West to east: the end of the EU and the hellish road to Istanbul

Pausing on the stifling hot road just west of the Greek/Turkey border

Pausing on the stifling hot road just west of the Greek/Turkey border

LEAVING the one time capital city of Greece, Nafplio, was tough. The sun soaked town – filled with 1970s beach shacks and old winding streets overlooking the ocean – seemed to encapsulate every childhood summer holiday we’d had and while the temptation to bum around the beachy town for a few more days nearly won us over, the urge to see some more sights before our visa expired won out.

So it was after just three relaxing days that we hauled ourselves out of our cosy cabin and peddled east towards Athens. The vague plan was to strike for the other side of the peninsula (some 80km away) and take a ferry to Aegina island (just a short boat ride in turn from Athens) but as we veered closer on undulating roads we realised our big mistake. The economic crisis in Greece had wreaked havoc on the reliability of public transport and while a website had promised us regular ferries the truth was they were few and far between. As we neared the opposite coast an epic rainstorm forced us to dive off the road for shelter and so while peering through the grey gloom we decided to quickly change our plans and bee line straight for the capital with the help of a bus. A day later we found ourselves in the chaos that is the city’s industrial outskirts and there was nothing for it but to run the gauntlet of peak hour traffic on terrible roads to the one and only campsite. It was ridiculously expensive at 23 euros a night (but far cheaper than any hostel options) and was run by a woman who looked and acted as though she once managed a division of the KGB.

Ancient yet modern Athens

Ancient yet modern Athens

The days on our visa were now dangerously numbered but it didn’t stop us spending three days in Athens in a bid to soak up the ancient ruins I’d been dreaming about since I was a kid. Despite the hordes of tourists and scene stealing scaffolding we grinned like idiots while standing in the shadow of the Parthenon and for an entire day we soaked up the remnants of an ancient time while sipping on iced coffee. Modern Athens was just as impressive thanks to streets filled with trendy, hipster cafes and seriously quirky boutiques that gave it a sophisticated edge.

In between yiros, spanakopita, city walks and ruin tours we began the lengthy but surprisingly simple task of applying for our Canadian work visas. A serious depletion of funds (due to our lack of restraint) meant we were on track to just make it America before the accounts dried up completely.

Modern and colourful Athens (featuring Scott and a cat)

Modern and colourful Athens (featuring Scott and a cat)

We’d long fantasised about spending a good chunk of time in another country, living, working and generally soaking up the culture in a far more meaningful way then simply passing through and Canada seemed like the perfect solution to tick that off the list while making some much needed cash. It’s relatively easy for an Australian to get a work visa and being just under the cut off date (31 years old) meant, if accepted, we’d get two years under the working holiday scheme.

With a week and a half left our our visa and roughly 1000km to the border of Turkey we knew the rest of our Greece stay would be a mix of cycling and public transport and also (to our great disappointment) would mean skipping Crete. The ferry to the country’s biggest island was a small fortune and it would leave us with little time to do anything else. We instead decided to take a train to Larissa (in central Greece) where we’d peddle to the Pelion Peninsula and check out its ragged coastline before heading up to the second biggest city – Thessaloniki.

The peninsula was a stunning piece of typical Greek landscape (steep mountains, green field and blue waters) and even better the road from Larissa was fairly flat. About 20km beyond the town of Volos we stayed at a seaside campsite filled with retired Europeans in inappropriately small swim ware and even spent an extra wasteful day in the tent thanks to incessant rain.

The perfect view from our campsite to the beach on the Pelion Peninsula

The perfect view from our campsite to the beach on the Pelion Peninsula

When it came time to leave we pushed out the 60km in three hours (despite a head wind) to make a 2pm train to Thessaloniki where we’d teed up two nights of accommodation with fellow bike tourer Antigone. Our sweet, quiet, but kind and funny host gave us free reign of the apartment she shared with her two brothers and the following day we pounded the pavement to check out the city and stock up on supplies before we headed east. I knew the contraceptive pill would be tough to find from Turkey onwards and so I marched into a pharmacy and after a game of charades managed to convey I wanted eight months of the pill to the slightly shocked pharmacist.

