I guess it’s time for another post. Without the routine of cycling each day, I start to forget about this blog (although I really hate that word). While I am writing I am watching Rambo in Turkish, and somewhat unsurprisingly – the Bad Guys vs. Rambo plot doesn’t seem to require any words.
We’ve spent the last couple days out in eastern Turkey in the Kaçkar Mountains. The Kackars lie just south of the Black Sea, right up next to Georgia and Armenia. It was nice to be in the mountains for a couple days, and good prep for trekking in Nepal that will begin in about ten days. So excited. If you’ve never seen the Himalayas then you’re missing out (of interest, there are 14 mountains on Earth that are over 8,000 meters, all of them are in the Himalayas or Karakoram mountains). I hate to be one of those people that says – oh you’ve got to go here, or you’ve got to go there, this place is so great, when I was in . . . blah blah blah etc. etc. BUT – if there is one place to go before you die, and you’re a mountainophile – go to Nepal. Go to the Himalayas. (Also excited to have my somewhat “I love to travel and I’m pretty impulsive about it” twin sister and her friend Valerie coming out to join us.)
The Kackar Mountains were awesome. But the enduring highlight of the area was the wonderful people. Up the road from where we were staying in the small resort town of Ayder was one of the few grocery stores in the town. And by grocery store we are talking about 1/4th the size of a 7-11. And each time we went in to grab a bottle of water or some yogurt a table and chairs were pulled out and we sat and drank a cup of tea. Then at our hotel that night we struck up a great conversation with a group of medical students from central Turkey that were on a weekend getaway. Ended up hitching a ride in their van to the trailhead the next morning (not without a traditional Turkish dance out on the main road). At the halfway point of our hike, out in the middle of these mountains we stumbled upon a small village where the only family around (everyone else has left to the flatlands due to the impending winter) shared their lunch/picnic with us. Later as our 8 hour hike turned to complete darkness and it was apparent that no one else was around (hadn’t seen another hiker all day) a car came down the dirt road we were on and gave us a lift the 10 or so kilometers to the next town. At that next town we decided against a private taxi (public buses were no longer running) and so we tried hitch hiking – got picked up by the first guy. So basically we just hopped from one group of kind folks to the next – no ride, no food, not sure where you are going or how you will get there – never fear, the Turks are here.
Tomorrow morning a 7am flight to Jerusalem. Our trip is starting to warm up.
Our package from FedEx (containing our rear hub) continued to not arrive. And so after multiple emails, our WS host calling FedEx’s Turkish third party MNGKargo around 50 times and Katy and I even tracking down an MNGKargo delivery truck on the streets of Istanbul and asking them where our package was, we got nowhere. And so we said to ourselves, it will come when it comes. Let’s go see Turkey.
So, last Saturday we took a train to Ankara, Sunday a bus to Nevşehir and a shuttle to Göreme (the center of Cappadocia), Monday: 4 local buses to see the underground city of Kaymaklı,Tuesday night: a 10 hour overnight bus ride to Pammukale, Thursday: another bus to Selçuk (which is 2 kilometers from the ancient city of Ephesus), Thursday night: a train to Izmir airport, later Thursday night a flight (as in we finally got back on another plane) to Istanbul, Friday around 1am, then a shuttle from the airport to Kadıköy, Friday morning: the Metro from Kadıköy to Üsküdar, and then from Üsküdar back to Kadıköy (changing stations at Ayrılık Çeşmesi), with a dolmus ride to Çiftehavuzlar. (take a deep breath) And then tonight (leave in an hour) more metro, an airport shuttle, another flight to Trabzon (to see some mountains in Eastern Turkey), then back to Istanbul for 2 days before another roundtrip flight to Tel Aviv, Israel (we’ll be in the holy land for a week) before returning to Istanbul to (drumroll please) finally pack up our bike and fly to Kathmandu where Phase 2 of our trip officially begins (but not without a 36 hour layover in Dubai). Another deep breath.
If interested: Israel from 10/30 – 11/6, Dubai 11/7, Kathmandu 11/8
Once in Kathmandu – ten days or so of trekking in the Himalayas and then get on our bike (finally, can’t wait) and ride towards somewhere in India. Stay in India for a while, through Christmas and the New Year, most likely.
From the outside, traveling around the world on a bike sounds exhausting. And it can be. But no way is it any more taxing and exhausting than figuring out public transportation. Aye yai yai. And much more expensive. I’d prefer a bicycle and a simple road map any day.
Cappadocia: so beautiful. A very southern Utah – Mesa Verde feel. A couple million years ago a lot of volcanic activity left behind some very striking scenery – tall columns of somewhat soft volcanic rock that covers the land. This rock is also present underground for hundreds of kilometers in every direction. So in the 8th century BC, in an attempt to avoid war, the first homes and cities were built out of this rock (construction continued for about 2,000 years). And when I say city, I mean city. Some of these underground cities, there are a bunch of them, are 8 levels deep, connected by kilometers of tunnel and contain churches, homes, kitchens, ventilation shafts, food storage, stables – everything you would need to hide 20,000 people underground for 3-6 months while armies pass by overhead. Two of the largest cities are connected by an underground 8km tunnel. Katy and I had a great time crawling around one of these cities trying (and getting) lost in unlit closed off tunnels (when I see the closed sign I wait til no one is looking and go for it).
Pamukkale: also very unusual. This oddity of nature is due to a natural thermal spring with an extremely high calcium carbonate content. The water then runs down the side of the mountain depositing calcium carbonate everywhere, forming little swimming holes and creating an entirely white mountain. Above the thermal pools is the Roman city of Hierapolis. Lots of ruins in Turkey.
