LEAVING a city by bicycle is about as fun as eating a sack full of sheep poo. It’s not just because you’ve spent the last few days sleeping in a real bed, enjoying food that’s not two minute noodles and watching hordes of stylish locals pound the pavement. It’s because any unfamiliar city of a reasonable size is like negotiating the Labyrinth minus a minotaur and plus a few thousand insane drivers.
And little old Ankara was no exception.
On a hot, loud and stinky Thursday morning we trundled south out of the capital, pushing 20km to the outskirts while battling trucks, buses and worst of all – those insane “dolmuses” that lurch in and out of traffic like a drunk coming home at 4am. By time we’d reached the slightly more subdued town of Golbasi we were the kind of hungry, cranky and knackered that only a greasy kebab and a nap can cure but finishing a day at the 30km mark would be downright embarrassing so we jumped back on the busy E90 and struck the guts of Turkey’s barren plateau region. For such a big country Turkey can be surprisingly bland with long stretches of stony desert like plains, rocky mountains and treeless lake regions and for not the first time we we wondered how on earth we’d find a suitable camp spot in what looked like a rubbish-strewn moonscape.
The answer was again, another petrol station.
After an 85km day we waltzed into a small station with our “magic letter” and after puzzling over it for a few seconds the smiling man behind the counter nodded.
He was about to elaborate when another local walked up and peered over his shoulder. The stranger introduced himself, gave us a huge smile, and said to follow him in his car.
We shrugged and agreed, hoping like hell it wasn’t far and wondering what we’d got ourselves into.
Minutes later our new host pulled up outside his half built house and fired up the rustic billy. He then introduced himself as a proud Kurdish man and member of the militant group the PKK (The Kurdistan Worker’s Party). Yikes.
Whatever his past our host was nothing short of charming and over several cups of tea he showed us photos of his family (who lived in Ankara) and told tales of life growing up near the Syrian border. He too would join his family back in Ankara that evening but gave us a partially completed room to sleep in and the key to his house, promising he’d return in the morning.
We were bowled over by his trust and generosity.
At 7.30am we felt the first warning signs of what the day had in stock for us.
A hot persistent wind blew, being somewhere between a sidewind and a headwind, while the great stony plateaus provided no shelter from the searing elements.
Eventually the great salt lake of Tuz Gulu hit the horizon in a spectacular show of amethyst and crystal hues that glittered in the heat while tourists walked out into the crusty middle. If you closed your eyes and blocked out the barren surrounds it could have been Bolivia.
At 4pm we pulled into the surprisingly busy “salt lake museum” carpark and spied a crumbling “Otel” across the road. We’d managed a miserable 60km and rationally we knew it was too early to stop but our limbs screamed, our heads were throbbing and I was horribly and painfully sunburned.
So we instead hauled our bikes across the road and forked out a hefty 80 Lira (about $40 AU) for well, not much.
Staying in a hotel is kind of like solo scoffing down a family sized block of chocolate. It’s bliss at the time but afterwards you’re just filled with guilt and shame. Feeling hard done by we cooked two minute noodles on our stove in the bathroom before falling into a deep sleep on our sagging beds.
The side wind still blew the following morning but we jumped back into the saddle just after 9am and ticked off the long, bland miles towards Anksaray (just a stone’s throw from Cappadocia). By mid afternoon our backsides and thighs were burning but we were determined to at least get a little beyond the big city and wild camp somewhere on the road to Goreme. At 6pm, with 100km under our belts, we’d reached the heart of Anksaray and feeling little enthusiasm to carry on we called time of death.
Conveniently, there was a Maccas’ right across the road and behind that a campsite. At home, I would avoid the mega chain like the plague, but when you’re tired, cranky and thousands of miles from familiarity the golden arches are like a sign from the god of cyclists. Half an hour later, after pitching the tent, we scoffed down sickly sweet chocolate thick shakes feeling like naughty kids who’d suck into the cookie cabinet.
