On our last day of Bulgaria we woke up from the heat of the sun in the middle of a vineyard, with our inner tent covered in tiny driplets of condensation from the humid air around us. With only 25 km to the Turkish border we started cycling early so we’d arrive in Edirne at noon to be able to have lunch there. A couple of kilometres from the border we heard someone yelling loudly in Danish from a nearby mini market. We turned around and saw it was another long distance tourer, named Jasmine, having a rest here. He/She had been on many bicycle tours before and was now heading from Izmir back home to Denmark. We got some good advice on the upcoming roads, border and traffic situations. It’s always the same horror stories about the traffic in Istanbul, but it was to be expected. The people of Turkey is supposed to be very friendly though, something we’d later learn. It was fun meeting a fellow Scandinavian and conversation in a mixture of Swedish, Norwegian and Danish.
Later we cruised past a 6 kilometre long trailer truck queue, yet again glad to be on bikes and not waiting up to 24 hours for the toll station to let us through. With friendly smiles on the border guards, Daniel was let through in a few seconds. Border guards are usually happy and curious whenever they see people on gigantic bicycles passing through. We were however a little unaware that Norwegians need a visa for entering Turkey. With a brisk visit to the connecting office and our reserve 50€ bill everything was in order and Thea now had a 90 day visa in her passport. Next up was the laziest luggage control checkpoint ever. The guard poked one of Daniel’s panniers for inspection, so he opened it but he didn’t even look inside before moving on to Thea’s bike and doing the same. We assumed it was for him to look busy working for the surveillance cameras.
After that we rolled past the last checkpoint before finally entering country number 9, just in time for the noon prayer calls from the nearby minaret. Just one day ago the summer heat started hitting us hard and our water consumption had risen from about 1-2 water bottles per day to 5. On this day it was about 34c so our newly washed clothes from Georgis washing machine was yet again soaked in sweat and sunscreen.
On the highway towards Edirne we met another long distance cyclist, Guillaume, heading the opposite way of us. He was a Swiss guy who’d been living in India studying and decided to cycle back to his home country.
During his journey he had met another female cyclist from China, just before Iran, and they were cycling together ever since, but as they had different tempos she was a bit further behind. Later we learned from a motorist stopping with a hand written note saying she had gotten a puncture but was on her way. It was their way of communicating when they were apart. Pretty funny! It was really good to talk to someone who’d been out for so long so we could learn something and seek inspiration from the stories as we had been lacking motivation for some time now.
They’d been in remote parts of Turkey, and really enjoyed the solace of the uninhabited deserts of Iran. They also mentioned that they’d been spoiled by the hospitality in Iran as they were very often invited into peoples homes to sleep, but the closer they got to Europe the less they got invites so they had been forced to lower their expectations.
He thought we were fast when we told him about our average distances and that we had planned to cycle through Turkey in about 35 days. They had been in Turkey for almost three months! That got us thinking about our priorities a little. We could’ve stayed for longer talking to him as he was a super chill dude who definitively had experienced a lot on his journey. But with rumbling stomaches from not having eaten for a long time we had to say goodbye and cycle towards Edirne to eat something.
Edirne was the first major border city and as we rolled into it we were overwhelmed by all the cars, flashing shop signs and noise. Things were finally a bit different from what we’re accustomed to in Europe. After a quick ATM stop to get some pocket money we headed to the nearest döner shop to purchase three döners and two cokes for the total of 1.5€. Pretty decent! It’s wise to travel to small cities (though Edirne is somewhat big), since you’ll learn what the normal prices are for things as opposed to the tourist prices in for example Istanbul.
From here we chose the northern route towards Istanbul, with a pit stop in Saray. While in the middle of Bulgaria we had been contacted from a guy through Instagram, also a warmshowers member, inviting us to stay in Saray. Since it was en route we gladly accepted the invite. On our way towards his city we started cycling up and down the infamous rolling hills of Turkey, passing through endless farmlands. The road was often wide, and had the wide safety shoulder that is pretty standard in this country, so we felt safer cycling here as opposed to the previous countries. We were also actually glad that we had any kind of wind, even headwind, since it sometimes was up to 38c on the way to Istanbul.
On our second day of Turkey we were introduced to the concept of Turkish çay – or tea in common tongue. Everywhere they have these small salons along the roadside of every village, where men sit and drink tea, smoke and chat. We were invited by a Turkish man who stopped us for these tiny glass cups of tea. Ever since then we’ve been treated with tea at least once a day, almost every day, and we’ve made it a tradition to drink it every time we stop for a meal somewhere. It might sound strange to drink tea in the middle of the summer heat, but it’s quite nice. Not too much, not too little, two cubes of sugars and a moment to rest your mind sipping on some tea.