Ephesus: mostly famous (at least in the small bubble of SLC) due to the book of Ephesians in the New Testament, the writings of Paul. I’m not too brushed up on my Roman history, but the ruins looked like a great place, a gladiator arena (maybe this was in Hierapolis), a theater, nice roads, a public latrine, a sewage system, a gigantic library. I’m always baffled to think about cities that are now in “ruins”. If someone were to tell me that in a couple hundred years Boston or Miami or Denver would be mostly underground with a couple shepherds hanging around I’d say, yeah, right. But that’s what happened to so many of these places.
That’s been most of the last week. This morning finally took our wheel off to get fixed up at Bisiklet Gezgini – what appears to be the last great touring bike shop before Asia. It was nice walking around a shop with Brooks saddles, Ortlieb bags, Schwalbe tires and a nice array of camping and other gear.
The last week has been great (seen a lot), but also a bit underwhelming. It’s been easy to fall into the trap of take a bus to a tourist site, pay our entrance fee, stay at the overpriced local guesthouse, corralled onto another bus, repeat the next day. I really am looking forward to getting to Nepal where we can head back off in the unknown on our bike, away from touts and entrance fees (and the best part will be that it will cost about $15/person/day – and that’s living it up).
Islam. It’s kind of a heated topic.And it often gets a bad wrap.But surely the fastest growing major religion and 1 out 4 people on Earth must be on to something.
Islam and I first crossed paths when I was 19 and preparing to serve an LDS mission in Kingston, Jamaica (now that I think about it, I didn’t know a single Muslim growing up, and maybe didn’t meet any until I moved to Ann Arbor).I read that Muhammad, the last Prophet of Allah, was visited by the angel Gabriel in the year 610AD in the city of Mecca, present day Saudi Arabia.Over the next 22 years he received revelation from Allah which has been compiled in the Quran.And that all sounds fine and dandy, until I learned that Joseph Smith taught that the angel Gabriel is Noah.And I stopped dead in my tracks.How can I spend the next 2 years preaching that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the “only true and living church” if we also believe that Noah/Gabriel was sent to Muhammad and received the Quran.If God is the ultimate source of the Bible, the Book of Mormon and the Quran why should I spend two years of my life trying to convince others that what I was preaching was the way back to God.It was the only thing that really made me think long and hard about whether or not I wanted to serve a mission.
On Friday we had a 12:45 meeting at the Mosque Information Center, located just outside the courtyard of the Blue Mosque.As we sat on the marble steps waiting for our hosts, we watched (and laughed) as tourist after tourist approached the gate to the courtyard (women often quickly slipping a scarf over their head) but were then turned away by the guard.Friday is Islam’s holy day, and the 1pm sermon given inside the Blue Mosque is closed to tourists.At 12:52 or so, singing came over the mosque’s loudspeakers, prelude music if you will.Eventually our hosts arrived and we entered through the gate (where other tourists were turned away – thanks to the generosity of our hosts in taking the time to allow us to enter with them) and into courtyard and then approached the main entrance of the mosque.The hot sun was directly overhead as a long line formed, first at the wash stations and then at the entrance way where shoes are removed before entering the mosque (the Quran teaches to pray in a clean space and so shoes in a mosque are forbidden).The mosque was packed.Jam packed.Katy was taken away to the balcony (men and women are forbidden to worship in the same area) while I followed Shadid (my host) in search of an empty spot of carpet.There was no where to sit/kneel, until an usher began whispering to Shadid and pointing to the front of the mosque.I then followed Shadid as we carefully tiptoed over row after row of people, eventually stopping at the very front of the mosque.It was one of those moments of, yeah, I’m the new guy, the white one with the pony tail.Lots of stares, they were kind stares, stares of curiosity and friendship, but they were stares nonetheless.
The entire sermon, which lasted an hour or so, can best be described as General Conference meets Bikram Yoga – spiritual and introspective, but also kind of hot with some necessary flexibility and movement.Before things officially got started people were, what I like to call “freestyle praying” which proceeds as follows: standing position to begin, then the hands come to the ears (similar to the idea of “hearing the words of the Lord”) followed by a full bow, then back to standing position, then fall to your knees and in the same fluid motion your hands and forehead meet the ground, then up to a kneeling position, back to the head on the ground prostration (this repeats a couple times) until back to a standing position.The dense packing of people in the mosque, along with the up and down and up and down and a good sweat was noticed on the brows of everyone around me.These prayers were offered by everyone present, but not in unison.I was told I could pray as I pleased.
Then things got going.The Imam (the head guy who does the Call to Prayer) began the first prayer (prayers are always in Arabic) and everyone got to their feet (adding to the General Conference – Bikram vibe).During the prayer the “freestyle” nature of prayers changed and the entire congregation performed the prayers in unison, complete with vocal responses at specific times.I did my best to just follow along.Standing. Bow.Prostration.Kneeling.Back to standing. I have prayed while standing, sitting, lying in bed, kneeling, while riding a back but never before have I prayed fully prostrated on the ground, with knees and forehead touching the ground. It felt unique and was a great reminder of the humility required by God. Then there was the sermon, given in Turkish, which was a bit more casual as people either remained in the kneeling position or sat down to be a little more comfortable.(I’m not too good at kneeling, a history of knee surgeries makes it a bit difficult, so I opted to just sit). Shadid gave me his smartphone and let me read the sermon in English while it was given. One line that I particularly liked: “And you will understand that the biggest jihad (arabic word meaning: religious duty of Muslims) is to struggle with one’s own ego. Then another round of prayers.Now, I’ve heard my fair share of the Call to Prayer from outside of a mosque, but hearing the Call to Prayer (our Imam had recently been in Mecca so his Call to Prayer was particularly energetic) inside the mosque with thousands of Muslims praying in unison was nothing short of inspiring, a very spiritual moment. I was in awe.The prayers were sung instead of recited, and accompanied with the fabulous acoustics truly felt as close to angelic voices as I’ve ever heard (it probably helped that the prayer was in Arabic, and so hearing in a different language added to the majesty of it all).Then at then end of a particularly long and powerful verse it was completely silent, for half a second, and then it was all over.Immediately a couple people quickly got up and took off to the door (just like at the end of Bikram) but most people remained continuing in prayer as before.Shadid told me that it often takes quite a while to leave the mosque because it is “forbidden” (and Islam really likes this word – forbidden) to walk in front of someone while they are praying.It was a religious experience I will always remember.
