Well I had to use that pun at some point…
Turkey has indeed been a pleasure and over the month that I’ve been cycling here, I’ve been lucky enough sample its delights. The country has been a turning point mentally as well, as I begin to settle into life on the road. My trip feels more permanent now, less like a break from normal life, but has become my normal life (fortunately without the mundanity).
One definition of happiness is when reality exceeds expectations and in this sense I’ve been very happy with Turkey. What I expected (a hot, arid country beset by angry dogs and angry, horn blaring drivers) has been well surpassed – I’ve eaten well, recieved fantastic hospitality and enjoyed lush, green and spectacular scenery. And I haven’t been hit by a car once – thank God for small mercies, eh?
A month is time enough to get to know a country fairly well (I have my favourite supermarket now…) so here, as I leave this country, are some final thoughts on Turkey.
Beautiful Black Sea
You may recall I was umming and ahhing considerably about which route to take through Anatolia. Well, I can safely say I am delighted with my decision to follow the Turkish Black Sea coastline. From west to east I’ve seen the way the coast changes, from the touristy areas north of Istanbul;
…through the rugged but soon to be changed area (with the arrival of the great highway) to the west of Zonguldak;
…into the dramatic and hilly Küne Dağliari mountains that run through to the Sinop peninsula;
…from this Northernmost point of Turkey, back South and East through the fertile farmland and hazelnut regions near Samsun and Giresun;
…and into the Çay growing region and conservative East with the highly religious towns of Trabzon and Rize.
The cooler weather has meant lush and verdant trees and fields, with plums, melons, watermelons, hazelnuts and cherries presenting themselves to the scrumping cycle tourer. And of course, accompanying all of this, Çay (tea) with every meal.
If you’ve been to the touristy west coast, seen the sites of Istanbul and scaled the mountains of the East; and you fancy a change of scene then give the Turkish Kara Deniz coastline a go – you won’t be disappointed.
A Traveler’s Dream
Inadvertadly, Turkey is actually a great place to go cycle touring. One of the best Muslim influences on the country is the emphasis it affords the traveller (or traditionally, the pilgrim). This manifests itself in water stations in every village, welcoming mosques to rest in and petrol stations ready and waiting with toilets, water and friendly faces, all free of charge. Other travellers I have spoken to, journeying by other means of transport, all agree that in Turkey, the traveller is well looked after.
Despite my grumblings in my first Turkey blog, the drivers have actually been fine. I think my British politeness meant that I took every horn beep as a personal affront, whereas honking is indescriminate, ubiquitous and a lot of the time actually meant in a friendly manner. Away from Istanbul cars gave a much wider berth and the trucks were fewer on the quiet coastal roads. Yes, the busy highways and tunnels weren’t fun, but apart from that it’s not a terrible place to cycle at all.
Another, final word on the fantastic hosts and hospitality I’ve recieved. From all the way back, west of Istanbul when Ali the farmer offered me biscuits in his combine harvester, through to the border, I’ve found people to be friendly, welcoming and curious about my travels. Meeting and speaking to locals adds so much richness to the experience of travel and I couldn’t have asked for more from any of the people I’ve met. Teşekkürler!
There is a kind of organised chaos in Turkey that you can’t help but be charmed by – little things that are both infuriating and laughable and yet add to the character of the country. The way population numbers are written on the town signs, which raises so many questions (how often is it updated? how much to round by? (I saw one given to the nearest 5!)); the speed limit of 82 kph (apparently because everyone knows you can be within 10% of it, so really it’s 90 kph); the way drivers use a trailing police car with lights flashing as an excuse to speed up rather than pull over; or the cash machine that gave options of 10, 30, 50, 70 or 100 Turkish Lira, then after choosing one stated “Please choose a multiple of 20″…
Still, it all works in the end and if it ain’t broke…
A Country at a Crossroads
And so to the gritty part. The unconfortable truths and the long shadow being cast over the country that fortunately I, as a passing tourist, do not have to live under. Through chatting with Turks and reading the news, it is undeniable that Turkey, as a country, is really at a turning point. From an outsider looking in, the wheels towards a one party dictatorship seem to be already in motion. President Erdoğan tightens his grip on all parts of the state, with dissenters (real or imagined) being arrested without cause and held without trial. Scores of lawyers struck from the register for having the temerity to defend civilians excercising their right to protest. I listened as my riding companion Ossi (still officially, a “deserter”), with a lump in throat, told me of friends lost during the bomb at Ankara protests in 2014, how the mother of his child had turned round just at the right moment and just survived, how he feels the only safe option for his son is to move out of his own country. Or reading about the peace process with the Kurds in the east, so delicately built up, undone by reopening military offensives against the PKK. Are these the democratic ideals that the president says he holds so dearly? It is against the backdrop of the botched coup last year and oppresive military rule that Erdoğan frames his party is the opposition to. On the 15th July (the one year anniversary of the Coup) I saw many strong TV adverts, posters, news pieces drumming up support and framing a united Turkey against the military. This is how Erdoğan wishes to win the hearts and minds of the Turkish people. But Turkey is a secular republic – a fact that both atheists and muslim Turks alike that I spoke to are proud of – which clashes with many of the ideals that he and his party seek to implement.
It is hard not to feel worried about the future, especially for those that will be in the firing line. I hope that Turkey can avoid this bleak future and the president can be reined in, with full democratic accountability restored.
But I’m not holding out for it.
Sorry to end on such a sad tone. Here are some numbers and photos to make up for it.
Number of Days: 27
Number of Rest Days: 8
Longest Day: 131km
Total Distance: 6047km
Total Days: 77
Number of Punctures: 1 (and hopefully the last)
Days of rain: 2 (the first since Belgrade)
Çays drunk: Probably a hundred