According to Google Maps we had just 90km to knock off the following day and we were confident we’d smash it out and reach our cosy hostel in the late afternoon. But what we hadn’t counted on was the ultimate cyclist’s horror trifecta – bad roads, a brutal headwind and maniacal motorists.
And it all started mere minutes after pedalling out of Anksaray.
A steep and unforgiving hill rose dramatically out of the town on a road that hadn’t seen the tender loving care of a steamroller in decades. The wind blew brutally into our face and by time we reached the summit we were well and truly shagged. The odometer read 6km.
“Alright, what do you reckon? Should we turn back and take the bus straight there,” asked Scott.
I was sorely tempted but one simple fact stopped me. In about two months we hoped to cross an unforgiving 500km stretch of Turkmenistan in a mere five days (unofficially known as the Turkmen dash owing to the inability to procure anything but a Transit Visa). If we couldn’t cope with this 90km windy burst to Goreme then I figured we might as well book a plane ticket now. It was make or break time and we had to pull our fingers out or be “those” cyclists who failed.
But two hours later I was ready to throw Turkmenistan, my bike and the torturous road to Cappadocia out the window. The gale force winds slowed our pace down to a demoralising average of 8km/hour (on the flat) and after three hours of painful pedalling we’d managed a mere 20km.
The temptation to throw in the towel and take a bus grew stronger with every rotation but with the determination of the stubborn we pushed on.
Morale was at an all time low as we pushed on in blind pain and for once Scott’s tantrums outstripped mine.
By 8pm the world had become shadows and once the bright lights of Nevsehir had dwindled we found ourselves pedalling up a steep, dangerously dark climb as cars whizzed past.
There was just 8km to go but we were the closest we’ve been to breaking point in months. The saddle rash on our bums had turned into a dull ache, our thighs felt bitterly battered and our heads swam as we wobbled along the occasionally gravelly road. And then if possible, it got worse. We’d thought the uphill stretch was the final kick in the guts to our suffering but it was a dangerously steep descent into Goreme on a pitch black dirt road that almost ended us.
At 10pm the bustling tourist village came into view and with the air of war survivors we hobbled up to our hostel. Without a consideration of the budget we hooked into a feast at a late night cafe and by midnight we were tucked into our surprisingly cosy dorm beds feeling nothing short of heroic. Our feat was minuscule by any bicycle touring standard but for us it had been a major test and we’d passed by the skin of our teeth.
At 5.30am the following morning the sun rose over Goreme and with it, a host of air balloons filled with camera-snapping tourists. Lonely Planet calls this short but sweet ride one of the best hot air ballooning experiences in the world but we were content to keep the 150 euros (per person) in our wallets and watch instead from the rooftop terrace of the hostel.
Later that morning we joined fellow Aussie Crystal in a hike to one of the region’s most spectacular “fairy tale chimney” sites where incredible rock formations that seemed to defy the laws of gravity covered a moonscape valley. I filed the experience into one of my favourites and thanked the stars we’d put Cappadocia on the itinerary.
Yes it’s filled with tourists, yes Goreme seems to exist purely for the busloads of backpackers and tailored travellers, but there’s a good reason it’s high on their “must see” list.
With so much land to cover and too little time before we hoped to enter Iran we decided to catch a bus to the south of Turkey and pedal from the purportedly beautiful city of Mardin to the eastern city of Van. But at 4pm a single news report threw the plan into disarray.
We knew the regions bordering Syria were troubled but we’d been willing to roll the dice until an alleged Islamic State suicide bomber took down more than 30 civilians in a nearby town. Suddenly the realities of the turbulent border hit home and we quickly re evaluated our plan.
Should we risk it and venture onto what was said to be a beautiful part of Turkey or just play it safe and beeline through the centre to Van?
