There’s a word for it in Turkish. It’s called ağırlamak, which means ‘to show hospitality.’ And it has blown me away – except from the one occasion when it nearly did. But let’s start with Turkish hospitality in the truest sense of the word. I had only been on Asian soil for a couple of hours after taking the short evening boat trip across the Marmara Sea from Istanbul when I stopped off for a roadside sucuk (spicy beef sausage) to fuel the legs. Night had fallen fast and I still had a good stretch of road to go before I could get into any serious wild camp country. Whilst supper was sizzling on the charcoal flames, I dashed to the petrol station to collect some water and returned to find not one, but two kebaps on the table. Just as I was lamenting that my woefully poor Turkish had been lost in translation yet again, the guy came over and said that the second was ‘on the house!’ It was a taste of things to come.
The next morning, I awoke to the sound of the Marmara Sea lapping against the shore just a few metres away from my refuge for the night. A curious Kurdish father and teenage son came over to inspect my improvised beach camp and wanted to share a beer with me – even if it was 7am in the morning. Politely declining their offer of a morning tipple, I stuck to a Cherrybean blended espresso and was back on the road by eight. Feeling the muscles warm up after a few days off the saddle, I was enjoying the sensation and rhythm of cycling again and became lost in my thoughts as I winded my way through cherry orchards of olive groves.
The mercury was rising quickly and the road was actually beginning to bubble under the fierce heat of the midday sun. The grip on my chunky ‘off-road’ rear tyre was more than I had bargained for and soon enough, the Schwalbe Marathon Extreme was collecting a mass of tar, stones and other roadside detritus with each turn. It was like cycling through treacle with the added challenge of an uphill just to keep things interesting. Every 100m or so, I would have to pull over and pick off the excess that had attached itself to my mud guards and bike frame. With perfect timing, a chap pulled over and offered if he could help, glancing at the state of my rear wheel. I said I was fine and with that he gave a dry smile, shrugged and sped off.
Another hundred metres later, he turned up again and we stopped for a chat. He introduced himself as Ibrahim and commented that he respected the Brits for their ‘courageousness’, to which I thought he said ‘craziness’ and nodded in agreement as I looked down at my black-stained fingers. ‘Do you need a tow up the hill?’ he asked. ‘I’m fine thanks,’ I said without much conviction. ‘It’s no problem, you can hold onto the car here.’ He replied, pointing at the open rear window. I could sense that by now he had taken it upon himself that his good deed of the day was to pull me up the hill whether I was on the saddle or not. Before I could respond that I would rather pedal, he was rummaging in the boot. ‘You can hold onto this’ he said, producing an umbrella. By now, my protestations had little effect and he was back amongst pots of olive oil, honey and collection of spanners. ‘How about this?!’ he said, pulling out a plastic buckle strap; of the kind that would usually carry a computer or camera case. The next item however coincided with a Eureka moment: ‘Ah yes, there is always a solution!’ he cried and soon enough, my bike was fastened to the back of Ibrahim’s car with a length of rope. His determination to help was such that by now, I did not have the heart to deny him the opportunity to help me reach the top of the hill unaided.
At first, things went okay. It was an odd but not unpleasant experience as the frayed length of rope took the strain instead of my legs. The challenge was to keep the bike going in a straight direction as I ploughed a sticky furrow up the road. Of course, ‘this was only going to end one way’ I thought, as the surreal realization dawned on me that I was now attached to a guy’s car with whom I had only met a few moments ago and was being towed uphill through a river of tar. With one arm out of the window and a thumbs up in the rear view mirror, Ibrahim was either gaining in confidence or getting bored with our slow progress and started to accelerate… 10km/h…. 15km/h…. 20km/h…. ‘No faster than first gear!’ I shouted over the rising revs of the engine to which he must have heard: ‘Faster, change gear’! He duly did. The immediate torque produced from the sudden de-acceleration and acceleration as the clutch engaged was too much for the rope and with a loud ‘thwack,’ I bailed out to go for a burton in the bitumen in one direction and the Sherpa in the other. Thankfully, with the exception of a few cuts and bruises and a broken bell, there was no significant damage sustained by me or the bike. More than anythıng, I felt pretty annoyed with and ashamed of myself that my fırst ‘bail out’ ın 2500kms was with the aid of a motor vehıcle.
