my list), from where I could get a cheap flight back home. The only problem with this was getting from Turkey to Greece. The only way I found of doing this using ferries was by getting a boat from the town of Ayvalik on the western coast of Turkey to the Greek island of Lesvos and then from there catching another ferry the next day to Athens. It was a pretty good plan meaning I would get half the way home without flying and also add another 3 countries to my list meaning I would have ridden in 30 countries (inc the UK). The only thing I had to do was to get from Istanbul to Ayvalik in two days to catch the ferry. Or at least this is what I hoped would happen however every time I phoned up to ask if the ferry was going I was told they weren't sure yet and I should phone back the next day. This of course was not possible as I was going to be on my bike the next day. In the end I decided I would have to leave Istanbul and hope that there was a ferry so I wouldn’t have raced across Turkey for two days for no reason.

Getting out of Istanbul is much easier than getting in
As I discovered when I tried to cycled to Asia the only way of getting to the Asian side of Turkey by road requires going on the motorway. This means for cycle tourers the only way to get in to Asia is to use a ferry. As I had a very long distance to cover in a short time I had come up with a plan and decided instead of hopping on a little ferry across to the Asian side of Istanbul, I would instead catch the fast ferry to Bandirma, on the other side of the Sea of Marmara. This would get me much closer to my destination but also avoid the long, tiring and dangerous ride out of Istanbul. It is a top tip to any cyclist heading south out of Istanbul there are a few different ferries which allow you to cut out most of the suburbs. My plan worked perfectly and after having a nap on the 7:00 fast ferry I was in Bandirma by 9:00, which was not a bad start. Now I just had to cycle the 200km to Ayvalik over unknown terrain (I wasn’t sure how hilly it would be) in about a day and a half to give me time to get a ticket for the ferry. If it all worked smoothly I would be sitting in Lesvos the following evening only 2 days after leaving Istanbul which would be a very good effort indeed.

Luckily the weather was great and the terrain didn’t start too badly either, mostly rolling hills through farm land. As the day went on the road got progressively smaller and the terrain more hilly. I became a bit worried as I really was on a tight schedule and I had to ride at least 100km the first day to allow enough time the next day to catch the ferry. My fitness was not great having had a lazy week and the relentless hilly terrain was starting to get to me, I was beginning to get a bit frustrated. The roads also changed, as I was taking the most direct route I soon found myself on gravel roads weaving through the hills passing through increasingly tiny little villages. Due to my slow progress I realised I was going to have to ride until it got dark and just hope I could find somewhere to pitch my tent. Later that afternoon I spotted a shop in a small village and decided I should get some food for the evening. I bought a few bits from their very bare shelves and was just heading back to my bike when I notice it had attracted a bit of a crowd. There were one or two kids but it was mostly old men who had been sitting in the tea room next door and spotted me pulling up. I started talking away to them trying to explain where I was from and where I had been. Pretty soon after I started talking the universal "would you like cay" hand signal was used to offer me some. Usually I would accept but on this occasion I was in a rush so kindly refused pointing at my wrist (the universal sign language for “I’m running late”). They continued to ask me questions and to my surprise about 30 seconds later one of them came out with a steaming (it was quite cold) glass of hot cay. They obviously don’t take no for an answer when it comes to cay. Luckily due to the way it is made it is served at perfect drinking temperature so easy to gulp down. I did indeed gulp it down as some of the middle aged men tried to explain to one old boy (he must have been over 80) how far I had been. The look on his face was classic and he took some convincing, however once convinced he couldn’t stop shaking my hand every two seconds and smiling with a very respectful look on his face. I thanked them for my cay and pushed on into the ever increasing darkness. I didn’t stop riding until it was almost dark so dark in fact that I wasn’t sure exactly where I was camping. I knew it was in a field next to the road but I couldn’t work out if this field formed part of someone’s garden or not. To be honest I didn’t care, just as long as they didn’t appear in the middle of the night with a shot gun.

The next morning it was like someone had lit a fire under my behind, and I packed up a double speed to make sure I would be able to cover the distance in time. The scenery continued to be mountainous ( I hadn’t appreciated how hilly Turkey is). As I got nearer the coast I started to descend and was able to see just how big some of the rocky mountains really were. It was a great feeling at the top of the pass knowing you’re finishing the day at sea level so have a lot of descending to do. As I descended I was also able to see the flat coastal plain stretching out in front of me. The last part of my ride was along the cost and I was making really good time bombing along the virtually flat super wide main road (the main roads in Turkey mostly have two lanes in each direction which is good for cyclists). Ayvalik is famous for its olive oil, it is claimed to be some of the best in the world and as I approached the town I began to see where all the olives come from. The sides of the roads were lined with olive groves many buzzing with old women who were busy picking away, it was the middle of the harvesting season. There were also tens of tractors which passed me, their trailers piled full of pickers sitting on top of big white bags bulging with olives.

