The end of Europe – Nis to Istanbul
24 November, 2010 19 Comments
After Bex’s last post we left Nis (south east Serbia) and battled the strongest headwinds I’ve ever experienced either side of the Bulgarian border. The wind was being channeled down the valley we were cycling through and gusting savagely in our faces. We were down to 9kph on the flat whilst pedalling at full power and were both blown off the road a fair few times. Having to pedal even when going downhill is not good for morale!
After wondering at times whether we would ever make it, we were relieved to finally arrive in Sofia where we stayed with Andrew and Tereza for a well earned rest day.
With recharged batteries we set off for Plovdiv where we planned to meet Rob, who was cycling from Hungary to Istanbul. Rob had spent the previous week chasing us through Serbia in the same gale force headwinds which, when combined with the punishing schedule he’d set himself to make our rendezvous, required repeated dawn to dusk days on the bike, on his own. It sounded extremely tough, but at least he was full of entertaining stories about the various low points on arrival in Plovdiv. The three of us were to cycle the rest of the way to Istanbul together at a considerably more relaxed pace.
The plan came together nicely as we all arrived in the pre-determined hostel on the same day and used our two days off to catch up over some delicious cheap Bulgarian beer and explore the city. Plovdiv was surprisingly nice – I knew nothing about it before we arrived, but Roman ruins, a centre busy with families and a good rock pub made it a great place to spend a weekend.
We left Plovdiv excited about the prospect of Turkey – one of the best things about starting the trip from England is that the excitement increases seemingly every day as we get further from home. To us, everything is always new and the differences, although gradual at bike speed, are continual.
The most clear cut change happened as we entered Turkey. Every other car greats you with a horn blast and a wave, we’re woken every morning by a call to prayer booming out of the nearest mosque at 6am, and when we stop anywhere an offer of a cup of Turkish tea is made almost instantly. The tea houses seem to be a real focus of the village communities we’ve passed through so far, with the locals passing the time playing dominoes or having a chin wag alongside endless tiny glass cups of ‘cay’. We’re trying to say yes to every offer as these little experiences along the way are what travelling by bike is all about, but at some point we have to politely say no to another refill as otherwise our 90 day Turkish visa would expire before reaching Istanbul!
The friendliness and hospitality displayed in these villages has meant we felt confident enough to ask in villages and tea houses at the end of the day if we could pitch our tents somewhere in the village. This usually leads to interesting experiences that would be missed if wild camping in woods or staying in a hotel. Every time so far we’ve been shown a place to pitch our tents, which have included next to a mosque, a shopkeeper’s garden, and behind a petrol station. Luckily the night we camped behind a petrol station was the same night our fuel for the camping stove ran out. Two minutes later we had a fresh litre of petrol, the beauty of a multi-fuel stove.
Rob noted that the challenge provided by not knowing the language or where we would sleep as the sun begins to sink provides many of the best experiences. My favourite moments from our short time in Turkey have come when incredibly kind families have invited us into their homes for a meal, minutes after our arrival in their village.
We cycled a northern route towards Istanbul to avoid the busy and notorious D100 road that runs from the border straight into the city. Although it took a couple of extra days, the alternative route meant we visited lots of small villages that were the scene of most of the hospitable acts described above. The weather is still amazing – aside from one thunder storm we’ve had clear blue skies and warm sun, so our long days in the saddle meant we all looked like raspberries most of the time. The rolling hills of this less direct road combined with our heavy bikes got the sweat dripping off our brows, our efforts rewarded by the clean air and long views from the summits. Shepards hearded their beasts across the green fields to our right whilst the Black Sea was far beneath us to the left.
Then last weekend came the moment we’d been looking forward to – we cycled into Istanbul! After the quiet roads and small villages the heavy traffic and fifteen million people of Istanbul provided an abrupt change. It was awesome to cycle past the Blue Mosque and we stopped for some end of Europe photos on the banks of the Bosporus. All that remains is for us to catch a ferry over the famous stretch of water before we can begin tackling Asia. It felt good to check into a cheap hostel for a few days, take our first shower in a week, tuck into a kebab and begin exploring a new city. We had a celebratory night out which somehow ended with Rob and I (after one or two half shandies) getting up on stage in a bar and performing an acoustic double act. I know about 3 chords on the guitar and Rob couldn’t remember the second line, but we escaped major embarrassment (I think…). Apologies to Frank Turner for butchering one of his songs.
Istanbul is a major milestone for us (and all European cycling expeditions heading east) for a number of reasons, including it being the conclusion of our first continent, a change in dominant religion, and it marks the end of the warm up leg through relatively familiar territory.
Our task gets harder now, not least because the countries get much larger. We’ve cycled for 4 days across Turkey so far and have barely made a dent on the total distance. Our thoughts have turned to possible ways of negotiating the impending middle eastern winter whilst continuing to make progress on the bikes. Our Iranian visa applications were successful and we’ve collected them already here in Istanbul. As such, we intend to slowly cycle along the Black Sea through Turkey followed by Northern Iran (roughly as per our route map), taking as long as our visas will allow. This should allow us to spend the worst of the winter in these slightly less cold countries before heading up through the ‘stans to China in the spring, visas permitting (we’ve begun the tricky business of lining up the visas already, I’ll write more on the details of this when we’ve finished the process).
However, this is all very much educated guesswork from us – we don’t know for sure how cold it will get en route (certainly parts will be sub zero) or how well we’ll be able to cope when the temperatures do drop. We may end up having to hole up in a town if we hit a particularly cold snap, or seek alternative transport if snow halts our progress and our visas are running out. Either way, it will be good fun trying and we’ll give it our best effort to stick to the bikes and tough it out.
For now though we’re kicking back and enjoying Istanbul, combining some sight seeing with expanding our bike spares selection for the next leg of the trip.
Distance cycled: 4000km (exactly!)
Countries visited: 11
Days on the road: 76
Days wearing the same shorts: 76 (we’ve been very lucky with the weather)
Days off: 21
Punctures: 3 (all mine – may have to cut back my baguette consumption)
Sets of eyelash curlers sent home: 1 (not mine, I hasten to add…)