Ibrahim tutted to himself as I checked the rest of the mechanics of the bike to make sure everything was in running order and bade me a crestfallen farewell. On reflection, I realise that it was actually a good lesson learnt. In effect, I had allowed myself to have been pulled in a direction by another person’s force of will (metaphorically and literally) – no matter how benevolent or hospitable their intentions were – and for that I won’t be accepting any further offers of an uphill tow, no matter how steep or long the climb. The other lesson is that ‘no’, really does mean ‘no’. On the plus side, I now have some prime Turkish national highway real estate on my Ortleib panniers and I have say that they are now a lot more waterproof than they ever were. That evening, I pulled into a campsite to take a shower, wash my tar-covered clothes and cooked a yummy risotto on the stove with fresh oysters and muscles that I had combed from the beach. Ah, All’s well that ends well.
Fly me to the Moon
I was determined to reach the south coast avoiding as many main roads as possible with a desire to experience rural Turkey in all its raw splendor away from the tourist traps and the combustion engine. As if in a dream, the days and nights unfolded as I pedaled my way through sweeping agricultural plains of golden wheat, barley and white poppy fields as far as the eye could see (despite efforts by the US to prohibit the trade, it seems that opium production in parts of central Turkey is alive and well).
From wild flower meadows to ancient forests with pines 50-60 metres high, to plunging waterfalls raining down from the heights of jagged canyon walls, the achingly beautiful scenery of the Kovada and Baskmutan national parks took my breath away. Again, Turkish hospitality became the rhythm to each day’s ride and with consistent regularity, I would be invited by groups of men to join them for a refreshing çay (tea) on the usual café veranda under the shade of an old olive tree. The conversation usually starts with following volley of questions (and always in the same order): ‘Where are you from?; Why are you cycling?; Why are you cycling, alone?’ I’ve actually stopped mentioning that I’m on my way to Ethiopia as the look of total disbelief and incomprehension on their friendly, sun-weathered faces when I get the map out to explain my route to the next town, never mind country, or even continent, say it all. Judging by their expressions of astonishment, I might as well say that I am going to the moon.
Man’s Best Friend or Cyclist’s Foe?
Okay, it’s only fair that I should register a conflict of interest here; it concerns the perennial debate that has the power to divide the global community squarely into two. The debate is of course the ongoing battle of preference over dogs or cats (the other is Marmite), and I have to say that I stand firmly in the cat camp. So now that I’ve nailed my colours to the feline mast, I have to take issue with the old adage that a dog is indeed a ‘man’s best friend’. I suppose it’s all a question of standpoint as to whether you’re a dog owner or not (this obviously does not apply to cats because we all know they will never allow themselves to be ‘owned’), but for a cyclist, they are anything but friendly.
If dogs have become ‘man’s best friend’ since their early domestication by humans as a guard animals for livestock thousands of years ago, there’s a special breed of dog originating from central Turkey that continues to do this job supremely well today; the Anatolian Shepherd Dog. In appearance, it’s a muscular beast with a thick neck and strong legs that can carry its long sturdy body along at an exhaustively fast, muscle-burning, pace. Their creamy white coats of wiry fur and black ears mean that they blend incredibly well into a flock of sheep or goats. And they mean business. According to Turkish shepherds, Anatolian Shepherd Dogs are capable of overcoming a pack of wolves. They like to roam too, as they were bred to travel with their herd and hunt for predators before they can attack their flock. Unfortunately for the unsuspecting cyclist, the sight of brightly coloured panniers and a high viz cape on the back pose a real certain danger, and they take this threat with utmost seriousness. So when the tell-tale sound of tinkling bells can be heard in the distance, you can bet your bottom dollar (or Turkish Lira) that there will be an Anatolian Shepherd Dog with a wild glint in its piercing bright blue eyes amongst the herd; ready to give chase at a moment’s notice. As if they aren’t fearsome-looking enough, some of them even sport a chunky neck collar bristling with 4-inch metal spikes that makes them look like more like a four-legged gladiator ready to go into battle. A fashion statement for pooches they are evidently not.