The similarities between Mormonism and Islam are striking.The Prophet Joseph Smith and the Prophet Muhammad are also an interesting comparison.One thing, among many, that I would like to adopt from Muslims: the use of the word “forbidden”.When asked about the word of wisdom, I often skirt around it and say things such as: “we’re not supposed to drink alcohol” or “our Church teaches that we should keep our bodies clean” or “I don’t drink coffee because I’d rather not be dependent on a substance to get going in the morning.”But, in the future, instead of offering justification or trying to explain commandments I’d like to take a more “Muslim” stance on the situation and just say “God forbids it.” (although this doesn’t quite have the ring of “Allah forbids it.”)
I would apologize for the length of this post, but to me that is the equivalent of this all too familiar scene: someone gets up to give a talk during sacrament meeting at church and before starting their talk preludes with the following – well, I forgot I was supposed to speak until last night, so I hurried and put this talk together, it’s not that good – and then the best part – so bear with me.When I hear that I’m already asleep, if this guy isn’t excited about their talk, I’m gonna get a head start on my afternoon nap.(The Mormons know this situation well, it’s one Jeff Edwards and I would love to gripe about as it was a frequent occurrence in good old AA).
Istanbul.What a city.
It’s Tuesday evening, 6pm.We’ve just had a cross-city jaunt to sign a FedEx form and pay 198 turkish lira (about $87 I think) to have FedEx deal with Turkish customs to allow the delivery of our rear hub.I think we traveled 10 miles in 5 hours.No biggie.Rush hour traffic is alive and well, the beating heart of a city of 14 million people – walking, motorcycles, cars, buses, subways, trains, taxis, ferries.It is quite an operation to move this many people.Anyways, FedEx said the hub will be delivered Thursday, allowing for a visit to a bike shop Friday morning and, at best, a Sunday departure.Which means we’d better get cracking on our list of things to do – we have yet to see Ayasofya and the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (the blue one).
So, what have we been up to?Well, that’s a good question.It seems that when we don’t have any cycling to do our days fall into a mess of disarray with only one tangible goal – eat (often accompanied by lots of walking).
Things I like about Istanbul:
The Call to Prayer.Some may think it is a bit creepy, or maybe like Big Brother is watching, but I love it. The best part is that despite the blaring prayer heard throughout the city, it seems as though no one even flinches, they just continue on their way, never missing a stride.If you stand on the Galata Bridge, just north of Istanbul over the Golden Horn, then you can hear the Call to Prayer from 6 or 7 mosques – a nice fusion of sounds from all directions.Also a cool, somewhat unknown fact, the Call to Prayer is always the same prayer, except for in the morning when one line is added: Worship is better than Sleep.Not a bad way to wake up.
History.So much has happened here.First Byzantium, then Constantinople and now Istanbul.Within a couple minutes you can visit The Serpent Column, a sculpture of three intertwined serpents (heads now broken off) that Constantine brought here in the year 324AD to place at the center of the Hippodrome (but it was originally built by the Greeks to commemorate victorious battles from 479BC).Just next to that is Sultan Ahmed Mosque, commissioned by the 19 year old Sultan Ahmed I in the year 1609.And then you can jump on the Marmaray subway line, completed in 2013 that takes you under the Bosphorous Strait to Üsküdar – where we are staying.When they were digging for the subway line they uncovered so many archeological findings that construction was delayed by 4 years.So much has happened here.
Food. Man oh man. This topic requires more attention than can be given here, I think an entire post would not be sufficient, maybe an entire blog. So I will just shoot off the highlights. #1 – a visit to the Topkapi palace revealed the original marble slabs where phyllo dough was first rolled out allowing for Baklava, Borek and Samosa (Indian food here I come).
#2 – crossing the Galata Bridge reveals a couple hundred fisherman, all casting their lines into the Golden Horn, pulling out fresh fish for the nearby eateries.
#3 – Turkish Delight. It’s a strange dessert, but if you put the right flavors together (pomegranate and dried cherries, lemon and marshmallow, chocolate and pistachio) you get a nice treat.
#4 – Hummus – we finally found it, along with some delicious hot bread and covered in olive oil, hummus. My feelings for hummus rival my feelings for baklava and pain au chocolate. It’s a little gift from God. #5 – A fusion of east meets west at the Shake Shack – a Vanilla concrete with banana, baklava and caramel. #6 Yogurt – pronounced “youh-urt”. I take my yogurt in two forms – the first form is typical yogurt consistency, it comes in a large cylindrical container at the grocery store, you can get a kilo for a couple bucks. I smother it on my fruit and muesli in the morning, and then I usually have a couple dollops of it alone. So tangy, nothing like what Yoplait is making these days. The other way I like my yogurt is in beverage form – if you go to any local kebab shop you’ll notice one thing, the giant meatstick out front (meat plywood, more on that later) and after that you’ll see everyone drinking the same thing – on a menu it translated to “dilute salty yogurt drink”. It comes in a plastic container with a tear-away lid (although all the locals just jab the straw right through the top). At first drink I was a bit skeptical, and rightfully so, it was awful. Mildly dilute salty yogurt water, plugh. I couldn’t even finish my cup. But then the next day getting my kebab, there it is again. And since EVERYONE is drinking it I decide it must be an acquired taste, and since I’ve only got 3 more weeks in Turkey (first to acquire the taste and then to actually enjoy it) I better get started. I start drinking it at every meal. And day by day it becomes more and more bearable and then, voila, yesterday it didn’t actually taste bad. I assume tomorrow I will have be out of the woods and able to thoroughly enjoy it.
