Welcome to Turkey. Have a nice trip.
The Silk Route 2010 riders.
Istanbul was a flurry of activity. Allison and I flew straight from Cape Town, a day after the Tour d’Afrique ended, to Istanbul to prepare for the Silk Route. We arrived in the evening at the Harem Hotel and met Ricardo, our third staff member, and he informed us of our first problem of the tour. Ricardo was driving our Mercedes van, the main support vehicle for the tour, from Slovakia to Turkey and when he reached the Turkish border they refused to let him pass. Despite hours of negotiation (and many, many cups of tea with the border guards) he could not convince them to let him through with the vehicle. They said he needed special permission from the Ministry of Transport. So Ricardo locked up the vehicle at the border and hopped on a bus to Istanbul.
Without our support vehicle we were at a standstill. To complicate matters, then next day was a Turkish Holiday and government offices would be closed. With only 3 days to prepare for the trip our schedule was already very tight and this complication was going to make things even tighter. The next morning we met our local support guide, Haldun, at breakfast and informed him of our problem. Haldun, an experienced guide and climber who has been all over the world on different expeditions, has a quiet but confident demeanor. Upon hearing of this unexpected twist he looked at us and with a slight smirk said simply “Welcome to Turkey, have a nice trip!” He didn’t understand why the vehicle would not be allowed in but quickly went to work trying to find out. Sixteen hours later, after many phone calls and discussions and a return trip to the border we were tired and worried about the amount of work we had to do in such a short period of time but we had out support vehicle parked in the Hotel parking lot.
The rest of the preparations for the tour, while exhausting, went smoothly and we left Istanbul Saturday morning fully prepared, stocked with food and excited about the adventure that lay ahead. Ten cyclists (whom we had not yet had much chance to talk to) and four staff started the day at 7:00 am. The weather was cool and it was raining as we rode out in convoy along the Bosporus heading towards Sile (pronounced Sheelay), on the coast of the Black sea.
My impressions of Turkey, so far, are that it is a fascinating country. Istanbul seems to have seems to have a large and very educated middle class made up of successful entrepreneurs and business owners. There is a reliable mass transit system, some buses even have wireless internet in them. The history of Istanbul is almost palpable as you walk through the city. Down the street from a Vodaphone shop could be a 500 year old Ottoman mosque or Turkish Bath (hamam). Mixed among 4 lane roads and busy intersections are narrow cobbled streets lined with old stone buildings, their sooty facades decorated with travertine and marble. Turkish drivers drive fast and with little regard for pedestrian traffic or cyclist. Traffic jams are always expected and parking is nearly impossible (though I am told that if you get in tight with the Turkish mafia they’ll reserve you a spot). Walking one night down the taxim, a pedestrian mall on the European side of the city I couldn’t help but imagine what a great city this could be for cyclists. You could host a race similar to Paris – Roubaix on the steep, cobble streets and wind through the city’s ancient landmarks. But I have yet to meet a Turkish cycling enthusiast. Sailing seems to be a dominant pass time for those that can afford it. And why not? with the Bosporus dividing the city and two great seas on either side.
Cycling out of the city you are quickly into the countryside with cows and goats and stray dogs wandering the streets. Interestingly the stray dogs in Turkey are spayed and neutered by the municipality. Rather than capture, and eventually kill, the animals the government has decided to spay or neuter them to help mitigate the problem. Riding along the Black Sea the road winds up and down steep hills, through hazelnut groves and through small villages where every house has a vegetable garden and is surrounded by agriculture fields.
Everywhere we stop we find nothing but hospitality. Whether it’s a campsite owner emptying out his own refrigerator so we can put our produce into it or a stranger on the shop owner walking us around the neighborhood to help find the item he did not carry in his own store I’ve been continually impressed with their sincere efforts to help us. I’ve been told that Turkish people can have violent tempers and fights can break out over the smallest of issues. But as foreigners we have experienced nothing but smiles and a helping hand whenever we have needed it.
It’s only three days into the trip and already I am falling in love with Turkey. I can’t wait to see what the next 10 days will bring.