The border crossing from Greece to Turkey was the most militarised border we have seen yet with age old tensions still much on display. Despite the soldiers having sandbag emplacements and large guns, a smile and wave from us was enough to light up their faces. Leaving Greece we had switched to travelling on our New Zealand passports and were no longer British meaning no visa required for Turkey and forcing the border guards to check a reference guide for these passports from a distant land. After a pleasant few kilometres, the road towards Edirne turned to cobbles slowing our progress considerably but giving us time to absorb the fruit stalls opening along the roadside and the passing traffic of horses and carts, mopeds, trucks and cars all with horns or drivers blaring. Other cyclists were in short supply it seemed.
Reaching Edirne, we spent too long searching for a good (read cheapest in town) hotel room before settling on the first place we had visited – isn’t it always the way? The afternoon saw us scouring town for a map of Turkey only to be told at tourist information that no maps were available before Istanbul. We meet a French cycle tourist outside the office and break the bad news. The previous day we had seen a map of Turkey in a Greek gas station about a 40 kilometre round trip away but passed it up as it cost a very steep €12. I quickly told Emma I could ride there and back to get the map as it now seemed priceless and she as quickly agreed that I should go. A few hours later, after confusing the Greek and Turkish border guards, making the gas station guy smile and enjoying my first long unloaded ride for months I was back in Edirne with map in hand. The next day in Edirne was spent planning our route ahead, getting knives sharpened, visiting a few local mosques, eating delicious salad meals in our hotel room and wandering streets that came alive after dark with the end of the daily Ramadan fast.
Having heard from Guy and Freddie at A Bike Journey about a route along the D020 to Istanbul we had decided to follow suit and left Edirne along a busy road that quickly turned into rolling countryside. Our first cycling lunch stop in a remote picnic spot attracts quite a crowd with families, kids and local workmen all curious about our route and keen to help us out. Some of the kids are having trouble with my name so I’m temporarily known as “Chester”. In the afternoon we head up a side road towards Uskup to find a camp spot. I cycled way too far ahead giving Emma a long chase before she could tell me that we’d passed a dirt track leading to a good shaded spot under trees, but I did find a water fountain. Our first night camping I was kept awake by the Adhan (call to prayer) as it seemed to float disembodied through the trees, distant gun shots, the ever present rustling of trees and critters and maybe just a touch of excitement that we were almost in Istanbul!
The following day we’d done only a few kilometres before we passed a group of four cyclists dismantling tents and packing bikes behind a roadside fruit vendors stall. Stopping to chat we discovered they had a similar idea to us to detour from the D020 out to the coast to Kiyikoy. Having three German and one English cyclists to chat with as we cycled made the distance fly by and being now a group of six cyclists we attracted even more attention than previous days with almost constant waving and tooting and a police escort to the centre of Vize where we got a little lost on the outskirts of the town.
We arrive at Kiyikoy after a speedier afternoon of cycling than we are used to but glad to be at the beach for a swim in the Black Sea. A weird situation manifests at the campsite where we pay to camp but then ignore the owners instructions as to where we should pitch tents, as we want to set up closer to beach. Much later we decide we are now camping in a picnic area and probably shouldn’t have paid for the privilege. No other campers around though and quiet night is had by all including the local dogs whose glowing eyes surround our tents through the night.
The road from Kiyikoy back inland is less hilly than the outward leg and sees us arrive in Saray in time for a restaurant lunch of huge kebabs and yummy curry like dishes. We are a bit shocked at the price of the meal (€25 for three people) adding to our impression that Turkey is not as cheap as we were expecting and reminding us to check prices before ordering. We sit out the heat of the afternoon under trees chatting, before a mad dash ahead of thunder clouds sees us in a secluded field for the night. Clouds turn out to be a false alarm while after dark the Adhan seems to encourage all local dogs to join in and the local town drummer round in the wee hours (to wake people to eat before sunrise) contributes to another unsettled nights sleep.
Our second to last day before Istanbul continues through hilly countryside, before we find a group of French cyclists (one of whom we met briefly in Edirne), and stop to chat and invite them to lunch with us in the nearby town. The sight of ten cycle tourists eating lunch attracts a gang of children. The French cyclists were travelling slower than our group and they waved goodbye to us all, pausing in the town for a few hours more and videoing local kids for their road movie.
The afternoon sees us encounter road works and the two lane D020 turns into a four lane motorway-like road. We fly along 20 km on a wide hard shoulder as passing lorries thunder and toot at us, with the outskirts of Istanbul in our distant sights for the last few kilometres. Searching for a free camp spot we ask at one local private picnic area where the owner says we can’t camp but to try a little further down the road. We try the next picnic spot and are allowed in to camp, cook dinner together and have celebratory beers for our last night on the road as a group of six. The next day the other guys will head into central Istanbul and the end of their trip while we will be staying in Yenikoy with Warm Showers hosts.
This road into Istanbul is surprisingly green and quiet and before we know it we are gazing on the Bosphorous with smiles all round. We farewell Dave, John, Sasha and Florene and have a quick chai at a waterfront cafe before meeting our hosts Andrea and Thomas who we plan to stay with for a few nights before heading onwards towards Cappadocia.
The next days in Istanbul fly by in a flurry of activity that sees us have lunch and a swim at friends of our hosts, visit one set of potential flatmates for our return to Istanbul, walk miles along Istanbul streets as we try to get a little familiar with areas and geography. We sit poolside on the Asian side of Istanbul a little overwhelmed by what we’ve just achieved and with the question of what to do for winter at the forefront of our minds.
The afternoon before we leave we do the rounds of a few hostels trying to bargain a good price for a week’s room rental when we arrive back in Istanbul at the end of September. We return exhausted to a much welcome BBQ with Andrea and Thomas before collapsing into bed feeling overwhelmed by the last week of cycling, arriving in Istanbul and preparations to leave the next day.