The ideal scenario to be in when you encounter these terrorists of the canine-kind on the road is with the aid of a good, steep downhill – so as to assist a speedy fly past – but there are times when I’ve been far less fortunate. The closest I’ve come to being bitten was an occasion when the odds were hopelessly stacked against me. Firstly, the bike was weighed down with four litres of water. Secondly, the terrain could only be described as a pot-holed mountain track (I couldn’t call it a road). And yes, it was uphill. The final factor that tipped the balance unequivocably in the dog’s favour was that there was not one of them, but five. Spotting the dogs at the same time that they spotted me, I tried to increase my pace as fast as I could desperately changing through the gears one-by-one. It was a futile gesture. Within seconds, they had gained on me and the pack were snarling and snapping at my legs from both sides. The thought of stopping and getting off the bike to confront them seemed like an act of utter suicide so all I could do was just keep pedaling – like my life depended on it. I think the only thing that prevented them from sinking their flash of large white teeth into my ankles was the fact that they were revolving so quickly that it must have been a furious blur to them. The ‘chase’ had now become a match of endurance and is was sheer adrenalin that got me to the top of the hill. Eventually, the dogs realised they had done their job of seeing off their two-wheeled, high-viz ‘predator’ and turned round to return to the flock. Meanwhile, I collapsed on the road, leg muscles burning and my chest heaving with such force that I felt like could not get air into my lungs fast enough. I really should give up smoking.
And that’s my experience of the ‘domesticated’ breed. I’ve been warned a couple of times not to camp in the wild as there are packs of wild dogs that roam the forests, especially in the mountainous plains of Emir Daglari. The warnings are clearly based on substance as the sound of guard dogs barking and the crackle of gunfire would carry across the fresh evening air as the shepherd’s drove their flock from pasture back to the relative safety of the village. The only perverse comfort I took from this fact was that I was heading in the opposite direction with the expressed hope that I wasn’t going to cross paths as they closed into the village for suppertime. Fortunately, I did not encounter any of these feral beasts during any of my wild camps through the country but nevertheless, I was on guard and ready for the unexpected as I nervously put the tent up every evening and hung any food I had (especially the sucuk) high up in the tree canopy. The only thing that did wake me up unexpectedly in the middle of the night on a few occasions was my bladder. Personally, (and apologies to all dog lovers out there!) from the perspective of a cyclist camping through the Turkish ‘tundra’, dogs are four-legged, furry terrorists and a man’s best friend (or defence) are his wits, a willingness to pedal faster than ever before, a strategically placed pile of stones within arm’s reach, and erm, a sturdy stick.
Taking the ‘Delight’ out of Turkey
I’ve had children run out from the shade of lush orchards to give me a box full of fresh succulent, cherries or watermelon; I’ve been invited to share lunch with a family in their home; once, a breakfast of bread, rose jam and helva was hastily prepared for me over the shop counter (I only popped ın to buy some eggs); I’ve enjoyed generous offers of çay and Turkish coffee from coast-to-coast. There have been free kebaps. I’ve even been towed up a hill (well, half way), and other random acts of human kindness too many to count. It’s been a humbling experience beyond belief and I’m in awe at the friendliness and welcoming nature of Turkish people. But there has been one occasion where Turkish ‘hospitality’ was extended to me in a manner in which I did not want to reciprocate.