I reached town at three o’clock which was very good time, the ferry wasn’t going until half five. I managed to find the ticket office and nervously went in hoping that the ferry would be running. However I was not in luck and my great effort getting to Ayvalik was in vain. It was the reason that the ferry wasn’t operating that surprised me the most. I was told it was due not to the weather or the ferry but rather the Turkish customs officials at the port who must have been on strike. As it was an international ferry it wasn’t able to operate without a customs check before leaving. I asked if the ferry later that week would be running and was told it was unlikely. I didn’t know what to do, I was now stuck in a very out the way part of Turkey, with no way of getting home which didn’t require a fair amount of cycling. Obviously I had realised this might be the case when I left, I was just really disappointed that my perfectly organised plan and been completely ruined by one ferry. All the others operated almost daily so would have been fine. I searched around and found some food followed by a really nice guesthouse in the Ayvalik's old town run by a lovely young couple who had moved from Istanbul.

Amazing market in Ayvalik
Luckily I had become stranded in a charming little town. Its old town was really quite amazing, it was described by one travel writer as “a living museum”. It was an old Greek town and has tiny little cobbled streets weaving their way between the buildings. The nice thing is that although some houses have been done up back to their original state, others have just been left to crumble away. This is what gives it a really lived in feel that is often missing from more pristine old town. I had also picked (by chance) a good evening to get stranded as the next day was the famous market which is the largest in the region. People come from all around to buy and sell everything from trousers to tomatoes. The really nice thing about the market however is that lines many of the streets in the old town giving it amazing feeling. It is a big market and the streets are very confusing making it incredibly easy to get lost. Outside the Pension I was staying in was a large cobbled square. This I was told, was home to a special part of the market called the villagers market. This is where locals would come to sell left over produce which they had grown. Unlike the larger 'proper’ food market round the corner which was very businesslike and full of men, this was mostly made up of women from the neighbouring villages. It was quite a sight looking out the window seeing all the old women dressed in headscarves selling all manner of vegetables. In fact when I finally decided to leave the pension (guesthouse) I actually had to wait for two old tomato sellers to move of the steps on which they had temporarily taken up residence. It was great to wander round just taking in the atmosphere. In the summer when the better weather comes there is quite a lot of tourism in this town, however at this time of year there is no one, and I am pretty sure I was the only foreigner at the market. I bought some things for my lunch, or rather tried to as on a couple of occasions I ended up being given things for free by very kind vegetable sellers. Most of my time was spent just wandering round taking the odd photo and watching the world go by. It was strange as the streets which were usually pretty deserted were now heaving with shoppers. Some people, put tarpaulins between the buildings in case of rain. The clothes sellers then use these tarpaulins to hang their merchandise off so it’s like walking through a fabric jungle, weaving in and out of stray trouser legs.

Fast food Ayvalik style
As well as olive oil, Ayvalik is also famous for its fast food. There are a couple of types of fast food from Ayvalik which are so famous you can get them all over Turkey. But obviously they are best tried from where they originated. The one I tried was called tost it is basically the biggest most unhealthy toasted sandwich you can image. It had tomatoes, gherkins, cheese, shredded meat (like frankfurter), salami as well as lashings of ketchup and mayonnaise.  As well as being unhealthy they are also really tasty especially after riding all day. In fact on the day I arrived after finding out the ferry was not going the next thing I did was to get some tost (I was starving). So starving in fact that I decided one was not enough. When I eventually found the pension I asked the lovely woman there who spoke English if there was anywhere she recommended for me to get another really authentic one (I had feeling that although very nice the one I had tried already was not the best available). She admitted to not really eating it much however she knew a place nearby but would have to take me there. The place was very nearby and it was actually nothing more than a man with a small cart in the local vegetable market. She had to rush off so told the owner what I wanted then left me to fend for myself. The owner was busy chatting away to some of the other veg sellers, they were also playing with a dog who didn’t seem to like the hairy British traveller look and kept growling every time I tried to stroke it. The chap in question was very rotund and I think it’s a pretty safe bet to said he might have sampled a few too many of his own wares, however my hunch was right and it was indeed the real deal and very tasty.

