Off the ‘Beaten Track’

If we were to walk down the street together, chances are that you would overtake me. My natural pace is an amble at best, and it generally takes a crippling disability for me forge ahead of someone on the pavement. Put me on a bike however and this contempt for the slower way of life disappears. If it’s a long distance I will ride fast, if it’s a short distance I will ride faster. I’m not just talking about when donning the full lycra riding into the chilterns, this happens if I’m riding to the pub or to work in my pointy shoes fresh shirt. When I was working in Cambridge, I would tear along the narrow streets, weaving through the constant traffic on my brakeless bike at a rate of knots. Red lights were no problem for me, on that bike I was tuned into the matrix, in a state of hyper awareness where I took in every detail, every bit of pedestrian body language and car indication was processed as I’d dart through oncoming traffic. Every time I strapped my feet onto those pedals I would always have a feeling of nervous respect for that machine, knowing in it’s immaculate composition that I was the weak point, but man was it exciting to ride.  

Bikes have that effect on me, on them I feel true freedom and this innate desire to go faster, to ride for longer, to travel. I have come to realise I am happiest in transit with the pedals turning beneath my feet. It is then no surprise that the past two weeks since leaving Istanbul (which have involved a good deal of cycling) have been some of the best of the trip, but also that I know I have pushed my body too hard in the process. It comes as no surprise to me that a day after reaching my checkpoint of ‘Sivas’, a city in central belt Turkey verging on the north-east of the country, I seriously struggled to walk and my wrist swelled up to the point I could no longer move my fingers. I’ve done this before. On two previous tours I have ridden a loaded touring bike over 130 miles in a day (and ridden unladen bikes much further) and it is this knowledge that foolishly mentally diminishes the impact of lesser distances on my body. Obviously on a 50 kg bike I am not riding fast, nor am I pushing myself to ride fast, but I find myself regularly attacking distances of 80+ miles with minimal breaks on mixture of loose surface ‘roads’. Riding day after day on a diet of oats and rice, it’s not the smartest plan! 

It was good to experience that pain at a point where It would not affect my trip. I knew I could get away with that nonsense because after reaching Sivas I was due to stop for 10 days whilst I fly to Padua to see my lovely girlfriend Shauna. We’d been trying to organise a place to meet up for a while now and various commitments led to this week working for us both (that and the fact I booked my flight for the wrong week…). I’m looking forward to having some real rest, but waiting in a rather subdued Turkish airport cafe, it is gratifying to reflect on days of riding that have given me some of the best travelling experiences of my life. 

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Riding started after saying goodbye to our friends at the hostel, friends we’d forged strong bonds with over the week we spent there and also to Dave. He said goodbye promising to try join us at a later date, clearly wanting to carry on riding. Not fancying the cycle out Istanbul, Jack and I boarded a ferry that would take us across a small stretch of water to Yalova and Asia. The sun was shining and luscious green mountains protruded from beyond the city limits as we rode along quiet roads. It was mid-afternoon when we began cycling, so we set our sites on camping at Lake Iznik about 30 miles from Yalova. Almost immediately we found ourselves riding uphill into the mountains. The first hill took about 40 minutes to summit and was a definite signal of the new terrain we found ourselves in. But what goes up just come down, and there aren’t many better feelings than descending a mountain on a new continent with your mate. The road wound down to the lake where groves of olive trees lined the road, giving the whole place a distinctly Mediterranean feel. We quickly pushed the bikes down a dirt track leading into a particularly nice looking grove, finding the jackpot of a lakeside view camp spot. 

The sunset over lake Iznik was a thing of true beauty, sky and lake were indistinguishable in colour  as we cooked up the usual dinner of rice, this time mixed up with some eggs we bought from the roadside. Conversation soon turned to potential routes through Turkey, but Jack soon confessed that he was going to split off around Ankara, meaning we’d both be tackling the rest of the country solo. It had been six weeks riding with Jack, it sure felt like an eternity ago meeting on that Hungarian farm covered in half a foot of fluffy white snow, and I definitely felt a twinge of sadness at the ending of our adventure together. More than that, we are taking identical routes all the way to Kyrgyzstan so there was no distinct ‘need’ to ride solo (at least until I flew to visit Shauna). That night I processed these thoughts in my tent. Waking up the next morning I’d garnered a more positive outlook on the situation, before I met Jack I was thriving on my own, thinking back to Switzerland and the fun I had meeting all those people in Budapest, I knew this would soon happen again.

