Turkish Warmth: Sweeter Than Delight
Mats Fredrix was the Content Creator for the 2022 Trans-Caucasus Cycling Tour. He sends his last report from Istanbul, Turkey.
A border crossing stage isn’t exactly one of the days on tour you would describe as ‘relaxing’. On the Trans-Caucasus tour, the ‘what could go wrong’ chatter among staff was rising exponentially, pretty much in parallel with the riders’ excitement to get to Turkey. Both had been building up for a few days. You could sense the climax was near when the two-wheeled circus set up camp about 20km from the Georgian-Turkish border, near a tiny place called Bozali.
The camp was a text-book example of a TDA bush camp, without a bush in sight. There was dry farmland as far as the eye could see, spotted by the moving shadows of the clouds. You could see a herd of cattle coming – of course directly your way – from over half an hour away. All-in-all, a picture-perfect ending to the Georgian chapter of the tour.
The first indication that the next couple of days were going to be rather eventful popped up a few kilometres out of camp. It was the tour’s first – but certainly not last – 140+ km day, a taste of the grind that was waiting for them on the other side of the border.
There was a traffic jam over two kilometres long, exclusively consisting of cargo trucks, blocking the entire right hand side of the road on the way to the border. With close to no traffic on the other side, the riders slalomed through effortlessly, with plenty of ‘gamarjobas’ (hello in Georgian) and already a couple of the first ‘merhabas’ (hello in Turkish) being thrown back and forth. At the end of the swirling queue, lay the reason for the commotion. An overly eager truck driver had tried to overtake and some ill-fated timing made it end in disaster. Like a lego-cube it had tumbled on its side, and slid down into the ditch below. A forklift truck attempting to rescue the broken truck was in the middle of the action, creating the very slow moving caterpillar-like crawl into Turkey even as the cargo customs car park was barely a few meters further along the road. Patience, it’s something we’d all have to learn soon enough.
The border crossing itself was tiny, but scenic, located next to a lake, the Kartsakhi. The road is usually only frequented by cargo truck traffic, so a herd of 18 cyclists was surely completely unheard of and promised to be quite the momentous phenomenon. Patience was again paramount, sure, but it was also much more stress-free than any of us had imagined. This was, with the blessing of hindsight, largely due to something we’d all be witnessing and experiencing first hand for the next couple of weeks: genuine Turkish warmth and hospitality.
Going near a border, it’s almost a reflex to stow away any device that has a camera on it – and these days that is a lot – especially if you are the Content Creator on a TDA tour. On the Eastern border of Turkey, however, this memo clearly had never arrived. Group pictures in front of the Turkey sign were not a problem, and even encouraged, some would say.
This very laid-back relationship with the law in Turkey continued for almost all of our Turkish journey from East to West. Traffic control agents proved incredibly kind, helping us out with water and often asking if they could have a picture with us. Once an officer even asked if he could take my ride for a spin. It is quite an odd feeling, refusing a police officer a joy ride on your wheels.
English isn’t a thing in Eastern Anatolia, however, that often did not necessarily mean you’d have to resort to your hands and feet for communication. Though they undoubtedly saw very few Westerners and even fewer clad like we were – it wasn’t like, as one of the riders described it, we were aliens to them. They were very aware of who we were and even what we were doing. It was more the ‘why’ that induced the frowns and question mark shaped faces.
The roads we experienced on our first week through Turkey were impeccable, but also almost completely deserted. A very smooth and enjoyable ride on a bike for sure, but it also brought up the painful question whether the people in this region really benefited in any way from such smooth as marble asphalt.
The locals had come up with very practical, modern way of communicating with us Westerners. I experienced it first hand riding sweep the day of the border crossing and having a lunch sandwich by the side of the road on one of the very first – and not certainly not last – Turkish climbs. An elderly man came over to me, phone in hand. He thrust it towards me and a woman started talking to me in near to fluent English. It turned out to be his niece, functioning as a full- fledged translator and relaying the man’s unrelenting offers of help or a place to rest and stay. Only when I had assured him I was very much ok, and was doing this ‘for my pleasure’ – was I really? – he turned away, very much confused as to why I didn’t want to just catch a ride with him to Ardahan, our final destination for the day.
Others were very quick to pull up a translation app on their phones, which worked surprisingly well, with only the odd exception here and there. In my case, it was a bystander asking me if I was doing any ‘sports or activities’ in Turkey. I just about stopped myself from asking him when he had last played a game of volleyball after a 140 kilometres ride in 35 degree heat.
It was clear, almost everything except for the landscape had changed after crossing the virtual line in the sand that divided the two countries. Many of the riders were quick to mention the momentous change they sensed rolling into Cildir, a tiny city right on the border. There was a warmth there, and a forthcoming attitude that was simply striking after encountering a much more reserved – though always friendly and helpful – attitude from the Georgians. It was the hustle and bustle in the little cafés by the side of the road that did the trick, men playing boardgames and shouting ‘merabah’ or ‘Welcome to Turkey’ and offering us our first çays (tea). Our interactions with the locals proved to be very different from there on out. The honking and encouragement from the cars driving past more than tripled, creating a bit of a practical problem for our vans double ‘Are you ok’-honk. Many of them offered us rides to whatever destination we needed to get to. Most of the time we politely declined, though, or so I heard later on, they were accepted by a few on the odd very steep climb.
We were offered fruit daily, and aplenty. At a coke stop in a small village out of Oltu, a man spoke out to me in French. He said he lived in Paris and was visiting his home village, and offered all the riders as many prunes and apples from the trees around his house as we could wish for. He apologized for his town being so empty and quiet, explaining that it was market day in the big city and most people were out buying or selling merchandise there.
The most striking story was perhaps a man who offered each and every rider an apple on one of the tour’s hardest and longest days. As far as I could tell, he didn’t miss a single one. Even Tour de France soigneurs could learn a thing or two from him. Near the end of the tour we had to resort to what was a bit of an emergency ‘improvised’ camp site, and when the owner of the field we camped in approached, rather than tell us off, he brought his whole family with him, along with about 5kg of hazelnuts.
He asked if his 8-year-old son could come over and talk to us to improve his English. At that point the warmth of the Turkish people really almost became unbearable, as if your heart would explode under such kindness. Not too dissimilar to the taste of the sweets they are known for around the world. The difference between the two being the cavities, I guess. Although accepting too much çay (tea) with sugar surely wouldn’t help in getting some positive feedback from your dentist back home.