Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

2 Oct 2012

Tea Time in Turkey

Posted by Will

(NB. Lots of new photos added dating back to Albania – check the gallery)

I entered Turkey over 3 weeks ago and have come to love spending time here. It all started well when the official at the border crossing joked he wouldn’t stamp my passport unless I accepted him as a Facebook friend. Funny – I laughed. He smiled too, but kept looking at me and didn’t make any decisive movement towards the stamp. Thinking this was a rather clever tactic for making new friends, I propped my bike up against his little cabin and wrote down my information (which he already had in the passport he was holding). With my passport back in my pocket, I wheeled my bike around the barrier and just as I set the pedals in motion he called out to me: ‘Cay?’.

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‘Cay’ is the Turkish word for tea and is pronounced ch-ai (there’s a small cedilla under the ‘c’). It is ubiquitous in Turkey, inescapable, and has come to represent much of what I love about Turkey. I understand the offering and taking of cay as an expression of friendship between those sharing it. As a weird foreigner on a bike I have had no trouble soliciting invitations for cay; in fact the main problem is letting people down. Every petrol station I rest at leads to a glass or two of cay. The attendants gather round while I explain in one-word sentences where I have come from, where I am going and how I have travelled ‘on bin kilometre’ (10,000km). Petrol stations are only the beginning: I have had cay with old men outside cafes, carpet salesmen as they try to explain the merits of Turkish design, shopkeepers, people who picked me up while I hitch-hiked to Istanbul and even the man at the ticket booth to an underground city (the entrance fee was forgotten in the end!). Perhaps my favourite cay moment was when I camped out behind some bushes in a field. In the morning, I stirred sleepily to the sound of cattle-bells and became wide-awake with the sound of ‘merebar, merebar’ (hello, hello). Before the shepherd had even seen me, before I had even replied with a ‘merebar’ of my own, he offered me cay. I unzipped the tent-flap and there he was, handing me a thermos lid full of delicious, sugary cay. First cup of tea in bed for a while!

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My route through Turkey started at the Kipoi border crossing from where I made my way to the port town of Tekirdag on a hilly, windy road. My intention was to take a ferry from Tekirdag to Bandirma on the Asian side of Turkey to avoid the infamous traffic in Istanbul. Big communication problems arose at the port where I only managed to grasp that the boat had a mechanic problem and wouldn’t be running for 2 days. As I have come to learn, in most of these cases persistence is the key. I returned to the port a few hours later where a different person told me the boat would leave in a couple of hours. Quite a clever customer service technique: crush the client’s expectations so low that any form of eventual service, no matter how bad (boat left 5 hours after intended time), will be greatly appreciated. It worked on me – I was appeased with cay. I was temporarily confused when I disembarked the boat to find I was not in Bandirma at all but in a tiny town not marked on my map. Great. Someone told me Bandirma was only 15km away by road which put aside my fear that I been dropped on one of the many islands in this area. I had made it to Asia!

I had a mini-wobble on my first evening in Asia where I suddenly felt very alone and very far away from home. I had built up a comfort zone in Europe without realizing it and at that moment acknowledged that at least part of the safety net beneath me had been cast away. However, it only lasted an hour or two. Flabberghastingly strong winds then blew me all over the road on my first day on the Turkish mainland but soon died down as I ground my way inland. There was horrific traffic for 30km through Bursa, Turkey’s 4th largest city with 1.9 million, had my nerves on edge. Then, a bit of a climb up to the city of Eskisehir where I had arranged to meet Agne, a journalism student I had met in Vilnius several months earlier who was in Turkey on the Erasmus (‘EU-funded-drinking’) Programme.

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Eskisehir turned out to be a real boost for my happiness and energy levels. Agne, her flat-mate Gozde, their Dutch friend Arne and a whole host of their Turkish friends wasted no time in showing me around town, inviting me out for beers and introducing me to Turkish food. Turkish food is delicious and I defy anyone with taste-buds to say differently. Kofte, small slightly spicy meatballs usually served with rice, tomatoes, salad and pita bread, can be found almost everywhere and tastes great. Tantuni, a chicken sandwich with onions and tomatoes is a personal favourite of mine. The best one was at 2am in the morning with Agne and Gozde alongside a mug of Ayran, a milky, yoghurt-like drink served with an inch of froth on the top. Then there is the Turkish breakfast spread which basically consists of a mass of cheeses, meats, breads, green things and jams on little plates that is meant to be eaten a bit like tapas. Turkey also has the burek (Cornish pasty thing) I raved about in Bosnia so I’ve been eating plenty of that. Last but not least there’s the good old doner kebap. I’m not really in a position to compare these with the ones in Britain because here I’ve been largely sober whereas back home, well … it’s difficult to judge.

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Suffice to say, in Eskisehir I found friendly faces everywhere who made the worries of the mini-wobble seem silly and meaningless. I realized though that in my short time in Turkey I’d already missed out on one of the largest, most visited cities in the world, a city which has stood at the heart of many powerful empires. And so, leaving my bike and most of my gear on the balcony of Gozde’s flat, I packed my rucksack, made up a sign on a large brown envelope and set out to hitch-hike the 300km back to Istanbul.

Inkeeping with the incredible generosity and hospitality of the Turkish people I never had to wait more than 3 minutes for a ride. I was lucky too. The first man drove me 200km, bought me a full meal at a petrol station and shared cay with me to say goodbye. No common language made the journey a little awkward but there was plenty of beautiful scenery so every now and again I would raise my fingers to my mouth in the Turkish way and praise a mountain: ‘choy guzel!’ (very good!). My second and final ride took me very close to the centre of Istanbul. This recently married couple bought me a sandwich, Coke and chocolate and even swiped their bus-pass for me so I could get to the historical centre. How can one even begin to understand the kindness of all these people?

