Meltdown

Touchdown, wall of heat, passport control and Istanbul, once again. I flew back on August Friday the 13th. I saved money by laughing in the face of superstition and flying on a day less people feel inclined to board aeroplanes. I arrived on the second day of Ramadan and immediately I was reunited with my friend Tunc who I had met in Istanbul four months before and to whom I had entrusted my uninsured companion Belinda, after knowing him for just ten days. I sensed his good character. Belinda had been stored in his father’s basement. I opened the door and there she was. I apologised immediately for leaving her, stroked her saddle, tenderly caressed her frame and kissed her handlebars. Tunc looked on in bemused fascination.

The next four days were spent relaxing with my host and his friends, taking trips to the Prince’s islands and to the Black Sea coast. The difference between the day time maximum temperature and the night time minimum temperature in Istanbul was only 2 or 3 degrees. I didn’t even understand how this was possible. It wouldn’t be just the severity of the heat but it’s incessancy that would be most testing. No let up in the oppression. I hoped that as I moved inland the rise in the temperature would be compensated for a by a fall in the humidity. I would soon find out.

Turkey is one of those countries that’s bigger on the map than it is in my head. With this in mind I set off in earnest, cycling through the turbulent chaos of Istanbul’s congested heart and sweating buckets. I took a ferry across the Maramara Sea instead of cycling all the way out of the city, my memory still vivid of cycling in, a heart in mouth and hang on to your manhood affair. From Jalova I hit the highway and began my ride to a fanfare of cicadas knowing that the next time I planned to re-surface in the western world would be some time in late 2012.

The draw of cycle touring for me is all about the slow transition. As you move steadily forward you sense one landscape blending into the next. The terrain gradually transforms. You see a snippet of a new culture and then slowly you become immersed in it. You watch the world evolve. The climate too changes slowly and you can adapt, but having flown into Istanbul in mid-August, a decision borne mostly out of my own impatience to get going, I had thrown myself into a cauldron. I thought about all the unnecessary items in my luggage and wondered when would be the next time I would need my poncho, beanie or hand warmers.

I circumnavigated the shores of lake Iznik Golu and found fruit everywhere I cast my eye. Apples, pears, plums, grapes, peaches and some I didn’t recognise. I did my best to steer towards the bushes and pick and eat whilst pedaling. I stayed briefly in Eskisehir, a young vibrant student city, and left a little sentimental after meeting a couple who had put me up and shown me huge hospitality. Another goodbye to friends I’d only just made. My liver a little jaded, but my knee at least rested, I waved goodbye and cycled into the sweltering heat which had now become more intense. I recorded 51 degrees centigrade on my thermometer in the sun and I was drinking nine litres of water a day, and even then barely managing to maintain my level of hydration. I developed a new daily routine:

Get up at 5.30 for sunrise
Pack up my tent
Sweat
Eat fruit and drink warm water
Sweat
Cycle until noon
Lots more sweating
Find shade, lie down on my groundsheet and attempt a siesta (but without success as its too hot)
Cycle from 3pm to sunset
Set up camp by the road, eat, sweat
Try again to sleep without success
Repeat routine the following day

My weather meter at 48.9 degrees C
Any food I carried with me either melted or solidified, turned blue or turned brown and always smelt only barely edible. Barely was good enough for me. I pedaled toward patches of apparent shade only to be greeted by slightly darker patches of asphalt. Greens turned to beige as I entered the dusty, arid, empty scrubland. Nothing here cast even a human-sized shadow in which to rest. My lips became like rubber, cracked and sore. Blisters bulged from my arms despite factor 30 sunblock. Hoards of insects tracked my every move. Eventually sanctuary in the form of a 2.5 km long tunnel and then a wooden shack by the road, vines and huge bunches of grapes adorned the ceiling, ripe and ready to scoff.