#7 Kebabs – you know you’re getting close when you feel the heat from the cooker wafting down the road (Katy knows we are close cause she can smell it, I’m not so fortunate. In fact, Katy often says, Clayton, you would eat a lot more if you could smell.) I like watching the meat spin, it’s like staring into a fire as it slowly turns to glowing embers or watching the mesmerizing repetition of waves crashing on the shore. I’m not exactly sure what animal grows in that shape, so I prefer to refer to it as “meat plywood”. It tastes great, whether in a pita, a kebab, or a tortilla, it’s finger licking delicious stuff.
#8 Other various treats, sütlaç (Turkish rice pudding) and Tavuk göğsü (a desssert with stringy pieces of chicken – not sure how I felt about this one).
Open Markets.The Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian Spike Market are just teeming with energy.A constant buzz of ordered commotion.Such a nice contrast to the hum-drum bore of Walmart and Costco.
People. Chance encounters with great locals surely must be the backbone of any great trip.Flavors leave the tongue and photos just end up a in dusty photo album but memories of conversations with strangers last forever.Şerif (the little symbol under the S means you make the sh sound, and the dotted i means the ee sound) – a 37 year old native of a small village in southwest Turkey who has lived in Denver since he was six years old.We met him on the ferry from Bandirma to Istanbul (it was his perfect English accent that quickly caught our attention).We chatted for a couple hours on the ferry, finally able to ask all the questions we had been compiling in our mind.One comment of his stands out particularly, he said that Turkey has a mandatory military assignment for all males when they turn 20 (deferrals available for university students) which significantly changes the way Turks view sending into soldiers to war (we had a long chat about Turkey and the Islamic State).Başar – our WarmShowers host.Our first host we’ve stayed with since Budapest.He is the best, a true life saver.He met us at the Üsküdar ferry station (Asian side of town) Friday night and walked with us the 500 meters or so to his apartment.It’s rather small – a single bed and night stand are the only furniture, two rooms: one for the kitchen/bedroom/everything else and another for the bathroom/shower (but it’s one of those showers that lacks any sort of separation from the bathroom, the shower head is right in the middle of the room).After we dropped our bike and belongings he took us off to his local restaurant.Fish soup, grilled fish, salad, sandwiches.Only once he was certain we were situated did he tell us that he had to leave.Başar has two apartments – one about 10km east of town where he stays on the weekend and one right in the city where he stays for work.We were told we could stay in his work apartment Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights cause he wouldn’t be there.He came by Sunday afternoon to show us around some more.We took the metro to Kadıköy where we walked through the market (it’s so great following someone through their own city – they know where to go, where to eat, the names of all the strange things in the market, a little bit about the history, some of the current events and politics – so much that you could never get on your own).He pointed to some mushrooms (the variety that appeared familiar) and said, those ones are synthetic.I never eat those.And then as we passed Starbucks commented, the stuff in there is awful, I would never drink it.We stopped at what he called the “best restaurant in Istanbul” where we had a delicious meal, although a bit pricey.The restaurant hung a newspaper clipping from the New York Times that it had been featured in, some decades ago.Once it was realized our bike part would be delayed Başar offered to let us stay in his apartment until we got everything sorted out.So nice of him.Nothing quite like showing up to Istanbul and being shown to your private (and free) apartment for the week.
At the Serkici (the letter c makes a j sound) metro station I’m looking at a map of the Istanbul metro lines.An old guy walks up to me, and putting the tips of his five fingers together lifts his right hand (fingers pointing up) and says ISTANBUL.The hand gesture he has made is one I’ve become familiar with, Turks do it when they esteem something to be of great worth, precious or very expensive.He said the word very slowly, carefully pronouncing each syllable (of note: Turks pronounce it eestanbul – accent on the ee – while Westerners pronounce it ihstanbul – accent on the tan.The difference being that the Turkish alphabet distinguishes between a dotted and a dotless letter i.)He said it again, pointing to the map of Istanbul, again very slowly.Then he pointed to himself, again raised his right hand and repeated the name of his city (as if he had built it himself) ISTANBUL.And to respond to his enthusiasm I pointed to myself and said, AMERICA.And then a great look of delight swept over his face and he stepped towards me and gave me a big hug.It wasn’t a hug that just came and went.He really hugged, and then patted me on the back of the head. Then stepping back said, “America, Istanbul” and put his hands together, fingers interlocking with each other.Now although this example is the extreme case, this is the general response we get when we tell people we are from America – some sort of expression of delight and charm, and then an interlocking of fingers or hands, to signal friendship between nations and people.
Sitting at a park bench looking at the Blue Mosque, a young guy approaches.Hello, do you speak English, he asks softly.Yep, I sure do, I respond.I’m not trying to sell anything, but is it okay if I talk to you for a minute, I’m trying to work on my English.Janesh grew up in Eastern Turkey, graduated from college with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and moved to Istanbul to try and find work.He told us that he works in the mornings in the market (presumably making enough to just pay rent and get some food) but is “in between” jobs, he just arrived in Istanbul 2 months ago (surely hoping to find a job where he can utilize his education).We chatted for quite some time.He was a very soft spoken, humble individual, and it seemed that others depended on him – my guess would be that he’s a first generation college graduate sent to the city to make money and help support the family.Maybe I’ve read too much into the situation, I don’t know, but it was obvious from our conversation that he spends his evenings walking around the city finding tourists to practice his English because there isn’t anything else he can do to either make money or improve his ability to get a good job.This encounter has made us do more reflecting on life, wealth and the many different lives people live.What do Westerners do with their free time?Watch TV (cause we’re bored), spend time on social media (cause it’s easier than actually visiting friends), go to the gym (cause we drive around in our cars everywhere and don’t get the type of exercise people have gotten for the last couple thousands of years – walking) and when we have a lot of free time we travel (Katy and I being the perfect example – work for a couple years – travel for a year).But what does this guy do with his free time?Asks tourists if he can have 10 minutes of their time to practice his English so he can hopefully find a job.It’s an interesting world we live in.