We were also on the hunt for new rain jackets (ours had long ceased to be waterproof), new tyres and seam sealer for the slightly leaky tent. We found none of the items and instead resigned ourselves to buying them in Istanbul (if a city of 15 million people didn’t have them then where would?).

After several coffees and plenty more laughs with Antigone we pushed off the next morning and took a train to Alexandroupoli where we spent a night before peddling to the border. From the small but charming seaside town it was 60km to Turkey and we tried to savour our last slice of western Europe and Greece (which we’d loved despite spending such a short time there) before starting the epic second leg of our trip.

It was hot, slightly hilly and tough going but were filled with a buzz that came from what lay ahead: our one year anniversary and our first proper land border crossing.

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West meets east! Crossing the border from Greece to Turkey

At 5pm we peddled up to Greek immigration who gave us a cursory glance and a stamp in our passports before sending us through to the Turks. Despite our nerves (inevitable at any border) we met smiling and excitable guards who scarcely looked at our passports before waving us through. Within minutes we’d crossed into Turkey and while the scenery was the same small differences immediately came to light. Cars drove more erratically, locals waved more cheerfully and churches were swapped with mosques.

We had entered western Turkey, the more relaxed part of the country, but already we were seeing a huge clash of east meets west. Women in burqas strolled next to girls in tight jeans and busty singlet tops while rusted out cars chugged alongside gleaming BMWs.

Ipsala, a small town of just a few thousand people, seemed to embody it all and we wobbled unsteadily down an atrocious road to its centre just after 6pm. We’d contacted a warm showers host days before who (in terribly broken English) seemed to be very keen for us to stay with him in the northern town so after getting lost in a bid to find his street we tried to call him to no avail. In the end we found a girl standing outside a bank and asked her if she spoke English. She didn’t seem confident at the prospect and so haltingly told us to wait while she called a friend. Her friend (who turned out to be a manager at the bank) came out to speak to us and after we explained our problem he called our host. It turned out our host wasn’t in Ipsala at all, but in Istanbul – some 270km away). By now it was 8pm and we wondered if we’d have to peddle out of town to find somewhere to camp. Our new friend instead insisted on buying us a coffee before inviting us to his friend’s wedding (that night) and then lead us to an extremely cheap hotel nearby.

Wedding bells a ringin' in Ipsala, Turkey

Wedding bells a ringin’ in Ipsala, Turkey

We were bowled over by his friendliness and while the hotel was clearly cheap for a reason (the toilet looked as though it had never been cleaned) it was a wonderful start to a country we knew was famed for its hospitality. Everyone in the town seemed keen to talk to us and after a feast of Turkish kabap, a brief stop at the wedding and late night lemonade with our new friends we were exhausted but pumped for what lay ahead.

A Turkish feast for champions in Ipsala, Turkey

A Turkish feast for champions in Ipsala, Turkey

The next morning our good vibes evaporated as fast as a mirage when we stepped outside. The temperature had soared and with minutes sweat was pouring off us as we peddled slowly east.

The kindest thing that could be said of the road from Ipsala to Istanbul (along the D100) was if you were feeling suicidal, this would be the place to send you over the edge. The four lane highway was monotonous, bland and full of angry truck and bus drivers who often hurtled up the shoulder in a bid to gain 30 extra seconds. It didn’t help that the temperature had ascended towards hell levels while the undulating terrain meant you went up and down in an almost identical fashion for 150 kilometres straight.

Shards of metal and glass fill the shoulders of roads in Turkey - as we found at the hard way!

Shards of metal and glass fill the shoulders of roads in Turkey – as we found at the hard way!

We found ourselves stopping every 10 kilometres at one of the many service stations to gulp down cold water and huddle in the shade to beat the heat but even frequent breaks couldn’t stop our flagging energy levels. It felt as though we’d been transported back to Townsville Australia, a town in the nation’s northern “dry tropics” where you can where a t-shirt year round.

We battled on with just a flat tyre to break the monotony until we met a couple of other cycle tourers from Germany who, like us, where feeling equally as drained at the conditions.