The sun was already low and it was time to strike the camp before night fell. Blinded by the stunning views, I found what I thought to be a secluded spot away from road and began to unpack. To each side of the wooded valley were soaring walls of granite and sandstone that reflected a burnt red hue in the sun’s afterglow. All was well, ‘another successful wild camp in the bag’, I thought to myself with a short-lived sense of satisfaction. You guessed it, I had been spotted from a dwelling high above overlooking the valley floor. The sound of whistles and calls started to echo between the valley walls with increasing urgency and, realising I that had been rumbled, began to pack up and make a quick getaway. Scraping through the thorny shrubs and rocks back up to the road, yet another dreaded Anatolian Shepherd Dog had sniffed me out and was now snarling and salivating in front of me with its familiar white flash of teeth. As I reached for my stick, a powerfully built middle-aged woman emerged from the footpath above – with an even bigger stick – and spoke to me in Turkish which I hopelessly could not understand. The tone of her voice however said it all. I grabbed my phrasebook and explained I was looking for a place to camp. She shook her head sternly and as she did, drew the staff to her line of sight, as if to pull an imaginary trigger. It was a simple, chilling gesture that sent a shiver down my spine. Whilst I am always careful not to wild camp on private property or land that is cultivated for farming, I had obviously trespassed. Quickly leafing through the phrasebook, I apologised and tried to explain that I did not want to cause any offence. She raised her staff yet again and paused momentarily to keep her staff pointing at me just to reinforce the message. To say that I felt threatened would be too strong a sentiment but the intention was loud and clear, I was clearly not welcome. Neither did I want to hang around for long enough to find out the consequences of my actions and made a hasty retreat. Back on the road, two guys pulled up in a pick-up truck and asked me what I was doing. Signalling the universal gesture for ‘campsite’, they pointed in the direction down the road and sure enough, after an exhilerating, fast downhill there was campsite (unmarked on the map) nestled amongst the pine trees at the foot of the majestic Candir Canyon; a perfect place to rest my aching legs for a day and have my first proper shower in a week. Supper that evening was freshly grilled trout caught from the freshwater river opposite. The friendly, warm smiles and nods of approval from the other campers at the sight of my stick (it’s actually a length of wood used for making unleavened bread!) strapped to my rear pannier thawed the ‘chill’ I had caught from my encounter earlier. It was the only time that I can honestly say that I felt unwelcome in Turkey.
Turkish Coffee Revisited
I’m still not the finished article yet but with hours of caffeine-induced practice and some invaluable guidance from the guys at Cherrybean Coffees in Istanbul, I feel confident enough to share some top tips on how to successfully brew a good Turkish Coffee. Here we go…
- Procure yourself a ‘cezve’ (conical coffee pot with handle, preferably made from copper to distribute the heat evenly, failing that stainless steel will do)
- Obtain some (preferably) freshly roasted, ground Turkish Coffee
- For each serving, pour one around 70ml of fresh water into the cesve
- Add one heaped teaspoon (around 5g) of ground coffee into the pot and add sugar to taste (for medium-sweet coffee, one spoonful for each serving will do)
- Stir the mixture thoroughly over low heat. DO NOT BOIL!
- When the coffee starts to froth, a ‘ring’ should start to form on the top, pour a little of the foam into each cup. If you are sharing coffee with a guest, they usually get the first pour (and best) of the foam
- Return the cezve to the heat. As soon as the coffee starts to froth up again, pour the contents into the cup(s); grounds and all. Allow to settle. (Public health warning: Never stir once poured into the cup and be sure to sip it gently so as not to disturb the grounds)
- Turkish coffee should always be served with a glass of fresh water so as to clear the palate and fully appreciate its rich, wholesome taste
- Finally – and most importantly – enjoy!
And on that sweet note – it’s a reluctant güle güle (goodbye) to Turkey. Next stop? The Land of the Cedar Tree; Lebanon.