Things I don’t like about Istanbul.
Cats.Nasty little creatures when they belong to someone, but stray ones? Don’t even get me started.
Begging.My feelings on poverty and begging (typically for money) are ones that have changed throughout my life.The Book of Mormon says (and I’ll paraphrase) aren’t we all beggars, don’t we all depend on God for everything that we have.So when I see a beggar on the street a little piece of me always says, help them out, you have much more than them. But I can’t help but think that the laziness this reinforces is unacceptable.What really drives me crazy though, is when parents force their children to sit on the side of the street all day long – either to beg themselves or to help make their parents situation look as tragic as possible.If a kid is going to be poor and homeless, as unfortunate as that is, at least let them run around and play in the streets.If parents resign themselves to sitting on a piece of cardboard, putting a frown on their face and holding out their hand for the rest of their life – well that’s one thing, but for a parent to teach their children to do the same, that I’m not okay with.
We made it.We arrived.Our nineteen country, cross Europe bike ride from London to Edinburgh, Chamonix, Geneva, Lake Como, Venice, Ljubljana, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Dubrovnik, Tirana, Thessaloniki and then Istanbul.
Done. Complete. Finished.When we pulled out of the London Heathrow Airport 101 days ago, I wasn’t sure this would actually work.But here we are, Istanbul (Istanbul translates literally: to the city). And “to the city” we have come.
It is a rather bittersweet moment, as many of life’s journeys are.The sweetness comes from the sense of accomplishment that such a feat brings.The great memories, delicious food and wonderful people we’ve met will last in our life forever.A quick chronological summary: bike assembly in the London Heathrow Airport, navigating the crazy (but beautiful) roads in England, the perfect weather in Scotland, the hills of Dartmoor National Park, the castles and cuisine of the Loire River Valley, three solid days of rain, majestic Mont Blanc and the Simplon Pass, Gelato at Lake Como (and then more rain), the heat and mosquitoes through the Po River valley, beautiful Slovenia and the Vrsic pass, the gorgeously sunny hills of eastern Austria and the beginning of a rear wheel problem, a couple days off in Prague, a late night ride along the Danube to Bratislava, Hungarian hospitality, a rainy entrance into Belgrade, Bosnia— its history, mountains and honey, the Adriatic Coast of Dubrovnik and Kotor with Jessica, Charles and Elizabeth, crystal clear hiking in northern Albania and an afternoon of potholes, the gyros and greek salads of Thessaloniki and then head/cross-winds all the way to Istanbul.I would happily return to any one of those days and start the journey again.
And it is often the sweetness that causes the bitterness.The final kilometers into Bandirma (where we would catch a ferry to Istanbul – we were told that we would be crazy trying to ride through the 40 or 50 kilometers of sprawling bumper to bumper traffic to reach the heart of Istanbul – the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace) were no different than the thousands that we had previously ridden.It was a realization that at some point in the future (now feeling much closer than before) we would ride our last kilometer and this trip would come to a screaming halt.When we started off on our trip I told Katy – enjoy every view, you only get to see it once.But with a seemingly endless number of days we can easily assume their will be more good views to be had.Arriving in Istanbul was the reality that this is not the case.Time doesn’t stand still, each day only happens once.Every kilometer and each turn of the pedals is unique.My often recurring dream/nightmare of being late and unprepared for school will become a reality, and only then will I start to dream about new cities, new food, new people and a bike to take me there.Better enjoy each moment while it lasts.
So what’s next?We are stuck here in Istanbul for a couple days (customs has held onto our bike part, so instead of getting it on Friday as we had hoped, we have to go and pay some taxes for it on Monday morning, which means we should get it on Wednesday at the earliest and then go to a bike shop Thursday, probably be back on the road Friday).Not too happy about the customs ordeal, but there are worse places to be stuck for a week.Then, a couple weeks in Turkey – Izmir, Fethiye, the Lycian Way and Cappadocia are all at the top of our list.In early November we will fly to 1 of 2 places: either Dubai or Nepal.Dubai would consist of another 2 weeks of bike touring through the UAE and Oman (Oh Man! – still in search of that ever elusive picture of Katy on the back of the tandem in a burqa), Nepal would include a couple weeks of walking in the Himalayas (if you haven’t been, add the Annapurnas, Everest or Langtang to the: most important thing to do before I die bucket list).Then around six weeks in India (not on the bike).Around the first week of January, fly to Hanoi, Vietnam and ride west and south through Laos, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Malaysia.(Katy wants me to add that we are accepting visitors anywhere along our tentative route).
Our trip is one-third over.But at the same time it feels like it is just getting started.
Well, that’s that.Better get back out into the city that is Istanbul.Katy and I have only one goal today: we’re only allowed to eat food that we have not previously tried – or heard of.Now that’s my kind of day.
I have no qualms about it. I am currently sitting in the lap of luxury at the Biga Palas Hotel in Biga, Turkey at 10am on Friday morning. Where is Clayton you ask? He left at 8 am and is slogging his way to Bandirma, Turkey; 75km northeast of here through a 25 km/h headwind and depending on the road, a crosswind which is actually much more terrifying than a headwind. (More on crosswinds later.) We aren’t splitting up permanently, we aren’t getting divorced, we aren’t ending our trip, and we aren’t even mad at each other — a pretty successful decision if you ask me.
Since Albania we have been fighting a mild headwind but the past three days it has gotten pretty brutal. Add our arrival deadline to Istanbul to meet our shiny new DT Swiss hub, 300 km and you have quite the recipe for tough cycling. So I signed up for the noon bus departure for a whopping 5€ and told Clayton I would meet him in Bandirma where we will take the two hour ferry into the heart of Istanbul. Plus my right knee has also been bothering me a bit so I am happy to take an addition rest day via a bus. Don’t worry. My knee should be fine. Clayton on the other hand wanted to push onward and since it is possible for him to continue with the bike, why not? He will just get a few more funny looks with the empty seat on the back which isn’t much considering all the funny looks we already get.
