TURKEY, 29th June - 3rd July 2017
“Would you like to play a game?” Dea asked as we rode along on the waterfront cycle path. “We could spot cats?”
Of course I did want to play a game spotting cats, it would be a very strange situation indeed for me to refuse that kind of challenge, but to tell the truth, my heart wasn’t quite in it. This is the only reason I can offer as to how Dea was able to race into a 5-0 lead.
“Cat, cat, cat!” She went on.
‘Yeah, whatever.’ I thought. I was feeling kind of melancholy about things. It was a bit strange, because we were following this great cycle path through the Asian part of Istanbul, from Kadikoy to Pendik. I knew it was a great place for us to cycle because I’d ridden it before, three years earlier, on my way east first time around. But that was the problem. For the first time on our trip together I was retracing my wheelturns, and it naturally brought back memories and encouraged comparisons. Before I’d been heading out all alone towards the unknown. This cycle path had been my first ever introduction to Asia (and quite a misleading one, truth be told). I was excited about all that was ahead. Now, however, I kind of knew what was ahead and I was a bit anxious about it. Asia. Again. Was I really up for the challenge? And was it still going to be as exciting as it had been first time around?
Dea was 12-6 ahead now. Even Istanbul’s famous cats were against me. I needed to snap out of this. Pull myself together. “Ah, but Dea, the scene is now perfectly set for the greatest comeback in the history of the-” “Cat, cat!” she cried as she spotted a couple more hiding in the rocks of the pier we were riding out on. 14-6. Dammit. I would need a miracle to come back now. Then I looked over the rocks near to Dea’s last cat spot. “Cat, cat, cat, cat!” A litter of kittens, very nice, and the score was back to 14-10. Back we went to our cycle path. Dea was riding on ahead of me. She passed straight by a cafe without looking at it. I looked in. There were five cats lounging around on the floor. Maybe Asia wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
With Dea still smarting from becoming the victim of the greatest cat-spotting comeback ever seen we took the ferry from Pendik to Yalova, escaping the busy roads heading east out of Istanbul by returning to the southern shore of the Marmara Sea. In Yalova we happened upon a bike shop where I asked after a new gel seat cover to put over my ridiculously misshapen Brooks saddle. The shop owner looked at my saddle, what was left of the last chewed-up gel cover clinging to it in a mess of electrical tape, and sighed. He told me in very good sign language that what I needed there was not a new saddle cover, but a new saddle.
“Do you know how much that saddle cost? It’s only done 120,000 kilometres. Got to get my money’s worth,” I said, before adding, “And I can’t get the damn thing off anyway.”
He threw his arms up in despair, and we left. A few minutes later he caught us up on his own bike. He’d found a gel seat cover somewhere, good man that he was. I bought it from him, and he left again, still shaking his head.
With me sitting more comfortably we made our way up the hill out of Yalova and had a nice camping place in some trees, before continuing the next morning towards Iznik. The road took us through olive groves and past men selling freshly picked fruit from rickety wooden stalls. At Iznik we found a beach where we bathed in the water and sat and ate ice creams, surrounded by Turkish families, but left to our own devices. Iznik is an old town surrounded by a very old wall, and we enjoyed riding through the narrow back streets across town. We stopped to buy fruit at a grocers, and found ourselves being invited to sit and drink tea with the friendly owner. Everything seemed to be going well, but unfortunately then came the road east out of Iznik. It was a narrow two-lane road, and very busy with lots of trucks powering along blasting their horns. There was nothing in the way of a shoulder for us to escape onto and it was simply too dangerous for us to cycle on. We needed a plan, and the opportunity for us to think of one came when we were invited to sit and drink tea by one of the roadside sellers. He was a very friendly man who gave us a bag of fruit from his stall to enjoy with our tea, and then went off on his scooter and came back with ice cream too. Turkish people, as I remembered, were proving themselves extremely hospitable.
“You just wait, Dea, we’ll soon be meeting Mehmet.”
“I know, I can’t wait.”
Mehmet was a man who I’d met when I’d cycled along this road three years before. He’d invited me for a glass of tea, then when I cycled on he’d caught up to me on his tractor and insisted I go and drink tea with him again in another tea house. I think he might have followed me all across Turkey giving me tea if he could, and he’d earnt himself a place in my book as an example of how generous Turkish people could be with their glasses of tea.
“We’ll be drinking some tea when we get there, for sure.”
The nice man who’d given us tea in the present situation suggested to us that we could sleep on some sofas that were set up beside his stall, but seeing as they were also beside the busy road we declined. Instead we rode off and made camp behind an old olive grove. A few hours later we were awake and ready to implement the plan we’d come up with. The alarm woke us at 3:30 in the morning. It was still very dark. We packed up our things by the light of our headtorches, then, as we pushed our bikes out of the olive grove, the sky just beginning to lighten, the call to prayer began to echo around the hillsides. It was a special moment, that reminded me why I was doing this. We were on an exciting adventure, far from home. The busy road was now almost empty, and we cycled quickly onwards. In a small town a few dogs barked at us and some dedicated followers of Allah traipsed along the road, returning home after their morning prayers. The skies lightened, the sun rose over the hills in front of us, and we made it to a wider, safer road just in time before the rest of the world awoke and the morning traffic began.
