Turkey is famed among bike tourers for two things:
Having some of the warmest hospitality in the world – and having some of the most aggressive dogs.
This week we’ve experienced them both at their extremes.
We struggled to get going.
During a brilliant weekend in the UK in glorious sunshine at our friends’ wedding, the most frequently asked question was “does it feel weird to be home?”
It didn’t feel weird at all. Once we got chatting to our friends and family who we’d not seen in nine months, it felt like we’d never been away.
It did however feel weird to be dropped back in Northern Turkey in unseasonably cold weather, and continue with our strange nomadic lives.
It was mentally hard to get back on the bike again, and push our way up steep hills in the wind and rain.
Neither of us appreciated how exhausted we’d become in the rush to make our flight – 1,400km in 10 days - combined with the jet lag of two overnight flights with a wedding sandwiched in between.
On the first day we only managed 50km before stopping in a cafe in a place called Merzifon for much needed coffee to keep us awake.
It clearly didn’t work...
We debated calling it a day there, and spent a few hours sitting in the warmth, before deciding to press on.
Throwing in the towel would just mean backing up distance on our journey to the Turkish coast, and mean no further rest days before we had to catch our pre booked ferry over the Aegean Sea to Greece.
We forced ourselves to press on, and managed to hit our daily mileage before crashing out in a grotty camp spot.
We awoke after a rough night with little sleep due to wild dogs roaming around next to the tent and barking all night.
The next few days were hard, constantly up and down in drab countryside, chased by dogs and hounded by fast moving traffic.
Gradually however, spirits lifted and after a good nights rest in a lovely dog free camp spot, and some tea shared with our new Turkish friends, we felt much better.
Every now and then it gets tiring but we always remind ourselves that we’re on an amazing adventure and we have to make the most of every minute – even the hard times.
It was a three day ride to Anakara, and after a couple of days the weather brightened up. The bleak countryside turned into rolling hills and we cruised into town to stay at a Warm Showers (cycling network) host Echo, and his girlfriend’s house.
Ankara is the capital city of Turkey, not Istanbul as is commonly thought. It has a population of just over 5 million, and is roughly 1,000m above sea level – although it depends very much on where you take that measurement from as it’s one of the hilliest cities we’ve cycled around in the world!
Echo and his girlfriend Hannah were very kind hosts and cooked us a delicious meal of kofta (meatballs).
Hannah’s job is a pathologist – someone who performs post mortems on dead bodies to determine cause of death.
We were asking her about it, she spoke in Turkish to Echo, who was translating.
He explained that anyone who dies suspiciously is sent to her for autopsy, and she cuts them up.
Suddenly they both started laughing – we waited for the translation.
“She says that she promises this is cow meat though!” – pointing at the meatballs.
We had a laugh, and had a great night drinking home made beer and resting.
We didn’t have time to take a full day off in Ankara, but spent time checking out Anitkabir, a mausoleam built in memory of Mustafa Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.
He introduced sweeping reforms to modernise the new country, including adopting the Gregorian calendar, the latin alphabet, granting women the vote and passing laws regading gender equality.
He also passed religious reforms which secularised the government (i.e. making the government run seperately from religion), closing religious courts and schools, ending the ban on alcohol and forbidding women workers from wearing headscarves.
Ataturk is an honorary surname meaning “Father of the Turks”, and he is venerated in Turkey.
Here is his mausoleam.
We also visited the Kocatepe Mosque, one of the biggest in Ankara.
İt was the final week of Ramadan which is the holiest month in the Islamic calendar.
Between the hours of first and last light, those following Ramadan are unable to eat, drink, smoke or have sex.
Ramadan was coming to an end, which meant the holiday of Eid. A man we met at a petrol station was explaining there is a national three day holiday where everyone goes home to spend time with their families.
“It is like the Islamic equivalent of Christmas” he told us.
We were chatting later on about how little we knew about this holiday, and how crazy it would seem to have to explain to someone in the UK what Christmas was – on Christmas Eve.
Made us feel pretty ignorant.
Sure enough, as we left Ankara we were held up in Christmas Eve style traffic as eveyone was keen to get away and out of town for the holidays.
On the way out of town we saw one very near miss with a couple of cars just ahead of us, and arrived at the scene just after one actual crash. Echo had told us in a text to be carerful on the roads in the evening as when people haven’t eaten all day their blood sugar levels are low and there is more likelhood of crashes.