I spent a couple of days in Ayvalik, enjoying just wandering round taking photos. I also had time to figure out a plan. As I could no longer get to Greece I needed to get to an airport within the next week so I could fly home. One safe option was to head back to Istanbul, however the airport in Istanbul is a long way from the centre and I decided that it could be tricky getting there with a bike packed in a box. Instead I decided I would continue to head south and aim for the city of Antalya on the southern coast. There were a couple of reasons for this, I decided that I should try and get as far away from home as possible (because it looks better on my map!). The main reason though, was because Antalya would also the perfect place to start from if I ever fancied doing another trip and heading across Asia (I have a plan that over a number of trips I might eventually manage to get right the way round the world). I used the language skills of the very helpful pension owner to book my flights and the next day I was ready to head off.

Snow, in Turkey?
As I left she was quite worried about me, weather reports were talking of a cold snap for Turkey in the next few days. She kept asking “are you sure you will be ok?”, “ are you sure you won’t get too cold?” they aren’t’ quite as used to cold temperatures in Turkey as we are. Once I got going I soon discovered that they hadn’t been wrong and all the mountains had seen snow in the last couple of days. It was quite strange looking out at white washed houses with flat roofs amongst grape vines all covered in snow. Most of my trip south was through mountains some of which had a good few inches of snow on them. It was definitely not what I expected when coming to Turkey, and I couldn’t believe that it would end up being the place where I had seen the most snow. It obviously wasn’t that common to get so much and it was quite funny to watch cars stopping by the side of the road, the occupants getting out and hurriedly filling plastic bags with snow, presumably to take home and show the family. I saw one mini bus stop so people could make a couple of snowballs to suck on for the rest of the journey, all a bit strange. Apart from the snowy scenery which was really nice the next few days were pretty uneventful.  I was pushing quite hard to make sure I got to Antalya in time to sort out packing up my bike and gear before catching my flight. It was actually quite cold, getting down below zero at night in some places, because of this I mostly tried to find cheap hotels to stay in.

A milestone
Obviously the day was punctuated quite often with tea drinking. Pretty much all petrol stations in Turkey have good toilet facilities, which they don’t mind you using, so I often found myself stopping to take advantage. The other good thing about stopping at petrol stations (when on a bike and out of town) is that most of the time the attendants came out and offered me some cay which was a perfect way to warm up on a cold day (I did take advantage of this on a few occasions stopping then looking suitably cold and knackered hoping they would have a brew on). The main highlight and probably one of the memories which I will remember the most from my trip happened whilst crossing these mountains. I had been watching my cycle computer ticking up gradually and it had been reading over 9000km since leaving Istanbul. On this particular day I set off only requiring another 60km to reach the magical 10000km mark, which had been one of the goals of my trip. The whole morning I kept watching as the distance required began to creep down. Soon I only had a couple of kilometres left to go and was starting to get excited. Those couple of kilometres passed really quickly as I bombed down a small hill. Soon I was crawling along the last 100m waiting with anticipation for the magic moment when the distance ticked over to 10000. It was such an amazing feeling when it did and I duly stopped to take some photos (you may be able to spot the exited look on my face). The one or two people that were around gave me some strange looks, I think they were wondering why I had stopped in such a random place and started taking photos. For the rest of the day I was still buzzing with excitement and couldn’t really believe that I had now managed to achieve the two main goals for my trip.

Turkish Delight
That evening I arrived into town late and it was already getting pretty dark. As I rode in to town I noticed the welcome sign which in Turkey often have the population on them. I had already decided I was going to try and look for a hotel here, generally my rule is that if the population is over 10,000 there will definitely be a hotel, any less and there could be problems. On this particular occasion the population was only 4000 and I started to become a bit worried. I anxiety wasn’t made any better when I got to the town to find, well nothing much really. I stopped by the side of the road trying to decide where I should look when a car pulled up and the guy inside shouted “Hotel?” I nodded and he signalled for me to follow him. He led me to the bus station where he also worked. He pointed to a newish building all on its own a few hundred meters away and said “my pension”. Luckily there was another young chap there who spoke much better English and explained that this guy owned a pension as well as working in the bus station and he would give me a room in 10 minutes after the next bus had departed. I was told I could wait for him in the small cafe shop at the station.

