update 35.

east meets west

Cycling in Turkey

14 April  2009

Total kilometers cycled: 52,961

Specific country info on routes & roads/food & accommodation/the locals available here.

"Come, sister.  This way."
"Oh, god," I thought.  Not another passport check.  I'd just tucked my documents safely away at the bottom of my handlebar bag and wasn't keen to dig in amongst my sunglasses and sunscreen (not needed for the past month), leatherman and triangle tool (needed far too often after 50,000 kilometers) and cookie crumbs.
But the uniformed men beckoning to me at the border crossing were only inviting me to share a meal with them.  I tore off a piece of soft flat bread and dipped it in to a spicy vegetable dish and let out a sigh of satisfaction.
"Next time you will come to my home.  My wife best cook," came the invitation from the friendly immigration officer in charge.

A fitting way to end our ride through Syria, where even the officials go out of their way to make visitors feel welcome.  After Eric returned from changing money and had gorged himself on all the spicy dishes we set of into the no-mans land that would bring us to Turkey.  The sun was slowly sliding beneath the horizon and I pulled down my fleece cap a little further to keep out the chilly night air.  

In Africa, borders were fluid places where locals hawking snacks and soft drinks passed back and forth with ease.  Money changers hovered in groups, chatting and laughing, patiently waiting for travelers in need of their services.  There were rarely gates or barriers of any sort and it almost seemed as if a stamp in the passport was optional.  Something recommended but not required, like getting a vaccination against rabies when you travel in the third world.

Turkey's border, in comparison, was like a medieval fortress.  Tall fences topped with barbed wire encircled a large compound filled with imposing buildings and armed military personnel peering down from watchtowers.  The immigration officers sat in little booths behind bullet-proof glass and nobody invited us to share their meal or even drink a glass of tea.  I guess all the security measures are due to pressure from the EU who want to keep would-be immigrants as far at bay as possible.  Of course we had the luck of being born in prosperous countries and were admitted without delay.

It was night.  We had just entered a new country.  And we had no place to sleep.  Two years ago this situation would have at the very least perturbed me.  Three years ago, I would have been in a panic.  But now the uncertainty of what lay ahead hardly fazed me, and we set off into the night on a dark highway confident that everything would turn out all right.

A few kilometers on we saw a sign for a roadside restaurant and turned into a deserted parking area.  Two snarling dogs greeted us.  Only the soothing flicker of a television set in the distance assured us that someone was about.  The restaurant had long since closed down, but after a series of mimes the caretaker in charge understood that we were looking for a safe place to pitch our tent and he gestured that we were most welcome.  Later he brought sweet tea and we dug out the phrasebook and tried to make conversation in Turkish.  And again everything turned out all right, just as I knew it would.

In the Syrian city of Aleppo we crossed paths we two energetic English cyclists who had just come from Turkey and were marveling at the Middle Eastern flavor of Syria.  "Turkey is very European," they insisted.
And really they were quite right in many respects.
Turkey's got huge hypermarkets like French-owned Carrefour and the German giant Metro where the shelves are filled with the same products that one finds in Paris or Berlin.  The country is littered with American fast food joints like McDonalds and Pizza Hut and much of the coast is lined with resorts catering to the hordes of European sun-seekers.  The urban population lives in high-rise apartment blocks and shops in European chain stores.

But villages have been left largely unscathed by the homogenizing effects of globalisation.  Which is what a traveler is in search of.  A world that hasn't changed in decades.   The chance to go back in time and then fast forward to modern times and pop into an internet cafe to update a blog and tell one's family and friends about how fascinating and simple life is in the developing world.

Wringing out our clothes after a long ride through the rain has been par for the course for much of the time we've spent in Turkey.  We've been coughing and sneezing and and hacking away like candidates for a tuberculosis sanatarium. In spite of being dogged by a lot of cold, nasty weather the sun did make a showing on a few memorable occasions and spirits were high as we slogged our way along the coast.  We sped through forests of fragrant pines and tortured ourselves during a seemingly endless succession of steep climbs and swift descents as we followed the Mediterranean.  The North Aegean was a brooding beauty to behold as as we cycled along her shores through groves of olive trees, past wrinkly old men herding fluffy white sheep and through quiet, windswept villages with homes built of stone and and cobblestone roads lined with pavement cafes where the locals passed the day smoking and drinking tea out of tiny tulip-shaped glasses.  

Turkey may be where east meets west, but one aspect of life is purely Middle Eastern: the hospitality.  One stormy day as were sitting on a cold stone wall, munching carrots and wolfing down thick slices of bread smeared with apricot jam a little old lady dressed in headscarf and baggy Turkish trousers came rushing out to invite us into her home.  While we warmed ourselves by the stove she set about preparing a delicious feast of fresh cheese, vegetable soup, olives from her backyard and an omelette made from freshly laid eggs.  Of course no meal would be complete without two glasses of tea and biscuits from a shiny tin which I'm sure is reserved especially for guests.  After such kindness it was even hard to grumble about the weather.

Since leaving Turkey on April 1st, we've passed through a tiny corner of Greece, crossed Bulgaria, cycled through a short stretch of Serbia, traveled the whole length of Kosovo and now write to you from Lake Ohrid in mountainous Macedonia. But our tales from the Balkans will have to wait for next month's update.  Now we've got to get serious about getting 'home'.  Just 2,000 kilometers separate us from our starting point Obernai, France.  Will these tired, baklava-inflated thighs make it by the expected arrival date of 15 May?  Stay tuned and find out if we're up to the challenge after so much loafing over the last three months.

check out more photos from our trip here.

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