“Be carefull, the tine you arrive to city rush hour and muslims are fasting and that will be the last hours for them means bllod sugar is decreased means blindness!!”
Haven’t found any scientific evidence of this online, but anecdotally the roads did seem to get a bit choppier towards sunset!
We cooked our dinner that night on a lawn outside a service station, before darting off behind some trees to camp.
It was a lovely moment to be cooking up our food at the same time as families were breaking their fast at the end of Ramadan.
In the photo you can see Ewan chopping an onion whilst four or five other families layed out the picnic rugs and started to eat for the first time in 17 hours.
Totally unbidden, one of the boys from a family came over to us and gave us a platter filled with cherries. We explained we already had food but he insisted, so we gratefully accepted and carried on cooking.
Five minutes later, another guy came over with two glasses of coke.
Then another lady with two cups of tea.
In the space of about 30 minutes, we had accumulated: 1x platter of cherries, 2x tea, 2x coke, 2x Wagon Wheels, 2x cucumbers, a business card of a guy who owned a hotel, 8x coffee sachets and 4x energy drinks.
We always travel as lean as possible on our bikes to reduce the weight, so felt bad not having anything to offer in return, but no one minded. They were enjoying sharing their leftover Ramadan meal with two ragged looking cyclists and seemed to enjoy our mimed conversation about where we’d cycled from and where we were going.
This sort of kindness is typical of Turkish people, it really is a wonderful place.
One by one, they bid us a cheery farewell as they headed off back to their homes.
The target out of Ankara was a five day, 600km ride to Izmir – the third largest city in Turkey and on the coast of the Aegean Sea.
It was stunning riding in perfect conditions.
Sunny but not too hot, breezy but not too windy, hilly but not too punishing.
For some reason we both imagined Central Turkey to be flat arid desert – but it’s lush green, covered with farms and plenty of mountains and forests to look at.
We rolled through the countryside, making friends with the lads in the petrol stations, cooking up food and getting directions off excited locals, even although we didn’t need them.
One night we stopped at a roadside water fountain as it seemed a good place to stop and cook.
Directly behind it was farmland. We wouldn’t camp there without permission, but next to it was some scrub land covered in weeds and no crops that was beyond the farm boundary - fair game.
Out of sight of the road, it seemed like a great camp spot.
Under cover of dark, we sneaked round to the place we had identified and set up the tent around 10pm.
The wind was getting up.
The tent was flapping around, the wheat in the nearby fields swishing loudly.
Around 11pm, one of the pegs blew out the ground and the back of the tent became unhinged, flapping wildly.
Ewan clambered out to fix it whilst Katie stayed inside.
As Ewan was outside, the tent suddenly became illuminated by a bright white light.
It was a couple of shepherds herding around 100 sheep from the bottom of the valley to the fields the other side of the water fountain. They had seen us and were shining their torch directly at the tent, obviously trying to work out what we were doing - and if we were a threat.
They were mounted on small donkeys, and had rifles slung on their backs.
It was pitch black apart from the bright torch beams.
The wheat swished in the wind, and the bells the donkeys wore around their neck tinkled softly.
We had a quick conversation in hushed voices:
“Kate - there’s some shepherds about 50m away, they’ve obvioulsy seen us and are wondering what we’re doing here. I’m going to wander over and explain we’re tourists and that we mean no harm”
“Yeah sounds good, we’re not tresspassing or anything. Should be fine”
On a pretty much daily basis we have broken conversations with farmers or workers that mostly end up in us being best friends, given tea and often offered a place to sit/sleep.
With that in mind, Ewan made his way over, waving.
The glare from the torches meant it was impossible to see their faces.
At 20m away:
“Merhaba – Benim adim Ewan. Ben Iskocya. Turist” - “Hello – my name is Ewan, I am from Scotland. Tourist”
Then all hell broke loose.
Swishing and tinkling became hysterical barking and gutteral growling.
Still in the tent, Katie watched as Ewan’s sillouette, stood in the long grass with his hands up in a “don’t shoot” pose, became encircled by crazed dogs bounding through the grass from all sides.
Around six of them who had been previously quiet and invisible, became frenzied.
Crying and howling.
These were not collie sheep dogs you’d find in the UK. They were about the size of a sheep, short grey and brown fur, rippling muscles and very angry.