Soon we hit the beautiful lakeside road, already riding in a distinctly more separate manner, all the way to the town of Iznik. As always we were invited to the local Cay shop and got stuck into ‘conversation’ with some old gents. Once the few words of Turkish have been exhausted, the wonder of google translate is unleashed and generally I’ve found it a great tool to delve into more meaningful conversation. Some things get lost in translation and this conversation produced a corker of a sentence. After saying that I was planning on cycling to Australia, this old chap clearly wanted to tell us something about the country but the translation read: ‘I have never known Australian family brokers, I got married at night and I’m still friends and very handsome’. Reading this, we both burst out laughing to the guys horror and then had the difficult job of trying explain why, over google translate. It was time to move on. 

The roads in this region were proving to be a real delight. Freshly laid tarmac greeted us at every turn and ploughed through the steepest peaks in the form of tunnels. The road went up enough to make the riding a challenge and down enough to make it fun, all the while being we were surrounded by stunning scenery I didn’t know Turkey possessed. Vivid greens of the UK adorned the steep contours with sheer faces of rock piercing through the greenery at points. It was cycling heaven. I was constantly stopping to take photos of each peak, each bend in the road, I was determined not to miss anything. At one point, whilst waiting for Jack at the top of a climb, some children came over to me and started chatting in Turkish. They told me they were at school, despite the obvious fact they were all at the side of the road. Soon after, another girl with better English told me her teacher had asked to bring me to the school and if I’d like to come? Of course I said yes, and seeing Jack ride around the corner we swiftly made our way into the playground rather bemused. Within five seconds we were surrounded by hundreds of children. Some prodding the bikes with a youthful curiosity, others were firing questions away in Turkish whilst some just stared eagerly. There was an almost intimidating level of interest as we just stood there in a slight shock. Dishing out some hi fives went down well and they loved having their photos taken. The teachers brought us some tea and we had a good chat before eventually moving on at the end of the lunch break. 

When it came time to find a camp spot that evening, we’d totalled a modest distance but that was besides the point, it had been a great day. Turkey treated us to beautiful sunset that night, a fitting conclusion to our journeys together as tomorrow we’d be going our separate ways. 

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The fork in the road appeared a good few miles past the city of Bilicek. I wished Jack all the best with his journey as he set off down the highway to Konya; I was to pass through Eskisehir and deep into the countryside. That night I stayed with Feyaz and her boyfriend, both medical students in the city and keen cyclists. Seeing that they were both familiar with the local roads I asked if they could take a look at my planned route for the next few days. Immediately it became clear I would be going off the ‘beaten track’. These roads were unknown to them, but the villages I was to be going through would definitely be small and apparently may not have shops. This was going to be an adventure. Before I could get too excited about heading into the depths of the Turkish mountains, they told me that an incident had occurred at the University today. A student accused of speaking badly of the government had been expelled and took out his anger by storming the university, killing four members of staff responsible for his removal. It was a truly sobering thought and a reminder of the political instabilities that still plague the country two years after the failed military coup.

A traditional Turkish dinner elevated the mood and gave my legs the fuel they needed to explore these so called ‘small roads’. It was only a few hours of cycling before I understood what they meant. The tarmac ended and gravel tracks continued their paths around the hills and heading for the mountains. Waving to locals at the cay shop was replaced with smiling at shepherds, who kept a watchful eye over their flock. Never far from their side will be a Sivas Kangal ‘Sheepdog’, a huge beast known around the world for their fierce devotion and muscular strength. Stand these guys on two legs and they will easily top six feet (give them a quick google, it’s crazy). Despite their colloquial sheep dog name, they are no herding dog, just purely a guardian against the packs of wolves that roam these lands. They have been so successful they are now used in African countries to protect against lions. Unfortunately they all take a disliking to me… A couple of these guys barking and running at full pelt at you will really put some lead in your pencil. Sometimes even the calls from the shepherd are futile as they launch into a barrage of growls at the wheels of the bike whilst I pedal on furiously. I’ve become quite used to dealing with wild dogs, if there’s a pack I look for the alpha, deliberately riding straight at him I make myself big and scream at it until it backs down. This primal charade has worked well for me so far and has made passing reasonably large packs of dogs a whole lot less intimidating. I don’t dare try that with these Kangals though, these guys are trained to kill.Now very well aware that I’m on my own, in the land of wolves, mountains and small villages, I feel like the real adventure of this bike trip is beginning. Being immersed in nature for the next few days is an exciting prospect, although a beady eye will always be scanning the hills for wolves. 