We stopped in a town and enjoyed a burek (cheese pastry) breakfast before continuing on some really nice small roads. We stopped along the way to enjoy glasses of tea twice more with insisting men. “They really want us to drink tea with them don’t they?”
“This is nothing. You just wait until we see Mehmet!” I said. At Geyve we rejoined a slightly busier road, but it now had a good wide shoulder. It climbed up for some time, steeply, into a landscape of pine forests. It was very, very hot and very hard work, but it was worth it, for at the top we found Mehmet.
He was outside of the little restaurant that he’d invited me into before, standing at the roadside beside a wooden stall laden with fresh fruit. We stopped and looked over at him. He started shouting at us, thinking we just wanted to buy his fruit. We went over to him. “Mehmet?” I asked.
There was no hint of recognition in his face. He had no idea who I was. “No, Mehmish,” he said. God, I’d got his name wrong all these years. Probably best not to show him the book then. Having told us his correct name and showing not the least interest in how I’d almost known it, Mehmish went back to trying to sell us fruit.
“No, no. We don’t want fruit. Wait.” I said, then pulled my laptop out of my bag. I found the photos I had of him from my first visit, standing outside of his restaurant with his son and wife. He looked at it, momentarily confused as to how I had a photo of him on my laptop, before he worked out who I was. He smiled. He remembered me now, and seemed pleased to see me. We were invited to take a seat in the shade and we were given some fruit. He told me that his son was now away from home studying at university. His wife was still there, wearing the exact same headscarf she’d had on three years ago actually. I’d not spoken to her last time, she’d just been in the background, but this time she came up to Dea and spoke to her. It was nice. We were welcome to stay a little while, Dea even took a nap she was so tired from our early morning ride. Before we moved on, Mehmet (he’ll always be Mehmet to me) gave me a gift of a white cap with ‘Evet” written on it, Turkish for yes. “Evet, evet!” he said enthusiastically, as he put it on my head. It had been really nice to see him again, but one thing puzzled me as we waved goodbye and cycled onwards.
“I can’t understand it. I really thought he would offer us tea.”
We camped that night in a pine forest and then continued the next day over more big hills in more extreme heat. A moment of reprieve came when we stopped at a little shop and met a man and wife. The woman was sat outside making gözleme. She rolled out balls of dough with great skill until they were unbelievably thin circles, added fillings of spinach, cheese or potatoes, folded them and fried them. It was fascinating to watch. We tried them and of course they tasted delicious.
We summited a pass at 1200 metres then began a descent out of the pine forests and towards the ‘other planet’ landscape I remembered so well from my first visit. On the way we were invited to stop with a young family who fed us watermelon and cherries. Such acts of kindness brightened up our days so much.
We reached the town of Nallihan and went into the centre to find a shop and stock up on supplies. After getting what we needed we took a seat in the busy town square to take a rest and watch the people. Of course they also noticed us and we had a few visitors. The best of these was undoubtedly a young man named Deniz. He was a geologist who lived in Ankara and was visiting relatives here. He was really nice, and best of all he could speak English (a rarity amongst these encounters) so we invited him to sit down so we could have a talk that extended beyond the usual few sentences we could manage in Turkish. It seemed to be extending into the field of politics when he asked me, “Do you like Erdogan?”
I wondered how best to respond to such a question. It was a complicated subject, but before I could formulate my response, Deniz continued, “It’s just because, your cap, it means you support him, it means vote yes in the referendum.”
Dammit Mehmet. Forcing your political opinions on me. I took the cap off and threw it in the bin.
We had a really nice long chat with Deniz. As a geologist he was able to tell us more about the incredible rock formations in this area, and the other planet landscape coming up. I told him I’d seen it before, and took out a copy of my book to show him that I’d written about it. He was impressed by the book and our journeys and it seemed like he was inspired by it. “This is like, how do you say, a lightbulb moment for me!” he beamed. It was so nice to think we could be inspiring people, and I gave him a copy of the book as a gift. He thanked us. “I just wish there was something I could give you. Oh wait, I have.” And he dug out a scarf for us, that would go on to become one of Dea’s most prized possessions.
Dea and I rode on and set up camp soon after, looking down over the start of the incredible other-planet landscape. As I sat there, looking down towards it, I thought back over the previous few days, cycling this same road I’d been on before, and how really very good it had been. We’d met so many amazing people, enjoyed so much generous hospitality, been made so welcome here. I smiled and looked over my shoulder. Dea was walking around our campsite. She had on her baggy traveller trousers, her hair tied up by her new scarf. She looked radiant in the light of the setting sun. I thought back on when I’d cycled this way before, all alone, dreaming of finding someone like Dea to join me. How could I ever believe I’d get this lucky? All my initial apprehension about returning to Asia was gone. We had a great adventure ahead of us, the two of us.
Istanbul - Yalova - Geyve - Goynuk - Nallihan
299 kilometres cycled
Click below for more photos in the Flickr album: #27: Mehmish a nice man today