I saw the notorious Kangal dogs in villages by the road. Large creatures with yellow fur, black faces and studded collars, bred originally for protecting the farmer’s flock from bears and wolves. None gave chase. Nothing moves faster than it has to in this heat. Puddles of water seemed to appear on the asphalt. As I rode through them I heard a sibilant sound arise from below. I looked down to my front tyre and noticed it had become coated in a black sticky goo. What I thought was water on the asphalt was actually the asphalt itself. The road was melting. I scraped it off my tyres and rode onward. Knowing that I was to blame for the hardships of cycling through this eastern furnace wasn’t making things any easier. Just as beginning my trip in mid-winter was born out of an inpatient impulse to get going, by leaving in mid-August instead of waiting I had pulled the same trick.

The road ahead was marked out as scenic on the map. Despite the obvious subjective nature of this label, I found it hard to appreciate. Or perhaps there’s some sort of formula I wondered. Waterfalls multiplied by lush vegetation, subtract number of roadside rubbish dumps. These eternally optimistic bunch of cartographers had perhaps confused waterfall with burst water main and lush vegetation with tumbleweed. I turned up the golden era hiphop in my headphones and kept spinning. Mini tornados or dust devils burst into life in the monochrome surroundings. The road ahead shimmered, lightened in tint, blurred and blended with the horizon. As I cycled south I loved watching my shadow which became a sinewy elongated insect-like shape as the sun got lower in the sky. It reminded me somehow of the solitary nature of the journey. The wanderer. A featureless outline, nomadic, drifting along.

A dust devil
I rode close to Konya and into Turkey’s religious heartland, it’s own equivalent to the “bible-belt”. Orchards spread from either side of the road towards the hills and a gold glow danced off the tree tops. Women, now all in head scarves, sold the produce by the roadside. Others were bent over picking from the fields. I would often see more elderly women in towns with severe spinal curvature, a lordosis from years of toil. The temperature fell slightly and I rode down the newly built lanes on the highway, closed to traffic but open to me. Other than pulling a shimmy for the odd JCB I had a ten metre wide car-less bike lane. I rode with the sun on my back, belly full of fruit and thought that maybe cycling in the summer wasn’t so bad after all.


That evening I asked a family if I could camp in their orchard. They found me the perfect patch, helped me erect my tent and then brought me out an overwhelming amount of food on a tray. Again evidence that the spirit to give and to share is deeply ingrained in Turkish culture. A few nights later I stopped by a flour mill after a couple of men signaled me over. I sat with them and conversed. It’s amazing what can be said and understood with only the use of sign language. Here are some random one-liners from my new friend Mehmet during our game of charades…

“Have you been circumcised?”


“In Cappadocia you will find pretty girls and lots of marijuana.”


“I don’t have a wife because I think women talk too much”


“Why don’t you go by motorbike? Is it because you are very poor?” (I nodded in solemn agreement)

After the sun set I began to prepare food with Mehmet. I threw him some bread from my pannier and immediately he let out a loud cry “Allah! Allah! Allah!”. Whoops. Obviously bread throwing was not cool during Ramadan. He kissed the bread and held it up to the sky three times. I apologised, but even so he recited words in Arabic which I was then coerced into repeating. I presume I was pledging my allegiance to Allah, but to be honest I didn’t mind. I was hungry and felt a bit guilty about my inconsiderate food chucking.

In a small town just past Konya some more men called me over. They were stood outside their school which provided English language lessons to adults. A four foot photo of Big Ben decorated the front of the building. “Is this in London?” I was asked, “Is this a palace?“. They prepared some chai for me to drink despite not drinking themselves as they were fasting. Moving east Turkey became visibly poorer. In rural areas the houses became basic huts and sometimes just tents by the road. As the affluence fell the generosity never waivered. Turkey’s well funded military flew expensive jets over the small farms and villages. I bought food only when I needed to eat and found that in eastern Turkey a “market” is the appropriate term for an establishment that stocks just cans of beans and chewing gum.

