Turkey...

11th August 2006 to 24 September 2006

After the calmness of the Greek back roads, Edirne's bustling street stalls, crowded alleys and general chaos was enough to send us retreating into the first hotel we found. In fact, it was a pretty good introduction to Turkey, and the ideal city to find our feet in, enjoy lots of tea and plan our attack on the roads to Istanbul.

The route is quite straightforward - it is one long road all the way. It is also unrelentingly hilly, and by turns badly surfaced and busy. We had a tough time on this bit, to the point that we considered changing the name of our website to '2 Wheels To Turkey' and hoping that no one would notice. The major hazard though was not exhaustion or traffic, but the dogs. We are talking massive man-eating things. One pack chased us for a good couple of hundred metres, with the trusty Dazer having no effect. It was a good job we were on an unusually flat stretch of road, otherwise we are pretty sure they would have eaten us.

The towns we passed through on this stretch were largely unremarkable, and served purely as stopovers for us. In one, after a long day, Kat decided to buy some baklava in a bakery to cheer herself up. For those that don't know, baklava is a pastry dessert, drenched in a sickly sweet syrup, normally filled with nuts, and then covered in more syrup. It is cut into bite size pieces, and we reckon about 6 of these is enough to put anyone into a sugar-induced coma. Though we had a few words of basic Turkish, we didn't know how to say 'half', 'less', or 'no, that really is more baklava than we can eat at this time', and we came away with a kilo of the stuff. We spent the next couple of hours ploughing our way through about 30 pieces (roughly half) and promptly falling asleep for the rest of the evening.

Apart from the baklava, the highlight of our few day's on the road to Istanbul was undoubtedly the kindness of the people we met along the way. We generally stop to top-up on water and food at petrol stations, and we have not been to one yet where we were not offered a seat in the shade and a cup of tea. Passing through one town, a van stopped beside us and the driver handed us two bottles of cold water, totally out of the blue. Whenever something like that happens, which is several times a day, is gives us a boost and makes the day not half as bad. Anyway, we always knew that this route was purely functional and just an obstacle to reaching Istanbul, where we would have a rest and receive a visit from Kat's Dad.

The final push to the great city was the worst and best bit of all. The traffic becomes unbelievable from about 40km out, the road widens to several lanes, there are junctions to cross all the time, and we are still amazed that we escaped without harm. The cars here will stop for no one, and will not tolerate being held up behind a slower vehicle even if passing it is impossibly dangerous. We don't think our presence on the road was particularly appreciated. The only upside is that the further you go, the denser the traffic gets until it is crawling along at bicycle pace, and becomes less of a threat to us. As we entered the city proper, the coastal section had a wide promenade which ran all along the seafront right to the doorstep of our hotel in Sultanahmet. This was comparative bliss to cycle on, and Richard's list of things to complain about was reduced to the strong wind, and some uneven sections of the pavement.

Reaching Istanbul felt fantastic - for Kat the prospect of seeing her Dad was the most joyous part, but we were also very pleased with the fact that we had now crossed an entire continent on the bikes.

Apart from just relaxing and eating in Istanbul, we did see to a few important issues. Richard's bike has now been completely fixed, and they have both had a service. We have obtained our visas for India - less straightforward and more expensive than we thought: Since we are not resident in Turkey we needed recommendation letters from the British consulate, which actually cost more than the visas themselves. We have decided not to go to Iran. The chances of getting a visa to go there for longer than a few days were always slim, but recent events have reduced them even further. Talking to other people in Istanbul made up our minds firmly about this. Most importantly though, we got to go to the Turkish Grand Prix - not a relaxing experience where Kat is concerned, whose heavily partisan stance means nervous pacing at best, but normally several joyful or angry outbursts per race.

We departed Istanbul by ferry to the Gelibolu (Gallipoli) peninsular, an altogether more pleasant option than cycling out of the city. Due to a minor mistake on Kat's part with timetables and departure points, this meant an overnight on the island of Marmara (not as glamorous  as it sounds.) Due to our time off the road in Istanbul, we had forgotten one of the first rules of hotel selection in Turkey, and got a room directly opposite, and at the same level as, the megaphones of a mosque's minarets. They are great if you want a 5am wake-up call, but not if your ferry doesn't leave until 11.

We opted for a small coast road to see us through the north of the Gelibolu peninsular, thinking it would likely be more pleasant than any other road, and flat since it was along the sea. I'm not sure quite why we think these things sometimes, since we are both aware that cliffs exist, which run along the sea and are perfectly capable of harbouring a road, but are not flat and are not at sea level. The inland climb up to our cliff road was so long and steep that we were overtaken twice by a man on his horse (the horse stopped for a drink, allowing us to briefly get the upper hand.) This bit of coast road turned out to be an unpaved mix of dirt and gravel, seriously undulating - as cliffs are wont to be - and with unprotected drops down to the sea below. A high wind and a section of road that had caved in due to an avalanche, added to our trepidation. Not many other vehicles were on it though.

Having negotiated the cliff road, we felt somewhat justified, as the rest of the day we cruised along a quiet, tarmacked (is this actually a word?) flat road, that hugged the sea so closely part of it was being washed away. The following day we set out to follow another minor road along the sea, which it did for a while, but then seemed to go more and more inland, until we had completely lost sight of any water. We merrily continued initially, but became more and more concerned as we wound up and around an army base. It's slightly worrying to be cycling in the middle of nowhere, with the suspicion that you are very lost, and the sound of heavy gunfire nearby. When we crested a hill and saw the coast again it was with utter joy, until we realised that we now had the sea on our other side. It took us some baffled minutes until we realised that we had somehow got turned around and ended up crossing the whole of the peninsular and where now cycling down the opposite side of it.