Turkey has been great so far. The Turks are incredibly hospitable. Have you ever had a gas attendant bring you a chair and tea just for showing up? However, their English could use a bit of work. However, since we are the foreigners, our Turkish is what could use some serious work. In all the countries we have been to thus far we have been able to relatively understand some part of words and signs, but here in Turkey we are out of luck. Luckily for us, we like trying new things and randomly choosing words on paper.
Tonight we will arrive in Istanbul. There are many amazing things to see and we plan on spending 4 or 5 days so much more to come.
Quick note on the cross wind.
Picture this: A major wind is blowing us to the right so to compensate we lean hard left and pedal. Chug chug chug. Don’t forget to picture our dependable frame bag which acts as a sail on our rig creating more drag to overcome. Chug chug chug. Then whooosh… a Semi passes and shoves all the air forward and blocks the cross wind which then creates a vacuum and our tandem bike gets sucked to the left–right toward the Semi. Then whooosh again, now the Semi is gone but off we go back swerving to the right with the cross wind. Put this on repeat. Quite terrifying. The redeeming thing is we have had a huge shoulder on a nicely paved road here so we are still being safe.
Clayton has done an awesome job captaining our tandem in all sorts of conditions and the cross winds lately are no different. I don’t know if he has gotten much credit for it but it is tough work. Those bags on the front are heavy and I am definitely confident in his ability. I am also glad it isn’t me in the front!
5:14am. Pitter patter, pitter patter. Raindrops on the rain fly of our tent. Not my favorite sound. It was a clear sky last night, could see the moon and the stars and so I’m not too pleased by this sudden showing of rain.
8:30am Decide I better roll out of my sleeping bag and start the drying process. Before departing on this trip I never realized how much time Katy and I would spend focusing on water, in its many forms: the drinking kind, the warm kind you like to shower in, the bad kind that falls from the sky and makes your feet squish in between your toes, and the dew that shows up in the morning between your sleeping bag and pad, assuring that all your camping equipment needs some time for drying out. Everything got hung up underneath the bamboo-esque umbrellas while we had our typical breakfast: muesli and yogurt (the muesli remains the same, but the yogurt is rather variable – Greece makes a yogurt that is 10% fat, and it is goooo-oood.)
2:07pm The Turkish border comes into sight. It’s a view of mixed thoughts and emotions. The first: WOW, we made it, country #19 – our last country before we box this bicycle up and start the next lef of our journey. Second – everything seems all peace and quiet on this border, I wonder how Turkey’s other borders are doing?
2:44pm We finish tea with some German folks we met at the border and are back on our bike, heading east to Istanbul. The wind continues to rage. It has been an in-your-face headwind kind of day, all day, and we’re pedaling hard and going slow. But I keep telling myself, don’t worry Clayton, it just means you can have an extra meal tonight, don’t worry.
6:43pm We turn off the main highway, after a beautiful climb through a densely pine tree forested mountain range, and into a rather small town – Kocaçeşme. We’ve heard that, although Turks have a reputation for speaking little to no English, they also have a reputation of being warm and hospitable, and we’re going to put them to the test.
6:45pm At the only restaurant in town, we hit the brakes on the bumpy dusty road and come to a stop. A friendly looking gentleman, about the same age as me, says Hello. Hello, how are you? I respond. A simple question tests the water – does this guy actually know English? – if he responds in English, it’s fair game to ask another question in English, if he just stares at you then its likely you’ll have to resort to hand gestures and charades (which Katy and I are both very good at – lots of practice). We get a blank stare. Using the universal sign language for we are looking for somewhere to sleep (make a pillow of both hands, put next to one ear, and cock head 40 degrees to the side) we are motioned to keep going down the road.
6:59pm It’s a dead end. No where to sleep. We ask the 3 women on the side of the road where we can sleep, they point to the nearest green patch of grass and in Turkish say “you can sleep over there if you want.” Next we move on to finding out where some food is, and we are instructed to follow an 8 year old on his bike back up the main road to the restaurant. The kid zooms off, making sure everyone in town is aware that the two foreigners are following him.
7:02pm The restaurant is nice, and someone else is eating there (always a good sign). As we enter, instead of being brought to a table, we’re brought to the glass display case with a myriad of different fish. Katy asks for a menu (again with the sign language – this one is done by making a book out of your hands and opening and closing the book repeatedly). They just point to the fish. (It was rather reminiscent of the scene in My Cousin Vinny when Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei show up at the diner for breakfast and are given a menu – it lists Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner. They think about it for a while, and then say to each other, Breakfast?) Dinner is delicous, although it’s always a little scary ordering a meal having no idea what anything cost.
7:09pm Katy comes in from getting something off the bike and says, well, we’re sleeping in the garden. Oh really? I ask, how’d you pull that off? I was talking to a guy out there who speaks German and he said we could sleep in the garden (the garden is the European term for grassy space – which means we are camping in the front yard of the only restaurant in town, about 4 meters from the main square and 25 meters from the town mosque). I didn’t bother asking how she conversed in the German language.
8:14pm After a memorable shower (filling up a bucket from a spicket and repeatedly pouring it over you) I’m looking over our map of Europe that shows our entire route. A moment later 3 waiters, a friend and the owner are all looking at the map – lots of cheers, looks of disbelief – they are genuinely amazed at where we’ve come from and continue to get more friends to come and see our map. Then they proceed to ask to take pictures of us. (We feel like a big deal). Then they want to know where we are going after Istanbul, so we tell them Izmir and Antalya. And since humor is the best way to connect with others, I then point to Syria on the map. I get the look of disbelief, followed by the game winner in the nights’ back and forth of charades: he slowly pulls a long knife from his pocket and pretends to cut the throat of the guy standing next to him. It was an interesting moment – the first time I’ve seen a Muslim express their opinions on ISIS. It’s apparent they view ISIS the same way we do, a cruel barbaric regime – although it seems that often times Westerners have an ability to kind of lump all of “Islam” or “Muslims” into the same category – that’s definitely not the case here.