So no punctures for four months and five and a half thousand kilometres and then six punctures in two days. Bike repair in Turkey is a communal sport. Whilst one person tries to fix the bike whilst cursing profusely (me), the other five or six individuals (usually aged less than ten) watch, giggle and point. Older onlookers join later and frequently offer advice or occasionally just grab a tool and get stuck in. Putting up my tent can be a similar charade.


I was aiming to rest up in Cappadocia, home of some of Turkey’s most famous and dramatic landscapes and a Mecca for tourists. I would like to say that I breezed into Cappadocia with spirit, vigor and gusto. In reality I limped, lurched and lumbered in. Swarthy, grubby and exuding a beetroot hue from my forehead with rubbery cracked lips from two weeks in the arid void, punctuated by amazing Turkish hospitality. I took only fleeting glances at the wondrous landscape around me and made a bee line for the shower. Afterwards I met with some fellow travellers and it felt good to converse without having to use my hands, even if the topic of conversation occasionally veered towards how the eight hour bus ride to Cappadocia was so trying and how there wasn’t even any on-board air conditioning. I took some time out and then explored the area and its impressive and frequently pornographic rock formations.

So for the next piece expect more of the same… rash thoughtless decision making, a resulting tangle, me trying to muddle through and of course, those statistics…

Hottest temperature: 51 degrees centigrade (in the sun)

Distance cycled: 5849 km

Most interesting flavour: Shalgam. A fermented purple carrot juice that has an, erm, unique and a very very acquired taste.

Worst book I have seen in a hostel book exchange: “Candida infection: Is your problem a yeast infection?”
I regularly sift through book swaps and I’m almost always disappointed. Everyone nabs the goodies and trades in rubbish. Finding this made me chuckle. Questions. Why bring a self-diagnosis / self help guide to having a fungal infection away with you travelling? What would make you believe this would make a good swap? And how did the owner convince anyone to let them swap it? Perhaps they tried to palm it off as the latest Harry Potter saga. Harry Potter and the ravishing yeast infection.

Finally one for all you budding botanists and ornithologists. If you can, please help me identify some of Turkey’s natural history.

First off this bird…



This plant…



And this fruit…

Leave suggestions in the comments section below. Many thanks

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Comments (21)

  • Avatar

    Umit Orhan

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    Hey man!

    I is really great that you ve liked Shalgam! It is one of the most delicious drinks for me and you can find even better Shalgams in the SE Turkey-Adana on you way to Syria since all the Shalgams are coming from there.

    In my first bike tour alone, i had to finish it in the half way since my shitty mountain bike tyres was full of melted Asphalt and the bike could harldy move. Since then melted Asphalt is my nightmare, and it is even worse when you dont have the right equipments.

    I ve never seen the bird on the picture! It is easy that the purple fruit is a yummy fig, but i am not sure what the yellow flower-bush is on the second picutre. I doubt that it is probobly the one that called Bok Çiçeği-Shit flower; since it has a very disturbing smell.

    Tha tfig must really be delicious! Bona petite!
    I am going to kitchen to grab a icy glass of Shalgam… 🙂

    There is a strong possibility that we will be in Syria at the same time. 🙂 Hope to see you there!
    Umit-Istanbul

    Reply

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    Anonymous

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    The fruit looks like a fig to me!
    Michael

    Reply

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    Jonno

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    That fruit is a fig – when dark and soft, they are like a pod of raspberry jam.

    Reply

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    Cycling The 6

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    Ah… a fig. Of course it is. I feel like a plum. Thanks though guys!

    Reply

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    Jocelyn

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    As a long-time blogger, Dr. Steve, I read many blogs, so I feel equipped to state that yours does what few do: it amuses and informs and conveys a true voice. Thanks for making the reading time worth it.

    You'll get a huge book deal out of this at the end, you know. Either that, or Michael Palin will redo your route and call it his own in a 20-part series on the BBC.