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I had a lovely surprise in Istanbul when Mum decided on the spur of the moment to fly out and see me. For the 3 days she stayed, we explored the most famous and historical part of town, Sultanahmet. Here lies the Blue Mosque which is possibly the most beautiful building I have ever laid eyes on. And it’s difficult to decide which to like more, the outside or the inside. I must have spent hours staring at this building, from all kinds of angles too due to the fantastic way the city has planned the space around it. Maybe the Aya Sofia is even more impressive though. Not for its looks but for the history behind it. The main part of the building, including the huge unsupported dome on top, was built in the 4th Century by the Byzantines and was the largest cathedral in the world for over 1000 years. It is enormous, and the inside is wonderful too, although much more dark and sombre than the bright Blue Mosque. Other highlights were the Grand Bazaar (which receives a whopping 350,000 visitors per day), the other numerous and beautiful mosques dotted around, discovering the wing of an ancient palace beneath our favourite resturant and the street where we stayed which buzzed every night with the life in cafes and restaurants. There’s so much I didn’t see too: Topkaki Palace, Basilica Cistern, the city from a boat on the Bosphorus, and all the other parts of the city that aren’t awash with tourists. In short, Istanbul is on another level. It is double the size of any other European city and historically surpasses everywhere else. Its largest market is many times bigger and busier than anywhere else I’ve been. You would need a lifetime to explore this city.

After a couple more lovely days with Gozde, a dinner round Arne’s and a round of 1L beers in ‘Del Mundos’, I got back on my bike. I have just ridden 500km in 5 days across the most barren landscape of my trip so far. Lots happened but one word describes most of it: yellow. Yellow plains for as far as the eye can see with just a faint slither of road snaking its way east. On this stretch, villages were up to 50km away from each other and I had no guarantee of buying much more than bread in most places. For two days I ate only bread and nuts and drank only cay and water because I could not find anything else. Tomatoes and cheese on the third day had never tasted so good. These backroads have been more rattley but the traffic has been almost non-existent. It’s marvellous to slarlem around in the road in the knowledge I’d hear anything coming a mile away (literally).

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In the middle of nowhere I’m also a local celebrity. Kids in the school playground rush to the fence shouting any English they know and invitations for cay have become even more frequent. I am stared at a lot but never in a hostile way. I have stories to tell but they will only make this post longer and so will have to wait until I return.

So we come to where I am now which I believe will make up the content of my next post (which will be quicker in coming than this one). At the moment, I am in Cappadocia, a region of exceptional natural beauty and historical interest. On my first night, I found a spot for camping with even better views than a swanky hotel perched I passed on top of a hill (although the hotel probably wins hands-down when it comes to toilet facilities). So far, I’ve been hiking among fairy chimneys, climbing into underground cities and making friends with the local kebap house. Relaying all that will have to wait until next time.

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8 Comments already on “Tea Time in Turkey”
  1. 7:31 ampermalink
    02 Oct 2012

    will

    Keep the facebook story for your BBC breakfast interview.

  2. Will

    8:32 ampermalink
    02 Oct 2012

    Will

    Will do Gibbsy. At the end of the day, when you put all the life-changing-experience-finding-myself-cultural-exploration rubbish to one side, the only real reason for making the trip is to get on BBC Breakfast.

  3. 11:44 ampermalink
    02 Oct 2012

    Birgit

    Will, I love reading your cycling stories! It’s such an inspiration! I am already thinking about where to cycle next… Eastern Europe is definitely very high up on the list! Do you think it would be a problem to do it as a girl by yourself?

  4. Will

    12:26 pmpermalink
    02 Oct 2012

    Will

    Thanks Birgit! Nice to hear kind words from another long-distance cyclist like yourself!

    I really don’t think you would have a problem in all the places I passed through. Where exactly are you thinking of – that will make a difference. People will be intrigued for sure and you may attract annoying attention at times but I don’t think anyone would be aggressive or threatening.

    Get some pepper spray (much more likely used for the not-so-friendly dogs you’ll find in much of the region) and go do it! There’s a lot of spectacular scenery, wonderful people, historical sights and Soviet past to discover.

  5. 1:21 pmpermalink
    02 Oct 2012

    Nevin

    Fantastic post! So thrilled for you that you’re having the most incredible experiences and so happy that you loved Istanbul and the Turks. I’m starting Turkish lessons after work today – let’s go back and explore together one day. All the best and I’ll be in touch more often from now on, I promise!

  6. 3:17 pmpermalink
    02 Oct 2012

    Jackie

    Wow! FYI I love Turkish food too and have never had it actually in Turkey. So jealous. Now I want to go to Istanbul even more than I did before. I also love those photos of open road at the end of the post. I wonder how long it took you to get the one of you cycling? Anyway, looks like your version of happiness (we both know I couldn’t handle the nuts-only diet). Glad your Mom flew out to see you and that you are making so many friends along the way! xx

  7. 3:55 pmpermalink
    03 Oct 2012

    Sarah, Guy, Toby and Edward

    Great going! Istanbul sounded amazing and it must have been great to share it with Mumsy. Loved the photos. Agree that there can’t be too many people in the UK who have eaten an donor kebab sober but you sound as if you aren’t fading away which is reassuring! XXXX

  8. 7:22 ampermalink
    09 Oct 2012

    Steve

    Well done mate, Glad to see you made it to Asia. 10,000km – you clearly made the most of Europe too! We are in the middle of the outback at the moment, but less than a month and we should be in SE Asia. Looks like that beer in the middle somewhere is still on! Travel safe. Steve and Kat