11:42pm Just about to finish writing this post and the waiter and his friend come back out to tell us good night. This time they have a smartphone with Google Translate and so we spend half an hour writing out sentences so that we can communicate. It’s great to meet people you know nothing about, have almost nothing in common with, can barely communicate with each other, but spend so much time conversing and expressing interest in each other and their unique approach to life.
Turkey is a great place. Can’t wait to spend the next three weeks here. Feeling very fortunate to be out on such an amazing trip.
Man. I’m tired. It’s nice feeling really tired. Looking forward to lying down and just crashing.
Hitchhiking yesterday morning didn’t go so well. To be honest, we didn’t really give it much of a chance. We were staying on a road with pretty minimal traffic for a Monday morning, so we rode the 30 km or so to the main road/highway where we thought we’d have better luck. During our ride we had a constant sound that can best be described as follows: it’s like a rusty trampoline spring combined with a door hinge that hasn’t seen WD-40 in 80 years, rhythmically squeaking to the beat of a running horse. But then we shift gears and the cadence of the squeak changes. Sometimes it is like listening to a symphony, and when we get sick of one song we let the rear wheel coast for a moment, which resets the freehub pawl and locking scissor teeth and another song begins. It’s been rather humorous, extremetly frustrating and when we get going 30mph an hour the noise becomes so frantic and seems to be gaining enough momentum to cause an explosion of our rear wheel.
So what’s the problem? Not exactly sure. Why not go to a bike mechanic? We’ve been to three now. Hopefully Istanbul has the spare part we need.
After we reached the main road we assumed that would be the last 30km we would ride – someone would pick us up and we’d be on our way to Istanbul. But the rain came out, we abandoned our spot and went for cover. During our bag of pretzels and two green apples we got to thinking – we’ve come this far, can’t give up now. So back on our bike. Some rough map told us we needed to ride 120km (75 miles) a day for the next 5 days and we’d reach Topkapi Palace and the creation of Baklava the same time as our UPS box with our Co-Motion A10 rear hub. So we got to pedaling.
Better luck with wild camping last night. Out on a bluff above the sea overlooking Kavala, Greece. Very pretty. A slight pitter patter on my face at 8:40pm (we went to bed super early – it’s kind of the way it goes when you’re camping) and we put the rain fly on.
Today was a long day – 172km – possibly our longest day of the trip.
We stopped for lunch in Xanthi and came across a stellar bakery. These folks had this bread business down to a science. A guy up above making the loaves and they come down on a long wooden board, one guy pulls them off and hits them with some sesame seeds and butter, another guy tosses them into and out of the giant brick oven. They knew what they were doing, and after striking up a conversation with them, it appears they know what they’re doing since 1818. Quite a long time to have an oven in the family business. And every day, hundreds of loaves of bread, all for sale for 1€.
Camping tonight at Santa Rosa, just outside of Alexandroupolis. An evening swim in the Aegean Sea and then baklava and gyros – pretty standard really.
There was a bit of anxiety in the air as we departed Thessaloniki yesterday morning. It was our second attempt at departing the city – our first attempt sent us back to the bike shop to try and figure out why our freehub on our rear wheel is having such problems. As we climbed up and out of Thessaloniki we knew that at any moment that all-too-familiar clunkity rhythmic scraping sound might return, warning us of the impending death of our rear wheel. The first 10km or so went fine, but then we heard it. In as polite of a voice as I could muster, I asked Katy to get off the bike while I proceeded to ride up and down the nearby hill for a half hour or so (why? because for some reason our rear wheel problem is never evident at the beginning of the day and only rears its ugly head in our face after a good hour or so). Up and down and up and down and up and down. All seemed okay. I grabbed Katy from the small cafe, finished her hot chocolate, and we were back on the road – hoping that what we heard was just a fluke. A phantom.
But then it happened. Crughshghus. We tried coasting – clunkity, clunk clunk clunk. Without saying a word we pulled over to the side of the road and sat on a cement barrier about 8 meters apart from each other. Complete silence. We both knew what this meant but didn’t dare say anything to each other (it’s been a source of contention the last couple days).
Then, something interesting happened. The mood changed. No longer was the thought, Oh man, I sure hope our bike is okay? but it had changed to, Our bike needs a replacement part that won’t arrive for at least a week, we can’t do anything about it, now what? It was a comforting change of perspective. No more anxiety about whether or not our bike would be okay, but confronting the problem, a long sigh of “well that sucks” and then – well, what should we do now. In the moment it’s a real set back. Taking a step back and looking at the problem from a broader perspective, things weren’t really that bad. (I often joke that if our bike was rendered completely useless we would have to, unfortunately, spend the next 6 months wandering the Himalayas and sipping Pina Coladas from a beach in Thailand. The worst thing that could happen really isn’t that bad).
We decided going back to Thessaloniki wasn’t an option, so we pressed on. At first coasting was problematic, then even pedaling elicited a wretched sound. Finally we pulled off at a “thermal hot springs” sign. Katy negotiated a guesthouse for 15€ and we hunkered down for the last two nights, enjoyed watching LDS General Conference, cooked some pasta, planned the next 5 or 6 months of our trip etc. We’ve got a great lineup – this trip is just starting to warm up.
So, what’s next? The part that appears to be not working correctly is only made by a US company, so we’ve ordered the part and it is being shipped to Istanbul (to a WS host). Now, we’ve just got to meet it there. Tomorrow morning, after a day and a half of hanging out in our guesthouse, we will pack up our bike, walk out to the main road, stick out our thumbs (well I will hide behind a bush, Katy will stick out her thumb) and we will head east to Istanbul. It’s only 600km.