I sat there and within no time the owner was offering me cay (free of course) he was a nice chap who spoke some English and was interesting in what I was doing. We were chatting away but soon I had to leave to go to the pension. He had really enjoyed having someone to practice his English with and told me I must come back later for some more cay or tost. The pension was pretty good and had an electric shower with instant hot water and a huge electric heater in the room so I was very pleased. What pleased me more though was the fact that it was now bucketing down with rain, I was very glad I wasn’t in my tent. Later that evening I decided I would need to go and get some food so I thought I might was well run back to the cafe and see if I could get the guy to cook me some tost thus avoiding getting too drenched.

When I got there the guy was busy talking away with a friend however as soon as he saw me he gave me a very warm welcome and introduced his friend to me. We drank some cay and I asked if he could cook me up some food. He said he could and started sorting out what he needed when he suddenly turned round and asked “would you like to come and have dinner with my family instead?”.  I told him I would love to but that I couldn’t be long as I was planning on getting up at 6 to get an early start. He assured me his house was close by, we could go straight away and wouldn’t be back late. The town was tiny and there really wasn’t much to it. Luckily the rain had subsided by now and the sky was beginning to clear as we wandered through the streets towards his house. We arrived at a small crumbly old looking house, there was a muddy path and an area where it looked like they kept livestock as well as a big stainless steel churn for making cheese. The path went along the front of the house and led to some steps. At the top of the steps there wasn’t a front door, rather a sheet of wood covering up the door way which he moved to one side. Inside the house was really interesting, very old and basic and also bloody cold and as they didn’t have central heating. He waved me in and we walked into a small room at the front of the house. It was really interesting, the room was pretty tiny with wobbly whitewashed walls and no obvious windows. There were two sofas against the walls and a stove which had a large flue made out of old cans which went across the middle. The flue was covered with various items of clothing they were trying to dry, it was obvious that during the winter this was the only room they lived in. It was beautifully warm (almost too warm), the stove was really belting out heat. I was greeted by his mother who must have been in her 70’s. She was tiny (probably nearer four feet than five) this wasn’t helped by the fact she was hunched over slightly. Her wrinkled face was surrounded by a headscarf, she was dressed in all sorts of handmade woollen items to fight off the winter chills. On one of the sofas sat his dad. He was an even more interesting chap. He had a very weather beaten face with some white stubble and scruffy hair. He too had big woollen socks pulled up to his knees but was also wearing a jacket not dissimilar to a tweed jacket and was sitting in a very reclined position in his favourite chair looking very relaxed. He continuously had a small smile on his face, with wonky teeth poking out from behind it. It was a little bit confusing as one of his eyes was very lazy and pointed out towards the side which made it quite hard to tell who he was looking at.  In many of the less developed countries in this part of the world you can really see how much harder life is or has been by looking at the old folks. They all have very lived in, weather beaten skin, often with a haunch or lip of some description. The women are usually very small but also pretty large at the same time (if you know what I mean). I said before they have a unique shape and this is very true, however I can’t really describe it. They are not exactly fat but often big, I guess stocky is the word, although often there is also a reasonably large stomach held in place by the baggy patterned ‘trousers?’ they usually wear (so baggy they often look like skirts). I realise that after reading this description you are probably still none the wiser (you might be able to spot some in my pictures of the market in Ayvalik). However despite how the old folks look most are as fit as a fiddle, far more fit that the lazy OAPs back in the UK, you will often see little old ladies wandering though the street carrying two massive pales of milk or playing tug of war against their cow, as they try and walk it to its grazing.

The guys family was very large and most of them still lived at home. On this particular evening only one of his sisters was home, she was a teacher in a local school. She kept flitting in and out of the room as she prepared some food for us. I think they had obviously already eaten, although I didn’t know this at first and felt a bit bad about eating all their food. They sat there catching up on the day’s news as we waited for his sister to heat up the food on their wood burning stove. Soon it was ready and the table was laid. As mentioned previously the room was very small and you may have noticed I didn’t mention there being a table. This was because no table existed, instead a table cloth was placed on the floor, on top of this a fold out wooden stand about a foot high was placed on the floor and a big metal tray was placed on top. The 3 or 4 bowls of different food were placed on top of the tray along with some salad leaves and bread. We sat cross legged on the floor and lifted the table cloth up and put it over our knees to catch the crumbs. It was really amazing, I love seeing everyday life in full swing and being able to eat a meal in this way with a local family was so perfect.  I realised as I sat there admiring the food how lucky I was as most people would never get a chance to experience this.