As the day progressed, the roads between villages start to really deteriorate. Riding down hill now initiates small cascades of sizeable rocks that eagerly chase me down the track. I’m thankful for choosing extra puncture protection tyres which are taking an absolute battering. I make it through the worst of the road unscathed with my no puncture record still holding strong. The state of the roads is slowing me up considerably and I’m already thinking ahead if I can keep this up. A decision needs to be made. I refuse to return to the highway, instead taking a road I know will be tarmac but detours away from my destination. Oh, it also turned out to be hilly.

I ride slowly through an arid mountainscape; the wind funnelling down the valley which I slowly pedal up. There are no large climbs, no switchbacks or anything indicating the ascent. There is only a small constant gradient. A gradient so small anyone in a car wouldn’t recognise to exist, but I do. I spend the best part of four hours fighting the wind and this incessant uphill over nearly 40 miles, eventually reaching the next village for 90 miles that has a shop. Just before cresting the final hill I spot two tourers zip down a road about 100 m in front of me, I’m so tired that I don’t even bother calling out or trying to follow them. I’m spent and need a break. 

Regrouping over the nutritious snack of a Fanta (or yellow cola as they call it here), crisps and biscuits I decide to aim for a lake a few miles from the village (generally where there people living there will be stray dogs scavenging so I always try pitch up somewhere a little more isolated). I only get a mile out of town before I’m forced to stop. The view. The whole afternoon that I have been pedalling slightly uphill has placed me atop a mountain with an incredible vista of arid peaks and blue lakes. It is breathtaking. I begin snapping pictures and even videos of me dancing around in excitement at the sight. Maybe I’m a bit too excited as I soon hear that familiar bark of a stray dog, although this one sounds very close. I remove my eye from the viewfinder to see a rather large dog with dirty white fur and a suspiciously large amount of drool coming from its mouth. Today has been a scorcher and there definitely isn’t any water around here. My mind immediately jumps to thinking it’s rabid and I curse having taken every single bit of my camera kit out. Hands fumbling, I hurriedly stuff lenses into pockets they’re not meant for whilst constant screaming at this dog to go away. It’s not backing down and looks increasingly agitated by my presence, and as I mount the bike it gives chase. Brilliant. I pedal as hard as my tired legs with allow, reaching a downhill that I know will whisk me safely away from the crazed animal. 

The hill is truly epic and removes all thoughts of that brief escapade. It was one of those moments I wont ever forget, bombing it down a road winding across a stunning mountainside, dog chasing my bike whilst I look out over that incredible landscape to the sounds of The Beatles in my ear. I reach the bottom with a big grin of my face, that moment made the whole afternoon toil worthwhile. I quickly find a secluded lake to lay my tent and thoughts for the night, just taking in how lucky I am to experience days like this, I really feel alive. 

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The following morning I continued on downhill until the road turned back to a dusty gravel again. Despite being incredibly rural, the fields were buzzing with farming activity, women in full burkas prudently picking vegetables out the ground whilst men and boys in tractors sprayed crops. After a couple of hours riding through these farms I came across two men sitting outside a hut at the entrance to a small village. As per, I waved to them and shouted ‘marheba’ (hello), they returned call with ‘cay’ (tea) and I gladly accepted. After a few hearty brews at the roadside the conversation was ‘flowing’ (as well as can be expected through google translate) and one of the farmers ‘Nuh’ invited me to see his farm and meet his family. Within minutes the bike was in the back of the truck and we were bouncing down some sketchy dirt tracks through his fields. Arriving on the farm he mimed if I’d like to drive the tractor, ‘yes I bloody would’ was my response (in mime of course). He fired up this rusty old beast, I then heaved the ‘sideways’ gearstick into first and I was moving. This was brilliant, we both laughed as I drove the tractor around the periphery of the field, the age old language we could both understand. I knew I’d made the right decision to sacrifice a day’s riding, slowly I am coming to realise this trip is abut these experiences and the pedals can turn another day. 