On the same day we were going to enter Saray we met Sam from New Zealand, just 10 minutes after we had started cycling that morning. It turned out we had been camping about one kilometre away from each-other the previous night, and were now heading the same direction. So we decided to cycle together that day towards Saray, where he later would split towards Istanbul. He was almost twice as fast as us with his rather light setup so we sure got an exercise that day – enviously and sluggishly chasing after him. We also realised on this day we needed to make some changes to the gearing on our bicycles as the hills were too tough on us, and Turkey is quite mountainous. We had learnt something from our tough times in Austria!
It was nice with some new company after having cycled just the two of us for so long. It hasn’t been too often we’ve had a chance to have proper long conversations in English so we talked a lot and reflected yet again over the life on a bicycle. We later met up in Istanbul for lunch before splitting paths again. He was heading the coastal route of Turkey and we were going towards central Turkey. We’ll surely meet him again as we have roughly the same time plan for Central Asia!
After leaving him we called our host Ömer in Saray to let him now we were just outside the city. He later came down the street to meet and greet us with a warm smile and showed us the way to his familys apartment. Little had we expected that he would be a 17 year old student with a passion for hosting bypassing cycle tourists and a genuine interest in learning about foreigners and their culture, as well as to practise his English as it isn’t taught especially much in public school.
We were warmly greeted by his mother just outside the apartment and stored our bikes in their shed before carrying up all of our bags into the so called “warm showers room” in their apartment, which was actually Ömers own room which he let warmshowers guests use. We really felt welcomed with open arms.
After a showering we waited out of respect until sunset to eat as it was ramadan. His father would come home right before the dinner which Ömers mother had been preparing. We were completely spoiled and served a three course meal and later dessert with chai. Later they invited their aunt, uncle and cousin and Ömer would act as the translator between all of us. It was overwhelmingly fun and a great introduction to Turkish hospitality and our stay here exceeded all expectations. We thought we were just going to have a place to sleep for the night, so what a surprise! The visit made us very happy and reminded us that sometimes its not only about seeing beautiful places or cycling for long distances, but also to meet local people.
On our way towards Istanbul we had underestimated our cycling abilities and booked a hotel rather late. With almost 2-3 days to spare we relaxed quite a lot and had a detour to the Black Sea for a swim. We had been cycling since Croatia without any rest days but the distance to Istanbul was less than we had expected. The heat however was really pushing our limits as we previously had had a comfortable 20 degrees for a long time before Turkey. Luckily there were these mountain springs every now and then with ice cold water that we could drench ourselves in. There were quite a lot of wild dogs in Turkey like the previous countries, but all of them were too busy resting from the heat or just plainly ignored us. We were still on edge every time we passed one, having been traumatised by the Serbian and Bulgarian dogs. Later we learned they were often fed and were pretty much docile, begging for food instead of chasing cyclists.
Just one day before Istanbul we noticed one spoke had broken in Daniels rear wheel which was now crooked and we had to ride carefully. Now we had some extra work to do in a bike shop, along with crankset switches for easier gears.
The road/highway into Istanbul city center was full of traffic and we often had to wait for open windows in order to pass the connecting roads. Finally inside the traffic was rather slow but still hectic. We’re glad we had our mirrors here yet again, and easily navigated to the hotel which we had booked a week ago.
We had called the hotel in advance to check if we could store the bicycles inside before we booked it. No problem, they said. Long story short, they were arrogant and refused to store the bikes inside. We just took the bicycles into the room when they weren’t looking. A promise is a promise!
Later we searched for a good bicycle shop and finally found one that seemed to have a decent selection of components – bike & outdoor. So we took our bikes there just two days before the end of ramada, during which they were closing the shop for a short vacation. With a long list of work they said they would manage to do it before we left Istanbul so we were super happy with the service and work they did! Definitively go there if you need any service on your bike in Istanbul, they will go to great lenghts to help you.
With 8 full rest days in Istanbul we tried exploring the city with the public transportation card, which is super convenient and cheap. It works with ferries, tram, metro and buses and each trip was 20-30 eurocent. We did get to see a few things, but Theas stomach wasn’t too well ever since we entered Turkey so we were a bit limited with what we could do. Most of the tourist attractions had hour long queues and there were also insane amounts of people due to Eid, the end of ramadan, so we did also rest a lot.
We also did our Iran “e-visa” applications here. Thea was accepted after two days and Daniel was declined at the same time and had to go through a travel agency and pay 30€ extra in order to get the visa grant notice. This visa grant is needed in order to pick up/apply for the actual visa at the embassy of Iran in Erzurum.
With Istanbul and nearby cities eastwards being gigantic and highly trafficked we opted to take the ferry to Asia instead of cycling the route eastwards. After a quick checkout at the hotel we rolled down to the ferry terminal and managed to board the boat to Yalova with only two minutes to spare.
It took us 75 minutes to cross the lovely blue sea of Marmara where we excitedly would roll onto the Asian continent where we soon would be met by delicious fruit, heat stroke and tons of varying landscapes. But more on that in the next post!