Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Turkish Tales

A month of myth and mirth through Turkey’s wondrous cities, coast and mountains… lots of mountains. Not short of company; I was met by several of my nearest and dearest for some of the most memorable times of my lengthening adventure. First I had to get there…

I had three days to reach Istanbul to meet my dear friend and Better Life Cycle fundraiser extraordinaire, Rebecca. I had a serious race on; three countries and over 1000km.

I left Albania, raced through Macedonia and northern Greece, arriving in Thessaloniki having covered almost half the distance in 60 hours; eat your heart out L. Armstrong! Despite my marathon efforts time was running out, so I caught the bus to cross the border into Turkey; it felt a bit like cheating but my priorities were clear – without the likes of Rebecca this trip wouldn’t have happened.

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Any sense of feeling like I’d skipped a challenge quickly vanished when, 20km outside Istanbul. I was dropped at the coach station; it was rush hour & the only way into town was the heaving motorway elevated 100m above me.

The next 90 mins will standout as being some of the most sketchy of the ride. Honks and hoots came from every direction, cars and lorries whizzed by, disbelief was written on drivers faces as I crossed up to three lanes of traffic to make the junction - all without a map. My guide – ‘head for the Blue Mosque’; much like being dropped in Croydon and told look for Big Ben! Luckily I made it without a scratch and was gleefully reunited with Rebecca.

Istanbul is an ancient sprawling metropolis, ‘it measures time not in days and weeks but in the rise and fall of empires’. It has an epic history that has contended with rulers from all Eurasia, each leaving their mark on the impressive landscape: the Obelisk of Theodosius, the Blue Mosque, the Tokapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar, the Galata Tower, and my favourite the Hagia Sofia.

I could write a whole blog entry on the Hagia Sofia – it left me in total awe. Islam and Christianity are celebrated under one glorious roof; two great forces of humanity and divinity living side by side, friend not foe - to me it was unique and profound. Where Europe meets Asia; East meets West; this wonder from the past evoked an insight into the future, a spectacular and harmonious one.

Rebecca and I moseyed through the streets and sites, sampled the bazaars and cafes; far more content to experience Istanbul than tick the boxes of sights to see. The friendly folk and fine weather all added to exceptional days that will provide a ready smile when the going gets tougher.

I waved goodbye to Rebecca and shortly after to Andy – who’d made his own way to Istanbul but not before he taught me to play backgammon. For the guy who’d started off as ‘Random’ Andy; he was now anything but. We’d cycled for a month without so much as a sour word, pushing ourselves and having lot of laughs – most notably our 1,700m ascent of Mt. Lovcen – ‘Ace!’ …as he would he say.

I wasn’t alone for long; one of my best buddies, Jimi, arrived with Cecile; the bike I’d originally intended to use for this trip. We had a colossal, coastal cycle planned from Izmir to Antalya. After catching up over a nargileh (water pipe) or two and several Efes (quality local beer) – we took the ferry/train service to Izmir and got on our bikes.

The first two days sped by, finding secluded camping both nights, enjoying the coastal views and passing through the ancient Roman city of Ephesus, with it’s stunning and iconic Library of Celsus – although otherwise it left me a little low on enthusiasm.

We’d planned to cycle round the Dilek Yarimadasi National Park; a long lush mountain peninsula. Having got within 5km of the point, we were turned back by the National Guard. Rather than cycle back 40km we opted to cycle through a hiking canyon and over the mountain; 11km of rocky, rugged climbing - this proved to be an extreme effort.

We pedalled, pushed, sweated, cursed, chuckled and heaved, as we fought our way to the summit 900m above. Satisfaction wasn’t our only reward; the lagooned coastline beyond was one of the most stunning I’ve ever seen. The rock strewn descent was almost equally as testing, so it was with considerable joy that we reached the tarmac that heralded the end of the test. Put that in your nargileh and smoke it!

The next few days we made our way through Didim; an undesirable English outpost of ‘Full English Breakfasts’ and general tack - then by boat and bike to Bodrum; still touristic but far more appealing. We found an exceptional camping spot for snorkelling, sunset gazing and night-time frolics with the camera; the highlight being an underwater encounter with an inquisitive octopus.

The cycling got really serious as we had some miles to make up; one particularly gruelling day covering 135km of mountainous coastline on our way through Marmaris. We stopped a night in recommended Riviera retreat Ölüdeniz, beautiful but with roads so steep we had to hitch a ride back over the mountain. And finally we arrived in Kaş, elated, exhausted and entirely ready for a beer.

Rather than pedal furiously to Antalya, Jimi & I opted to spend our final day together on a boat trip, which as it turned out we had entirely to ourselves. I’d lost count of the number of times I’ve looked out from the coast and pondered the joys sailing must offer – it was a treat to finally get in on the action. So ended the jaunt and japes with Jimi – he headed off to the airport by bus, leaving the steep 8km ascent out of Kaş for me to pedal alone - a wise choice.