It turns out the whole of Nuh’s family work on the farm, his brothers and nephews all amassed around the shade cast by the tractor and he cooked us all a great lunch. Nicely full, I tailed them around as they fixed pumps and pipes in the onion (‘sogan’) and wheat (‘bugday’) fields. A funny flash of perspective came over me at one point whilst helping ‘Mohammed’, Nuh’s nephew who is a dwarf. This morning I was happily cycling through the countryside, now I’m helping a dwarf on a traditional Turkish farm and driving tractors about the place. If you’d told me that’s how I would spend the day I wouldn’t have believed you. 

As the evening approached, all the brothers and family friends got into the truck and we drove out of the village. They laughed themselves silly when I reached to put my seatbelt on, ‘Ingelterra’! ‘Ingleterra’!, ‘this Turkey’! they laughed. Turkish drivers are crazy, and after a heart stopping half hour we arrived at a restaurant and they treated me to fish. Soon we were back in the truck but I noticed we were not heading back, I was just along for the ride at this point, oblivious to what was going on. We pulled up outside a fancy looking building, people spilling outside all dressed to the ‘nines’. I was ushered inside, into a wedding! They’d brought me to a family wedding! I still had my four day old lycra on underneath a scruffy shirt and was definitely the only ‘western’ person there. I had arrived just in time for indoor fireworks to signal the couple’s first dance – this was all too surreal. We all set about laughing at how ridiculous this situation was, what a day!

The following morning I was treated to a traditional Turkish breakfast and pointed the bike towards the dirt track knowing I would never forget that day. The tracks had started to become extremely hilly as I passed through the city of ‘Polatl’ and towards ‘Haymana’. A ferocious wind stronger than anything I’d experienced on this trip descended from the mountains, constantly pushing me backwards. Each hill was taking an age to climb, as I would summit each crest another would rear its cruel head on the horizon; I was suffering. At least the scenery was stunning; pitching my lone tent on a hidden hill I perched on a rock, properly surveying the beauty of these stark mountains. It reminded me of Scotland or the Lake District. Thinking about home I decided to FaceTime some of the family to share this sunset with them. Enjoying the novelty of seemingly being in the middle of nowhere but able to connect with them at a dinner party. 

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The wind picked up that night and the rain pattered down on the roof of my tent, waking me up from my light sleep. I decided I should be a prudent camper, coaxing myself out of the depths of my sleeping bag to peg down the guy ropes and just put my mind at ease. I muddled about untying hopeless knots that had formed in the lines in the pitch black. It took a while until I was satisfied It would take a hurricane to make a kite out of my fabric home that night. Just as I shut the zip I heard the eerily loud, unmistakeable howl of a wolf. It was close by, and after all I had heard about these beasts, I was shitting it. I grabbed my knife and a selfie stick which I planned to use as some haphazard baton, it was very much a B-side ‘Bear Grylls’ moment. I then hopped back into my sleeping bag, trusty ‘weapons’ by my side. 

The next time I woke up it was outside my tent. I could hear it growling as it walked around, stopping next to where my food was I cursed myself for not leaving it outside the tent; my worries of having a wild dog lick my spork paled into comparison to what I was now experiencing. I saw its nose try push under the outer layer of the tent whilst I laid motionless. My mind was working in overtime but I knew the best thing would be to hold tight, hoping it would lose interest. There was no way it could get to me right here without having to go through two layers of tent; I also had no intention of going outside, where I could be exposing myself to the real possibility of fending off many wolves in the dark. I could actually hear it sniffing the tent, deeply inhaling the air that I was breathing out whilst working its way towards my head. No doubt it could smell me in here, as if to confirm my suspicions it stopped moving right above where my head was, my nose and its must now be separated only by a couple of inches. I daren’t breathe, suspended in that moment I felt a truly primal instinct as my knuckles whitened around the open knife handle. Then as quickly as it came I heard the patter of its feet moving away from my tent. Damn, that got my blood pumping. I then heard guard dogs barking as it must’ve made its way over to the nearby farm. The rest of the night I was convinced I could hear others rustling about eh place, although it is likely to be just my mind playing tricks on me. 