However, the final day cycling down to the ferry crossing to Çanakkale was an absolute joy, and completely out of kilter with all our other experiences of riding in Turkey - it's a beautifully paved, moderately undulating road, flanked by pine forests and a perfect clear blue sea. It's made nicely shady by the trees and even cooler by a gentle breeze from the Dardanelles.

Çanakkale was also a reasonable place to spend a couple of days, after having stayed in some real flea pits since leaving Istanbul. From here we visited (some of) the memorials on Gallipoli, and the ruins of Troy. We did both as guided tours, mainly to get more background info on each, but particularly a Turkish perspective on Gallipoli. The guide for the memorials was very good, and did indeed go into depth not just about the Allied campaign, but also what this place means to Turks. All of the tours however are heavily ANZAC orientated - none of them even visit the British, French or Turkish sites. We could of course have done this ourselves, but were happy enough to pay our respects where we were taken.

Kat in particular was very impressed with Troy. There is much more to see than we had thought. Richard was less interested in either the myths or the history, but at the very least learnt something! He was more excited at the fact that he was brave enough to visit a barber and get his mop cut in Çannakale. This was the second such occurrence - he was similarly courageous in Romania.

We also found out in Çannakale that to fly to India from here we need to go back to Istanbul, instead of to Ankara as we have planned. This has left us a bit undecided as which route to take through the rest of Turkey. We are conscious of not wanting to cycle back on ourselves. At the moment our target place is just south of Izmir where we can cycle to Ephesus; in the meantime we are dithering about how to get back to Istanbul from there.

We had already seen a preview of what awaited us on the road out of Çannakake, as the coach to Troy followed it for a while. Scared by all the hills, we left at dawn and made good time, but as the day wore on we couldn't find anywhere to stay and the climbs were unrelenting. By the end of a difficult 130km day we were utterly finished. We were very lucky to find a small guesthouse in an obscure village, where we ate dinner with a very kind Turkish family who went out of their way to make us feel at home. The following day the climbs just got worse and seemed never ending. At one point we were struggling so much that we covered just 25 miles in over 4 hours. This has far and away been the most demanding couple of days, physically, we've ever had - neither of us can think of anything that has come close.

At the end of these tough days was the beautiful town of Assos. The place is split into two parts - one wrapped around the top of a hill, and the other along a harbour at the bottom of it. Naturally, we opted for the harbour, determined to go downhill for at least some of the ride. The road wound incredibly steeply down for over a kilometre, over painfully bumpy cobbles. It was near the end that we fully realised how stupid we were for going down there, and we made it our mission for that evening to find a way not to cycle back up. A guidebook, combined with some crafty reconnaissance, revealed that there was a footpath out of Assos, leading to the next village. From our scouting, we knew that the path was very narrow and very stoney for the 200 metres that we walked along it, but nothing we couldn't handle if we pushed the bikes. The following morning several locals tried to dissuade us from going that way, but to no avail. The path was indeed very narrow and very stoney for the first 200 metres. After that it became little more than a goat track, hemmed in by stout thorn bushes and littered with small-child sized rocks. We heaved and dragged the bikes along, shredding the pannier coatings, not to mention our arms and legs. Kat lost a pannier along the way, and managed not to realise for some time afterwards. Having to walk back searching for it didn't help our moods. It was probably more trying, painful and longer than the steep cobbled road.

Once we had escaped, we were able to follow a busy and appallingly paved main road pretty much all the way to Izmir. Most of the roads in Turkey do not have a tarmac surface - what they do have is a layer of large stone chippings on top of some tar. If the road is very old this means that the chippings have been worn down to create a fairly smooth surface. When they are new it is like cycling on, well, a layer of stones. The roads to Izmir were all very new. Turkish roads, aside from the stones, are also bumpy. So you get the constant minor jarring from cycling on the stones, and the less frequent major jarring from the bumps. It's a combination that makes your elbows, wrists and knees sore, and on the worst days leaves you with aching ribs. Apart from a couple of medium climbs the route was largely flat; certainly in comparison to the rest of the cycling in Turkey.

Our route took us inland a bit, to take in the ancient city of Pergamon, so staying in the modern town of Bergama which is built beside and around it. Most tourists visit the site on a day trip we discovered. Good move, as the town itself was probably the most unpleasant one we stayed in. The ruins are extremely impressive though, and well worth the trouble. It's 8km up a big steep hill to the main site, so we got a taxi. Taking a taxi in Turkey is always very frightening, much more so than cycling, and when the driver is zooming up a narrow road with increasingly high and unprotected drops, round constantly blind corners oblivious to anything that may be coming the other way, it is particularly so. We walked back.

Our next stop, Izmir, is the third largest city in Turkey, so was not difficult to find. The traffic leading in was bad, as you would expect, but we are becoming pros at this and didn't find it as daunting as Istanbul. The setting of the city is undeniably impressive, surrounded as it is by mountains on three sides, and the sea on the other. It's a laid back and friendly place, despite its size, and we had a pleasant day off there before catching an overnight ferry back to Istanbul.

Being back in Istanbul has been almost like being back home, which is just as well since getting plane tickets to Mumbai, boxes for the bikes, approval for the bikes to go on the plane, and packing the bikes to go on the plane, has meant an inordinate amount of faffing around. We are now ready for India, or as ready in a practical sense as we are going to be...

Finally, thanks to the BBC for covering us reaching Turkey, the article can be read here.