    Reply

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    oanh

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    The bird might be a hoopoe:- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoopoe

    And you already know that the fig is a fig.

    I cannot help with the other plants!

    I can't remember if I've commented in the past but I've been following along for a while and am very pleased to see you back to cycling! Yay!

    Reply

  • Avatar

    welshcyclist

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    That bird is a hoopoe, they are occasionally seen in south east England, they are a type of bee eater. Fantstic post mate.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Melanie

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    The bird is a beautiful Hoopoe. You will see a lot more of them on your travels. They are found in Southern Europe, parts of South East Asia and Africa.. lots in Botswana and I even spotted a few on Penina Golf Course, Portugal!

    Reply

  • Avatar

    llewellyn

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    The bird is a Hoopoe (Upupa Epops) and a very nice shot of one.Look amazing when the tuft on top is displayed.

    Reply

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    Anonymous

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    Love the blog matey and I feel your pain on with the heat, Jamie and I are there now and are about to make the dash into Istanbul in approximately 1 hour!

    Keep trucking big man,

    Henry

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Anonymous

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    Hello sketch. There's a Hoopoe, a weed (no not that kind) and a fig in that order pal. Figs are minging without some form of cooking going on, the weed is probably undigestable but hoopoes are very nice roasted with a little wild garlic, mind out for the feathers. Best wishes with the trip pal. Jim

    Reply

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    Liv

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    A beautiful fig—I wish I had about 10 pounds of them to can into exquisite jam. Good luck in your travels!

    Reply

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    Shieldmaiden96

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    Just found your blog via your new American friends from Minnesota you went
    church exploring with and wanted to say hello…safe travels and I look forward to reading about your journey.

    I'm proud of myself for knowing that was a fig but I'm skundered on the other two.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Jim Berg

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    Jocelyn sent me. Great to read your blog, although I think you must be daft for what you're doing.

    Sent from the desert of southern California. Stop by sometime before 2012.

    Jim

    Reply

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    haphazardlife

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    Well, I for one am sort of happy your knee crapped out on you (not in an evil way, you understand), but because otherwise you would not have met Jocelyn (whose blog I read compulsively) and she wouldn't have blogged about you and I wouldn't have read your blog from end to end and figured, "Damn, I have to follow this guy's blog for the next 5 years". Too bad you won't be cycling through Montreal…

    Reply

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    Jim

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    Awesome. Keep going and good luck!

    Reply

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    Paul Bishopp

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    Hey Steve – now I know about it, will follow the rest of your trip with great interest.Specially as Nyomi is a great friend.She stopped off at mine in Devon having cycled from Bristol.Look after her for us and have a great trip through Africa both of you.Was fascinated to read of your journey through Albania as I worked there in 96 for a uk based kids charity.Scared the shite out of me mostly but loved the place.

    Reply

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    Nicola

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    Hi Steve!

    We' ve met a few days ago in the middle of Sinai at a gas station, remember? You showed me the photo of a dead White Stork you had found… The second photo should be Cus cuta, Dodder.
    Great site and blog, BUON VIAGGIO!

    Reply

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    Stribling

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    I am ridiculously excited to be able to identify the sprawling yellow plant you found! It looks to be some type of Dodder, pronounced the same as "daughter" here in the US at least (genus Cuscuta). It's a parasitic plant — thus the lack of greenness — and can be a major agricultural pest. I think of it as a major nuisance species, although it is really pretty amazing, physiologically and aesthetically.

    Looking forward to hearing more!

    Reply

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    Nicky

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    Hi Steve, just stumbled on your very interesting blog. I love the photo of the Hoopoe, I've never seen this bird before so I asked my hubby who told me it was a hoopoe too. Enjoy the rest of your bike rallye.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Yasmina

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    Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon the blog and wished to say that I’ve truly enjoyed browsing the blog posts.

    Reply

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