MENTAL slumps strike when you least expect. One minute you’re on top of the world, feeling better than Bear Grylls on steroids as you pump the pedals to new adventures and then suddenly just getting out of bed is your new Everest.
It was just a few hours after Istanbul’s sprawl disappeared from the horizon that a severe case of the slumps struck with gusto.
We’d spent over a week in Turkey’s biggest city (which has a population of over 15 million) and while the lazy break in a cheap and cheerful hostel had been bliss the small “sabbatical” ate away at our enthusiasm like a virus. I don’t know if it was the 40 degree celsius days, the horrendous traffic that chokes roads throughout the nation or even the small splinter of fear we’d both buried over the unknown road ahead but after hauling our bikes off the ferry on a late Thursday afternoon it took all our courage not to book into a hotel there and then.
We’d decided to cross the Marmara Sea from Istanbul and begin our cycle towards Iran almost directly south from the city but the minute we left Mudanya the road rose alarmingly sending our heart rates through the roof and our sweat glands into overdrive. The plan was to put in about 30km before setting up camp for the night but 10-15 per cent grades on near gravel roads put our pedalling pace at “grandma stroll” so just 10km from the town we pulled up at the first camp friendly farm. Goats were running around rickety old picnic tables which in turn surrounded a series of crumbling old shacks but it might as well of looked like the Hilton. We found a young farmer and quickly handed over our “magic letter”. In Istanbul a young Kurd had helped us pen a letter in Turkish which simply said: “We are Sarah and Scott from Australia and we are cycling to Iran, can we please put our tent here for the night?”.
The young man looked it over and said “of course” and quickly lead us to a patch of grass near one of the old picnic tables.
At first we were stoked but mere minutes into the bumbling conversation (he spoke very little English and our Turkish repertoire consisted of three words) things turned a bit odd. Our new friend was, well, handsy to the point of inappropriate and insisted on picking us up to feel how heavy we were while cheekily grabbing my bum in the process. To make it worse it turned out he had a big problem with westerners and an even bigger one with Israel. He was offended that we couldn’t speak Turkish and rather than listen to our explanations that we were only here for six weeks and it was impossible on this kind of trip he merely bowled us over with more accusations, looking to validate his prejudices. He seemed to think Ramadan was evidence in itself of how much stronger Muslims were to those weak westerners and he couldn’t understand why we were outside Turkey without our families. It was a bizarre evening but luckily our aggressive host left us just before 9pm for his evening meal and we quickly dived into the tent, setting the alarms for an early start in the hopes of avoiding him.
The sun was already beating down when we pedalled out of camp the next day and within minutes the narrow road was bucking dangerously with some seriously alarming grades. Trucks skidded around the corner which just made the whole thing more terrifying and when we finally reached the bustling town of Gemlik I was knackered. It was a pathetic 30km and initially we had every intention of moving on after a short break but one long lunch and internet cafe break later I was ready to crawl into a hole and sleep for a year. The slump had struck with gusto and without so much as an attack of the guilts we waltzed into a cheap “Otel” and booked a room. It was a pitiful, pitiful day but the room had air conditioning and all I wanted to do was build a blanket forte and escape the world for just a little while. It turned out “a while” was in fact two nights with the epic case of the slumps sparking us to hit snooze on the alarm and spend all most an entire day in our “Otel” room.
Eventually we jumped back on the bikes and made our way towards Eskisehir but any hopes of shaking off the blues was discarded as soon as we struck the four lane highway.
Filled with semis, buses and even tractors these barren, hot tarmac wastelands were nothing short of hell. Our hard shoulder had turned into a suggestive slither and to make the terrifying gamble of “will that truck hit me or not” worse the gutter was littered with what looked like a few thousand gallons of water bottles filled with urine.
I felt hot, uninspired and disgusted with my mind frequently entertaining dark thoughts of just skipping Turkey all together.
But then came Eskisehir.
Lonely Planet calls this university city Turkey’s most liveable and after cycling down its main streets towards a cheap hostel we had to agree. The mayor of the town had created a utopia of pedestrian walkways, immaculate gardens, riverside flower plantations and sensible infrastructure while stylish cafes bustled with students, families and businessmen.
Our hostel was empty but looked as though it had been decorated by Portland hipsters and we settled into a cheap room and sighed in relief at not being on the bikes.
Eskisehir couldn’t fail to inspire but still the slumps clung like a leech and rather than kick off the next morning we again rolled over and stayed another day. We were ready to shake off the apathy the following morning but a late start and Scott’s declaration that Chile were playing Argentina in the Copa America final that night inspired us to stay yet another and this time we were filled with guilt (well I was anyway, Scott was just stoked to have somewhere to watch the final).
Lucky for him the underdogs Chile came through and by Sunday morning we were packed and determined to push through the laziness.
The plan was to get to Ankara in three days (it was 250km away) but our early start was foiled with the surprise meeting of another guest at the hostel and we spent all morning and a second breakfast chatting to Damon from America.
At 2pm we cycled out while privately thinking we’d be lucky to get 50km out before sunset. But luck was on our side. After pushing uphill for a hellish 20km the road dipped down slightly, the wind gently nudged our backs and we instead smashed out 85km.
Fellow cycle touring friends had told us Turkey’s extensive network of service stations were great places to pitch your tent for a night so at 7pm we wheeled the bikes in to a quite a nice looking establishment and handed our “magic letter” over to a quizzical looking employee.