I emerged from the tent that morning with knife in hand, but hills were just as empty as when I’d arrived. Despite being on edge I really felt alive that morning. If that night was the action packed final sequence of a movie, the next day was to be the credits. Devoid of action or irregularity, I got stuck inside my own head, cycling down the hard shoulder of the motorway into yet more arduous hours of headwind. I pushed myself to make up some serious miles, taking advantage of the dry weather until the sky signalled a storm brewing. I donned my waterproofs, riding directly towards the ominous dark clouds as rain started to pour down. I managed to find shelter at the nearest petrol station where the restaurant manager offered me up the women’s prayer room to spend the night. I gladly accepted.

The motorway provided hours of boring miles but I was getting closer to my goal of Cappadocia. Mountains rolled by beneath my wheels to my iPod soundtracks. A beautiful downhill whisked me into the Goreme national park. In the evening light I felt euphoric tearing down the mountainside, I was surrounded my the sharp features of the ‘fairy chimney’ rock formations the area is famous for. Nearing the hostel I was stopped by two people who said they were bike touring, more than that, they had also gone to Bristol University. What a small world. I dropped my bags and joined them for a beer and a kebab before we all got an early night. Ready for an early rise the next morning, we were up at 5:30, watching over a hundred hot air balloons take to the skies as the sun rose over rocky horizon. It was genuinely one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. The best start to the day made even sweeter by the fact they hadn’t been able to fly for the past four days so I got the full showing of more balloons than usual. 

Keen to devoid my body of the rest it so desperately craved, I spent the day hiking around these gorgeous canyons with Tim, a Welsh traveller from the hostel. I treated myself to two helpings of kebab for lunch and made plans with the Bristol couple, Gwilym and Cathy to ride together the next day. We set off into a gorgeous Turkish morning together, riding through a cluster of extremely phallic rock formations know as ‘love valley’ before exiting the park. There was only to be one decent hill that day, feeling strong I set off ahead of the others. Halfway up the hill a particularly laden lorry slowly overtook me and I decided to grab on to a handle at the back. I saw the driver wave in what I assumed to be a friendly manner as he towed me up to the top of this hill. As I approached the summit I gave him a wave and he honked before disappearing down the other side. Rolling down the hill we could see the breath-taking view of Mount Erciyes, a snow-capped 3900 m volcano that stretched into the sky. I dropped my hands from the handlebars and descended like a kid, whooping in joy all the way down the hill.

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The next days I spent riding solo as I needed to arrive in Sivas early to find somewhere to leave my bike. I had planned to see Shauna for a few days and to see her, I first had to take a 7 hour coach ride to Ankara before two flights to Italy. I was determined not to stress so I pushed my body hard, making up most of the miles in one day. I found some friendly people to couchsurf with and a place to store my bike. All that was now needed was to drink some Turkish Raki, eat some good food before making my way to the airport for a much needed rest. My body was breaking around me as I began to truly feel the pain from the miles, but I was happy, those two weeks had been some of the most adventurous of my life. I was becoming a real cycle tourer, with real stories and I was loving it. Now to really unwind in the food capital of the world, there will be no cycling, plenty of pizza, pasta, wine and pictures. 

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4 thoughts on “Off the ‘Beaten Track’

  1. What an adventurous time you are experiencing. Good on you despite really heart stopping times you get through to take joy in your surroundings. More hugs for my starxx

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  2. Sounds like you are enjoying an amazing trip and your writing is a joy. Thank you for sharing..wish I was twenty three again instead of 62! I love the pedals too so that we can share. Stay safe and continue living in the Now..Suzanne.

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  3. Your trip is a truly amazing experience, and your vivid writing is the perfect guide to it. The only problem is my eyes sometimes run ahead of my brain – often I am both enjoying the current paragraph massively, yet desperate to leap to the next, result: confusion reigns. So I have to read it all again, twice the joy. The pictures that your words paint of your experiences are far more realistic than even your own excellent photographs. I’m so inspired by your travels that I may be forced to follow in your tyre-tracks – at least as far as The White Horse down the road. Travel safely, my friend – Chris from MarlowFM

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    1. Thanks Chris I really appreciate that. Well we all know the pub is where these adventurous ideas start off, so I’ll expect to see you in Uzbekistan in a few weeks eh?! If you want any audio explaining the trip for the show, just give me a shout. I’d be more than happy to do it. Cheers, Ped

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