Turkey, part one
I remember the feeling on the road to Istanbul like it was yesterday, how we hoped that our mattresses will work every evening we went to bed, and how we woke up during the night, shivering, and holding each other close to get warmer. Even though it was not the harshest winter in Greece, the nights were cold enough to be rough for our not so suitable equipment. But we got some breathing room almost as soon as we stepped through the border, and we only had to deal with the cold one more time before getting to the Turkish capital.
First impressions of Turkey
We cycled all the way on the main road, and although it had a nice and smooth surface with a wide shoulder, which sort of acted like a bike lane, the traffic was immense. This area is highly populated and there is not so much of a view to speak of, instead we saw industrial areas and cities covered in a grey blanket of smog. So the brightest part of our day was usually the evening, where we were greeted by the hospitable Turks, who would usually feed us or take us out to eat something local.
We were looking forward to taste Turkish food, because we heard it is delicious and importantly for us, vegetarian friendly, but we soon found out that we have been deceived. In most restaurants, and in traditional households, most people will eat a variation of meat and a lot of bread and pasta, with maybe a bit of vegetables on the side. Seriously, if it was a contest to name a meatball or a slice of roasted meat in the most ways possible, they would surely win (well, good thing they only need to remember different city names, where it is prepared ever so differently).
If you prefer vegetarian, there are a few options to choose from, for example you can find pide (like a Turkish variation of pizza without the tomato sauce) almost everywhere. Our favourite is çiğköfte, which is even suitable for vegans, as it is only made from bulgur, tomato sauce and a special paprika spice, usually wrapped into a dürüm with veggies. Luckily they removed the traditionally present raw meat a few years ago because of health considerations – duh. Cutting close to the second place is the red lentil soup (mercimek çorbası). We like it so much that we soon learned to make ourselves and it will be in the family recipe book for sure. Since we are not vegetarian, we tried some of the local meat based dishes too, to see what’s up, like lahmacun. Although it is nice, it is a bit boring, basically a thin slice of pizza with minced beef and tomato paste, no other version is available.
Arriving to Istanbul and getting to know the Turks
As we got closer to the capital, the traffic got so heavy that we had to give up our plan to cycle all the way to the center. On the plus side, Istanbul has a really modern public transportation system, with metrobuses from the suburbs and metros covering the whole city pretty thoroughly, with the added benefit of allowing bikes on both. Obviously you have to avoid rush hours, but there are elevators at every station and they don’t even charge extra for the bike. So we didn’t hesitate much and jumped on the bus as soon as we could, and used the metros and ferries (ships on the Bosporus, separating Asia from Europe, are part of the system) with our bikes when moving through the city.
You would think that in such a huge and touristy metropolitan city, there are no issues navigating through with only English, but this cannot be further from the truth. I count myself lucky that I speak Turkish and able to understand the locals, because in our opinion, you have a much better experience when you can actually speak with them. We didn’t want to stay in the city for so long, because we don’t like crowded and noisy cities, but we had to deal with some equipment issues. In the meantime, we tried getting to know the country more with the help of our Turkish friends.
Because we contact the warmshowers or couchsurfing community, we mostly meet with people who are open-minded, want to discover the world, and definitely don’t like the current situation in the country. This includes the education system, which according to them, is a joke right now, where kids don’t learn much. We experienced this partly ourselves, since even young people are afraid to speak English, although they can understand us. They are just too afraid to make mistakes; hence they of course can’t improve. We really try to encourage everyone we meet to practice, but instead, I end up learning more Turkish words. I don’t mind it that much, being pretty useful to us later on, hearing that they speak something similar in Central Asia too.
Equipment problems and solutions
Regarding our equipment fixing, there were two main issues which required immediate attention. The most important thing was getting new mattresses, and we got pretty lucky with Thermarest. Or maybe it is a normal day at work for them, in which case, I highly recommend the brand. Side note, lifetime warranty is super cool. We also bought thicker foam mattresses as extra protection, as from now on, the options for dealing with a bad mattress is going to be more limited, and on the Pamir highway at the foot of the Himalayas, insulation from the cold ground can mean life and death.
The other major thing was getting our new stove, which we ordered in Greece and contacted someone on warmshowers to receive it for us. By sheer luck, the people accepting our request happened to be famous cyclists, with a goal of doing 700 thousand km (you read that right) and cycling in South America for 8 years. Check out their blog and get inspiration about Turkey too, Başak is writing a sort of cycling guide about it 🙂 They invited us to a dinner, which we gladly accepted, and spent a wonderful night with them, ate delicious vegetarian food, all the while meeting new friends.
They were hosting three Brazilians, and two of them were travelling on a tandem (2fortrips). You don’t see that very often, especially since they had a foldable one, so we checked out every detail of the bike. We almost cycled together eventually, sometimes only a day behind them, and still keep in touch with them.
First farming experience
Once we got everything done, we went to a Permaculture farm near Bilecik, east of Istanbul. At first we were searching something in the south to avoid the real winter, but didn’t get any good replies and options, and this seemed to be a good place. The owner was nice initially, but he spent half the week in Istanbul, and he was also operating the farm a bit too commercially for our taste, having us packing stuff for his customers. We couldn’t learn much this way, and our room had almost no heating, so we decided to leave early to try to catch the Brazilians instead. At least we got our first interview and newspaper coverage, the national Turkish tv came and made a short talk with us on our second day, check out the article here 🙂 (only in Turkish).
Express to Izmir
We had more than enough of the cold, and we wanted to get down south as soon as possible, so we came to a decision. We opted for taking a bus to Izmir from Bursa (no real train system in Turkey, buses are obligated to take two bikes, yay for us), and starting to cycle from there again. We found a host in the last minute in Bursa, and can’t thank Uzay enough for his help. Not only did he made sure our bikes get taken by the bus, he also let us stay with him in Izmir too, in his family’s house.
The only problem was, which actually turned out to be a positive thing, is that we arrived with the bus at midnight, and his home was 28km away from the terminal. So we had no choice but ride through the city at night, and this way we actually had no traffic and noise. We found a bike path along the coast; we were tired but enjoyed the cool breeze and the easy ride. When we left to continue our travels, the days were sunny and warm, almost like summer. Finally, we were down South to escape the winter.