One moment that epitomised the ride and the difference cycling made to it: Towards the end of our longest day’s ride we sought a turning to Fethiye, in the distance loomed a massive rock face. Our legs tired and the pace slowed at the mere sight of yet another gruelling climb. The cliff-like mountain drew nearer, a busy road clinging and scything a steep scar up its side. No turning appeared. By now the rock eclipsed the sun. Going through the mental preparations - ‘time to dig deep’, etc. - a ray of light appeared, not from the sun; a turn. Not just any turn, our turn; the Fethiye turn. We whooped, hollered, laughed and almost cried in relief – ecstatic that this time we’d been spared the uphill onslaught, destined instead along the valley. To anyone else it would have been just a right-hand turn; to us, a moment of ecstasy - only on a bike!

Feeling a little lonesome after Jimi’s departure I was fortunate to catch up with one of my best friends in New York on Skype. (Seamless video conversation at 5000 miles still leaves me… speechless would be the wrong word choice of word… very impressed!) Aside from being a successful city swinger Mel is an ardent supporter of animal rights. During our conversation she caused me to challenge my own hypocrisy at being a meat-eater: the facts about animal welfare being so unsavoury, the effect of beef production on the environment so shocking, and the premature ending of life for my convenience feeling wrong. So it was time to align my beliefs and behaviour: meat was now off the menu.

This decision wasn’t made without some regret, I loved eating meat, only days before tweeting: ‘If you are what you eat, very soon I will become a kebab’. However - this trip especially - I’m trying to challenge and improve myself; learning to adapt is a big part of that, not being a hypocrite another.

The following days I sped along the coast, through intermittent thunderstorms, saved one more than one occasion by friendly locals who gave me shelter. I arrived in Alanya just in time to meet my Sister and her three awesome sons, my nephews; Innes (9), Ibane (7), and Inaki (2). It was so good to see them; explaining to them why I was going away for a year was the hardest thing I did before I left. Successive ‘Why’s?’ can reveal some insightful answers.

Alas they’d not the best week for a beach break weather-wise but we made the most of it; exploring Alanya Castle, the winding coastline, and when the sun did shine I passed on my new found snorkelling skills to a highly enthused Innes & Ibane; great memories!

The time passed all too quickly and before long we were waving a teary-eyed goodbye to one another. I dearly hope to see them again before the end of the trip. Being with them frequently shifted my perception to one less accustomed to the experiences and sights at hand; somehow simpler, fresher and more intriguing. Sure they could be little rascals too but that’s all part of the fun.

By now I was reaching the eastern end of the Mediterranean, about to turn south, a change in direction that will persist – give or take a few westerly wiggles – for the next 15,000 km.

My penultimate night in Turkey was initially soured by being ripped off for an, albeit tasty, vegetarian meal. The seemingly friendly, local chaps I’d met, who’d accompanied me to a back-street restaurant, obviously took commission for their company – not that this was outlined on the bill of course. In this slightly dodgy environment my protest at paying was met with equal, if somewhat dubious, response. So I ended up paying £12 for a meal that would otherwise have cost £3. Although at first aggrieved I quickly realised this was a cheap way to learn the lesson that is well worth learning…

Lesson: If in doubt don’t leave yourself open to being ripped off. Find out the price before you’re committed to paying - ‘politeness’ may be pricey.

My final 24 hours in Turkey more than made up for the night before. Joined by a puncture-prone Italian cyclist, Michele, I decided to take a quiet coast road, over the highway. The road was barely on the map, which was quite appropriate because it was barely there; a gravel path at first high on the mountain side, then a sandy track beside the sea. We had to wade through two rivers, climb over a landslide and ended up camping in an abandoned house; it was brilliant!

The following day Michele & I parted company, as I headed over my final Turkish mountain for the Syrian border. The three hour climb in wind and drizzle hardly seemed a fitting to my Turkish tour. I hadn’t counted on passing a school at the end of the day. ‘Tourista, Tourista!’ was the cry as hundreds of kids ran out to testing their newly learnt English. I felt like the Pied-Piper cycling through their town, kids beside me laughing and joking on their way home; until as the houses grew thinner just one little boy was left. Poetically, his was the last house on the hill; he wouldn’t take the sweets I offered, content to share our limited conversation and to later tell the tale to his family and friends.

My Turkish tale also grew to a close; it had been an exceptional few weeks – despite all the sights, it was the times with my friends and family which made the experience so special. Receiving unfussy generosity from many friendly locals adding a welcoming gloss to it all - perhaps my only regret that I’d not had the time to stop and accept more of it.

The next stop: Syria and the Middle East.