He read it, nodded, and then pointed to the back of the station. Feeling sceptical but stoked we rolled around the back and set up the tent in a long patch of grass while gail force winds began to billow across the plateaus. It was a top day that proved to be the ultimate remedy to our slump and the following morning we packed up early and scoffed down some biscuits before jumping on the road just after 9am.
But luck’s a fickle thing – and yesterday’s wonderful tail wind had vanished. Cyclists will often tell you that while a full blown headwind is the pits it’s those nasty cousins, the sidewinds, that can be just as (if not more) brutal. We pushed into one for almost four hours, sitting on pitiful speeds, while the road rose and fell gently through the wild and almost moon-like landscapes of central Turkey.
I felt close to breaking point when the winds backed off and the road flattened, allowing us to end on a strong note at the 90km mark just after 6.30pm. The barren landscapes made wild camping nothing short of tough so we instead whipped out the magic letter and marched in (with a little more confidence) to another service station. The happy petrol attendant quickly lead us to an undercover seating area and with great waving of his hands conveyed we could sleep there. We instead pointed to the scraggly grass behind it with enthusiasm and he gave us a look that clearly indicated we were not in our right minds.
Nevertheless it was a top night (the station even had a western – albeit filthy – toilet) and we cooked our vegetables and pasta in the seating area while fielding curious questions from workers and truck drivers.
The more we headed east from Istanbul the friendlier Turkey seemed to get and while the third and last leg to Ankara was no doubt the toughest we began to see just how charming this eastern frontier nation was.
We climbed 40km before lunch and then flew down a beautiful 20km to the outskirts of Ankara where the nation’s capital spread out before us. It seemed like we were just a stone’s throw from the centre – where we’d booked a $12 room on airbnb – but the GPS revealed we still had 20 to go, forcing us to realise the mistake we’d made. The problem with cycling to somewhere like Istanbul is every city seems small in comparison. We’d scoffed at Ankara’s puny 4.6 million but the reality is we were literally cycling into a Sydney sized city.
And boy was it.
Just a few kilometres down the six lane highway we panicked and jumped off, wandering where on earth (the GPS was having a dummy spit) we were supposed to go. We’d forgotten to write down the apartment address and had no idea where we’d find an internet cafe.
A man in a smart SUV immediately pulled over (causing an enormous traffic jam behind him) and asked if we needed help. We admitted we did but pointed at the angry cars queued behind him who were blasting their horns with vigour and he fabulously answered our concerns with a “this is Turkey, it’s all good”. Well, that explained a lot.
The kind man then jumped out of his car, turned on his wifi hotspot and helped us find the apartment and before driving off handed us his business card telling us to call if we needed anything.
We were stopped twice more and even had an old man buy us tea before reaching our destination and it was a good bloody thing too because the near death experiences with road raging buses had sent our nerves to near collapse.
Maciek – our cheerful and fascinating Polish host – was quick to help us haul our bags and bikes into his charming little apartment and he was even polite enough not to comment on the fact that we clearly stunk.
His big and hot shower rated as one of our best and so did the loaded kofta sandwich we had 30 minutes later from a friendly family around the corner.
While Ankara was proving to be an underrated and friendly city it wasn’t these qualities that had sparked us to book the room for six nights. With its host of foreign embassies its a top place to kick off the visa process for eastern countries and first on our list was Iran.
We’d purchased two letters of invitation for a hefty total of 150 Canadian and for the first two days in Ankara we ate, slept and began pulling together our documents for stage two. Iran’s on the tougher end of the visa scale and we were going to have to tell some serious porky pies just to get them. Not only that but we’d have to have an itinerary, precise entry and exit dates, a hotel booking for our first night and new passport pictures for me with my head appropriately covered in a scarf. It all sounded pretty straight forward but there’s one huge hurdle when it comes to doing anything Iranian related and that’s the bank sanctions. International banks have boycotted the middle eastern nation and for that reason making hotel bookings and even paying for the visa is a huge pain in the you-know-where.
Feeling somewhat terrified we made the 10km trek to the embassy on Friday morning and entered the swanky premises just after 9.30am. There’s been plenty of times on this trip where we’ve met people who just seem to be infinitely doing the travel thing better. And after filling out just one side of the double sided form and embarrassing ourselves in front of the patient Iranian woman behind the counter we were struck anew at the fact we were two idiots abroad.
After handing over the forms we raced down to a nearby bank, deposited a whopping 100 euros each into the embassy’s bank account and raced back to be told we could pick the visas up Tuesday. It all sounded promising and while we were well aware something could go wrong at the last minute we were quietly feeling confident.
In the inevitable visa wait there was plenty for us to do. We still had to obtain our LOIs for Uzbekistan, figure out the remainder of our route through Turkey and most importantly settle on which route to take after Uzbekistan. Scott had become increasingly enamoured with the Pamir Highway (one of the world’s toughest cycling routes which zigzags through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and includes a 4600m pass) while I still felt the lure of the Kazakhstan route (or was it the lure of not climbing a bloody high pass?).
On Saturday evening we were pulled away from our procrastinating to catch up with fellow bike tourers Richard and Barry from Britain (who we met in Istanbul), enjoying an awesome night of chatting, food and visa bitching (they’d had it worse than us). It was such a relief and pleasure to talk to two guys who understood the ups and downs (even the suspicion that everyone’s doing it better than you) of cycle touring and we left them with the feeling that we’re privileged to be a part of such a supportive little family.
So now we’re here – still in Ankara, hoping like nothing else we’ll get our Iranian visas – and wondering what on earth this crazy ride east will entail.