They ran from all sides and circled, getting closer and closer.
Surrounded, there was no where to turn.
Ewan was standing as still as possible trying to keep all the dogs in line of sight. The scene lit by the shepherd’s torch and the moon.
The shepherds and Katie were shouting.
Nothing the shepherds shouted made a difference.
Every small movement made the beasts even more beserk.
Snapping, and darting forward and backward, each one was emboldened by the others.
One snapped and got so close he almost got an ankle.
At this point there were a number of thoughts going through Ewan’s mind, in no particular order:
These dogs are not messing about
If one of them gets my leg and I end up on the ground – things could turn very nasty
If I run it could turn nasty
I have the knife in my pocket
In the unlikley event that Ewan actually managed to fight off a beserk Turkish dog, there was no way of doing it with six.
Even if Ewan came out on top of a Bear Grylls type man vs animal show down and single handedly killed six crazed dogs with a small knife, the prospect of then having to answer to their owner, with a rifle slung over his back, as to why his routine sheep herding, had turned into a full on blood bath would not be a desirable outcome.
The best course of action was to try and avoid any contact with the dogs, and hope the shepherds could get them under control.
Standing as still as possible, although shaking, Ewan waited.
The shepherd made a call on his phone, shouting and gesticulating, and after about ten minutes another shepard appeared 100 metres away and started whistling and flashing his light which distracted the dogs.
They gradually got bored as they realised there was no threat, and drifted away, and Ewan backed away to the safety of the tent.
We hurridly packed up our stuff as we didn’t feel like camping that night and moved it all back to the picnic area where we collected ourselves.
We found an empty mosque where we slept for a few hours, before getting up and leaving at 0430, before first prayer at 0500.
We didn’t manage unfortunatley to get any footage... didn't seem to be a priority at the time – although here’s Ewan reflecting afterwards, and the mosque we slept in.
Spirits were high the next day despite the turbulent night, and we rode a long day of 160km through beautiful countryside.
On arriving in the Turkish town of Usak, we were about to bed down and make some food when a bunch of cyclists approached us – it was the Usak cycling group. They had good English and we explained about our trip which they were very curious of.
The leader, a man called Ibrahim, introduced himself and kindly invited us back to his house for food, after they finished their 10km loop of the park.
One of the other cyclists, on the far right below happened to be Tugay Kacar, a Turkish professional footballer and captain of the U21 national team!
We joined them for the 10km loop and chatted on the way round. At one point some local dogs started barking at us.
“These dogs, they will bark and maybe chase you but they will never do anything. It’s the shepherd’s dogs you need to watch out for – they can be vicious...”
We know mate...
On our final night before the city of Izmir we were looking for somwhere to set up camp. Taking a turn off the main road, we stopped to ask some farm ladies if we could put a tent anywhere on the surrounding land.
Within about five minutes, with no explanation they had dragged us to sit at their table in the porch, given us each a cup of tea and put a huge plate of food infront of us. We then followed as she gestured to where we could take a shower, as we thanked them continually.
Emerging clean from the shower we found the porch full with the extended family who delighted in taking photos, and chatting to us via google translator.
Yet another unexpected, wonderful night with total strangers who don’t speak a word of English but are so kind and warm they delight in helping people and extending their incredible Turkish hospitality.
The final day to Izmir was an 80km breeze, and we rolled into town to stay at our friend Burak’s house, whom we had met earlier on in the trip.
Izmir is the third biggest city in Turkey. Situated on the Aegean coast, it’s a beautiful and thriving place, filled with life, restaurants and bars.
The region of Izmir is like to Turkey, sort of what California is to America. Liberal, progressive and less religiously focussed.
We were laughing with Burak about a supermarket we called in on the way round to his house.
Next to the check out counter, where they usually put impulse purchases like chocolate and crisps, they had put condoms and lube – presumably as it’s the end of Ramadan, so people can have sex again!
“Only in Izmir!”
Our friend Burak falls firmly into the non religious, liberal category, and was giving us an interesting insight into some of the goings on in Turkey at the moment.
“The current president, Recip Erdogan has been in power around 12 years. I very much do not like him.”
Erdogan recently won a referendum that extends his powers and enables him to stay in charge for longer. He has been criticised for imprisoning many journalists, political opponents and stifling free speech and any opposition.