The hot road east to Istanbul

The hot road east to Istanbul

A mass of high rise building and dirty apartment complexes eventually came into view, revealing itself as the seaside port town of Tekirdag and after pulling onto the bustling promenade we realised our big mistake. We were so incredibly tired after 80km in the stifling heat that the thought of peddling another 20km out of town to reach a campsite was out of the question. Fantasies of a bed and air conditioning also addled our senses and we instead waddled over to the closest hotel we could find. It was ridiculously above our budget (costing 150 TKL a night) but we handed over the money with promises of a cheap week to follow and collapsed on the posh bed of our seriously classy room.

After a night in blissfully cold air conditioning on one of the most comfortable beds we’d experienced in almost a year we wrenched ourselves back into the heat the following morning and peddled towards Istanbul.

Scott's salt-stained shirt from cycling in the high heat

Scott’s salt-stained shirt from cycling in the high heat

If possible it was even hotter but by mid afternoon the heat transformed into an epic storm. Just 40km down the road (thanks to a long break over lunch) the wind picked up to howling point, the storm clouds raced overhead and rain bucketed down. We were trapped under a bridge, too terrified to move as dirt and debris raced around with hurricane force and road signs shook violently. For the first time in a year I had serious trouble staying upright on the bike, let alone cycling, and it wasn’t until two hours later that the storm had blown itself out enough to continue. Despite hopes of another 80km day we made it just 55 to a beachy town where the only campsite was a questionable establishment that looked more like a rubbish tip.

Hitting the coast on the road east from Tekirdag to Istanbul

Hitting the coast on the road east from Tekirdag to Istanbul

For the past couple of days we’d been toying with the idea of taking a bus into the heart of the city (something many tourers were forced to do thanks to horrendous traffic) and after just 20km the following morning (in increasingly bad conditions) we made our decision. We were fifty kilometres out of the nation’s biggest city but already the shoulder had gone leaving us running the gauntlet with cars, trucks and  buses that seemed to care little about the prospect of knocking a cyclist off the road. It had become abundantly clear that here, cyclists had next to no rights (we were forced to give way to cars and trucks in every circumstance) and so we took a right and trundled up to a bus station. For about $7 AU each (which included a drink and a pastry) we were put on the next bus to Istanbul. In the end the traffic was so horrendous we wondered if it would have been faster to cycle but skipping the hellish road and the heat was still worth it!

Taksim Square in Istanbul

Taksim Square in Istanbul

The sun was just beginning to set when we arrived in the famous Taksim Square in the heart of Istanbul and we dodged the throngs of corn vendors, drug dealers and strolling families to wind our way to the cheapest hostel we could find.

It was a little dirty and full to the brim with a ragtag assortment of travellers who liked to party but it had space for our bikes and reasonably comfortable (if stifling hot) dorm beds so we settled in and fell asleep almost instantly. The next day we got to know the supremely lovely and humble Richard – a fellow world bicycle traveller from England – and Danish adventurer Emma, who peddled her pushy from Scandinavia to Turkey solo and without a tent (she just slept on the roadside in a sleeping bag).

Taking a ferry from the "east" to the "west" in Istanbul

Taking a ferry from the “east” to the “west” in Istanbul

We spent hours comparing stories, laughs and bicycle travel woes and spent the next day getting to know a wonderful group of Canadian students (one in particular cooked us crepes for breakfast), a bubbly and vivacious Brazilian girl and a photography student from Colombia. It was tempting to faff about the hostel sipping coffee and making new friends but with a huge list of chores hovering over us we began the arduous task of visa applications, website maintenance and budget planning. Our Iranian visa would undoubtedly prove the toughest but the biggest shock – just two days into our Istanbul stay – was our funds situation. We knew we’d over spent in the past 12 months but we hadn’t realised the extent of our folly. A quick overhaul revealed our daily budget would be slashed to $30 a day (in total) to ensure we made it to Canada while a tally of our upcoming expenses (visas, flights, insurance and essential purchases) would equal almost $6000 in the coming months. There was nothing to do but stock up on rice and bananas and mentally prepare for what lay ahead – an all round tough half year.

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