TURKEY, 22nd – 25th June 2017
“Where is your e-visa?” The policeman demanded.
“I don’t know. It’s an e-visa. It’s electronic. It’s in the cyber world somewhere I think,” I said, wondering how this could possibly be happening. Turkey’s very simple online e-visa system had been up and running for over three years. I’d assumed when they scanned my passport at the border it would automatically come up on their system that I’d applied for and received mine. No such luck. They wanted to physically see this electronic visa, and it took several treks back and forth between the border post and the police station with me muttering on every long walk that ‘surely this must have come up at some point in the last three years’ before I fired up my laptop and showed them the confirmation and we were finally allowed into the country. We had arrived in Turkey.
It had taken long enough to get through the border that we were both feeling hungry so we stopped at the first gas station we saw and like the intrepid explorers we are, we sat on the kerb in a shaded corner, beside the trash bins, and ate our sandwiches. Even here we were spotted. A young Turkish man driving to Greece on holiday with his family came over and spoke to us in good English, telling us that it was his dream to do what we were doing. A shepherd shouted hello to us from a neighbouring field. In front of us we watched a queue forming for the DIY car wash. One man, gruff and shirtless, was hogging the hose, taking a long time to wash his rusty old van. An old man, third in line and impatient came and stood close by, trying to hurry him along. Not long after we cycled away again the rusty van overtook us and the shirtless man beeped and waved in greeting to us. It would not be the last time in Turkey that someone would beep and wave, that was for sure.
We were both very excited to have reached Turkey. I’d cycled across it before, three years ago, and greatly enjoyed it, so I was pleased to be back. And Dea had spent a semester studying in Istanbul (and greatly enjoyed it), so she was keen to now see what the rest of the country was like beyond the big city. It started with a long stint on the shoulder of a main highway. The country seemed to stretch out forever in front of us. Turkey is a big country and it sure felt like a big country, with the vast open vistas and the band of tarmac stretching out before us.
After 25 kilometres we reached a big town, Kesan, and we had to go into it to look for an ATM and a supermarket. The streets were chaotic and stressful to cycle on, rammed with traffic and people, honking horns and dust.
“This is just how it’s going to be from now on, isn’t it?” Dea said, pragmatically alright with the chaos of Asia.
“No, I hope not!” I said. I was hoping we would find some small roads, and avoid the big towns as much as possible, but this was a necessary stop. We found what we needed, withdrew some lira and did some shopping. Being reacquainted with the fantastic variety of biscuits on offer in Turkey raised our spirits, and we took some quieter backstreets, stopping at a park on the way out of town to enjoy our biscuits. There was a slide in the park. I couldn’t resist.
We returned to the highway and cycled on across the open landscape, climbing gradually up into a forest through the afternoon. Dark clouds formed overhead. Rain was coming. We noticed a rare building close to the road and headed for it, looking for shelter. A group of men called us over, the familiar cry of “Chai, chai” rolling back the years for me. Once we got closer we saw that it was a fire station, and I was encouraged to put my bike in the garage in front of the fire engine, where it would stay dry. It was also blocking the fire engine in, so I hoped there wasn’t going to be a fire during the heavy rainstorm. Inside we were handed glasses of tea and sat down opposite the firemen as the rain began to lash down outside. They didn’t think they were being hospitable enough though, so they also fed us, laying on a spread of cucumber, tomato, cheese, olives and bread for us, that we ate in front of them, somewhat guiltily as it was still Ramadan. On the wall of the room was a map of Turkey. Dea and I studied it, making a plan for our route. “It really is a big country, isn’t it?” I could tell Dea was feeling a bit nervous, a bit apprehensive about the size of the task ahead.
The skies cleared and we went on, camping on a hill overlooking the sea where we watched a pink sunset and both agreed it felt great to be here. The next morning our campsite felt momentarily less secure when three men in army fatigues carrying machine guns appeared over the hill striding towards us. It had the appearance of an invasion, but they diverted away and seemed to have no interest in us and left. But it had somehow been an appropriate sight, for it came as we began our cycle on the Gallipoli peninsular, the location of the Gallipoli landings, sight of the great First World War battles that, in victory, helped lead to the formation of the modern-day nation of Turkey.
We followed the highway to the town of Gallipoli, where we hopped on a ferry that took us to Anatolia, the Asian part of Turkey. We wanted to go to Istanbul of course, but we had come up with a cunning plan to get there safely. We were cycling south of the Marmara Sea to a place called Bandirma, where we knew that there was a cheap, fast ferry that would take us into the heart of old Istanbul. It was an ingenious idea, to avoid all of the traffic going into that vast city. It was such a good idea, in fact, that I’ve made a map graphic to show you how to do it, should you be in the mood for getting to Istanbul by bicycle and boats yourself.
The highway to Bandirma mostly had a good shoulder, but we knew that it disappeared around the town of Biga. Fortunately this coincided with the only point on the route where there were good small roads that we could take instead. This we did, and it felt really good to get off the monotonous highway and pass through villages with mosques and chickens and wide-eyed kids staring at us. At a slightly bigger town we made a stop in a park to eat. It was a nice, big park, shaded by lots of trees, with concrete furniture made to look like tree branches. We began on our sandwiches and a stray dog came to say hello. Then a man came to say hello. Then a woman, who asked if we would like tea. She brought two cups of tea for us from across the street. Then the man returned with some hand sanitizer, so we could wash our hands. After we’d eaten we went to find the woman to return the cups. She worked in a veterinary clinic along with a pair of male vets. They were all very friendly. The hand-sanitizer man sat in the street with some other men, and he now came to us with a handful of apricots, which he insisted on washing for us (I think he had a thing about hygiene). It was such a nice atmosphere, with these kind people in this peaceful little town, that we knew for sure that Turkey was going to be alright.
We camped that night close to Bandirma and the next morning cycled into it looking for the ferry terminal. We’d got up early to make sure we could get on the 10 a.m. sailing but we need not have worried so much. We got there at 8, had to wait for the ferry terminal to open, easily bought tickets, then had to wait ages for the mostly-empty ferry to depart. It was, as promised, a very fast boat, and it zipped us across the Marmara in no time. It went so quick, in fact, that when Dea pointed out the skyline of Istanbul I couldn’t believe we’d reached it so fast. But there it was, on the horizon, getting bigger and bigger all the time. The great city of Istanbul, waiting patiently for our return.
Kesan – Gallipoli – Bandirma – Istanbul
250 kilometres cycled