Katy here. Here we are: another night in Thessaloniki. Today did not turn out quite as expected (much worse actually). First to set the stage, about a week ago heading into Elbasan, Albania our rear wheel started acting up. We were just starting the long coast down into town when we heard a horrible clunking sound with each wheel rotation. We thought for sure this sound meant the end of biking, at least until we got to a major city to get bike parts. However, we were able to figure out that if we didn’t coast, no clunking, so we made it to Elbasan just awkwardly pedaling down a mountain. The next day to Ohrid, we thought we might have troubles again but nope. Our bike–rather fickle–did fine. We have noticed our bike is often just fine when we start out a ride but then deteriorates by the end of the day, like a napless toddler. As the days progressed the bike got worse, to the point where we could not coast at all and to slow down we had to continue pedaling while braking which is a very strange feeling.
This was us, limping into Thessaloniki, non-coasting, and unable to stand up to move our semi-numb fannies around. We were in need of a bike shop in a bad way. The ride into Thessaloniki didn’t help the tension. Insane 5pm traffic, people everywhere, and lots of noise to accompany Greece’s second largest city. We made it to our Airbnb host. It did take quite the finessing to get our tandem up to the third floor–four flights since crazy Europeans count the bottom floor as 0 or 1/2. Then we set off on foot in search of a bike shop and dinner.
As fate would have it, we found a bike shop right around the corner and still open at 8pm. We quickly looked around to determine if this was our kind of bike shop. Typical items to indicate what type of a bike shop it is: high-end bicycles, quantity of bicycles, wall of legitimate parts and spares, an attached service shop, and an English speaking mechanic. Bingo. We quickly made friends with Angelos and told him our story. He said he could definitely look at our bicycle and he would even see it that night. Bingo again.
We got the bike diagnosed and were told to return at 11am the next morning and everything would be good to go. Turns out we had a hub that had gotten loose on the insanely bumpy road into Tirana, Albania (the day before the problems heading into Elbasan). It got tightened up. Then we had a few other things worked on: new chain after 5500km, new cassette from normal wear and tear, front derailleur adjustment, slight truing of our tire from our pothole mishap in Belgrade. We showed up the next morning and things seemed all picture perfect and ready to go. We brought all our stuff to the bike shop and set off.
Thessaloniki is set right on the ocean and we had a climb to get out of the city. Climbing 20km through traffic was not the ideal way for our day on the bike to start. Things were going along great. Our new cassette with a slightly higher gear ratio to make climbing easier, was doing just that–making climbing easier. After forty minutes or so, I heard a faint clank. Noises are common on bicycle but nosies bring a bit of anxiety because I am not a bike mechanic and mechanical issues bring out the worst in Clayton. Don’t get me wrong, he has been great on so many levels of the trip but bike repair is not his forte–cursing loudly when an issue occurs or is not easily fixed would be his forte 🙂 Regardless, I hoped the clank would go away. It did for a while but when we stopped twenty minutes later, it was back with a vengeance. Curse word. Curse word. Gloves thrown on the ground. I do not fault Clayton, I was feeling the same way and we had just spent €155 thinking we had fixed the problem not to mention we were heading out to bike at least 6 days through the potentially bikeshop-less countryside before reaching Istanbul. Clayton rode around awhile to see if he could reproduce the issue and the fickle bike began cooperating and no clanking so we pressed on. Up the rest of the mountains and down the 14% descent on the other side. Half way down… Clunkity-clunkity-clunkity-clunk-clunk-clunk-fuck (some of these sounds came from the bike, others from . . well, I bet you can guess). Just like that we were out of luck. We turned the bike around and set out to climb back up the mountain we just came down back to Thessaloniki. Ugh. We have done this a few times lately. Go down really steep hills only to climb back up them 15 minutes later. I was feeling rather dejected. Clayton lightened the mood as we started back up the hill, “At least we will have earned baclava and donuts tonights.” The Greeks or at least Thessalonikians really like donuts.
The bike would not have it; our derauieller started giving us issues too and we weren’t going to make it up that hill. Curse word. Curse word. We get off the bike and start pushing it up the hill. Clayton turns to me and says he will push, and that I should get us a ride. 2 1/2 minutes later…BINGO. My work is done. Red truck found. (A shout out to Charlotte, Clayton’s mom. She taught me the best way to hitchhike – one of many other great things she has taught me. It should always be the girl with the thumb out. After catching the driver’s attention with your thumb, quickly put your hands in the prayer position, squat a little, and grimace/smile–basically saying to the driver we aren’t scary and we really need a ride. Please take pity on us.) It has worked a few times on this trip so again, thank you Charlotte!
Angelos, the bike mechanic, was rather shocked to see us again. Clayton and him worked on the rear hub for a bit. Cleaned it, lubed it. We think the issue might be the free hub, the mechanism that lets the wheel spin while the cassette stays in place. We got it working and Clayton took the bike out for a spin and things seem good. Cross our fingers. It was around 7pm, so too late to start out again so we will try tomorrow. Today goes down as our most expensive and less productive day. Bad combo. But the eating was excellent. It’s always excellent.
Now the only issue…finding somewhere to sleep: to wild camp or not wild camp. We all know who likes what in this relationship. Greece is so expensive and all the hostels are booked. After wandering around testing out wild camping areas: too noisy, too bright, too many mosquitos, too many people, too many police, and a locked LDS church building. Cities are not ideal places to wild camp. Not to mention we are bad at this wild camping thing. We ended up paying wayyyyy too much at a hotel, but the clean sheets and hot shower (I actually took a nice bath, trying to soak up every last € that I spent on this place) are worth it. I am sure we will try wild camping again soon while in this expensive country so for now I am enjoying the cleanliness and wifi wondering how round two of climbing out of Thessaloniki is going to turn out. I am sure we will make it one way or another. Another being: waiting for a free hub to be shipped from Ann Arbor while we hop around some Greek islands by ferry. So really there are no bad options here 🙂
one bike's adventure . . . . . . . . . two along for the ride