There were a couple of hot dishes, one was beans in a sauce with bits of what looked like lamb in it. There was also another more creamy dish which was almost like a savoury (although still quite sweet) version of porridge. There was a fist full of salad leaves, but they looked very different from the lettuce we are used to (some did have a more weed like shape but they were really tasty), as well as a lovely loaf of bread. You don’t have plates rather you break off some bread, grab a spoon and all tuck into the same bowlfuls of food. As we ate he continued to catch up with his family, it was great to be able to sit there listening to Turkish conversation, I enjoying listening to people chatting away in their own language. I discovered that this was the only real time he got to catch up with his family as he worked really long hours in his shop. Busses used this town as a stop off point so his shop had to be open from 7 in the morning until 11 at night, and as far as I am aware he was the only one who worked there. He took a couple of hours off in the evening to go home for lunch but was probably there most of the rest of the time which is pretty mad.

They were really lovely hosts and the food was so tasty and filling. Every time I stopped eating his mother, who was sitting on the floor next to me, would tap me on the arm and point at the food as if to say “go on eat some more”. After we had eaten far too much of their bean stew we had some pudding which looked similar to bits of very stodgy bread pudding. It had an odd texture, I’m not totally sure what it was made from but whatever the main ingredient was, it had been soaked in a kind of syrup with some spice and fruit in it. We spent at least an hour eating away, I would occasionally ask him questions about his family, and occasionally his family (who spoke no English) would ask him to translate questions for me.  After we had eaten it was obviously cay o’clock. His father seemed quite pleased about his and looked very ready for some. His mother sat on the floor and began preparing it on the stove. To make proper Turkish cay you use a special double-decker tea pot. The water is boiled in the bottom half, once it is boiled, they then pour some in with the loose tea in the top half and put the whole lot back on the stove to simmer away. Once the tea has stewed a bit they pour some of the very strong tea from the top part into the glass and top it up with hot water from the bottom part. Lastly large amounts of sugar are added, in a shop they give you two sugar cubes so you can choose not to put them in although it doesn’t taste right without. We had some cay and then some more cay and then some more cay until eventually it was time for us to head back. I thanked them for their hospitality and giving me an amazing experience and then we headed back out into the dark streets to wander back to the bus station (after a very interesting night time experience in a wooden outside squat toilet which had no light).

The final countdown
I was getting very close to Antalya now, I decided that I would try and make my last day of riding a big one (it's always good to end on a high). I would need to ride over 130km to reach Antalya but I did have the advantage of being in the mountains so at some point there would be the small matter of over 1000m of decent (which I was very much looking forward to). I made good progress boosted by the thought of finally reaching my destination. The weather was pretty good although there was the odd rain shower about. I was quite lucky with the terrain, there was an initial climb over a pass but then (as is often the case in the Turkish mountains) it plateaued out and was reasonably flat. I hardly stopped, all the time thinking of being able to sit down that evening and relax with a beer then sleep in the next day for as long as I wanted. The downhill didn’t come until I got very close to the coast which meant that I lost a lot of height very quickly. It came at the perfect time and after over 20km of hardly having to pedal I was much closer to reaching my goal. Antalya was much bigger than expected. The best area to stay (as is often the case) is the old town which was right on the sea front by an impressive Roman harbour with steep cliffs for walls. Typically for an old town is was an incredibly confusing maze of streets and even though I had a map in my travel guide it still took me a very long time to find the hostel.

That night soon after I arrived the heavens opened and a massive lightening storm started. As I mentioned in my previous post, it was the first time I had heard lightening since ‘the incident’ and all the hairs on my arms were standing on end and I was quite scared even though I was in a hostel. I decided for obvious reasons that I really didn’t fancy going out in search of food. Besides I was feeling lazy and managed to get the receptionist to order me some kebabs and get some poor guy on a scooter to deliver them to the hostel (it was bucketing it down at this point). This combined with a couple of beers from their fridge, a warm bed and a TV with some English channels made for a very relaxing end to a very long ride!

Antalya is a very nice town and draws a lot of tourists in, even when I was there it was 18 degrees so you can imagine what it would be like in the summer. I saw most of the sights whilst carrying out the long list of errands I had to complete before I could leave. I managed to get a bike box from the second bike shop I tried (although I had to pay a little bit for it) I was just very impressed that it only took me an hour to search one out. The hard part was then trying to fit my bike in, it required quite a lot of spanner work and some medium to sever swearing to figure out. I also had to sort out all my gear and throw away as much as possible. Some of the stuff that was left went in with my bike and the rest in one pannier. I also bought some souvenirs for myself in the Bazaar, including a double decker tea pot and some tea glasses so I can drink cay when I’m back home. Soon my couple of days in Antalya had flown by and I was waking up knowing that the next day I would be heading airport and back to blighty.

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