Overnight more news reports emerged of the growing “troubles” involving the PKK, ISIS and the Turkish military and we bit the bullet. Truth be told it wasn’t just the dangerous border region that had sparked our decision to cut out a chunk of Turkey. We were feeling disillusioned with the bland scenery and we were also thinking about what lay ahead. Winter would strike in just a couple of months and if we didn’t hit Iran soon and begin a solid pedal east we’d find ourselves facing fierce winter conditions as low as -30 degrees celcius.
Feeling resolved we booked a bus from Goreme to Kayseri and then from Kayseri (one of Turkey’s most Islamic cities) to Van. Thirty hours later we had a whole new appreciation of how tough bus travel could be.
We were forced to wait for 13 hours in Kayseri’s smoky “otogar” while little head colds we’d recently picked up worsened. Then (after paying for tickets and being assured our bikes were “no problem”) the delayed bus rocked up and some aggressive workers announced our bikes were “big problems” and we’d have to pay dearly to get them on. It was the final straw.
The inner Hulks emerged and we launched into a tirade I’m not proud of but was ultimately effective. Sick of being ripped off, lied to and treated like stupid, walking ATMS who could be easily bullied we turned the tables and were eventually allowed on the bus with no extra cost. It was a small win but two hours later we realised we were the ultimate losers. The bus broke down in the middle of nowhere. It was 4am when the coughing, spluttering motor came back to life and we trundled back onto the tarmac towards one of Turkey’s most eastern cities.
There are only a few things that can make a 16 hour bus ride worse. First, there needs to be no airconditioning, secondly – it needs to be about 40 degrees, and thirdly – you need to have a flu.
We’d already learned the hard way that blowing your nose in public is a major faux pas in Turkey and in fact it’s considered more rude than picking your nose. Unfortunately for me my nose was clogged and dripping which meant poor Scott was forced to cough loudly every time I needed to blow. I’m not sure we fooled anyone but by this point I was so hot and miserable I didn’t care.
At 5pm the following day we finally made it into Van (a primarily Kurdish city) and the changes were immediate and profound. Slowly we’d noticed the towns becoming more and more conservative (less uncovered women and more abayas) but in Van – a town Lonely Planet claimed was forward thinking – nearly all the women were covered up. We were openly stared at as we cycled slowly from the station into the city and the traffic seemed even more aggressive than usual. Funnily enough the scenery was still similar to almost everywhere else in Turkey however the strain on the Kurdish regions of the country were evident. Huge military trucks and riot vehicles sat on every street and the large soldier and police presence was a reminder that even Van could be in danger over the coming months.
It was a relief to check into our grubby little hotel with nevertheless cheerful owners and we took long, cold showers (and blew our noses with loud force) before a long sleep.
Before cycling for the Iranian border (only 70km away) there was one thing we had to do before leaving Van, and that was tuck into a big breakfast. Turkey’s not a big breakfast nation by any stretch of the imagination (for most it’s a coffee and a cigarette) but Van not only prides itself on its morning meal but has a reputation for offering the best.
Being food snobs we were reserving judgement but after a cheerful waiter brought out two tables full of delicious dishes for the equivalent of about $12 AU we stood corrected. Van breakfasts rocked! Locally made butters, cheeses, breads and olive oils accompanied chargrilled meats, eggs, omelettes, cheese croquets and more. It was enough food to feed a family (or two cyclists) and I’m ashamed to say we ate most of it.
After sleeping off a breakfast coma we began Iran preparations. Owing to bank sanctions we’d need to withdraw our entire 30 day budget before crossing the border and I needed to prepare my Iran wardrobe. For the the next month a bad hair day would be happily disguised beneath a head scarf but I was privately terrified at just how hot I’d get will cycling in hijab costume during one of the warmest months. Suddenly we felt reluctant to leave rough and confusing Turkey and while we’d only heard great things about this former Persian empire we couldn’t help but feel nervous about wait lay ahead.
Iran here we come!